Voters to decide on county seat change as petitions verified

By John Trumbo, Herald staff writerFebruary 23, 2010 

Voters will decide if the Benton County seat should move to Kennewick from Prosser.

Brenda Chilton, Benton County auditor, told county commissioners Tuesday that her staff inspected more than 19,000 signatures to validate the petitions submitted in December by retired Superior Court Judge Fred Staples.

Chilton said 14,368 of the signatures were verified as being from voters currently registered in Benton County. Staples submitted more than 20,000, knowing that he had to have at least one-third of the number of votes cast in the Nov. 3, 2009, general election, plus a cushion of 5 percent, Chilton said.

Staples, reached by phone at Lake Havasu in Arizona, wasn't surprised by the news.

"I submitted 7,000 more than was needed," he said.

But Staples wonders what the commissioners will do.

"The last time they sabotaged it. I don't know what they'll do this time with the financial analysis," he said.

"This is just a preliminary count," said Ryan Brown of the Benton County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. He explained that having the required number of valid signatures on the petitions satisfies the requirement to put the measure on the ballot, but commissioners can't formally accept the count until May 1. He said people who signed petitions have until then to change their minds and withdraw their signatures.

Chilton said three to five members of her staff spent about a dozen eight-hour days going through the petitions to verify signatures.

"So it involved a significant amount of county resources," said Dave Sparks, county administrator.

Commissioners told Chilton to preserve the petitions by having them microfilmed.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Leo Bowman asked Sparks to prepare a plan for getting the proposal on the ballot.

Commissioner Max Benitz suggested hiring a consultant to sort out "a multitude of issues that need to be addressed."

State law requires the county to complete a financial analysis associated with moving a county seat and to make it public at least 60 days before the election.

The financial analysis must consider costs of relocation, cost to county employees who would be affected and probable impact on the cities from which the seat is being removed and to where it would be relocated.

"We need to know how many offices have to move. Does the charter need to move? What's the minimum requirement?" asked Bowman.

"We need to let the citizens know exactly what they are voting on," he added.

Staples first recommended in 1984 that the county seat move from Prosser to Kennewick, claiming that most of the county's employees already were working out of Kennewick.

The county seat relocation issue was voted on in 1984 but failed to win the required 60 percent majority.

Staples didn't give up, choosing to try again with a massive petition drive that began anew four years ago.

"I did my part. It'll be up to someone else to carry it through," Staples said.

-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com

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