The Franklin County auditor wanted to clarify Tuesday that he has no position on whether Pasco should hold district-based elections for city council candidates.
However, until Pasco makes an official policy decision and Matt Beaton is given the legal go-ahead to make a change, he will continue to follow Washington state law as it stands.
Beaton was responding to Monday night’s discussion between Pasco City Council members and staff.
The city has been exploring the idea of keeping the votes within each district for the general election, instead of opening it up to all city residents. Council members were given an April 17 letter from Beaton saying he cannot and will not agree to conduct an illegal election.
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Beaton was not at the city council workshop. He said he watched the video Tuesday on Pasco’s website, then wrote an email to all seven council members and City Manager Dave Zabell.
Beaton — who included some media outlets in the email — said there’s a misperception on the role of the county auditor when conducting the city’s elections.
The mission of his office is to facilitate honest, transparent and accurate elections, he said.
“To protect the public’s faith in elections integrity, it is important that we maintain our independence,” Beaton wrote. “We work with special purpose districts to achieve their elections objectives constrained only by my oath of office to follow the law.”
Zabell has told the Herald that council members in some Washington cities are elected entirely by districts, but that’s because they were grandfathered in when the state law changed more than two decades ago.
Pasco has five districts, in addition to two at-large seats. The city recently redrew its voting boundaries to include two districts with Hispanic majorities.
City staff and some residents have said citywide elections dilute and marginalize the voting rights of minority groups in violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act.
However, some will argue that even if a candidate is selected to represent the best interests of their specific district, they also are seated on the council to make decisions affecting the entire city.
Beaton said his office is eager to provide input and experience. But, like in the case of Pasco, staff and council members should rely on City Attorney Lee Kerr to determine their options under the law.
“The role of the auditor is to administer elections. That is it,” Beaton wrote. “With that in mind, we do not give legal advice or block policy decisions made by the districts in Franklin County.”
Beaton said if the council were to pass an ordinance stating that November elections will be done by voting district only, then he would take that policy decision and pass it on to the Franklin County prosecutor or state Attorney General’s Office for a legal opinion to see if it is compliant with the law.
The auditor referenced his initial letter to Zabell: “The city should do what is in their best interest and legal under the law as judged by your legal counsel. We will continue to help administratively and respond to official changes when you make them.”