Franklin County commissioner candidates Bob Koch and Rodney “Rocky” Mullen agree on two things — leaving the TRAC floor dirt and mending relations with Benton County.
If elected to a fourth term on the Franklin County commission, incumbent Koch will focus on complying with a legal settlement to improve jail conditions, and pushing for public access to the Juniper Dunes Wilderness area from Peterson Road, he said.
Koch, who represents the county’s rural second district, has been a strong advocate for agriculture. He’s drawn a challenger in Mullen, who says the county needs a more forceful voice to mend its relationship with Benton County.
Mullen, a Pasco businessman, says the $89,000-a-year-post should be held by someone who can bring balance to a board dominated by a single member.
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Mullen aims to unseat Koch in the Nov. 8 general election, but he’s not subtle about his real target.
“The one strong voice over there is Brad Peck. He pretty much runs the show,” Mullen said, referring to the Franklin County commission.
Peck is facing a re-election challenge to represent the first district. He is a retired Air Force officer and Energy Northwest executive whose leadership style has been challenged as commanding.
Koch agrees with the assessment, but did not say it needs to be a negative. Mullen says it has contributed to a decline in relations with neighboring Benton County that threatens essential programs.
Both candidates are Republicans and lifelong Franklin County residents with farming roots. Koch and his wife, Connie, live in Connell. Mullen and his wife, Koni, live in Pasco.
Candidates are nominated from the district in which they live, but are voted on by the entire county in the general election.
The Benton-Franklin rift is the top issue in the two Franklin commission races this season. The third post, held by Rick Miller, is not up for election.
Franklin and Benton counties jointly deliver Superior Court, human services and juvenile justice services.
Relations have been strained since January, when Benton County dropped Franklin from its joint public defense office. The office provides constitutionally required defense services to indigent defendants.
The move forced Franklin County to create its own public defense program.
Benton County provided written notice to Franklin of its decision, but it was not received in a timely manner and there were no bi-county meetings during that time.
The dustup continued when Benton County moved to split the bi-county Superior Court district, a combined operation dating to the earliest days of statehood, claiming Franklin County wasn’t paying its fair share of the administration costs.
Koch acknowledged the rift, but said his strong relationship with all three Benton commissioners and the county administrator is the key to mending fences.
“I rub shoulders with them very well,” he said.
Mullen said the relationship is in “dire straits.”
“We both share the same issues. It can only benefit both of us to work together,” he said of the two counties.
Franklin County jail
Franklin County agreed to upgrade conditions at the jail to settle a 2014 federal class action lawsuit that claimed conditions did not meet constitutional standards. Franklin County denied the claim, but settled to avoid litigation.
Under the agreement, the jail is adding new staff, improving training and upgrading the physical facilities.
Mullen said he’s not familiar with the jail settlement. Koch said implementing its terms will take two years and requires the board to make hard financial decisions to underwrite the cost.
In a related issue, mental health, Mullen said he wants a San Antonio, Texas-style “one-stop” shop where people with mental health issues can be assessed and treated, rather than incarcerated. Koch praised the Texas model but noted it received private donations to get started.
TRAC arena floor
The TRAC center in Pasco is another flashpoint in Franklin County. The agricultural community wants to preserve the TRAC arena’s dirt floor for rodeos and related events, while managers, under pressure to improve revenue, has proposed paving it over to win more event business.
Both candidates side with the agricultural view and won’t support paving the arena.
Mullen doesn’t understand why it’s even a question, he said.
Koch said the county intends to purchase a removable hard floor to see if it is a suitable compromise.
“We’re going to try the (temporary) hard floor first,” he said.
Mullen is a Franklin County native raised on a farm. He and his wife own and operate Sahara Pizza, Big Western LLC, Big Western Auctions and Dove Financial in Pasco. He attended Eastern Washington University.
Koch is a Franklin County native who was self-employed in Connell until a 2001 accident devastated his shop and injured his hands. He worked for an auction house before running for his first term.
Mullen raised $5,000, according to the most recent filings with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. There is no information available about contributors.
Koch told the commission he would spend no more than $5,000, qualifying for reduced reporting. There is no additional information available about contributions or expenditures.