Benton County commission District 1 race boils down to Bowman, Johnson, Staples

The debate over where Benton County's seat should be is central in the race for the District 1 commissioner seat, where 11-year incumbent Leo Bowman is being challenged by a retired judge and a West Richland councilman.

Challenger Fred Staples, a retired superior and district court judge, even has made the county seat's location his primary -- if not only -- campaign issue.

He contends Benton County is violating state laws that prohibit principal county offices from being located outside the county seat. Most county staff work out of Kennewick, although the seat is Prosser.

"It has to be done, ain't nobody else who's going to do it," Staples said of moving the county seat to Kennewick.

Staples started organizing a petition drive to put a measure on the ballot to move the county seat to Kennewick 2 1/2 years ago. He now has more than 17,000 signatures, more than the 14,203 he said he needs. He plans to turn in the signatures in early September to get the measure on the ballot next year.

Staples also unsuccessfully sued the county over the issue in 2003. A 1984 ballot initiative that he organized to move the county seat fell short of the required 60 percent approval.

While Bowman believes the decision should be left to voters, he said he "can't find a logical reason to move the county seat."

"It will not increase services or efficiencies to any ... appreciable level," Bowman said.

The race's other challenger, West Richland Councilman Merle Johnson, signed Staples' petition but said he'd leave the decision up to voters.

Staples acknowledges county commissioners have to tackle more than the county seat debate, but he won't say where he stands on other issues. Instead, he said he'll judge each problem and proposal with an open mind.

"I'm not conversant with everything in county government," he said. "I don't know anybody is. (But) I'm fully capable of making everyday decisions. ... I'm not going to come out with an 'I believe this and I believe that.' I'll consider them when I come to 'em."

"My goal is to get rid of Leo Bowman," Staples said. "If I win, that's fine. If Merle (Johnson) wins, that's fine."


Bowman said he's seeking re-election to finish several projects that are in the works.

Among them are building the Red Mountain Interchange to directly connect the West Richland area to Interstate 82, establishing "appropriate" animal control for unincorporated parts of the county, deciding on the proposed Horse Heaven Hills irrigation system and developing a consolidated crisis response center.

Bowman also points to a handful of projects he's proud to have accomplished during his 11 years in office. Included in the list are the Finley Intertie, which is scheduled to be finished in September, and the approximately $43 million expansion of the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick. The expansion and jail renovation was completed in 2002 and was paid for with loans that didn't require a tax increase, he said.

Bowman, who serves as the county commissioners' legislative liaison, said his ability to build coalitions with officials and citizens separates him from his challengers.

"I have a working relationship with the people that can help resolve problems. That doesn't always come easy," he said.


Johnson, who's running as an independent and unsuccessfully challenged Bowman in 2004, wants to separate himself from his two Republican opponents. He moved to the Tri-Cities about 12 years ago from Michigan, where he served on a water and soil conservation board and owned several businesses.

The councilman and county noxious weed control inspector lists controlling criminal justice spending as a top priority.

Criminal justice costs make up 72 percent of the county's 2008 expense budget and have increased from $27.7 million four years ago to $36.7 million today, according to Deputy County Administrator Loretta Smith Kelty.

Johnson, who is on the board of the Boys & Girls Club of Benton and Franklin Counties, also wants to explore youth mentoring and other crime prevention programs to reduce expenses. And he doesn't like that cities have to pay to use the county jail, while those cities' residents also pay taxes that support the jail.

"If the voters are looking for someone who really wants to attack these expenditures ... I'm the man," he said.

He'd also like to make commissioner meetings more accessible to the public by switching them from mornings to evenings and meeting more often in the Tri-Cities.

Candidate: Leo Bowman (incumbent)

-- Party: Republican

-- Age: 69

-- Residence: Richland

-- Married to wife Joanne for 47 years. Four adult children.

-- Benton County commissioner, 1997-present.

Candidate: Merle Johnson

-- Party: Independent

-- Age: 54

-- Residence: West Richland

-- Married to wife Rhonda for 12 years. Five adult children.

-- Inspector for Benton County Noxious Weed Control Board. He’s also a member of the West Richland City Council, 2006-present.

Candidate: Fred Staples

-- Party: Republican

-- Age: 74

-- Residence: Richland

-- Married to wife Kay for 10 years. Two adult children from a previous marriage.

-- Retired judge, Benton-Franklin Superior Court, 1974-94, and Franklin County district and Pasco city court, 1962-74.