Franklin County Courthouse in Pasco, Washington
Franklin County Courthouse in Pasco, Washington (Photo: Allen4Names)

Although coun­ties in Wash­ing­ton have the option of adopt­ing char­ters to decide how to gov­ern them­selves, the vast major­i­ty of Wash­ing­ton’s thir­ty-nine coun­ties have nev­er exer­cised this author­i­ty. In fact, only sev­en coun­ties have suc­cess­ful­ly adopt­ed char­ters since the Wash­ing­ton State Con­sti­tu­tion was amend­ed to allow them in the 1940s, and all of those coun­ties are locat­ed west of the Cascades.

In Cen­tral and East­ern Wash­ing­ton, coun­ties use the com­mis­sion form of gov­ern­ment pro­vid­ed for in Arti­cle 11, Sec­tion 5 of the State Con­sti­tu­tion, which pre­scribes a set of defaults for coun­ties that have not writ­ten and adopt­ed their own char­ters as per­mit­ted by the home rule clause.

While many coun­ty com­mis­sions have sad­ly been unrep­re­sen­ta­tive of the com­mu­ni­ties they serve, the recent­ly enact­ed Wash­ing­ton Vot­ing Rights Act (WVRA) has made it pos­si­ble to effec­tive­ly chal­lenge coun­ty elec­toral schemes that dis­crim­i­nate against and dis­en­fran­chise com­mu­ni­ties of color.

Here in Franklin Coun­ty, civ­il rights lead­ers have brought such a chal­lenge, hop­ing to lib­er­ate peo­ple from the scourge of unrep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment.

At stake in this case is the soul of our coun­ty, and the integri­ty of our local democ­ra­cy. What our com­mis­sion­ers have offered in response is a poor­ly planned bat­tle against the inevitable that lays bare the racism that exists in our county.

The plain­tiffs in the afore­men­tioned legal chal­lenge went through the appro­pri­ate process man­dat­ed by the WVRA to bring their com­plaint, and to work with the coun­ty to bring changes to our com­mis­sion­er dis­tricts and vot­ing sys­tem. One could go so far as to say the plain­tiffs have gone above and beyond to work with our coun­ty gov­ern­ment to reform our dis­crim­i­na­to­ry and ille­gal vot­ing system.

Yet each attempt by the plain­tiffs to work with our coun­ty com­mis­sion­ers has been met with deri­sion by Franklin Coun­ty Com­mis­sion Chair Clint Didi­er and has become the basis for Com­mis­sion­er Didi­er to pub­licly bul­ly and attack Franklin Coun­ty Pros­e­cu­tor Shawn Sant, a rea­son­able Repub­li­can who is attempt­ing to rep­re­sent the coun­ty in this case as the law requires.

Time and time again Com­mis­sion­er Didi­er and fel­low Com­mis­sion­er Rocky Mullin have treat­ed this case as noth­ing more than an excuse to act out and embar­rass Franklin Coun­ty. An exam­ple of this can be seen in how they treat­ed the ini­tial com­plaint let­ter deliv­ered to them by the plain­tiffs as required by the WVRA.

Upon receiv­ing the let­ter, they had one hun­dred and eighty days to work with the plain­tiffs to forge an equi­table com­pro­mise. They did absolute­ly noth­ing, choos­ing instead to rail against Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee and glee­ful­ly vio­late his mask man­date, effec­tive­ly cre­at­ing legal chaos for the county.

Anoth­er exam­ple of our commission’s destruc­tive con­duct occurred when the com­plaint passed the one hun­dred and eighty day mark and local news out­lets began report­ing that the coun­ty would be tak­en to court.

Com­mis­sion­ers Didi­er and Mullin respond­ed first by denounc­ing the WVRA, then pro­claim­ing that Franklin Coun­ty “wasn’t racist,” and then form­ing a redis­trict­ing com­mis­sion of their own… com­posed almost entire­ly of rep­re­sen­ta­tives from con­ser­v­a­tive lean­ing groups and promi­nent sup­port­ers of their campaigns.

Thank­ful­ly, their efforts to sub­vert the law and avoid going to court failed.

Sant cor­rect­ly explained to them that the court hear­ing the case, not their hand­picked Repub­li­can redis­trict­ing com­mis­sion, would choose the maps our coun­ty would use. Didi­er and Mullin respond­ed to this guid­ance by pub­licly lash­ing out at Gov­er­nor Inslee, Sant, and fel­low Com­mis­sion­er Brad Peck, who has been the sole voice advo­cat­ing for the coun­ty to com­ply with the laws of our state.

Even after all of that, the two-mem­ber major­i­ty on our three mem­ber Franklin Coun­ty Com­mis­sion are dig­ging them­selves into an even deep­er hole.

Just when things couldn’t be chaot­ic or embar­rass­ing enough, Com­mis­sion­ers Didi­er and Mullin have decid­ed to sack their own legal counsel.

This new effort start­ed just a few weeks ago when local media report­ed that the coun­ty had made a for­mal legal fil­ing agree­ing with the plain­tiffs’ com­plaint, acknowl­edg­ing the prob­lems with our cur­rent sys­tem, and sup­port­ing the plain­tiffs’ points with their own data and sta­tis­ti­cal analysis.

Despite receiv­ing a for­mal legal memo about their legal team’s plan, and hav­ing at least one exec­u­tive ses­sion where the county’s legal posi­tion was reviewed at length before all three mem­bers of the Franklin Coun­ty Com­mis­sion, Com­mis­sion­ers Didi­er and Mullin now claim that they were not prop­er­ly briefed by coun­sel. Last week, they vot­ed in a hasti­ly called spe­cial meet­ing to con­demn our county’s pros­e­cut­ing attor­ney for doing his job, get a spe­cial coun­sel to rep­re­sent them, and most aston­ish­ing of all, to ask the court to ignore their pre­vi­ous fil­ings.

In defense of their deci­sion, Com­mis­sion­ers Didi­er and Mullin have claimed that the pre­dom­i­nant­ly white farm­ers of North Franklin should be con­sid­ered a “pro­tect­ed class” under the law. They have also sug­gest­ed repeat­ed­ly that the peo­ple of North Franklin, who make up less than 20% of the total pop­u­la­tion in our coun­ty, deserve to be rep­re­sent­ed by two of our three commissioners.

While their rea­son­ing is not clear, their sug­ges­tion of this obvi­ous dis­par­i­ty is usu­al­ly accom­pa­nied by claims that they are “not racist”, that they are “stand­ing up for con­ser­v­a­tive Lati­nos” and fre­quent pub­lic com­ments by their sup­port­ers in coun­ty meet­ings that con­tain cod­ed lan­guage that has been uti­lized against com­mu­ni­ties of col­or since before the 1950s.

This is then fol­lowed by attacks on Gov­er­nor Inslee and claims that they are “stand­ing with the Unit­ed States Constitution.”

I am often asked what it is like to live in this coun­ty, and my response is sim­ple: it’s a liv­ing hell. Didi­er (who also serves as the Chair of the Franklin Coun­ty Repub­li­can Par­ty) has pro­mot­ed a hos­tile envi­ron­ment in this coun­ty for any­one with the nerve to dis­agree with him on anything.

As our coun­ty faces an uncer­tain legal sit­u­a­tion due to his actions in the redis­trict­ing case, Com­mis­sion­er Didi­er, with the sup­port of Com­mis­sion­er Mullin, has cre­at­ed an envi­ron­ment of fear, intim­i­da­tion, and chaos.

The cru­el irony of this moment is that when both Didi­er and Mullin ran in 2018 and 2020 respec­tive­ly, they each talked about ush­er­ing in an era of trans­paren­cy and a clos­er con­nec­tion to the peo­ple on the part coun­ty government.

Any­one who watch­es a Franklin Coun­ty Com­mis­sion meet­ing, or who observes their com­ments about the redis­trict­ing case, would be hard pressed to find a moment where either com­mis­sion­er has lived up to their promises.

Any­one who watch­es these meet­ings or who has read the sto­ries about this coun­ty should under­stand that Franklin Coun­ty now sits at a crossroads.

The cur­rent redis­trict­ing case rep­re­sents every­thing that is wrong with our coun­ty and every­thing that is hold­ing us back.

The aggres­sion direct­ed at peo­ple who dis­agree with this two-com­mis­sion­er major­i­ty isn’t new, and if you are any­thing oth­er than a cis-gen­der, het­ero­sex­u­al white male in Franklin, you have had to live with this kind of dis­re­spect and aggres­sion direct­ed at you for far longer than the media cov­er­ing this realizes.

The one glim­mer of hope we have in our coun­ty at present is that despite what the coun­ty com­mis­sion­ers may think, even their own legal coun­sel has acknowl­edged that the facts and the law are not on their side.

No mat­ter what they try to do, they are going to lose this case, and there is no get­ting over the fact that the entire state has now clear­ly seen what any­one who is not a cis­gen­der, white male Repub­li­can in this coun­ty has had to deal with.

Times are chang­ing and progress is coming.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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