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.
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.