Tri-Cities WA judge leaves county out of voting rights deal

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Franklin County has another chance to argue that Latinos are fairly represented in county commissioner elections.

Judge Sam Swanberg allowed the county to quash a deal that required the county to come up with new district maps and go to district-only elections.

His Monday afternoon ruling puts the case back to where it was just over a month ago and places the county and the League of Latin American Citizens United on trial.

Swanberg said it should happen before the end of the year.

The judge stressed that he is not making any decision on whether the county is violating Washington’s voting rights law. But he found merit in the argument that the county was sitting on its hands and not working to defend itself.

Ultimately, Swanberg agreed that the ruling in the lawsuit affects everyone in the county and worried it would appear elected officials disagree with the ruling.

“I think it is in the best interest that the general public (for the matter) be heard on the merits,” he said. “I think it gives the community greater reassurance. ”

Swanberg said they should speed up the case, as it should have been decided on September 13 at the court hearing where the two sides reached the deal.

Chad Dunn, the lawyer representing the three league members, said he wanted a trial now that the county has reneged on the previous deal. He stressed that they could not be trusted to come up with another deal and delay the case further.

Now, facing a lawsuit later this year, the county has returned to Seattle firm Floyd, Pflueger and Ringer to defend them.

The firm was the home of the county’s first attorney, John Safarli, who took a break from practicing law earlier in the year. Their new lawyers at the firm are Francis Floyd and Brittany Ward.

Continuation of voting rights

Three local members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) have filed a lawsuit, with help from the UCLA Voting Rights Project, challenging the way commissioner districts are drawn and calling for elections district only in April.

The lawsuit was filed about six months after the county was given an opportunity to change it.

As part of the trial, lawyers for LULAC asked the judge to make a decision based on their analysis of voting patterns and the county’s population.

In response to this, attorney Casey Bruner filed a response claiming that the evidence showed that the heavily Latino neighborhoods in eastern Pasco voted differently from other sections of the county. As part of that admission, they said they were not going to fight that the districts and the voting system had to change.

Franklin County Commissioners Clint Didier and Rocky Mullen said they were shocked by the decision and did not want their lawyers to concede. They ordered prosecutor Shawn Sant to overturn the decision.

Sant turned the case over to prosecutor Andy Miller for the hearing to overturn the case.

Benton County Assistant District Attorney Ryan Brown told Swanberg the commissioners never made the public decision to go through with the deal.

Part of the commissioner’s job description is to “defend all actions for and against the county”.

The county cannot reach a deal in court without commissioners approving it, Brown said. Without a deal, the advocate’s default position should have been to fight change.

“As reflected in the statements of Commissioners Didier and Mullen, the Franklin County Board of Directors did not authorize what was essentially a stipulated order concluding this action against Franklin County,” according to the petition filed by Brown.

He said it was clear the prosecutor and commissioners had a communication problem.

Dunn said the county had put in little work to defend the case.

First, they only responded to an October 2020 notice just as the April deadline approached to request more time. After getting a little more time, they decided to file a complaint.

They also did not respond to requests for information. He noted that they had met their lawyers privately on several occasions, and Sant sent a letter to the commissioners explaining what was to happen.

He noted that the commissioners waited until the deal was put in place before trying to change course.

“The evidence shows, without ambiguity, that the defendants knowingly granted the motion for summary judgment and, in any event, there was no other non-frivolous response to the motion for summary judgment because all evidence gathered by anyone supports summary judgment, ”Dunn said in a response to the motion.

This story was originally published October 11, 2021 5:24 pm.

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Cameron Probert covers the latest news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why the police and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communication at Washington State University.

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