Will the County Seat Move?

On September 30, 2010 · 10 Comments

In the United States counties are the primary administrative subdivisions of states and the county seats are towns that serve as the local center of government. There are plenty of notable variations and deviations from that model but as a general rule, states have counties with formally designated county seats.

County seats were usually fixed upon the creation of the county or soon thereafter, and commonly remained in the same place all the way through the present. There were occasional county seat changes in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries as the fortunes of various towns rose or fell with the settlement patterns of the vast empty spaces. However, a county seat move is quite uncommon in the modern era. It doesn’t matter nearly as much anymore with automobiles moving at highway speeds on extensive road grids. Few counties are so large that it makes a meaningful difference.

Benton County, Washington is a glaring exception. The voters face a stark choice on November 2, 2010. If the referendum receives 60% of the votes, then the county seat will move from Prosser to Kennewick.

According to HistoryLink.org, "Colonel William F. Prosser and his wife Flora settled in the western part of the county. Lewis Hinzerling built a flour mill nearby. In 1905, Benton County was carved out of the eastern portions of Yakima and Klickitat Counties. The new town that had grown up around Hinzerling mill, Prosser, was chosen as county seat." That’s a typical story. People moved into an area, a small town formed, and it became the seat of a newly-designated county.

The Benton County government provides a website that talks about the relocation effort. They note that 1,298 people lived in Prosser a century ago while 1,210 people lived in Kennewick. Prosser was as good a choice as Kennewick when they formed the county. Both towns were about the same size, both were built along a river, and both were served by the Northern Pacific Railroad. Flip a coin. Either choice would have been fine.

Fortunes have changed considerably over the last century. This is Prosser today.

View Larger Map

Using the exact same scale, this is Kennewick today.

View Larger Map

Prosser grew to about 5,000 inhabitants but Kennewick grew to more than 65,000. Kennewick, along with Pasco and Richland, combine to form the Tri-Cities. It anchors a metropolitan area of about a quarter million people. Granted, some of them live in neighboring Franklin County but the greater portion of Tri-Cities residents fit squarely within Benton.

The county seat is required to be the headquarters site for various functions according to Washington state law. These include the Superior court, clerk, treasurer, assessor, auditor, commissioners, road engineer and sheriff. Yet, only three percent of the county’s people live in the county seat. The majority live near Kennewick, about forty miles away. The proportion has gotten so far out of whack that even the Superior court supports the move in spite of previously receiving permission from the state supreme court to hold most of their sessions in Kennewick.

This isn’t the first time officials have attempted such a move. It came up for vote in 1912 and failed. Now, a century later, the reasons are far more pronounced.

Many of you will be watching to see if the House of Representatives or the Senate change hands on election night. Not me. I’ll be looking at a small referendum to see if a county seat moves. I don’t have a stake in the outcome or an opinion on whether it should happen or not. My interest is watching a rare event of geo-oddity as it unfolds.

Totally Unrelated:

Remember how I mentioned how hot and dry it’s been all summer? Today we received 4 inches (10 cm) of rain. The weather continues to get curiouser and curiouser.

On September 30, 2010 · 10 Comments

10 Responses to “Will the County Seat Move?”

  1. I had no idea this was happening, and it’s in my own state! Another reason I’m glad I read this blog 🙂

  2. Greg says:

    To go up an order of subdivision, I wonder what US state has the smallest capital city by population compared to (a) the state as a whole, and (b) the largest city in that state. I’d guess Albany for both, but Carson City might have a shot.

    • Shall we go metropolitan area or city proper? If metro area, Montpelier vs. Burlington, VT might give it a run for the money too.

      • Greg says:

        Oh, I forgot about Burlington. City proper, I think. Metro area is too subjective for my tastes. I’d do the legwork myself on this, but I have a busy day. Sacramento may be in the running for either category; I don’t know how big it actually is.

  3. Bruckner says:

    Another interesting county seat question is in Nye County, Nevada, the third largest county by size in the U.S. The population center of Nye County is the unincorporated CDP Pahrump, an exurb of Las Vegas. The county seat is in Tonopah, 166 miles away. I know Nye County has some county offices in Pahrump, but I wonder if jurors in Pahrump have to travel to Tonopah for jury duty. That would be a 5+ hour commute each day.

    This makes me wonder how jury duty is conducted in huge counties, like San Bernardino County in California or in the massive boroughs of Alaska. It’s easy for me in Essex County, New Jersey. Just a short drive to Newark.

  4. Kathy Utz says:

    Hi to all
    I discovered your site on Nov.2 and delighted our small band of supports of the move with my discovery. Thanks for thinking of us. Beginning in 1912, this is the 4th attempt to make the change in Benton County..a 60% super majority is required in Washington. The headline to this morning’s small article was “County seat relocation closer to approval” I’ll keep you and your readers posted if you would like.


  5. Deb says:

    @Benjamin, you are exactly right! Thanks for the link to the correctly reported information!

    @Kathy Utz-
    The headline about the Benton Co seat moving was misleading. The count on the day that story was written moved .08% for the proponents. Current totals (11/7): Against Removal 22,752 43.73% – For Removal 29,273 56.27%. The proponents need 100% of all remaining ballots, plus 100% of 10% more to move the needle above 60%, which is the required supermajority.
    The final 7,000 ballots will be counted tomorrow (11/8), with a few stragglers remaining after that and then the election to be certified on 11/23.
    For all the info you need, go to BentonCoSeat.info, for fun, check out what Mary says on the left and check out the historical video under history.

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