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.
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Using the exact same scale, this is Kennewick today.
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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.
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.