In April 1912, F. L. Pitman, a railroad engineer and promoter, announced Benton City's intention to fight Prosser for the county seat. At the time, Benton City, located in the approximate center of the county, had been in existence for only two years. However, the promoters offered to donate a whole city block to build a $30,000 courthouse. This meant that taxpayers would not have to pay land costs for the county government if it moved to Benton City.
Promoters also used the location of Benton City at the geographical center of the county as an argument for relocating the county seat. They claimed Benton City would soon be a substantial city as more growth occurred around the North Coast Railroad depot.
On July 2, Grant A. Stewart filed a petition with the Board of County Commissioners to announce that Kennewick would also enter the race for the county seat. Stewart stated that Kennewick had planned to fight for the county seat later in the year, but entered the race sooner because Prosser announced its intention to build a new courthouse.
An act of the Washington State legislature had appointed Prosser county seat in 1905, so county voters had not had a choice in the matter. Kennewick promoters felt that if a courthouse was to be built, taxpayers should have a say in where it would be built.
After Kennewick announced it would fight for the county seat, a war of words quickly developed between the Kennewick and Prosser newspapers. Throughout the summer and fall, the newspapers traded barbs and accusations about the other's intentions. Whether anything alleged by the paper's editors was true, is unknown. That the papers attempted to influence voters is certainly true.
Insults Begin Flying
Insults began right away. The Benton Independent (Prosser) poked fun at the format of the petition Kennewick filed. This Prosser newspaper thought it was amusing that Kennewick referred to itself as the City of Kennewick in capital letters, and its rival as Prosser, Benton Co., Washington.
Kennewick had only recently reached the required population to raise it to the same class of city as Prosser, and the Prosser newspaper felt the capitalized designation reflected a presumptuous attitude. The paper's editors also claimed that all but 15 of the 692 signatures on the petition were Kennewick residents, making it a biased claim.
The Kennewick Reporter wondered why the Benton Independent made an issue over the residency of the petitioners. At least the signers of the petition lived in Kennewick. This was not the case with the signers of the Benton City petition. Of the 256 signatures, the majority of the signers were Prosser residents, including two Prosser newspaper editors.
The Kennewick Reporter accused Prosser of attempting to split the vote between Kennewick and Prosser by entering Benton City into the race, knowing full well that Benton City had no chance. Adding Benton City to the race would make it more difficult for Kennewick to win the 60 percent of the vote required to move the county seat. The signers of the Benton City petition must not have read what they signed or were perhaps misled as to what they were signing.
The Kennewick Reporter also addressed the courthouse issue. Kennewick promoters promised they would not build a courthouse until the method of paying for it was put to a vote of the citizens. A signed statement by business people and some of the largest taxpayers in Kennewick stated this fact, including First National Bank, Kennewick Trading Company, Hover Investment Company, J. H. Gravenslund, Kjosness Mercantile Company, Hotel Koontz, Kennewick Fruit & Produce Co., L. G. Spaulding, Kennewick Clothing Company, and Star Palace Laundry.
In early August, Benton City submitted a second petition. This petition had 769 names on it, 79 more than Kennewick's petition. Kennewick attorneys tried to exclude Benton City from the county seat race by arguing that Benton City was not an incorporated town so it could not be a county seat. However, county attorney Boyle disagreed and declared the county seat could be any city that received 60 percent of the vote. The Benton Independent believed this stalling action showed that Kennewick knew its chances were in jeopardy with Benton City in the race.
The Kennewick Reporter fired back, accusing the Benton Independent of name-calling because Kennewick recognized its courthouse scheme and noticed its involvement in the Benton City petition. The Kennewick Reporter claimed that signers of the Benton City petition were told they were not obligated to vote for Benton City and that Benton City being added to the race would not hamper Kennewick's chance but more likely would split the Prosser vote. The paper also noted that the Benton Independent "practically admits" that it wanted Benton City in the race to keep Kennewick from getting the county seat.
In October, the Kennewick Reporter claimed it had proof of Prosser's intentions. The Reporter had asserted all along that Prosser was going to build a courthouse at taxpayer expense without putting the expenditure to a vote. On October 5, W. S. Hunt, a candidate for county commissioner in Prosser, admitted to a scheme. According to the Kennewick Reporter, three witnesses heard Hunt admit he had been part of a Prosser county seat committee and knew there was a plan to build a courthouse, but he had disagreed with the committee. Also running for county commissioner, E. J. Ward promised he would not build a new courthouse without putting it to a vote. He noted that D. M. Angus said he would pull strings to build a $100,000 court house.
These "revelations" were enough for the Kennewick Reporter. The Reporter reminded voters that voting for Benton City would be like voting for Prosser because it would split the vote so that Kennewick couldn't get the 60 percent of the vote it needed to win. It observed that county residents would pay more taxes and insinuated that other projects would lapse, such as roads and schools, in favor of the courthouse.
The paper reprinted the pledge of Kennewick businessmen who declared they would not raise taxes without a vote. The editor went on to accuse Prosser of misusing taxes already paid by Kennewick residents and businessmen and wondered how they could possibly pay more to buy "art glass for the court-house dome."
The Prosser Republican-Bulletin answered the Kennewick Reporter's accusations. First, it countered by saying the city had never intended to build a courthouse without vote of the people. The paper denied that Hunt made any statement as claimed by the Reporter or that Angus campaigned on a courthouse platform. The paper said the "saloon element and real estate sharks" in Kennewick just used that story to make Prosser look bad. The paper challenged Kennewick to provide evidence of a courthouse deal, and said it could not provide proof of any meetings or names of any conspirators. Instead the Kennewick paper had made up something to accuse Prosser of.
The Prosser Republican-Bulletin told voters that county expenditures were a matter of public record. The Kennewick paper made an issue of $105,076.43 in the county treasury and that this money was proof that a courthouse was planned. The Prosser paper replied, "So what?" This money was tax collected from various entities over a period of time. Its existence was not proof of what it would be used for. Furthermore, the Prosser paper accused Kennewick of wanting the county seat because state cash was needed to prop up a shaky real estate market.
The Benton Independent took a turn denouncing Kennewick for lying about the courthouse deal. In fact, the paper said, voters had no more guarantee that Kennewick wouldn't try to build a big courthouse than Prosser would. The paper said that the current courthouse was adequate for present needs. As proof of the Cite's promise, the paper recalled a county commission meeting the previous September. A Kennewick area commissioner proposed a levy to build a new courthouse, but two other commissioners vetoed the proposal, including the Prosser representative. The previous commission consisted of all men from Prosser and they did not approve building a courthouse either. The idea had not even come up until Kennewick started making a stir about it.
The paper's editors also took exception to the Kennewick Reporter's accusations regarding county funds. Taxes collected via levies and bonds cannot be spent on any other project than that for which the levies and bonds were assessed. There couldn't possibly be a hidden use for the money. The editor wondered whether the Kennewick editor either deliberately misled its readers or was ignorant of the facts.
The Benton Independent issued a special supplement to appeal to voters. This supplement reiterated that there was no scheme to get taxpayers to pay for a courthouse; it was just Kennewick's desperate attempt to get votes. Kennewick needed tax dollars to float its inflated land valuation. The supplement reiterated the fact that Prosser commissioners voted against a levy for a courthouse. In addition, Prosser had not built a new courthouse in the past, when it was in a better financial position to do so.
And now the paper added a new twist. It reminded voters that Prosser was a "dry" town, whereas Kennewick was a "wet town" -- wouldn't residents rather have a dry town for its county seat? The paper also felt that changing the county seat was premature until it was established where the center of population would be. With irrigation and new railroads, the population center could shift.
The Benton Independent also accused Kennewick of padding its voter registration list. It claimed that transients would be brought over from Pasco and vote in the place of 50 or so people who had left Kennewick earlier in the year.
The Kennewick Reporter didn't immediately answer the Prosser paper's claims. Instead, it claimed a vote for Kennewick would save $100,000 for the courthouse, plus $8,400 for rent and repairs over the next four years. To show Kennewick was serious about not charging for a courthouse, businessmen filed a "surety bond" for $10,000. This bond guaranteed that if Kennewick won the county seat, that the records would be moved to Kennewick absolutely free to the taxpayer. In addition, the county would be provided a courthouse for four years for one dollar.
The Prosser Republican-Bulletin declared this surety bond a form of bribery. Divided among the legal voters of the city, the $10,000 would amount to .000144 cents for every dollar of value of property. The paper quoted other cases in which similar circumstances were declared bribery. It also scoffed at the bond, as it was not a legally binding contract for the signers to come through with the money. The signers could back out of paying the $10,000 because there was no consideration given by the county in return; the taxpayers would still be out the money. The Benton Independent agreed that such a bond was not collectable.
Voters Settle the Argument
When it came down to the vote on November 5, 1912, Prosser kept the county seat. A total of 3,846 votes were cast. Benton City received 185 votes. Prosser received 1,547 votes. Kennewick received 2,114 votes, 55 percent of the total. Although Kennewick received the majority of votes, it fell short of the 60 percent required to change the county seat. An additional 193 votes were needed to win.
The Kennewick Reporter stated that it was proud of the support given Kennewick by upriver communities such as White Bluffs and Hanford. The editors had known it would be difficult to get 60 percent when some voters lived in remote areas and it would be difficult for them to get to the polling places over bad roads. They admitted that there were no illegal votes cast nor undue pressure put upon any voter to vote a certain way.
The three cities had spent a good deal of money in promoting their towns. The Prosser Republican-Bulletin called for everyone to let bygones be bygones and work together for the strength of the county. A few of the individual votes were: Finley, 186 votes for Kennewick, 1 vote for Prosser; Richland, 323 votes for Kennewick, 14 votes for Benton City, 3 votes for Prosser; White Bluffs, 149 votes for Kennewick, 11 votes for Prosser.
In an interesting irony, Prosser voted to re-license saloons, becoming a wet town once again, though its dry status had been an argument for retaining the county seat. Some people were so diverted by the county-seat vote that they forgot to vote on the temperance issue. The vote to make Prosser wet again passed by a mere six votes.