A year of bad blood and harsh words has frayed relations among Pierce County’s elected officials as various branches of government jockey for power.
Inherent tensions have been exacerbated by tight budgets and conflicting personalities in one of the most contentious years in recent county history.
A new executive has feuded with a veteran County Council.
The council and executive have criticized Superior Court judges.
The judges have threatened to sue the executive and council.
The prosecutor has accused the council of overstepping its authority.
The assessor-treasurer has decried the council and executive.
How bad have things gotten? Listen to the words elected officials use to describe each others’ actions.
Illegal. Sloppy. Pandering. Disgusting. And that’s just what they say in public.
The conflicts between County Executive Pat McCarthy and the County Council have been especially striking. They started early and escalated this fall as budget cuts and other issues came to a boil.
Interviews with current and former elected officials and county employees, plus a look at recent history, show much of the conflict can be attributed to inherent tensions among the various branches of Pierce County government.
County law pits elected officials against each other – especially the executive and council. The executive traditionally has had the upper hand, but the council increasingly is asserting – some say exceeding – its authority over the other branches.
Throw in politics, conflicting personalities and the worst budget year in recent memory and you get the kind of testy exchanges and turf battles that have played out at the County-City Building all year.
And it might not be over. Showdowns already are looming next year over proposals to consolidate county government, possible budget cuts and other issues.
PROMISES OF COOPERATION
It didn’t start out nasty. County officials began 2009 with collegial meetings and pledges of cooperation.
The council invited McCarthy to its February retreat on Hood Canal. The executive invited elected officials and their spouses to a dinner at her home.
“I’m trying to develop a relationship with the council,” McCarthy said at the time. “It’s much better to work through issues when you’ve been able to communicate with people in other ways.”
But seeds of conflict were already planted.
When she took office in January, McCarthy reorganized the executive’s office and created three “executive director” positions to oversee departments. To accomplish this, she transferred positions from other departments.
McCarthy said the reorganization didn’t cost the county any extra money. But the move came as county officials were struggling to fill an $8 million budget hole that McCarthy inherited.
The timing was bad, according to Councilman Terry Lee, R-Gig Harbor.
“There are some folks who are concerned about her staffing, that she overloaded the executive’s department at a time when everyone else was trying to cut back,” Lee said.
The council at first declined to approve McCarthy’s reorganization. That prompted Deputy County Executive Kevin Phelps to accuse the council of “gamesmanship.”
The council ultimately approved the reorganization. But the template for future disagreements was set.
In June, Council Chairman Roger Bush scolded public works director Brian Ziegler over the department’s lack of enforcement of the county’s illegal sign laws. McCarthy called it “political pandering at its worst.”
When the council proposed a charter amendment giving elected officials more time in office, the executive said it was self-serving.
When the council eliminated the Superior Court seat vacated by Judge Michael Hecht, she called the process “curious” and hasty. And when it approved the 2010 budget, she said the council provided “insufficient opportunity for meaningful public input.”
McCarthy vetoed three ordinances, further escalating tensions.
She called the first a “friendly veto” of a measure that would require the county and its contractors to verify the legal status of workers. After making some changes suggested by the executive, the council reapproved the measure and the executive signed it.
But the council unanimously overturned two other McCarthy vetoes. One involved amendments to a land-use plan that McCarthy claimed were illegal. A second involved the council’s decision to eliminate the Superior Court seat – a decision that came with no public notice.
By the time the council voted to override those vetoes on Nov. 24, the council and executive seemed at open war.
“With all due respect, Executive McCarthy, what were you thinking?” Councilwoman Barbara Gelman, D-Tacoma, said of the land-use veto.
Bush even questioned whether McCarthy had properly vetoed the Superior Court measure. He criticized her for “sloppiness” and said “the people expect the government to have its act together.”
McCarthy responded by blasting the council for “once again taking up important policies with no meaningful public input.”
Current and former elected officials say part of what’s going on is the inherent tension among the various branches of county government.
The county charter – a sort of constitution for county government – gives the executive authority to supervise departments and enforce county laws and policies. The council controls the budget and sets policy.
But as a practical matter executives have long had the upper hand. They’ve controlled the staff and the information needed to set the county’s agenda. They’ve had the ability to veto council policies. And they’ve had the authority to negotiate labor and other contracts.
But the balance of power has changed over time. In 2006 voters approved several charter amendments that weakened the executive’s power and strengthened the council.
Voters gave the council more authority over appointments to county boards and commissions. They required the executive to submit a proposed budget for the council’s consideration earlier than in the past.
They expanded the council’s performance audit program. And they made the sheriff – who previously reported to the executive – an elected post.
In recent years the council also has become bolder in asserting its authority. It clashed with former County Executive John Ladenburg over funding for the Chambers Bay Golf Course and the county’s mental health budget, among other issues.
And it has tightened its grip on the budget, approving provisions that specify how money should be spent or that require the executive and departments to report on various issues.
The jostling of the competing branches has been evident this year.
Council members say McCarthy has failed to consult them on key policy decisions. One example: a new planning department initiative that uses aerial photos to search for non-permitted decks and other structures.
The program offers property owners amnesty from penalties. But it charges them for building permits they should have obtained in the past. The program is a departure from the planning department’s previous practice of investigating illegal structures mostly on a complaint basis.
“I don’t like reading about major policy decisions in the newspaper,” said Councilman Tim Farrell, D-Tacoma.
Deputy County Executive Phelps disputes the council’s characterization of the new program as a policy change.
He said the council already has approved policies requiring the department to enforce the building code and giving it the ability to waive fines. He said the executive branch merely found a new way to implement the policy.
“This is an enforcement issue,” Phelps said.
As it asserts its authority, some believe the council has sometimes exceeded it. That was the resounding reaction from the executive, prosecuting attorney’s office, judges and the local bar association when the council eliminated the Superior Court seat.
Councilman Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, said he understands the reaction. But he thinks the council is well within its purview to scrutinize other branches of government.
“Nobody likes oversight, especially when you’re a separately elected official,” Muri said. “You want to do your own thing without anyone sticking their nose in your business.”
Other dynamics also may be at work in the relationship between Pierce County’s executive and legislative branches.
Ladenburg sees a veteran council testing a new executive. He thinks McCarthy has responded appropriately, vetoes and all.
“I think she’s naturally trying to assert her authority,” he said. “And I think some members of the council may be trying to take some away from her. ‘There’s a new kid on the block, let’s grab (her) cookies.’ ”
A year of cost-cutting also has taken a toll.
McCarthy targeted county health insurance for Superior Court judges, who already have state coverage. The council cut the planning department more than McCarthy wanted. Council members billed their decision to eliminate the court seat as a budget move.
“I think these are unusually strained times,” said Councilman Shawn Bunney, R-Lake Tapps. “When there’s less money to do more with, it exaggerates the tension between the branches.”
Personalities and politics also have played a role. Some county officials say McCarthy is quick to anger and takes disputes personally.
McCarthy said she’s passionate and direct but doesn’t hold grudges.
“I don’t take things personally,” she said. “I get a temper, but it’s in context and I move on pretty quickly.”
Some observers contrast Bush with previous council chairman Lee. While Lee had a reputation as a conciliator, some think Bush picks fights.
In a written response to questions, Bush said his “motivation has always been to try to solve problems.”
Fallout from last year’s hotly contested executive’s race – which pitted then county auditor McCarthy against Bunney and then-Councilman Calvin Goings, D-Puyallup – also may play a role.
Some county officials – not all of them in the executive’s office – believe Bunney hasn’t gotten over his close loss to McCarthy, and they see it reflected in his behavior toward the executive.
Bunney said he has “worked hard to try to be helpful to the executive’s office on the budget and other areas.”
One factor many say hasn’t played a big role is partisanship. McCarthy is a Democrat and Republicans control five of the seven council seats. But even the council’s Democrats have criticized the executive and sided with the majority in overriding her vetoes.
Whatever the reasons, McCarthy clearly does not trust the council.
“To me, it’s your actions that speak volumes, rather than the words,” she said. “If I see that your actions are different from what you say, it’s hard for me to trust you.”
And the council is sensitive to perceived slights by the executive.
For example, council members complained when McCarthy scheduled a meeting earlier this month with the county’s Olympia delegation without consulting them in advance. Only Bunney showed up.
Both sides complain of a lack of communication.
Council members say McCarthy has failed to express concerns about legislation before she vetoes it. Her three vetoes this fall are more than Ladenburg’s two during his eight-year tenure.
“I don’t think the executive or those who advise her really search out the back story of why the council passes a policy,” said Councilwoman Gelman.
McCarthy said the vetoes are just a tool executives can use to express concerns and try to improve legislation. Overriding a veto is the council’s right, she said.
McCarthy complains that communication with the council is usually one-way: she answers questions but the council seldom volunteers information.
She has repeatedly criticized the council for a lack of transparency. For example, the council unveiled substantial amendments to its 2010 budget – including a $1.9 million cut to the planning department – just a day before final approval.
“If it’s secret to me it’s secret to the public,” McCarthy said.
MORE TENSION AHEAD
With the budget passed, the acrimony has died down. But there’s ample opportunity for conflict in 2010.
More budget cuts may be looming. The council is pressing McCarthy to come up with a plan to consolidate departments. And the showdown over the Superior Court seat may wind up in court.
It remains to be seen whether this year’s bad blood will have consequences for taxpayers. Litigation could cost money. Poor communication can lead to bad decisions.
But there are signs elected officials may try to work out their differences.
McCarthy considered vetoing the council’s budget but didn’t. Before the holidays she thanked other elected officials for a year of hard work and suggested a series of regular meetings to improve communication. And both sides have sounded more conciliatory of late.
“This council and the executive both want the same thing: To do our best for our citizens,” Bush said.
Several observers said conflict isn’t necessarily bad.
“While this isn’t pretty a lot of the time, I think the taxpayers benefit by it,” Councilman Lee said. “People that wish you could just get along, I think that’s the worst thing that can happen.”
“Let’s not get all flustered that people are disagreeing,” said Jan Shabro, a former council member who served as county auditor this year. “They should be.”
David Wickert: 253-274-7341