It took two hours Wednesday to get Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam to say one word: “Yes.”
The extra time revolved around Washam’s desire to say many more words. Superior Court Judge Thomas Larkin wasn’t interested in them. Neither was deputy county prosecutor Dan Hamilton.
“Yes,” was Washam’s answer to a question: Would his office inspect all new construction in Pierce County and send the results to state tax collectors by Aug. 31?
Washam, under oath, said his office would do it.
He wanted to say he never stopped doing it, that he’d done it every year since taking office and that anyone who thought he wouldn’t do it this year was mistaken.
He said it in court filings – but that argument, the basis of an administrative scuffle between Washam and county leaders, didn’t take place. Instead, after Washam answered the question, Larkin signed a writ of mandate – a legal order – that tells Washam to do his job.
Prosecutors filed the writ Monday. Washam wanted it thrown out. The writ cited several statements from Washam and his staff members issued over the past few weeks. The statements suggested Washam’s office would stop inspecting new construction too soon – a month before a state-mandated deadline. They included e-mails from Washam’s office, telling appraisers to stop inspecting new construction by July 1, and later, July 6.
The prospect alarmed county leaders, other local governments and the state Department of Revenue. New construction assessments generate new property tax money, lowering the overall burden for taxpayers.
This week, Washam argued that the fears from local and state leaders were groundless – the result of a big misunderstanding.
Prosecutors moved ahead with their writ. County prosecutor Mark Lindquist called it an insurance policy.
Court action was supposed to begin at 9:30 a.m., but the two sides spent most of the morning negotiating, walking in and out of a jury room to talk terms. During one long break, Washam quietly sang to himself in the courtroom: “Would you like to swing on a star ... carry moonbeams home in a jar?”
Larkin settled in behind the bench. Washam and his attorney, Richard Wooster, argued for a visiting judge, saying they couldn’t get a fair hearing from any judge in the county in a court fight between two county agencies.
Larkin brushed that aside.
“I think we can move on and get this matter resolved in a fair way,” he said.
The next argument revolved around the writ. Wooster argued it wasn’t necessary – Washam had filed a brief stating new construction inspections were ongoing. His past statements had been misunderstood and misinterpreted. Inspections would continue.
Larkin turned to Hamilton.
“They have indicated that they were going to do exactly this,” he said.
Hamilton said that wasn’t good enough.
“Despite their verbal and written statements, they now say this is all a misunderstanding or it’s all been taken out of context for political reasons,” Hamilton said. “The statute requires an answer sworn under oath. There’s been no answer.”
Larkin was ready.
“Mr. Washam, do you want to go first?”
“OK,” Washam said.
Hamilton asked whether all new construction inspections would be completed by the end of August. Washam said they had been in the past, and would be done in 2012.
“So the answer to that is yes?”
Next came Albert Ugas, Washam’s chief deputy, who was sitting in a corner of the courtroom.
“Do you want to come forward, sir?”
“Do I have to?” Ugas asked. He stepped forward and raised his hand for the oath.
Hamilton asked his question.
“Will you perform your statutory duty to direct your appraisal staff to assess all new construction in Pierce County by Aug. 31, 2012?”
“Mr. Hamilton, I’m going to answer your question,” Ugas said.
“It’s a yes or no,” Hamilton said.
Larkin stepped in and asked for an answer. Ugas gave it: yes.
Wooster, Washam’s attorney, pushed the assessor’s argument. He asked whether there was ever any intent to not complete new construction inspections.
“There was never a reasonable probability of that happening,” Ugas said.
Wooster wanted to keep going, but Hamilton cut in.
“As far as the county’s concerned I think we’re finished,” he said.
Wooster wasn’t satisfied.
“There’s quite a bit I want to add,” he said.
Wooster wanted to argue for throwing out the writ. Hamilton blocked the move. The sworn statements of Washam and Ugas satisfied the writ. There was nothing left to do.
Wooster wanted more wording in the writ, saying inspections had been done in the past. Larkin said Washam and Ugas had already testified to that.
“I believe in keeping things as simple as possible,” the judge said, holding a pen. “This is my order. I had the hearing, I’m going to sign this order. OK, I’ve signed it.”
After the hearing, Lindquist said the insurance policy was in effect.
“All the exec (County Executive Pat McCarthy) wanted and all the council wanted and all that we wanted was for them to do their job,” Lindquist said. “They’ve not only agreed, they’ve agreed under oath. And now there’s a court order.”