When it comes to the proposed Pierce County general services building — you know, the one that’s been at the center of contentious debate for so long it’s hard to remember where all the fuss started — there are a lot of lingering questions.
For instance …
How did a seemingly reasonable and straightforward plan to consolidate county operations at South 35th Street and Pacific Avenue turn into a toxic political football that’s made county government look as dysfunctional as the state Legislature?
How did a County Council approve construction of the building in February and then vote in April — apparently in good conscience — to backtrack and authorize an advisory vote of the people … even though its previous decision means there’s a good chance the process of selling bonds will already be underway by the time ballots are cast?
How did a project that, even with its eye-popping price tag, stands to save the county piles of cash over the next 30 years become an example of government indulgence and waste in the eyes of its detractors?
How do vocal proponents of placing the administration building downtown rationalize an unspoken stance that suggests any other part of Tacoma is unworthy of development, even though the county plans to still occupy its downtown building (to be renamed the Pierce County Justice Center) and the consolidation will take employees away from sprawl-created locations like the Tacoma Mall and the Annex?
How did the county not see a public backlash coming and do more outreach on the front end to avoid it?
And will Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, who has championed the project since the beginning, really begin selling bonds if the referendum effort of Gig Harbor activist Jerry Gibbs goes down in court next week, knowing full well there’s a decent chance Pierce County voters will come out against the building in August?
The list goes on.
Of all the mysteries surrounding the administration building drama, however, one person — Councilwoman Joyce McDonald — has recently found herself in the middle of them. It was McDonald, a Republican from Puyallup, who broke party lines and provided the deciding vote in February to give the project a 4-3 go-ahead. And it was McDonald, in April, who then rejoined her Republican colleagues and cast the deciding vote in the 4-3 decision to put the matter to an advisory vote of the people.
So McDonald flip-flopped, right? Or she had a major change of heart?
She’s been largely silent on the matter since last week, when I was able to reach her by phone. McDonald attempted to clarify, saying neither assertion is true.
“I did think it was a good investment, just the same way I would say it’s a good investment for a family to buy a home rather than rent a home for 30 years,” McDonald said of her February decision to vote in favor of the building. “I still believe that.”
How, then, does McDonald defend voting only two months later to put the council’s decision in jeopardy by authorizing an advisory vote?
It’s an issue she assures me is “totally different.”
“I work for the people of Pierce County. When they say they want to vote on something, I think they ought to be able to,” McDonald said. “I was not about to tell the people that they cannot vote.
“I feel I can justify that quite well, and I don’t think I need to apologize for it.”
There’s a big difference, of course, between letting the people vote and letting the people cast a vote that actually matters, which is the giant potential problem with the advisory vote. If Gibbs’ referendum meets its demise in court Monday, and McCarthy authorizes the sale of bonds, as she’s vowed to do, then this mess — this fiasco — only grows larger.
McDonald, predictably, sidestepped any attempt to get her to predict the future, whether it’s what a judge will decide in the Gibbs case or what McCarthy will do with the bonds.
She does say, however, that whatever voters decide will influence her opinion of the project.
“From my perspective, we may not sell the bonds. I don’t know what the executive’s going to decide,” McDonald said. “Personally, if the people come back and say ‘no,’ then I would honor that.
“It’s just that simple.”
I admire the sentiment and conviction.
But, if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that nothing will ever again be simple about the proposed Pierce County administration building.