The state Attorney General’s Office owes more than $121,000 in attorney fees to a trio of public and private entities that challenged two local ballot measures last summer, but an appeal could be in the works.
A ruling entered last week in Pierce County Superior Court awards the bulk of the fees to the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce ($60,458) and the Port of Tacoma ($53,934). An additional $7,000 goes to the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.
The decision by Judge Ronald Culpepper is the follow-up to an earlier ruling that found the three entities did not violate state campaign-finance laws when they challenged the validity of ballot measures filed by Save Tacoma Water last year.
Both measures sought a public vote before extending permits to projects that require 1 million gallons of water per day or more. Originally, the measures were intended to block a proposed methanol refinery on the Tacoma Tideflats.
Attorney fees awarded:$60,458 – to Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce$53,934 – to Port of Tacoma$7,000 – to Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County
The measures failed to pass legal muster and never reached the ballot. A subsequent complaint from activist Arthur West to the attorney general contended that the legal challenge violated campaign-finance laws. The attorney general forwarded the complaint to the state Public Disclosure Commission, which recommended no action. The Attorney General’s Office moved ahead with the lawsuit, which ultimately failed. The three entities then sought their legal fees.
Culpepper’s ruling awarded some but not all the requested amounts, limited to costs of defense after the lawsuit was filed.
“The rates charged were reasonable, the hours expended were reasonable in light of the unique and complex nature of the case,” Culpepper wrote.
Tara Mattina, spokeswoman for the port, said the agency is happy with the decision.
“We’re pleased that the judge — as two others before him — ruled to dismiss this kind of lawsuit and awarded us recoupment of the majority of the attorney fees,” she said via email.
While the ruling doesn’t impose costs on Save Tacoma Water, spokeswoman Sherry Bockwinkel said it still sets a bad precedent.
I just think the whole thing is begging to be appealed. The AG’s office has got to appeal.
Sherry Bockwinkel, Save Tacoma Water
“That’s the ultimate campaign, is taking us to court and taking us off the ballot,” she said. “I just think the whole thing is begging to be appealed. The AG’s office has got to appeal.”
The state is considering it, said Peter Lavallee, communications director for the Attorney General’s Office.
“We continue to believe the law prohibits public entities from spending public money to oppose initiatives,” he said via email. “We are actively considering an appeal in the matter.”
Mattina said an appeal could lead to additional expense for the state.
“If the Attorney General chooses to appeal, we will continue to seek recoupment of taxpayer dollars spent on these legal fees,” she said.