Two separate but similar efforts to unravel Pierce County’s decision to build a $127 million government headquarters will take center stage this week: one in County Council chambers, the other in court.
The first, an ordinance proposed by County Council Chairman Dan Roach, would ensure a public advisory vote on the building proposal, which council members passed Feb. 27 on a 4-3 vote.
The details of Roach’s ordinance are unclear; it was still in the drafting stages Monday, he said. He expects it to appear on Tuesday’s consent agenda, with a debate likely to follow April 20 during a meeting of the council’s rules committee.
In a recent new release announcing his proposal, the Bonney Lake Republican said the ordinance would “hopefully settle this matter for the time being and restore for citizens their right to participate in county government without fear of being sued to keep silent.”
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Residents already may have a chance to vote on the building plan in November under a citizen referendum by Gig Harbor activist Jerry Gibbs. After he filed the proposal in February, the county executive’s office initially sued to stop it, arguing that it was outside the scope of referendum provisions spelled out in the county charter.
Political fallout and internal politics prompted county leaders to withdraw the suit, but a pair of private citizens, Leslie Young and Anthony Miller, resurrected it in late March.
“This is not Pierce County suing the voters, the so-called ‘David v. Goliath argument, but a David v. David dispute over what is just, right and legal,” the pair said in a statement. “We, the plaintiffs, are registered voters, too, and also taxpayers who reside in Pierce County. We believe this referendum is not a proper, legal referendum.”
The next stage of their lawsuit is a hearing tentatively set for Friday in Pierce County Superior Court. Young and Miller are seeking an expedited process to determine whether the referendum is legal.
If a judge sides with them, Gibbs’ referendum would stall, possibly permanently.
Volunteers have been gathering signatures since Gibbs filed his petition — they need about 24,000 valid signatures by late June to qualify for the ballot — and the campaign has raised $14,764 so far, according to the latest reports on file with the state Public Disclosure Commission.
The proposed ordinance from Roach would face no such restrictions, but it can’t advance unless one of the four council members who first voted to approve the building plan flips his or her vote. Those original yes votes were cast by Rick Talbert, Derek Young, Connie Ladenburg and Joyce McDonald.
The building proposal would consolidate 19 county departments into a new facility at 3580 Pacific Avenue, site of the old Puget Sound Hospital. Leaders hope to finish the project in fall 2016.
The plan has been public since County Executive Pat McCarthy introduced it in the summer of 2013. The county council voted twice to proceed with preliminary planning steps, including spending more than $1 million on project design in September 2013. That vote passed by a 6-1 margin; the lone dissent came from Councilman Jim McCune.
County fiscal analysts have warned that delaying the project could add to construction costs and endanger a maximum price agreed to by the developer. On Monday, county spokesman Hunter George said the project is simply “on hold” while the legal tussle plays out.