Pierce County government is due for its once-a-decade checkup, and the timing nearly guarantees that one item on the examination table will be the citizen referendum.
Nothing coming out of county headquarters lately has gotten people as fired up as a proposed $127 million replacement for that headquarters. The courts allowed voters to decide this fall whether to move forward on the building in Tacoma’s South End without settling whether a referendum on such a topic is legally sound.
The building controversy is one reason there’s a bumper crop of candidates for the Pierce County Charter Review Commission. The 21-member commission convenes every 10 years to consider changes to the charter that is similar to a constitution for the county. Voters then decide on any proposals from the board.
In 2005, the board drew 53 candidates. This time there are 88.
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They include a slew of people with ties to county government and some politicians with decades of experience —although the two candidates raising the most cash so far are a couple of 23-year-olds.
One reason for the high interest is that leaders of the two major political parties have been recruiting or at least encouraging like-minded people to run.
The popularity of the job likely built on itself, too. People on both the right and the left described fears that somebody was trying to fill the board with supporters of one particular cause or another.
“It’s just obvious that something’s up,” said Jim McCune, a conservative Graham Republican on the Pierce County Council. McCune cited the candidacy of former County Executive John Ladenburg and co-workers at Ladenburg’s law firm along with unspecified meetings he heard were taking place.
Ladenburg said he urged people to run in an effort to block “goofy ideas” for charter changes.
Eric Herde, a Parkland Democrat and lifeguard who has been involved with the campaign to raise Tacoma’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, said he has heard conservatives are organizing to recruit candidates who will support embedding into the charter restrictions on workers’ rights to organize in unions.
Herde has raised $4,425, the most of any candidate. Donors gave the second-most, $2,800, to King County council aide April Sanders, Herde’s opponent and fellow member of the Franklin Pierce Schools class of 2010.
Two candidates for each seat will advance in the Aug. 4 primary.
THE COUNTY BUILDING
Pierce County Republican chairman Deryl McCarty said it “energized people” when the county filed a lawsuit against Jerry Gibbs, the Gig Harbor activist spearheading the citizen referendum.
“People started looking at, ‘Wait a minute, is this the way it’s supposed to be? And doesn’t our charter and our constitution say we have the right to referendum?’” McCarty said.
It does — although courts have determined the Washington constitution doesn’t extend that right to administrative decisions. What that means when it comes to the county building remains debatable after the county dropped its lawsuit and a court threw out a separate citizen lawsuit against Gibbs on procedural grounds.
Amending the charter wouldn’t change state law. But McCarty said the charter should more clearly allow a referendum anytime the county doesn’t declare an emergency, similar to how it works in the state Legislature.
Linda Isenson, chairwoman of the Pierce County Democrats, said some in her party worry that there will be proposals to require public votes for whole categories of measures, such as construction projects.
“That’s not good governing. We elect people to make decisions for us,” Isenson said.
The issue cuts across party lines.
Among the candidates saying they want to clarify or strengthen charter language on referendum are Grant Pelesky, a former Republican state lawmaker; Steve Victor, the University Place city attorney who claims no party affiliation; and Elizabeth Burris, chairwoman of a Tacoma neighborhood council and a Democrat.
Among those saying that decisions like public-works projects are best left to elected officials who can then be unseated or retained by voters are Sanders, a Republican, and Todd Iverson, a PenMet Parks commissioner and Democrat.
County Executive Pat McCarthy has championed the new nine-story administration building to consolidate county offices in a move intended to save more money than the $235 million cost of the 30-year lease.
SOME KNOW CHARTER WELL
At least three county employees and six former county elected officials are seeking spots on the commission.
There’s Ladenburg and former County Auditor Cathy Pearsall-Stipek, both Democrats. And former county council members, including Democrats Tim Farrell and Barbara Gelman and Republicans Shawn Bunney and Jan Shabro.
Sitting county elected officials may not serve on the commission, as McCune discovered after he tried to run.
But nothing prevents their staffers from running, as aides to three Republican council members are doing — Amy Cruver, McCune’s assistant; Alice McDaniel, who is Doug Richardson’s assistant; and Michele Smith, an assistant to Joyce McDonald.
Nor is there any restriction on commission members holding elected office outside county government. Several of the charter candidates are also elsewhere on this year’s ballot as incumbents up for re-election, including Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson, Orting City Councilman Joshua Penner and Paul Wagemann of the Clover Park School Board.
State Rep. David Sawyer, a Democrat who works for Ladenburg’s law firm, is on the ballot after trying too late to withdraw his candidacy for the commission, having discovered that departing DuPont Mayor Michael Grayum was running for the same spot. No other legislators are running, although candidate Lynda Hunt is the wife of GOP Rep. Graham Hunt.
Others have political service in their past, including Pelesky and Carolyn Edmonds, a former Democratic King County councilwoman.
Candidate John Orlando raised the issue of familiar names in the county voters’ pamphlet, writing: “Recycling waste is good, recycling politicians is not.”
But Farrell said as a minority of the charter commission, former officials can provide a “reality check” based on their experience working under the charter.
Similarly, Cruver said there’s a role for people with a first-hand understanding of the charter, and disagreed with Isenson, the Democratic chairwoman, who sees an ethical conflict in current county staff serving on the commission.
The commission could consider any number of changes to the charter. McDaniel said the council should be allowed to adopt budgets every two years instead of every year. Anderson wants to move county elections to odd-numbered years.
In at least one area, the panel might consider a change that could affect partisan makeup of the county council, now a 4-3 Republican majority.
That’s if it tinkers with another once-a-decade process: the one that redraws the Pierce County Council districts.
Like a similar process at the state level, redistricting is overseen by two appointed Democrats, two appointed Republicans and a fifth person picked by the other four. But unlike in the state process, the fifth member of the county redistricting commission gets a vote as the group chooses a mapmaker to draw the lines.
Republicans criticized the outcome of the last round of redistricting in 2011, while Democrats raised their own objections earlier in the process.
Candidates calling for making the redistricting process less partisan by taking away the vote of the fifth commission member include Sawyer and Sanders.
Those saying the redistricting process works well and doesn’t need changes include Pearsall-Stipek, Farrell and Nnenna Hill.
Last time around, the charter commission persuaded voters to adopt a new kind of election ballot letting them rank candidates in order of preference.
But voters ended up with buyers’ remorse both about ranked-choice voting and a candidate who was elected in part because of that system: Dale Washam.
The voting system gave a boost to candidates with enough name recognition to become a common backup choice in a field of many candidates. That helped Washam become county assessor-treasurer.
Washam used his office to retaliate against employees who disagreed with him, investigators found.
Voters repealed ranked-choice voting and defeated Washam’s re-election bid, but not before he cost the county more than $1 million in legal settlements.
“We were all kind of asleep at the switch a decade ago,” said Ladenburg, then the county executive, “and none of us want to see that happen again.”
“It’s perfectly OK,” Ladenburg said, “for this committee to meet for six months and say ‘Nothing’s broken. Let’s go home.’”