Pierce County stakeholders learned several things from last year’s derailed plan for a shiny, new $127 million county administration building, also known as the great trainwreck of 2015.
Officials learned they should communicate early and often with the public if they want to build a taxpayer-funded office tower with a growing price tag.
The public learned consolidating county services might make financial sense, but it doesn’t need to be rushed down the tracks.
And everyone (including this newspaper) learned not to underestimate the power of a citizen referendum when wielded by a crew of ticked-off activists — a point hammered home like a railroad spike.
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But there’s one lesson that ought not be gleaned from this mess, despite the best efforts of the folks who are promoting a pair of county charter amendments in the November election.
Don’t believe them when they say the county should make it easier for citizens to place initiatives and referenda on future ballots.
They want to lower the signature threshold required to submit an idea to voters, though the reason escapes us. How many groups in the last decade have waged campaigns for county ballot measures only to fall short? Exactly zero.
No initiatives have gone out for signatures during that period, and the only referendum that circulated — last year’s populist crusade to kill the county headquarters building, led by Jerry Gibbs of Gig Harbor — was a resounding success under existing rules.
The county’s home rule charter, adopted in 1980, sets the number of valid signatures needed to qualify an initiative or referendum as a percentage of total votes cast in the last county executive election. The threshold for a referendum (an attempt to overturn current law) is a little easier to meet than for an initiative (an attempt to create new law), as it should be.
Charter Amendment 41 would reduce the signature requirement for initiatives from 10 to 8 percent. Charter Amendment 42 would make a more radical change to referenda, halving the signature requirement from 8 to 4 percent.
If the amendments pass, Pierce County would have the most permissive rules of the seven Washington charter counties, including fellow metropolitan counties King and Snohomish.
Let’s be clear: We respect direct democracy. It’s a healthy check and balance against fits of arrogance and ignorance that sometimes crop up in elected bodies. Initiative and referendum are the basic tools in the toolbox of direct democracy.
But they should be used sparingly, as the state constitution suggests. Washington generally favors representative democracy, in which elected proxies do the heavy work, because governance is not amateur hour. If it were, there would be no reason to pay $108,000 salaries to seven County Council members to study the issues and make public policy decisions on our behalf.
Why put more work on the shoulders of voters who are increasingly pushed to their limit by run-on ballots? (Wait till they see the whopper coming in the mail next month.) And why create more wiggle room for activists to write checks the government can’t afford to cash? (See also: Washington state Initiative 1351, mandating smaller class sizes.)
For the record, this year’s county Charter Review Commission did commendable work, and we don’t fault commissioners for giving voters another shot to lower the bar on initiative and referenda. We just hope voters will decline, as they did when the same question was put to them 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, there is a good proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot that would refine the county’s system for allowing expressions of the popular will.
Charter Amendment 43 would help avoid colossal wastes of time and money by identifying poorly drafted referendum proposals up front. The county prosecutor would have to review each proposal and share his legal opinion with the sponsor within 15 days. A duly informed sponsor could then walk away from a lemon.
This amendment also would smooth out some rough edges that can discourage activists. Currently, if the county tries to block a ballot proposal by suing its sponsor, the citizen is stuck with the legal bills — even if the citizen later prevails. Under this amendment, the county would pay attorney fees.
This is not a hypothetical notion. Gibbs says he and his group were left with $18,000 in legal costs after Pierce County’s on-again-off-again action against them last year.
If voters see fit to amend the charter this year, Gibbs says they could help “right wrongs” illuminated by the county administrative building fiasco. We agree, to a point. While Gibbs believes amendments 41 and 42 would sharpen the tools of direct democracy, we limit our support to amendment 43.
The threshold for putting ideas on the ballot was never meant to be easy.
Leave it alone.