State’s election watchdog won’t recommend action against water ballot measure foes

The state’s election watchdog is recommending no action against three Tacoma agencies for alleged unregistered campaign activity.

Last month, open records litigant Arthur West filed a complaint with the state attorney general against the Port of Tacoma, Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.

West, an Olympia resident, said all three groups violated state campaign finance laws by not registering as a political committee to sue to stop two proposed ballot measures that would limit industrial development at the port.

The attorney general’s office forwarded the complaint to the Public Disclosure Commission for a recommendation on action, if any, to take. Among the commission’s many duties is whether expenses are related to opposing or supporting a campaign.

As commission staff investigated West’s allegations, the three groups asked PDC executive director Evelyn Lopez to recuse herself because of her strong statements against a methanol plant that later canceled its plans to locate on the Tacoma Tideflats. Lopez recused herself the day after their request was made but denied there was a conflict.

West’s complaint says the port, EDB and Chamber’s lawsuit to stop two ballot measures advanced by Save Tacoma Water was a political act, and should have been registered as such with the PDC.

Had Save Tacoma Water’s ballot measures passed, they would have required Tacoma voters to weigh in on proposed projects that would use more than 1 million gallons of water per day.

Apart from West’s complaint, PDC staff had recommended that the commission tell the attorney general to look at the Chamber and EDB’s legal expenses to fight Save Tacoma Water’s ballot measures as an unreported independent expenditure.

The two groups each spent around $10,000 in legal costs to fight the measures, filings from both organizations showed.

At a Monday public meeting, the commission decided against recommending the attorney general take further action against the three agencies. Spokespeople with the EDB and Chamber said the PDC commission made the right move.

PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said the attorney general doesn’t always listen to her agency’s recommendation. Attorney General’s Office spokesman Peter Lavallee said in an email that he doesn’t know if or when his agency will take further action.

If the attorney general does decide to pursue the case, the agency would file a civil lawsuit in court, Anderson said. The agencies could face up to $10,000 per violation, she said.

West’s complaint could land in Superior Court by the end of the month since the attorney general’s office has taken no action so far. The PDC commission got it wrong, West said.

“I think what we got from the PDC was a political decision,” West said. The port, EDB and Chamber’s demands for Lopez’s recusal “appears to have made the commission a little gun shy.”

Anderson said the PDC’s commission may take up a broader proposal to set guidelines for lawsuits related to campaign activity. It’s not an issue isolated to Tacoma.

“They (the commission) think that there could be better guidance all around,” Anderson said.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports