Port of Tacoma

Port commission, public square off over ballot initiative lawsuit

VIDEO: Arthur West serves complaint to Tacoma port commission

Watch as Olympia open government litigant Arthur West serves a complaint to the Port of Tacoma regarding its lawsuit against Save Tacoma Water.
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Watch as Olympia open government litigant Arthur West serves a complaint to the Port of Tacoma regarding its lawsuit against Save Tacoma Water.

The Port of Tacoma Commission voted Thursday to support a lawsuit against two citizen measures backed by Save Tacoma Water, a volunteer group that turned in signatures for a fall ballot measure on Wednesday.

If approved by voters this fall, the issue would change city law to require a public vote before allowing the city to issue a permit to a business that would use more than 1 million gallons of water per day.

The port, Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County and Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber filed the lawsuit earlier this month. The three business groups are asking a judge to invalidate this issue and a companion Tacoma city charter amendment intended for next year’s ballot.

The commission’s vote was a ceremonial move because the port CEO already has powers to initiate lawsuits without their approval.

“I am ready to abide by whatever the courts say, and I hope you will be too,” said commission President Connie Bacon.

Several citizens said they were outraged the port would interfere with the democratic process.

“As citizen lawmakers, we have every right to propose and pass new law,” said Michael Lafreniere, spokesman for Save Tacoma Water. “… The chilling effect on our rights is an egregious affront to our democracy.”

The business groups say the ballot measures would have a chilling effect, too — on business development and attracting well-paying jobs to Pierce County.

They contend the ballot measures are an overreach of initiative powers and contain many flaws. Even if the measures don’t pass a public vote, they don’t like the message it could send to industries thinking of calling Tacoma home.

But that argument is a flimsy one, said LaDonna Robertson, a member of RedLine Tacoma, which opposed a now-abandoned methanol plant on the Tideflats.

“It shouldn’t deter business from locating here if they plan to contribute to the community in a positive manner,” she said.

Open-government advocate and frequent litigant Arthur West also weighed in — in the form of a complaint against the Port of Tacoma with the state Attorney General's office, the Pierce County Prosecutor and the Public Disclosure Commission in Olympia.

West served the complaint to the port commission during the meeting. West wrote in the complaint that the port does not have the legal authority to bring suit against Save Tacoma Water. The state Attorney General and prosecutor have until mid-August to review the case.

"We don't act on this until they ask for our help, and then if they do, we do an investigation and then report back to them. I haven't heard that we won't be following that process this time," said PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson.

If they do not act, West said he will.

“I believe the Port of Tacoma has no business interfering in a citizen initiative in this manner, regardless of their claim,” West said.

West said state law prohibits the port from using government resources to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures. Filing the lawsuit was a political act, he wrote in his complaint. West has sued the port before, when it and the Port of Seattle held secret meetings for months before forming the Northwest Seaport Alliance. He argued the case against the ports before the state Court of Appeals in April.

Some residents complained the original lawsuit against the citizen measures said the three agencies wanted to recover legal costs and fees from Save Tacoma Water and several others involved with the ballot measures.

The port commission voted to remove a section of the group’s lawsuit that seeks to recover attorney fees from Save Tacoma Water.

Economic Development Board spokeswoman Kathleen Cooper said recovering fees from ballot measure backers was “never the goal.”

“The EDB, like its partners, is interested in a resolution of the facts of the matter,” Cooper said.

As of Wednesday evening, Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson said she had not received a court order that would prevent her office from validating signatures. The office has received the signature pages from the Tacoma city clerk and will begin signature verification on Monday.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports

Reporter Candice Ruud contributed to this report