Budget fight features shouting, gavel-slamming, alleged bird-flipping and Pam Roach in the middle

It’s no secret that Pierce County Council debates have grown testier since Councilwoman Pam Roach took office in January. But a series of exchanges during a Nov. 21 debate over the county’s 2018 budget raised the rudeness bar to new heights.

The fracas between Roach and Councilman Rick Talbert, caught live on public video, featured raised voices, accusations of paranoia, repeated cries of “point of order,” desperate gavel-smacking from Council Chairman Doug Richardson, an apparent obscene gesture from Talbert and a dismissive curse from Roach.

Call it the battle of Amendment 28, an obscure line item in the budget ordinance that involved $40,311. Against the backdrop of the $325 million spending plan, the amendment represented budget dust: the rough equivalent of 12 cents out of $1,000.

The money was intended for the Washington Association of Counties, a quasi-governmental coalition that represents the state’s 39 counties. Pierce County is a dues-paying member.

The purpose of the allocation was communication and litigation. The association is preparing for a legal tussle with the state over unfunded mandates from the state Legislature.

Eric Johnson, the association’s executive director, explained that members (including County Councilman Jim McCune) voted unanimously Nov. 16 to pursue the idea, frustrated by continuing costs foisted on individual counties by the state. Individual counties agreed to contribute proportional shares based on population.

No lawsuit has been filed — that prospect is a long way off — but the association is preparing for the possibility.

“Our members have been growing frustrated with the Legislature’s willingness to push responsibilities on county government without the resources to do that,” Johnson said.

During the county council’s Nov. 21 budget debate, Roach lobbied for language in Amendment 28 that spelled out the purpose more clearly: suing the state. She suggested that the ambiguous language amounted to concealing the purpose of the money from the public.

The accusation lit the fuse. The mini-debate covered 19 minutes in a meeting that lasted nearly four hours. Talbert, annoyed by the implication of deception, said nothing was being hidden, and that “the inattentiveness of a council member” was the real issue.

Talbert didn’t name Roach, but she caught the point immediately, raising her voice to say, “I object.”

Cross-talk followed, captured on video. Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg, who sits next to Roach in meetings, said, “You’ve got to be quiet,” and called for a recess. Richardson slammed the gavel repeatedly as Roach and Talbert talked over each other.

Unable to quiet the two members, Richardson turned to Roach and told her to ask for a point of order before speaking further. Roach obliged.

“Point of order Mr. Chairman, he’s demeaning my character and impugning my motives.”

“And my ruling,” Richardson replied, “is that I did not hear him mention any members by name.”

The debate cooled briefly. Talbert spoke again, saying council members discussed the purpose of Amendment 28 explicitly during a study session earlier in the day, where answers to Roach’s questions were given.

“The assertion that things are being hidden or that everything has some conspiracy behind it is extremely tiring,” Talbert said, adding that he didn’t want “to deal with the paranoia every two minutes.”

Roach countered with a speech of her own, holding a copy of the amendment, and returning to the accusation of deceit, saying that if the county wanted to join an action to sue the state, it should be done with a separate vote, rather than a budget line item.

“People who want to sneak this by think it’s OK, and it’s not OK,” she said, arguing that the language of the amendment wasn’t clear enough. “We really mean to join a lawsuit to sue the state of Washington. I object to that kind of hiding. You cannot tell what the purpose of this money would be by looking at this.”

Moments later, Roach proposed an amendment with more explicit language. It died without a second.

A vote on Amendment 28 followed. Councilman Derek Young explained the purpose of the potential legal battle between the counties association and the state over unfunded mandates, citing examples such the cost of indigent defense, passed on to the counties by the state.

“This is an issue that’s been going on for quite some time but has been exacerbated over the last couple of decades,” he said. “The idea here was to get more aggressive, so that’s where this request comes from.”

The amendment then passed by a 4-1 vote. Roach was the lone no (two council members, Jim McCune and Dan Roach, were absent.)

The debate appeared to be over. It wasn’t. After the vote, Roach spoke again and asked whether the county’s attorney could review the county’s charter to investigate the legality of the amendment.

“I think it’s a very serious infraction of the way we’re doing business,” she said. “I am appalled.”

She added a stinger: she said didn’t want to hear from the previous speaker, Young, “who has never served in Olympia.”

The barb rekindled the fight, and another flurry of crosstalk. A transcript:

Talbert: “Would you stop? Jesus.”

Richardson: “Thank you for your comments.”

Roach: (to Talbert) “Yep, it was fun for me. How about you?”

The video captures the next moment. Talbert raises his hand to his face, and appears to flip a middle finger at Roach. (The News Tribune sought clarification from Talbert before this story was published. He did not respond to a phone call.)

Roach: “Oh, he just gave me the finger. I just saw him give me the finger.”

Talbert: “You are insane, lady.”

Roach: “Mr. Chairman, can we look at the video?”

Richardson: (pounding gavel) “Everyone will come to order.”

Roach: “I’d like to see the video.”

Ladenburg: “Just stop it.”

Richardson: “It’s available online.”

Roach: “Bullshit.”

Ladenburg: “You’re looking ridiculous.”

Talbert: “Jesus Christ.”