Pierce County has filed a lawsuit to block a group of citizens who want to stop construction of a new county administration building in Tacoma’s South End.
Gig Harbor resident Jerry Gibbs and some fellow anti-tax activists filed a referendum proposal last week in the hope of putting the $127 million construction project on the November ballot.
But the county’s lawsuit asserts the County Council's approval of the project last month is beyond the scope of referendum provisions as spelled out in the county charter. The suit, filed late Friday in Pierce County Superior Court, seeks to stop Gibbs and those working with him from taking any further steps to put a measure on the ballot.
The suit says state law gives the County Council “exclusive power to provide for construction of necessary public buildings for use by the county.” It also says state law and the charter give the council “exclusive power” to enter into leases for county-owned property.
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The county requested a speedy hearing. The first one is set for July 10.
Gibbs said after being served with the lawsuit Saturday that the county is using its power “to silence a citizen that is only exercising his rights as allowed by the county charter.”
“My question is why are they so fearful of a vote of the people over a $235 million spending spree?” Gibbs said in an email.
The cost of the 30-year lease on the new building rises to an estimated $235 million when principal, financing costs and interest are factored in.
The county’s charter says citizens can file a referendum to challenge any ordinance or section of an ordinance “except such ordinances as may be necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, safety or support of the County government and its existing public institutions.”
A Gig Harbor group represented by Gibbs, called Citizens for Responsible Spending, filed its referendum proposal Feb. 23. To put it before voters this year, the group would have to gather 24,427 valid signatures by late June.
The County Council voted 4-3 on Feb. 17 to move forward with building the county headquarters on the site of the former Puget Sound Hospital at 3580 Pacific Ave.
The lawsuit doesn’t address whether the referendum could delay the spring 2015 groundbreaking and fall 2016 opening of the administration building. It also doesn’t address whether the referendum could change the final cost negotiated with Seattle developer Wright Runstad.
But the suit acknowledges a referendum vote could derail the council’s ordinance that approved the project.
“If defendant collects the requisite number of valid signatures, the ordinance will become ineffective pending the outcome of the Nov. 10, 2015 general election,” the lawsuit says.
County Executive Pat McCarthy was not available to speak to a News Tribune reporter Monday, but her office issued the following statement.
“I fully support the power of referendum reserved to our citizens in the Pierce County Charter,” she said. “However, when the Charter was enacted the framers also understood this power is limited. If applied to every act of the County Council —such as when it votes on leases and other administrative matters — rather than in its legislative capacity to change policies, then the referendum power would have a paralyzing effect on government operations at great cost, delay and confusion to taxpayers.”
“In this case,” she added, “the Prosecuting Attorney's Office advises me the proposed referendum goes beyond the scope of the power reserved to the citizens of Pierce County in the Charter.”
The financing plan for the building hinges in part on eliminating 38 county government positions that would save about $4.2 million a year in personnel expenses, helping offset the cost of a roughly $8 million yearly lease for the new headquarters.
McCarthy contends expiring leases and salaries for eliminated positions would save more than $300 million over 25 years, which is more than enough to cover the cost of the building’s 30-year lease.