Politics & Government

Judge: Port, EDB and chamber’s lawsuit did not violate campaign finance laws

Two business-oriented groups and the Port of Tacoma are celebrating a court victory Wednesday that says they didn’t have to file campaign finance reports when challenging the constitutionality of two ballot measures earlier this year.

Bruce Kendall, CEO for the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, said he’s happy the judge dismissed the case.

“It’s a really good signal for the marketplace when a ballot initiative is written that appears to be unconstitutional, it’s within our rights as an organization and as citizens to challenge that in a court of law,” Kendall said.

The port, the EDB and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce sued earlier this year to ask a judge to review ballot measures advanced by Save Tacoma Water.

Both measures asked for a public vote before extending permits to projects that require 1 million gallons of water per day or more.

Their effort to keep measures off the ballot drew the attention of Olympia activist Arthur West, who said the three agencies ducked under established state campaign finance law, and should have filed campaign finance reports.

West filed his complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission, and the state Attorney General’s Office took up the case.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper ruled Wednesday that, while full campaign disclosure rules are “an important constitutional right,” the three groups’ lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the measures is not a campaign activity and does not require them to file campaign finance reports.

The ballot measures came about after citizen opposition to a then-proposed methanol plant for the Tacoma Tideflats. The three economic development groups worried either of the measures’ passage would have a chilling effect on businesses that might consider locating here, and noted the measures attempted to override state water laws.

In July, Superior Court Judge Jack Nevin ruled to keep the measures off of future ballots.

State campaign finance laws say organizations or people who spend money for or against a specific campaign or political race must register their spending with the state as independent expenditures. The PDC, however, recommended no action needed to be taken against the three agencies.

The attorney general’s case also centered on the Port of Tacoma, an agency that operates with taxpayer funds. It spent about $45,000 in public money on legal fees to oppose the Save Tacoma Water issues. The chamber and EDB each spent about $10,000.

“The ultimate opposition is is to try to remove (the issue) from the ballot,” said Linda Dalton, an attorney with the state. “This act is to be liberally construed.”

Culpepper was not swayed, and said challenging the constitutional validity of a proposed ballot measure is not a campaign activity.

“The Attorney General here is asking to expand the law,” the judge said, “And that’s a job that should be done by the Legislature.”

Culpepper will decide next week if the Attorney General’s Office must pay legal fees to the EDB, port and chamber.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports