Politics & Government

Pierce County Council leader disavows lawsuit against citizen, wants it stopped

The chairman of the Pierce County Council said Tuesday he will try to stop or at least slow an attempt by the County Executive’s office to derail a citizen referendum.

Councilman Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, said he will propose an emergency resolution ordering the county prosecutor to drop a lawsuit that County Executive Pat McCarthy asked to be filed against a Gig Harbor activist.

The prosecutor filed suit late Friday to block activist Jerry Gibbs from gathering signatures for a referendum that aims to stop a $127 million county headquarters from being built. Gibbs and his supporters have until late June to collect 24,427 valid signatures in the hope of putting a measure on the November ballot.

The lawsuit says the elected council has the “exclusive power to provide for construction of necessary public buildings.” And the council exercised that power when it voted 4-3 last month to proceed with McCarthy’s plan for a nine-story building that would consolidate county government administration in Tacoma’s South End.

But Roach said Tuesday that the council never collectively gave the prosecutor’s office the OK to file a lawsuit against a citizen, although he said some individual council members might have given their consent.

“According to state law, the council alone has the sole authority to direct the county prosecutor to file lawsuits on behalf of the county,” Roach said in a statement. “I believe that we should have a public forum to debate this issue and hear directly from Pierce County citizens regarding this matter.”

Roach cast one of the three council votes opposing the building project on Feb. 27.

He told The News Tribune on Tuesday that he spoke with Prosecutor Mark Lindquist and Lindquist’s chief civil deputy Doug Vanscoy late Friday afternoon, and that they told him they were about to file suit against Gibbs.

After Roach asked for more information about who holds the authority to sue, Vanscoy sent council members an email on Monday. Vanscoy wrote that state law is “crystal clear” in giving county councils control over litigation, and that the prosecutor made sure council members were consulted in this case.

“In the absence of any imminent statutory or other time constraints to filing, there was no need for a rush to filing, and we believed it was proper and prudent to check in with Council before proceeding,” Vanscoy wrote. “After hearing individually from several members of Council, we did file the lawsuit Friday afternoon.

“The Prosecutor’s office has acted properly, lawfully, and in the County’s best interest throughout this process,” Vanscoy’s email concludes.

Roach said he did not indicate support for the lawsuit during his Friday conversation with prosecutors.

A reporter’s messages for Vanscoy were not returned Tuesday. McCarthy did not make herself available for comment.

At Tuesday’s County Council meeting, Gibbs and several other members of the public spoke out to condemn the county for filing suit to try to quash the referendum. They said it violates the letter and spirit of the county charter drafted 35 years ago.

“I did not let throat cancer take my voice, and I will not allow the Pierce County Council to take my voice,” Gibbs said.

Then Roach took his turn to set the record straight: The decision to sue was made at the urging of the executive – even though it wasn’t her decision to make, he said – and not by the council as a whole.

“We didn’t sit down as a body and say ‘let’s sue the taxpayer.’ That never happened,” he said.

Roach said his emergency resolution will be introduced at the March 10 council meeting.