Politics & Government

Open-government activist sues Pierce County for ‘clandestine’ decision-making against citizen referendum

An open-government champion has sued the Pierce County Council for allegedly violating the state open public meetings law — another twist in the saga over the county’s controversial plan to build a $127 million government headquarters in Tacoma’s South End.

Arthur West of Olympia alleges that council members participated in a series of improper private communications with the county prosecutor’s office before the prosecutor filed a Feb. 28 lawsuit. In the lawsuit in question, the county sued in Pierce County Superior Court to block Gig Harbor resident Jerry Gibbs from moving forward with a ballot referendum to halt the building project.

West filed a complaint in Thurston County Superior Court last week accusing six of the seven County Council members of public meetings violations. But he reserved his harshest criticism for Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, who West says “deliberately facilitated a series of serial ‘meetings’ through which a quorum of the Council took action.”

Lindquist and his chief civil deputy, Doug Vanscoy, both say no open-meetings violations took place. They say it’s part of the ordinary function of the civil litigation department to provide legal advice to its clients, including elected council members.

Vanscoy said this was an instance of “a lawyer talking to his client rather than the clients talking among themselves.”

He said West’s complaint is “baseless,” and the county plans to file a motion to have it dismissed.

Pierce County Council attorney Susan Long said Monday that she reviewed the messages that went back and forth between council members and prosecutors. She said the communication did not appear to violate the law because it did not reach the point at which a majority of council members shared opinions with each other.

“It doesn’t look to me that there was a discussion among a quorum,” Long said.

Several council members also told The News Tribune they didn’t share opinions about the lawsuit with one another and don’t think they violated state law.

West is an active watchdog of open government around Washington. He recently won a $187,300 settlement with the Port of Olympia over alleged public-records violations. He also has sued the Tacoma and Seattle port commissions over private meetings the two held jointly to discuss an alliance.

In an interview Monday, West said the Pierce County case originally caught his eye when The News Tribune reported that the county was trying to stop Gibbs from gathering the signatures he needs to get his referendum on the November ballot.

“It seems to me that a county ought to be very careful about suing citizens to restrain them from petitioning their government,” West said.

His interest deepened when he read that the prosecutor’s office sought council members’ guidance outside a public meeting — or even a closed-door executive session — before it took legal action against Gibbs.

“I'd like to see government in Pierce County act more openly and forthrightly and not take their responsibility for granted,” West said. “I don't want to see the prosecutor conduct public meetings by telephone and the Internet.”

West said he did not include Council Chairman Dan Roach in his legal action because Roach “did the right thing” by raising strong concerns about the lawsuit.

At the 3 p.m. County Council meeting Tuesday (March 10), Roach planned to submit an emergency resolution seeking to have the county’s lawsuit dropped.