Politics & Government

Pierce County will drop lawsuit against referendum activist

The Pierce County Council voted 4-3 Tuesday to withdraw a lawsuit that the county filed last month against a citizen activist. The decision prompted applause and thumbs up among a large audience of people who had spent more than an hour testifying against the lawsuit.

Prosecutors filed suit Feb. 27 against Jerry Gibbs of Gig Harbor, who is trying to put a referendum on the November ballot asking for a public vote on a $127 million government headquarters building. The suit was filed at the behest of County Executive Pat McCarthy, who is trying to keep the building project on track without expensive delays.

On Tuesday, the key vote was cast by Councilwoman Joyce McDonald of Puyallup, the second time in a month her support has been decisive.

In February, she broke ranks with her three fellow Republicans and voted with the council’s three Democrats to approve financing to build the headquarters in Tacoma’s South End.

This time, she voted with the Republicans to let Gibbs’ referendum proceed, even though officials have said it could potentially kill the building project.

McDonald said she was disturbed that she and her colleagues were put in this position at all. She said she believed at the time that McCarthy was within her authority to work with prosecutors to take legal action but has since learned that that power rests with the council.

“Why do we have to pass a resolution today to remove a lawsuit we didn’t initiate? That truly troubles me,” she said. “If anybody said this lawsuit was initiated by the council, I would say do not believe them. This lawsuit was not initiated by the council.”

McDonald was joined in voting “yes” on the emergency resolution by Councilmen Doug Richardson of Lakewood and Jim McCune of Graham and Council Chairman Dan Roach of Bonney Lake, who sponsored the resolution.

Voting “no” were Connie Ladenburg and Rick Talbert of Tacoma and Derek Young of Gig Harbor.

More than two dozen people testified before the council, all asking for the suit to be dropped.

“I was shocked when I heard the county was suing a citizen for the right to referendum,” said Gig Harbor resident Sheila Herron. “This is absolutely an abuse of power; this is bullying of a private citizen.”

Others testified that the county should have done more to involve the public before voting on the building. They suggested the council should have had a series of public meetings as it did recently for a proposed update to the Shoreline Master Program.

Reference to the shoreline plan was timely. The council approved the plan earlier in the meeting and received praise from people who said the public process worked.

“The people just didn’t know the scope of this,” Browns Point resident Chris Grimit said of the new building. “We did not know the magnitude of this project.”

Following the council vote, McCarthy issued a prepared statement that said the lawsuit never targeted Gibbs. Instead it was filed to get a judge’s opinion about whether the legislative act of approving a lease is subject to a ballot referendum.

Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist’s office believes the lease is not subject to voter say, McCarthy said.

“Unfortunately, a majority of the County Council bowed to political pressure, even though this could set a terrible precedent that the most basic administrative actions of government can be derailed by the simple act of signing a piece of paper,” she said. “The irony is some want us to ask voters for permission to operate more efficiently, yet they know using the referendum process to delay it could dismantle the development team and end the project.”

Young acknowledged the lawsuit did “look like the government is dumping on Mr. Gibbs,” but echoed McCarthy that the county has an obligation to make sure the referendum was legal.

Standing outside the council chambers after the vote, Gibbs fought back emotions as people congratulated him. Preparing to fight the lawsuit was emotionally and financially draining for Gibbs, who said he planned to use his retirement account to cover legal costs. He missed a family member’s wedding in Florida to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

“The supporters and friends and people from both parties coming together in support of people’s rights makes me proud I am an American,” Gibbs said, choking back tears.

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune