Politics & Government

New lawsuit, same subject: Activists seek to block referendum on new Pierce County HQ

Two Tacoma residents have filed a lawsuit aimed at blocking a referendum that seeks to block construction of a $127 million Pierce County government headquarters in Tacoma’s South End.

It sounds familiar because it is: Pierce County sued activist Jerry Gibbs on the same grounds earlier this month, but withdrew the suit after a political battle erupted between County Executive Pat McCarthy and members of the County Council.

The new suit, filed Tuesday by Leslie Young and Anthony Miller, lacks the political backdrop but makes the same arguments as the county’s aborted action. Apart from minor wording changes, it’s a mirror image.

“There’s not any new accusations or anything,” said Gibbs, who was served with legal papers Thursday. “We’ve been down this road before; that’s the point that distresses us the most.”

Gibbs said he didn’t know Young or Miller, but recalled hearing them testify at earlier county meetings. Young lives in the Lincoln District, Miller in east Tacoma; both spoke in favor of the building proposal, citing economic benefits to their communities.

On Friday, Young said she and Miller were referring questions to Joseph Quinn, the attorney representing them in the suit. Quinn did not respond to a phone message.

The suit contends the idea of the referendum is illegal on its face, prohibited by the county charter and state law.

With a contentious 4-3 vote on Feb. 17, the County Council authorized initial expenditures. The legal theory of the new lawsuit holds that the decision was administrative, enacted to support county government and its institutions; ergo, a referendum, even if approved, can’t undo it.

Gibbs disagrees, just as he did when the county sued him three weeks ago.

“Why are forces at play in Pierce County to stop the people from voting on this?” he asked. “People out there are trying to do everything to suppress the vote.”

The suit filed by Young and Miller provides a partial answer, again mirroring the county’s earlier argument.

Apart from the claim of illegality, the referendum process could derail a funding timeline and a development agreement that preserve the maximum cost negotiated by county leaders.

Gary Robinson, the county’s budget and finance director, mentioned those cost factors in a declaration filed in the county’s aborted suit.

“The greater the delay, the greater the GMP (guaranteed maximum price) and the greater the overall cost to the county and its taxpayers,” Robinson said.

Gibbs can’t help seeing what he called “political overtones” in the new suit, though he made no accusations of coordination between the county and the new plaintiffs.

County spokesman Hunter George debunked the idea Friday.

“Definitely no coordination here,” he said. “This is a separate citizen lawsuit.”

McCarthy released a statement Friday regarding the suit. The full text follows:

“Pierce County is not a party to this citizen-initiated lawsuit. Their reasons for the lawsuit appear to be consistent with the opinion of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office, who informed both my office and the County Council that a court would likely rule the proposed referendum was not eligible under the County Charter and established case law.

“I applaud these citizens for stepping forward to seek a court’s ruling on this important issue to ensure its legality. Because of the potential implications that referendum actions like the one proposed would have on day-to-day county operations, it is important to know — either way — what the law allows regarding referendum actions.

“The County Council approved the General Services Building project — and I signed it into law — because it saves taxpayers millions of dollars by consolidating 19 programs from 14 locations into one. No new taxpayer funds are needed, and property taxes are not affected. This project makes sound fiscal sense, and delaying it will only cost taxpayers more money as interest rates and the cost of construction materials rise.”

Young and Miller are asking for a “speedy” hearing to address the issues. That argument is still ahead.

Meanwhile, Gibbs is running on a 120-day clock to gather signatures from county voters by July 1. His target is 40,000 — more than the legal threshold of 24,427 required to bring the referendum to the ballot.

He could not say Friday how many signatures have been gathered, but he said volunteers have fanned out across the county. He estimates the effort, spearheaded by his activist group, Citizens for Responsible Spending, has raised $12,000 to date for the referendum.

“These lawsuits, they’re a distraction,” he said. “Doggone it, let the people vote.”