Backers of the referendum on Pierce County’s proposed general services building portray themselves as little people: an army of grassroots volunteers fighting powerful moneyed interests to prevent the construction of a so-called “tax palace.”
Two of the campaign’s biggest backers have moneyed interests of their own, according to campaign contribution records. They’re landlords who own property leased by the county for government offices. They receive more than $1 million annually from county taxpayers, and half that money leaves the county and the state.
If the building project moves forward, Leonard Zarelli of Lake Tapps and Stan Kleweno of Lake Oswego, Oregon, will lose their taxpayer-funded annual lease payments: $541,000 to Zarelli and $549,000 to Kleweno, according to county records.
Zarelli has contributed $15,000 to the referendum campaign, according to the latest records from the state Public Disclosure Commission. Kleweno’s company has contributed $5,000. Those contributions amount to more than a third of the money raised by the campaign through mid-June. Zarelli didn’t respond to requests for comment from The News Tribune. Kleweno responded after the story was published, and said his company’s actions are not the same as his personal actions, and that his company is a Washington corporation, though the mailing address is in Oregon.
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Activist Jerry Gibbs, who is leading the referendum campaign, said the landlords have a right to contribute to a political effort that involves their interests.
County Councilman Rick Talbert, who voted in favor of the building project, said the landlords’ contributions were understandable.
“It’s not surprising that individuals who stand to lose the county as a tenant are very much interested in the status quo,” he said. “They have a financial interest in the county continuing to spend our resources for lease payments, and that’s understandable. Obviously my votes have always put in the forefront the idea that we could be better stewards of the citizens’ tax dollars if we were putting our resources toward a facility that the county would eventually own.”
The moment of truth is approaching for the referendum campaign. Gibbs needs 24,427 valid signatures to bring the measure to the November election ballot. His deadline is Wednesday.
If the campaign comes up short, that could mean a green light for the $127 million building project, which was approved by County Council members in February on a 4-3 vote. Total costs rise to an estimated $235 million when principal, financing costs and interest are factored in.
The project would consolidate several county offices — including those leased from the two landlords — into one building at 3580 Pacific Ave., the county-owned site of the old Puget Sound Hospital. County Executive Pat McCarthy and other county leaders say the savings over time would offset the up-front costs of construction and related payments.
The council’s February vote to move ahead is legally valid unless the referendum overturns it. McCarthy has indicated that she likely will move forward with selling bonds for the project if the referendum fails to qualify for the ballot, even though the County Council has asked for nonbinding vote from the public on the August ballot.
A month ago, Gibbs said the signature drive was about halfway to its goal. In early June, Gibbs provided a small batch of signatures to the Pierce County Auditor’s Office to check the validation rate. The result: 921 valid signatures out of 1,059, for a validation rate of 87 percent.
Asked on June 19 about progress, Gibbs, ever positive, said the campaign was closer, but added, “We’re struggling to get back on schedule from the delays.”
What caused the delays? A few rounds of golf, according to Gibbs, who said the recently concluded U.S. Open at Chambers Bay hampered his efforts. Paid signature gatherers from out of town couldn’t pay the steep local hotel prices that accompanied the tournament.
“It drove up the rates of all the hotels from Seattle to Olympia,” Gibbs said. “Everything doubled. It hurt us more than it helped us.”
BIG MONEY FROM LANDLORDS
The latest PDC records show the referendum campaign has raised $57,884 in cash contributions. Most of the contributions — about 90 — are small, arriving in increments as low as $20.
The big money – $40,000, almost 70 percent of the total — comes from four people.
Two of them, Gig Harbor residents Jon and Karen Monson, have contributed $20,000.
The other two, Zarelli and Kleweno, don’t appear on the PDC’s list of contributors, but their businesses do.
The referendum campaign reported a $5,000 contribution on June 7. It came from a contributor listed as TMTPI LLC, a Washington corporation. Kleweno is the listed manager, according to state records.
County property records list Kleweno’s company as the owner of property at 4301 S. Pine St. — a chunk of offices at the Tacoma Mall, leased by the county’s Public Works department.
Campaign records list a total of $15,000 in contributions between April 13 and June 16 from two companies: 615 S. 9th Street LLC and Quad Associates. State corporate registrations list Zarelli as the agent for both companies.
County property records list Zarelli’s company as the owner of the Merit Building at 615 S. Ninth St. The building houses three county departments: Budget and Finance, Human Resources, and Information Technology.
While acknowledging the contributions from the landlords, Gibbs said he’d like the same scrutiny given to parties that have tried to stop his referendum.
He has been sued twice in the campaign: first by Pierce County itself, in a lawsuit withdrawn after a political kerfuffle; and then by county residents Leslie Young and Anthony Miller, who lost a legal bid to declare the referendum illegal.
The referendum campaign paid $2,500 to attorney Stephen Pidgeon for the successful defense, according to state records.
Young and Miller, suing as private citizens, did not face similar disclosure requirements to reveal their financial backers. The legal action still bothers Gibbs.
“The question is, who financed the lawsuit against me?” the Gig Harbor resident said.
Asked that question, attorney Joe Quinn, who represented Young and Miller, cited attorney-client privilege but added that he was authorized to say “the litigation was funded by collecting money in small amounts from numerous private individuals.”
Gibbs said he and his fellow activists aren’t trying to kill the administrative building project as much as persuade county leaders to start over with a better public process.
“If the county’s gonna kill the building or whatever, I’m not interested in that,” he said. “What I’m interested in is allowing people to vote. Maybe it’ll fail. This is all about letting people vote, whether we make it or not, and this is an extremely heavy lift.”