Jerry Gibbs and his supporters stood outside the Pierce County elections center early Friday holding signs bearing different variations of the same message: “We the people let voters decide.”
Gibbs and fellow activists were already claiming victory, even with 100 signatures left to validate his referendum seeking a public vote on the county’s proposed general services building.
Those final signatures were verified around 10:15 a.m. after county elections staff counted the last of 24,493 valid signatures, passing the threshold needed to qualify the referendum for the general election.
On Nov. 3, county voters will determine the fate of the headquarters building, which the County Council approved in a 4-3 vote in February.
“This is a win for the voters and the people of Pierce County,” Gibbs said after the count, standing alongside other volunteers. “Despite the distractions and diversions that have occurred since the filing of the referendum, we’ve had a victory here today.”
Securing the measure on the ballot may be the final nail in the coffin for the controversial building proposal, which is estimated to have a price tag of more than $230 million when financing is included.
There will now be two public votes on the building – a nonbinding advisory ballot in the primary election Aug. 4 and another vote three months later that elected leaders cannot ignore.
The project would consolidate several county offices into one building at 3850 Pacific Ave. S., the county-owned site of the old Puget Sound Hospital.
County Executive Pat McCarthy and other officials say the savings over time would offset the up-front costs of construction and related payments.
McCarthy had indicated that she likely would move forward with selling bonds for the project if the referendum failed to qualify for the ballot.
Now she won’t do that. But in a statement Friday afternoon, she said that she hadn’t given up on the project she started two years ago.
“For the sake of the 820,000 people we represent, I hope to keep this project moving forward,” McCarthy said. “Otherwise, maintaining the status quo will cost taxpayers over $300 million over the next 25 years, which is far more than the project’s total cost.”
In a brief phone interview, she didn’t specify how she will keep the project alive.
“We don’t know what the next steps would be," she said.
At a News Tribune editorial board meeting in June, McCarthy said that if the measure made the ballot, the county would likely lose the guaranteed maximum price it negotiated last winter with the building developer.
Deputy County Executive Kevin Phelps told the editorial board it would be the “death knell of the project” if the referendum delayed the county from acting until the end of the year. Phelps predicted a “vicious cycle” of council votes and citizen challenges if the county kept pursuing a general services building.
The referendum qualified for the ballot a little more than a week after Gibbs’ group turned in two boxes of signatures following months of campaigning.
County elections staff members stopped counting once the validation requirement was reached. They checked 33,519 signatures before passing the validation threshold of 24,427.
There were 372 pages of signatures that weren’t checked.
A total of 9,026 signatures were challenged, a majority of them from citizens who were not registered voters.
John Berry, an activist who awaited Friday’s announcement after working as one of more than 200 volunteers, told The News Tribune that people backing the referendum were much more eager than several other campaigns he’s worked on over the last four decades.
The referendum survived a legal challenge in May, when a Superior Court judge ruled that citizens Leslie Young and Anthony Miller lacked “standing” to sue Gibbs.
McCarthy said Friday it’s unfortunate the referendum didn’t get a judicial review.
The county itself previously filed suit to stop Gibbs but withdrew the action under political pressure.
County Council Chairman Dan Roach has opposed the proposed building and the attempts at blocking the referendum.
Gibbs’ effort is the perfect example of the power of citizens’ voices, Roach said Friday.
He said it is the first step in what should be a “robust debate” that slows the process down and allows all options for the proposed building to be thoroughly vetted.
Roach acknowledged that the nonbinding vote next month, approved by council members in April, is less important now and that the Nov. 3 referendum will give voters more leverage.
But he said it’s unclear how the county executive plans to move forward, and the August vote “is still important for getting feedback early.”
Gibbs said the referendum effort was educational and a tough, yet encouraging, uphill climb.
He said it sends a strong message to county officials about their administrative building:
“This is a good idea that went bad. We need to hit the reset button.”