Politics & Government

Supporters of water initiatives speak out against lawsuit at citizens’ forum

Supporters of two ballot measures that would require Tacoma voters to approve large-scale users of city water railed Tuesday night against a lawsuit filed last week by the Port of Tacoma, calling the port’s effort to invalidate the initiatives undemocratic.

Dozens of citizens came forward to criticize the port’s efforts to block the initiatives during a citizens’ forum before the Tacoma City Council.

For about 2 1/2 hours, residents took to the dais to vent in three-minute speeches that were sometimes angry and were sometimes disrupted by raucous cheers from the audience.

“The port and Economic Development Board suing the residents for trying to keep our water out of the hands of greedy corporations, it doesn’t make sense,” said Roxann Murray, who described herself as a Tacoma artist. “I will tell you that this will get ugly. This is in no way a threat, but a promise that Tacoma residents will not back down from this violation of democracy.”

The two ballot initiatives promoted by Save Tacoma Water seek a public vote on potential port developments that would use 1 million gallons of water or more per day.

Donna Walters, a co-chair of Save Tacoma Water, said the group has now collected 16,000 signatures total on the two initiatives. Those signatures will be filed with the city clerk tomorrow, organizers said.

Walters is named as a defendant in the lawsuit filed last Monday by the port, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.

“We are not asking for something we don’t have,” Walters said. “What we want is to protect what we have, and that is our water, because it’s life.”

At the outset of Tuesday’s citizens’ forum, city officials sought to update the crowd that gathered on the situation.

Last week, the City of Tacoma filed a response and cross claim to the lawsuit, asserting that the proposed ballot measures are too broad in scope because they would change the administration of the water system, making it conflict with state law. The city is named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit because the measures, if passed, would change city law.

Tacoma City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said that because city council members don’t have the power to require a public vote on water permits, it’s not something that can be done by citizen initiative, either.

“Because it’s beyond your authority, it’s beyond the authority of the local initiative,” Pauli said in remarks to the council.

Supporters of the proposed ballot measures said they were dismayed by the attempt to halt the initiatives before the group had a chance to file its signatures.

“What I can’t believe is that you will not allow the citizens to have a voice. When I saw that our fellow citizens were sued, I couldn’t believe it,” said Kris Brannon, a local Seattle Supersonics fan who calls himself the Sonics Guy.

The proposals to allow voter oversight of city water use originally were prompted by a proposal to build the world’s largest methanol plant on the Tacoma Tideflats. That project stalled earlier this year after widespread citizen opposition.

Kristina Brown said there is a need for more collaboration between the city and the community.

“The people of Tacoma want a say in the vision of Tacoma,” she said to applause. “You have missed an opportunity. When the methanol plant ... pulled out, that was your call to rush in, and engage us in a debate, in consultation, in collaboration, about the vision of the future of our shared city.”

On Tuesday, Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax said the city wants to improve communications between the public and the port, especially as it relates to large projects.

After the long comment session, council members took turns thanking the few who stuck around to the very end and promised a continued open dialogue.

“It’s been a very robust discussion this evening around a very important resource, which is our water,” Councilman Keith Blocker said. “I think I speak for my colleagues in saying that we are very concerned about preserving this resource and figuring out the best approach in terms of how to utilize our port.”

Over the course of the night several speakers brought up other issues, including concerns about a proposed liquid natural gas facility at the port and the lawsuit against a Tacoma police officer by 17-year-old Monique Tillman. Tillman said she was riding her bike with her brother when the off-duty officer threw her against the ground and used a stun gun on her outside the Tacoma mall two years ago. Some called for Officer Jared Williams to be terminated.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud