Pierce County Council should let referendum challenge play out

If the proposed citizens’ referendum against a planned Pierce County office tower were clearly legal, shame on anyone who’d try to keep it off the ballot.

But competent legal authority suggests the referendum — filed by a Peninsula anti-school group — isn’t permitted under the county charter. Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy has made the right move by challenging it in court, and the County Council ought to reaffirm her lawsuit when it considers the issue today.

Opponents are condemning her challenge as a SLAPP suit — a strategic lawsuit against public participation. That’s a serious accusation. A SLAPP is typically filed by a large, wealthy corporation or agency against its critics; the idea is to exhaust their time and money, perhaps personally threaten them, and shut them up.

This is not a SLAPP suit; it’s a reasonable effort to get a quick court decision on what the charter means.

The typical SLAPP has a flimsy legal rationale. The purpose isn’t to score a fair victory in court, it is to beat critics down.

But McCarthy’s lawsuit is hardly frivolous. Its purpose is to defend county officials’ decision to consolidate county offices into a $127 million building, which the public would ultimately own after 30 years of fixed lease payments. Some say that’s a good idea, others don’t. The plan cleared the County Council last month by a 4-3 vote.

Whatever the merits of the consolidation, though, the referendum itself boils down to an attempt to block county officials from leasing an office building, albeit a large one. If leasing decisions become subject to public votes, any number of major administrative actions could be crippled by disgruntled citizens groups. Representative government doesn’t work if elected representatives can be second-guessed at every turn by their critics.

The other ingredient of a SLAPP that doesn’t exist here is malice. If the referendum proponents feel threatened by McCarthy’s lawsuit, they are easily intimidated. It seeks no damages. It targets the referendum itself, not the people behind it. No one’s trying to run up the attorneys’ fees. The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which handles the country’s civil litigation, is pushing for a fast and final court judgment — within weeks.

The County Council is expected to decide today whether to confirm or repudiate the lawsuit. The four who voted to pursue the new office building should stick to their guns and back McCarthy’s challenge.

The alternative to the $127 million project is not $127 million in public savings. If it isn’t built, the county will still have to house the 19 agencies and 1,100 employees that would otherwise move there.

For the time being, the county would be stuck in eight buildings that cost more than $3.2 million to lease — with the rent going up. It won’t have space to lease to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department for more than $1 million per year. It won’t be able to sell the Pierce County Annex near Costco, which houses the auditor and assessor-treasurer’s office, leaving taxpayers on the hook for expensive rehabilitation.

Even those who think the consolidation is an abysmal idea should understand the value of having a judge rule on the legality of this kind of referendum. The lawsuit would clarify the law, nothing more, nothing less.