Like many of you, I get disappointed at times with our local government. However, a recent lawsuit against a Pierce County resident – brought by the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office on the assumed behalf of the County Council – easily qualifies as the most disappointing and shameful act by local government that I have ever witnessed.
On Feb. 17, the council voted 4-3 in favor of building a $230 million general services building – a proposal I voted against because I don’t believe the expected savings goals are realistically achievable. Shortly after, a Pierce County resident filed a referendum intending to give the citizens a voice in the debate – something many argued was lacking in the process. Ten days later, the county executive directed the prosecutor’s office to sue that resident in an attempt to block his referendum effort.
In 2010, when I was a state representative in Olympia, I supported a bill to crack down on what are called SLAPP lawsuits – strategic lawsuits against public participation. In fact, Senate Bill 6395 was so well-received it passed both the Senate and the House unanimously. The recent actions on behalf of Pierce County are exactly the kind of abuse of power the Legislature intended to prevent.
Furthermore, the Pierce County Charter specifically outlines the rights of citizens to file a referendum, stating, “A referendum may be ordered on any ordinance, or any section thereof, passed by the council, except such ordinances as may be necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, safety, or support of the county government and its existing public institutions.”
I don’t believe the desire by some to build a new county administration building qualifies as supporting the county government and its institutions. It certainly isn’t necessary for the immediate preservation of public peace, health or safety. To me, the lawsuit is more of a knee-jerk reaction to a citizen who simply wants taxpayers to have a voice in how their money is spent.
And the fact is, according to state law (RCW 36.32.120(6), to be precise), it is crystal clear that the councils of charter counties have control over county litigation – not the executive. As chair of the council, I was approached by the prosecutor’s office for input into the matter and responded by stating that the council is not asking for a lawsuit challenging the referendum. Despite this, the lawsuit was filed just hours later.
It’s outrageous that any citizen should ever be forced to “lawyer up” and get dragged into court to defend his or her rights of free speech and public participation against the very government which purports to espouse those rights. By doing so, the county has opened itself up to lawsuits for potentially violating the Open Public Meetings Act and the SLAPP laws, not to mention the damage that has been done to the cause of governmental transparency.
The only way to stop the suit from moving forward is through a resolution of the council, which I will be proposing at Tuesday’s meeting. I invite all citizens to join us at 3 p.m. on the 10th floor of the County-City Building, 930 Tacoma Ave. S., to express support for the resolution.
Dan Roach is chair of the Pierce County Council and represents the 1st Council District. Contact him at www.piercecountywa.org/district1.