Northwest News

Monday pivotal for new Pierce County building

It could be momentous or meaningless — either way, Monday is a milestone in the continuing battle over Pierce County’s proposed $230 million administration building.

Backers of a citizen-sponsored referendum on the project get their day in Pierce County Superior Court at 9 a.m. They face a legal challenge from opposing activists who say the referendum is illegal under the county charter.

A visiting judge from Kitsap County will hear the case; Pierce County judges, citing the appearance of conflict of interest, have recused themselves.

The hearing marks a fork in an administrative road. If the referendum is legal, the building project could be doomed. If the referendum is illegal, sponsor Jerry Gibbs and his supporters pull over with a dead engine and a trunk full of useless signatures.

Approval of the referendum’s legality would give Gibbs a formal green light. He needs to gather at least 24,427 signatures by July 1 to qualify for the November ballot. That would force county leaders to halt their plans, including selling bonds for the project, until the referendum process concludes. The idea appears in a motion filed by the anti-referendum activists.

“It is quite apparent now that the project cannot proceed during the pendency of a referendum like this one,” the motion states.

On the other hand, the judge could side with anti-referendum activists Anthony Miller and Leslie Young and conclude that the referendum is illegal.

That’s the scenario County Executive Pat McCarthy expects. Under those circumstances, she would proceed with project plans, including selling bonds. She has said she’s legally bound by the County Council’s Feb. 4-3 vote that authorized project plans.

The legal debate amounts to an interpretation of the county charter, which grants referendum power on one hand, but limits it on the other. It’s a tricky argument, largely based on the definition of “administrative.” Anti-referendum activists contend that the decision to build the building is an administrative action designed to support the county’s existing institutions.

Stephen Pidgeon, the attorney representing Gibbs and the pro-referendum side, contends in a brief that it’s not so clear that the $230 million project is administrative, “given its extraordinary breadth and reach.” He also argues that the lawsuit against the referendum chills the free-speech rights of the activists.

The project’s projected costs have ballooned since its initial introduction in 2013. At that time, the price for the proposed building on the site of the old Puget Sound Hospital in Tacoma’s South End was pegged at $67 million.

In February, when the county council voted to move ahead, costs had climbed to $127 million, largely due to an expansion that added the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department into the proposed office complex. By the time long-term financing is included, the costs reach at least $230 million, though project critics contend the costs are even higher.

Joe Quinn, attorney for the anti-referendum side, reduces the argument to simple terms: A contract is a contract, the county has already signed it, and the voters can’t use their referendum power to undo that action, even if they’re unhappy with the terms. In one legal brief, Quinn quotes the Washington state constitution: “No ... law impairing the obligation of contracts shall ever be passed.”

While rejection of the referendum would stop Gibbs, a strange scenario would follow. McCarthy could follow through with her promise to proceed with financing, but voters would still have a chance to express their disapproval in an August advisory ballot that would have no force.

County Council members approved that move in April on a 4-3 vote. Critics of the building project contend that the vote, though symbolic, would still create political pressure that might derail the project.