Northwest News

No decision yet on Pierce building referendum; judge to rule this week

For a few days more, the status of a citizen referendum on Pierce County’s proposed new general services building remains in limbo.

A court hearing on the legality of the referendum ended Monday with visiting Superior Court Judge Kevin Hull of Kitsap County saying he would issue a decision later this week.

The hearing pitted taxpayers against taxpayers. On one side stood activist Jerry Gibbs, proponent of a referendum that would nullify the County Council’s February decision to construct a new headquarters in Tacoma’s South End.

On the other side stood activists Leslie Young and Anthony Miller, who filed suit against Gibbs contending his referendum violates the county charter.

Most of the hour-long hearing centered on the legal concept of “standing,” meaning the right to sue. Stephen Pidgeon, attorney for Gibbs and the pro-referendum side, argued that Young and Miller lack the standing to sue because they aren’t suffering any damages from the referendum.

Attorney Joe Quinn, representing the anti-referendum side, said Young and Miller are taxpayers, just like Gibbs, and thus have the right to sue to prevent what they see as the waste and expense of an unlawful referendum that would delay or stop the building project.

“This isn’t David versus Goliath,” Quinn said. “It’s just David versus David.”

Initially proposed in 2012 and discussed in multiple public meetings since, the project would consolidate several county departments into one location at 3580 Pacific Avenue, the site of the old Puget Sound Hospital. The project is expected to cost $127 million, though the price tag would reach at least $230 million because of long-term financing costs.

If the referendum is deemed illegal, the building project likely steams ahead. County Executive Pat McCarthy has said she will proceed with plans to sell bonds for the project; in fact she says she’s bound to do so by the council’s February vote. The County Council has called for a public advisory vote on the building project in August, but unlike the referendum, the result of that advisory ballot would not be legally binding.

If the referendum survives the legal challenge, the building project might die, although Gibbs still has work to do to qualify for the November ballot. He must gather at least 24,427 valid signatures by July 1. On Monday, he said supporters are about halfway to their goal.

After hearing from both sides Monday, Hull said he would issue a written ruling by the end of the week.

“The parties entitled to a well reasoned decision,” he said.