Northwest News

Referendum on Pierce HQ survives legal challenge

A proposed referendum on Pierce County’s plans to build a $230 million administrative headquarters survived a legal challenge Friday, but the future of the project remains unsettled.

Superior Court Judge Kevin Hull ruled that citizens Leslie Young and Anthony Miller lacked “standing” to sue Gig Harbor resident Jerry Gibbs, the leader of a group of activists seeking a public vote on the building project this November.

“The only parties potentially harmed if the referendum passes would be the County and the parties to the contract,” Hull, a visiting judge from Kitsap County, wrote in a decision issued Friday afternoon. “Plaintiffs have failed to establish specific injury to them.”

Gibbs praised the ruling, and said he and his fellow activists will continue their signature-gathering efforts.

“This is a good day for all the people of Tacoma and Pierce County,” he said. “This is all about voters wanting to have a say in a big financial decision.”

Since Hull ruled the plaintiffs had no right to sue the activists, he did not address the underlying question of whether the referendum is legal under the county charter. County Executive Pat McCarthy alluded to that point in a prepared statement Friday afternoon.

“Legal experts, including the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, believe that the referendum is being illegally applied to the administrative act of approving a lease,” McCarthy said. “I am confident the judge would have agreed. Unfortunately, he never got to the merits of the case because he determined that the two citizens didn’t have the right to ask the question.”

Councilman Derek Young referenced the same point, noting that the county itself previously filed suit to stop Gibbs but withdrew the action under political pressure.

“By ruling on standing rather than the merits of the case, the judge affirmed my belief that it’s the county’s duty to ask for judicial review,” Young said. “Unfortunately, four members of the council refused to accept that responsibility.”

Councilman Dan Roach, who opposes the building project and supports the referendum, said he wasn’t surprised by the ruling.

“Now county residents will be able to move forward with the referendum without being hindered by frivolous lawsuits,” he said. “I hope the executive recognizes the need for our constituents to be heard and doesn't rush the project until the will of the people is made clear.”

McCarthy lacks legal authority to proceed with project financing for now, but a spokesman said Friday she could move forward if the signature drive fails.

Meanwhile, Friday’s ruling creates an interesting piece of political theater: not one, but potentially two public votes on the building project, first in August and then in November. The August vote would be an advisory ballot, approved by County Council members on April 28 — but it would have no legal force.

The referendum is another matter. If Gibbs gathers sufficient signatures — he needs at least 24,427 by July 1 — the referendum would appear on the November general election ballot. Barring another legal challenge, that could stop the building project.

Conversely, if Gibbs fails to hit his target, the referendum wilts, no second vote takes place, and McCarthy could authorize selling bonds for the project, based on the council’s 4-3 February vote to approve it.

Friday, Gibbs said activists are about halfway to their goal on signatures, with slightly more than five weeks to go.