Politics & Government

Pierce County Council to put controversial headquarters to public vote

A proposal to let voters weigh in on whether to build a $127 million Pierce County headquarters did not stay dead for long.

County Council Chairman Dan Roach brought his resolution back before council members Tuesday, one week after they deadlocked in a 3-3 vote. This time, the resolution was approved 4-3.

Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, who was absent last week, cast the deciding vote.

If approved on final reading next week, the county auditor will be charged with drawing up a measure for the Aug. 4 ballot asking voters whether the county should finance and construct a new General Services Building.

Roach’s plan adds a new hitch to the council’s decision in February to move forward with a Seattle developer to build the headquarters at 3580 Pacific Ave., the site of the old Puget Sound Hospital. Roach was part of the minority that opposed the project.

But he downplayed the impact of his proposal before Tuesday’s vote.

“This is not a binding resolution,” Roach said. “It allows a vote; it doesn’t stop the process. It doesn’t revoke powers; it simply allows the people to weigh in on the decision, which is what they’ve asked for.”

Building supporters were unswayed by Roach’s description. Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy called the resolution “inappropriate,” while council members Rick Talbert and Derek Young used words such as “irresponsible” and “dishonest.”

Talbert and Young said trying to undo the council’s February vote is dangerous and could send a message to lenders and others that the county doesn’t have its financial house in order.

“If we are going to stop this project, we need to do it right now. Otherwise, what we are doing is putting our credit in danger,” Young said during council discussion.

He said submitting the headquarters to a public vote in four months “will come back to haunt us in ways this county doesn’t fully appreciate.”

Talbert said it could affect bond rates county taxpayers have to pay on this and other capital projects.

“This does nothing but confuse an already confusing situation,” he said.

Nobody disagrees that the fight over the headquarters building has grown more and more confusing. It has been complicated by all the various players and layers of government involved, such as:

•  McCarthy. The county executive has been pushing for the project for two years in her quest to consolidate county operations before she leaves office at the end of next year.

•  Gig Harbor resident Jerry Gibbs, who filed for a citizen referendum in February to challenge the project by putting it to a public vote.

•  The county prosecutor’s office, who sued to block Gibbs’ referendum at McCarthy’s request. The council later voted to order the prosecutor to withdraw the lawsuit.

•  Private citizens Leslie Young and Anthony Miller, who filed their own lawsuit in late March to block Gibbs.

Young and Miller’s suit is still alive and being closely watched. A hearing is set for May 18 in Pierce County Superior Court. A hearing last week was postponed after Judge Ed Murphy recused himself, citing concerns over potential conflicts of interest.

The case will be assigned to a visiting judge from Kitsap County, yet to be named.

Roach said after Tuesday’s meeting that his resolution does not eliminate the need for Gibbs’ referendum campaign, even though they both call for public votes.

“They would run on parallel tracks, as I see it,” Roach said.

As long as the prospect of a referendum is alive, he said, the financing for the building will be on hold. But because Roach’s resolution would be nonbinding, McCarthy could go ahead and have the bonds sold before any August advisory vote, if she dared to.

“(The resolution) could apply some political pressure, but she could still do it,” Roach said.

Reached by phone Tuesday evening, McCarthy agreed that Roach was trying to apply political pressure, but she said she would not fall for it. She said she will move ahead with the project financing if Gibbs’ referendum is defeated in court, as she expects. She said it’s her job as executive to carry out the building ordinance the council adopted in February.

Roach was on the losing end of that vote, McCarthy said, and it’s past time for him to relent.

“To have an advisory ballot, after the fact, just seems inappropriate and it’s sending the wrong message to voters,” McCarthy said. “There may have been a better time to do an advisory ballot. This is not the time to do it.”