This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
Pierce County now has had back-to-back debacles over who writes the “against” statement that appears in the voters pamphlet.
Both involve a notorious local felon and publicity hound, Robert “The Traveler” Hill, and they reflect obvious flaws in how statement writers are selected.
In the first case, Hill applied to write the statement opposing last fall’s Pierce Transit tax measure. Only one other person applied, and he said he wouldn’t participate if he had to collaborate on the statement with Hill – a jail inmate who’s had widely publicized, bizarre run-ins with the law. The Pierce Transit board’s lawyer reportedly said that no candidate could be rejected unless there were at least four applicants.
When Hill’s selection was announced, it looked for all the world like the transit board had deliberately stacked the deck in its favor by picking the least credible person to write the opposing statement. Fortunately, several new candidates stepped forward, giving the board better options.
More recently, the Tacoma School Board was in a similar situation with its Feb. 12 bond measure. It identified people to write the statement in support of the measure, but says no one stepped forward to write for the opposition. So Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson was forced to take applications on a “first come, first served” basis.
Hill again applied to write the “against” statement, as did Ken Miller, a News Tribune reader columnist. But the two were unable to agree on what to write, and Miller dropped out (he also cited logistical difficulties in coordinating with someone in jail). Then Hill missed the deadline for submitting his statement. (Read the statements by Hill and Miller here.)
So Tacoma residents will read only one argument in their voter pamphlet regarding a $500 million ballot measure – the argument the school district wants them to read.
That’s unfortunate for undecided voters who want both sides of the issue. But it’s a function of how statement writers are selected in Pierce County: The governing body seeking passage of a ballot measure names the committee members who write both the supporting and opposing arguments.
The Tacoma School Board and the Pierce Transit board had to have been aware of many people who could have written an “against” statement. All the members had to do was look at who signed in to speak at board meetings or who had submitted written comments.
But it’s in boards’ own self-interest not to actively seek out those people. If no one steps forward, then the ballot measure will be unopposed in the voters pamphlet. If a fringie like Hill steps forward, it helps discredit the “against” argument.
The auditor shouldn’t have to hastily come up with candidates to write “against” statements; the auditor is supposed to be neutral, not working to identify and choose statement writers.
If governing boards are to continue naming the statement writers, they should be required to do more to solicit applications. Whatever they’re doing now obviously isn’t enough to serve the public’s interest.
As for Hill, it’s within the Pierce County Council’s purview to restrict who can belong to a committee writing for the county’s voters pamphlet, according to Katie Blinn, co-director of elections with the secretary of state’s office. Auditor Anderson disputes that, saying the council can only make rules for countywide ballot measures, not ones proposed by other taxing districts.
There has to be a way to restrict people who are incarcerated from writing voters pamphlet statements. Otherwise, it’s very likely to be an ongoing problem in Pierce County.