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Pierce County: A year of political skirmishes

Post by David Wickert on Dec. 16, 2009 at 8:00 am |
December 16, 2009 10:56 am

Think Pierce County’s elected officials have been fighting lately? You’re wrong. They’ve been at it all year.

As 2009 draws to a close, I’ve been reviewing a year’s worth of political skirmishes in Pierce County government. The bottom line: at times it’s seemed that everyone is fighting with everyone else.

A rookie executive has feuded with a veteran County Council.

The council and executive have criticized Superior Court judges.

The judges have threatened to sue the executive and council.

The prosecutor has accused the council of overstepping its authority.

The assessor-treasurer has decried the council and executive.

So what’s going on? That’s the question I’m trying to answer in an upcoming article.

There are several answers. First, there are inherent tensions among the various branches of government. The county charter, for example, pits the executive against the council, giving the exec control of departments and contracts and the council authority over the budget and policy decisions.

But there’s more going on here than the push and pull of good government. Tough circumstances – i.e., a year of budget cutting – also have played a role.

So have politics and personalities. How much? Judge for yourself. Below is a recap of this year’s political tug of war.

I think it’s fair to say it’s incomplete. These are just the punches that were thrown in public. At other times, the tensions simmered in private.

Read on and pass along your thoughts.

Jan Shabro
Jan Shabro

Jan. 13: The County Council appoints Jan Shabro – a Republican former state legislator and council member – to the nonpartisan county auditor job. The selection prompts two lawsuits by local Democratic Party Chairman Nathe Lawver, who claims the appointment violated state open meetings laws and the county charter. The lawsuits are later dismissed, but a legal cloud hangs over Shabro through July.

Feb. 6: County Executive Pat McCarthy and the County Council disagree on whether the Legislature should pass a bill forcing Pierce County to end poll voting. McCarthy – who used to oversee elections as the county auditor – favors the bill. The council – which has repeatedly expressed its support for poll voting – opposes it.

The man in the middle: the county’s government relations director, George Walk, who is forced to testify in support and opposition at the same hearing in Olympia.

The bill fails, but Pierce County’s debate over poll voting doesn’t end. Shabro later proposes conducting this year’s primary and general elections solely by mail to save money. The council rejects the plan. McCarthy proposes closing the polls in 2010. Again, the council rejects the proposal.

Are the polls safe? Stay tuned.

Feb. 12: The executive and council begin the year with pledges of cooperation. But their early public meetings are fraught with tension.

Pat McCarthy
Pat McCarthy

The council invites McCarthy to attend its Feb. 12 retreat on Hood Canal, where they discuss a looming $8 million budget hole. McCarthy raises the uncomfortable prospect of cutting $565,000 worth of funding to community and arts groups – funding council members and previous executives had doled out for pet projects.

Later in the month, McCarthy invites the county’s elected officials and their spouses to a dinner at her home. She bills it as a way to build relationships and facilitate communication.

But there are already signs that McCarthy and the council don’t trust each other.

“I’m not going to be petty with you and I hope you won’t be petty with me,” McCarthy tells the council at the Hood Canal retreat.

Feb. 17: The County Council tables McCarthy’s request to boost staffing in her office as part of a reorganization plan. The executive hired three “executive directors” to oversee various departments (former County Executive John Ladenburg employed a single chief of staff to oversee departments).

McCarthy says the new management structure will help her make county government more efficient and responsive to taxpayers. She says it won’t cost the county any additional money because she’s transferring vacant positions from communications and human resources to her office.

But the council questions boosting the executive’s staff when the county is trying to find $8 million in savings. And a council attorney suggests the reorganization is illegal.

The council at first declines to approve the $261,000 transfer needed to pay for McCarthy’s reorganization. That prompts Deputy County Executive Kevin Phelps to accuse the council of “gamesmanship” with the executive.

The council later approves the reorganization.

Dale Washam
Dale Washam

March 11: New Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam announces at a County Council meeting that, under former Assessor-Treasurer Ken Madsen, the office skipped tens of thousands of property inspections required by state law.  Among other things, the announcement touches off a confrontation between Washam and the council.

A review by the council’s performance audit staff concludes there is no evidence that property owners were harmed because of the skipped inspections.

Washam dismisses the report as “a whole lot of conjecture.” And when the council approves budget language prohibiting him from laying off appraisers, Washam questions the council’s authority over his office.

Washam also tries in vain to have the prosecuting attorney’s office, among others, investigate his claims.

June 2: County Council Chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham, berates public works director Brian Ziegler at a public meeting over a decision to end a popular crackdown on illegal signs. Bush calls Ziegler’s explanation “a bunch of hogwash.” And he accuses Ziegler of mismanaging the department, saying he has “made mistake after mistake after mistake.”

McCarthy fires back, saying the public scolding is “political pandering at its worst” and saying disputes over budget priorities shouldn’t be treated like “public opera.”

July 16: After the County Council sends voters a plan to give elected officials more time in office, McCarthy and other elected officials announce they are opposed to the measure. Among other things, she says it’s self-serving for council members to propose giving themselves more time in office.

“It’s just not right for the very body that will benefit from it to propose extending term limits,” she says.

Aug. 7: A report concludes that Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam retaliated against one of his top managers and refused to cooperate with an investigation of his behavior. A union complaint and other employee complaints follow.

Washam dismisses the complaints and says it’s evidence that county officials are trying to discredit him and control his office.

“The people hired me to run this office,” Washam says. “They didn’t hire Pat McCarthy to run it vicariously through H.R.”

McCarthy calls the accusation “pure silliness.”

Sept. 8: Tensions between the executive and council begin to escalate when McCarthy issues a “friendly veto” of an ordinance requiring the county and its contractors to check the legal status of their employees. The measure applies to contracts worth $10,000 or more. Among other things, McCarthy says the threshold is too low.

Council members complain that the executive didn’t raise any objections before they passed the ordinance – a refrain they would repeat on future disputes. But they later revise the measure and pass it again. McCarthy signs it.

Oct. 28: McCarthy wields her veto pen again on an ordinance amending the county’s comprehensive land-use plan. She cites concerns that two provisions violate state law or county policies.

Oct. 29: Superior Court judges object to McCarthy’s plan to eliminate their county health insurance. McCarthy proposed eliminating the insurance to save money, noting the judges also get state insurance coverage. At a council budget hearing, Presiding Superior Court Judge Bryan Chuschoff says the move is illegal and suggests the judges may sue if county insurance for judges isn’t included in the 2010 budget. The council does not restore the insurance.

Nov. 2: Citing the need for budget flexibility, the County Council unanimously votes to eliminate the Superior Court seat vacated by Judge Michael Hecht. Council members give no public notice of the move, citing the urgency of acting a day after Hecht announced his resignation.

Dick Muri
Dick Muri

McCarthy responds with a statement calling the decision to use an emergency ordinance “curious.” Others – including the prosecuting attorney’s office and the local bar association – say the council overstepped its authority. To which Councilman Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, responds: “Sue us and it will be decided in a court of law.”

The bar association may, indeed, sue. And the attorney general is weighing the legality of the council’s move.

Nov. 10: Finalizing its 2010 budget, the County Council cuts an additional $1.9 million from the planning department, prompting McCarthy to issue a statement criticizing the council. In addition to the planning department cuts, she takes exception to the council’s budget process, which she says offered “insufficient opportunity for meaningful public input.” She closes by observing she has “10 days to act on the budget the council sent to me” – suggesting a veto may be coming. Ultimately, she signs the budget.

Nov. 11: The council approves a budget provision that reorganizes the county communications department.

Currently department director Hunter George reports to McCarthy. Under a measure approved by the council, George and his department also would report to the council (though it doesn’t specifically allow the council to direct the department’s staff).

Council members say they want the communications department to work like the county’s government relations office. Government relations reports to both the executive and council.

McCarthy, who sees the move as an encroachment on her authority to oversee county departments, objects. The council later votes to reconsider the communications department reorganization.

But negotiations on the fate of the department yield no agreement. Last week the council reapproved the measure requiring the communications department report to both branches of government.

Nov. 16: McCarthy vetoes the council’s decision to eliminate Hecht’s Superior Court seat. She cites the

Roger Bush
Roger Bush

prosecuting attorney’s opinion that the council had exceeded its authority. And she says the measure was “enacted in haste without any input from the public or other branches of government.”

Council chairman Roger Bush responds that McCarthy’s veto is invalid because she failed to sign the returned ordinance. He faulted the executive for “sloppiness” and said “the people expect the government to have its act together.” The prosecuting attorney’s office later issues an opinion stating the executive’s veto is legitimate.

Nov. 24: The County Council issues a double-barreled rebuke of McCarthy, overriding her vetoes of the land-use plan amendments and its decision to eliminate Hecht’s Superior Court seat.

At this point the council appears to be at all-out war with McCarthy, with even fellow Democrat Barbara Gelman scolding the executive. “With all due respect, Executive McCarthy, what were you thinking?” Gelman says.

Council members also vent their frustration with the judges, accusing them of stonewalling efforts to evaluate judicial workloads and criticizing the work ethic of some on the bench.

“There are some judges who are better at their golf game than they are at being a judge,” says Councilman Tim Farrell, D-Tacoma.

The council also takes some hits. McCarthy blasts council members for failing to “give the public advance notice of their actions today, once again taking up important policies with no meaningful public input.”

And Judge James Orlando, citing the Hecht decision, says he hasn’t “seen such a blatantly illegal act in my 25 years in practice.”

Undeterred, the council has asked Gov. Chris Gregoire not to appoint a successor to Hecht.

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