County Council, Executive face off over vetoes

The Pierce County Council took the rare step Tuesday of unanimously overriding two of the County Executive’s vetoes of council legislation: one involving amendments to the county’s comprehensive land-use plan, and another eliminating a Superior Court judgeship. Requiring a supermajority of at least five votes, the overrides automatically enact the proposals into law.

Nullifying the executive’s comprehensive plan veto was the only option to save thousands of hours of work, according to Council Chair Roger Bush. “This was a thorough public process that was open to anyone, yet the executive waited until the last minute and derailed it with a single stroke of her pen,” Bush said. “Citizens as well as fire departments, churches, school districts, and cities and towns were victimized by this veto, so we had no choice but to take this action.”

Zoning and other changes are made to the county’s 1994 “comp” plan every two years based on suggestions and testimony from the executive, cities and towns, and county residents. The executive’s Oct. 28 veto was in response to just two of those proposed amendments, yet it invalidated the entire package and the months of public meetings that went into it. The County Charter doesn’t allow the council to selectively remove the amendments objectionable to the executive. Further, if the council were to let the veto stand, the rest of the amendments couldn’t be reconsidered until the next comp-plan amendment cycle begins in 2011. The complete legislation (2009-71s) contained 33 separate amendments to the county’s comprehensive plan that fell into four categories: changes to the county’s urban-growth boundary; text-only amendments; reclassification of zoning districts; and other changes to individual community plans. There were 22 public meetings conducted between March 24 — when review of the proposed amendments began — until the council’s final adoption of the package on Oct. 13.

Councilmember Barbara Gelman said key economic development projects, like a proposed multigenerational housing project on Garfield Street near Pacific Lutheran University, would be in jeopardy if they are delayed for two more years. “The potential loss of economic development, property values, tax revenue and opportunities is much too great,” Gelman said. “With all due respect, Executive McCarthy, what were you thinking?”

In a statement released yesterday, Executive Pat McCarthy said it was incorrect to state the Council had only two choices: override the veto or let it stand. She said the Council omitted a third option — send a new ordinance to her office that drops the two sections she had concerns about. “Simply stated, I am concerned about urban sprawl and the impact of business development in residential neighborhoods,” said McCarthy. “I have no problem with the good work that was done on all of the other proposals in the comprehensive plan.”

Concerning the council’s second veto override of the day, Bush said that restoring the council’s elimination of former Judge Michael Hecht’s seat will force Superior Court to share the burden in a still-worsening budget environment. The council dissolved the court’s Department 9 on Nov. 3 after Hecht announced his resignation following his felony conviction. The move reduces Pierce County’s Superior Court judge seats to 21 from the maximum of 24 allowed by state law and reallocates the department’s remaining $19,000 in 2009 funds to hire pro-tem judges for additional case help — help that was unavailable while Hecht was unable to carry out his duties.

“The 2010 budget calls on all departments to make reductions,” Councilmember Dick Muri said. “Superior Court actually has more judges and commissioners than it did at the county’s high-water staffing mark in 2005. The only other choice would be to lay off more sheriffs, prosecutors or close a pod in the jail. Everybody should come to the plate and work together as a team, and Superior Court should be part of the solution.”

“I know some judges who are better at their golf games than they are at being a judge,” Councilmember Tim Farrell said. “We need everyone to pull their own weight.”

Councilmembers also said they felt they were being wrongly accused of worsening the Superior Court case backlog by eliminating one judicial seat. Bush said councilmembers have been “stonewalled” when they have tried to work on better ways to deliver justice services in Pierce County.

“We just need some simple benchmarks to put to rest the argument that one more judge would significantly affect the Superior Court backlog,” Councilmember Shawn Bunney said. “The judges need to focus more on the performance under the hood than on the number of seats on the bus.”

“Several council members framed it as a budget decision,” countered McCarthy. “Yet the Council did not actually cut the funding for Department 9. It appears the elimination of Department 9 was really a punitive action, not a budget decision. That does not justify reducing the public’s access to the courts. The bottom line is the council does not have the legal authority to eliminate Department 9, which was created by the Legislature. Unfortunately, stakeholders stand ready to sue, which means Pierce County taxpayers will have to pay to defend this policy.”