By Marianne Lincoln
When the balance of a partisan board or council flips from one party to another, things can get interesting. The Hatfields and McCoys were at it again on Tuesday at the Pierce County Council. I looked, but failed to find a way to publicly view the Tuesday Study session, my senses noting there would be games afoot in the last weeks of December before the leadership change. County Council meetings cannot be attended in person this year due to the pandemic. It is both good and bad. The meetings are broadcast on PCTV and Zoom, but you cannot actually pack the room like the good old days. The better part is not time commuting to meetings.
The story of the day, was an emergency ordinance. Normally, four to six weeks pass between the introduction of a new resolution or ordinance to the Council. It passes to committee and then returns to the full Council with a recommendation to pass or not. During the lag time, Council Members and voters can scrutinize the legislation. Constituents can call, write or otherwise contact their representative to ask questions recommend amendments and nuances before the final vote.
And then there’s emergencies. Emergency ordinances allow the legislative body to forego the time lapse. Of course, these should be true emergencies. The decision to change to Restaurant Bill CARES Act contribution from 50% to 100% was such an act. It was not on the agenda released online for the meeting. It was brought up during the meeting. Surprise! The Council had the funds and the restaurants had just been ordered back into a partial shutdown. The need was there; the money was there; no one questioned the idea was a good one.
And then December 1st happened. An emergency ordinance was introduced in the Tuesday noon study session. It was not listed online. In fact, as the meeting began, one councilman stated he did not have a copy yet in his email. The meeting was stopped for another 20 minutes for the email to come through so the council members could read the emergency legislation. Here is the link to the meeting video. Two minutes and 20 seconds into the video, you see Councilmember Campbell request a copy of the item. They refer to it as “Item number 4” on the consent agenda. The meeting is stopped and resumes on tape. Even proposal’s sponsor, Pam Roach asks about what and where it is. The hearing on the item now moved later on the agenda is at 52:40 on the video.
Councilmember Campbell, “I was a little surprised at study session when it came up and, uh, here we are less than an hour later, voting on it without having done what was assured to us we would have.”
The item was fast tracked so much so that staff did not have it ready in time. Interestingly, the Interlocal Agreement that created the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health has a clause that requires a year before the board can be dissolved. So it makes one wonder how this could possibly be an emergency if it requires a year after enacted. Councilmembers questioned the timing during a pandemic.
In speaking with Councilmember Campbell later in the day, he indicated the ordinance, although proposed by CM Roach, was an idea put forward by the County Executive and transmitted to Chair Richardson. That would explain the confusion the CM Roach had on the text. The Health Department control permits for water and septic system, both are necessary for property development. Since the County Executive already controls the Planning and Public Works Department, what a coup it would be to also control the sanitary and water systems approvals. With the outgoing majority o the Council in his favor, it is the only real explanation for the rush. The County Executive will still own the veto on efforts of the incoming Council to go back.
With a Hearings Examiner who controls the approvals of variances to county codes being a private attorney whose business it is to help developers get their approvals through the county and moving all the sanitary system approvals out of independent hands, what a delightful playfield this county will be for developers. Public be damned, it appears “the court” is being packed in developers favor.
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From the Pierce County Website, here are the duties of the Hearing Examiner:
Pierce County uses a Hearing Examiner system for quasi-judicial decisions. The Hearing Examiner is appointed by the County Council and charged with the responsibility of conducting public hearings, preparing the official record thereof, preparing findings of fact and conclusions of law and issuing final decisions for:
• Appeals of administrative decisions and environmental determinations
• Preliminary and final plats
• Shoreline management cases
The Examiner stands as an impartial body to which information is presented. The procedures governing hearings before the Hearing Examiner are set forth in the Hearing Examiner Code, Chapter 1.22 Pierce County Code and Rules of Procedure for Hearings.”
Certainly the Hearings Examiner should have a cleaner appearance of impartiality than exists here.
Here is YOUR part as a citizen: Do you want to dissolve the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Board and put all the chips in the hands of the Pierce County Council who come and go every 4 to 8 years having no experience necessary before they are elected? Take a look at all the tasks Health Department does. As if and independent board is a benefit or an encumbrance. Do you want to make it political? Those are questions to ask yourself. Then, please, call or email your council person, or several with your thoughts. The more people that get involved in expressing their concerns, the better.
There is audio only from the Study Session where the item on the Health Board was brought up on the link for the Dec. 1 Study Session.
Council Contact information. Please, let them know you opinion on current legislation or local issues.