Lawsuit targets city, port for violation of campaign laws

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The group called Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics has filed a lawsuit in Thurston County against the City of Tacoma and the Port of Tacoma for alleged violations of the state’s campaign finance rules surrounding the city and port’s efforts to stop two “water protection” petitions, regarding the commercial use of large amounts of water, from reaching ballots in 2016.

“The City of Tacoma colluded with the port to oppose the local ballot initiatives, retained independent counsel for the purpose of opposing the initiatives, and participated in planning, public relations and coordination efforts with the port,” the group announced.

This lawsuit comes after a Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled that the port must pay a $159,000 fine for violating the state’s Public Records Act by withholding documents between port, city, Economic Development Bureau of Tacoma-Pierce County and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber officials regarding the Save Tacoma Water initiatives that bubbled up in the wake of the planned methanol plant siting on the Tideflats two years ago.

Save Tacoma Water and its supporters claim that the port, city and the business groups had worked together to kill their efforts before the official campaign even started. They had sought e-mails between the government agencies and the business groups to prove their case. The port first withheld e-mails under the argument of attorney-client privilege and then cited clerical error before turning over invoices totaling more than $30,000 in attorney fees before signatures were even being gathered in hopes of placing the initiatives on the ballot.

“The heavily redacted invoices provide details about the city’s plan to sue the citizens before the ballot title was even issued,” said initiative organizer and Washington League volunteer Sherry Bockwinkel.

“For years, the city has steadfastly maintained that they were not opposed to the water protection initiatives, and merely passive defendants,” the lawsuit announcement stated. “The city’s redacted invoices, e-mails with the port and their filings in court tell a different story.”

City, port and business groups had been communicating about legal strategies, talking points and campaign messaging since before the “water protection” petitions were formally filed without reporting the associated costs to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission as campaign expenditures, the suit alleges. The filing includes 71 pages of exhibits of e-mails, invoices and discussion points that outline those plans.

“Violating this state’s public disclosure laws is serious business,” stated Washington league founder Arthur West, who had sued the port over the public records requests that ultimately led Judge Frank Cuthbertson to write in a blistering ruling against the port that “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them, the people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servant, the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

The recent lawsuit covers the same legal argument the State Attorney General’s office used unsuccessfully last year and was ordered to pay $121,000 in attorney fees to the port and business groups. That decision is on its way to an appeal after a Court of Appeals decision since the state’s case ended recalibrated the legal standard for campaign disclosure, the lawsuit contends. The Appeals decision, in that case, ruled in November that legal bills related to ballot proposals were public records and should be reported as campaign expenditures.

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