Judge says no to government center

County officials had more questions than answers after a judge torpedoed plans to relocate nearly a third of the courthouse workforce and several offices to a proposed new government center in downtown Bremerton.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bruce Cohoe ruled on Jan. 11 that the county’s relocation plan constitutes a de facto move of the county seat. Cohoe ordered the county to cease planning to move those offices and employees to Bremerton.

“This plan goes too far,” Cohoe said Friday, following a 40-minute hearing. “I think it cannot be done without violating statutes and the concepts of the constitution ... because the plan does remove core functions of the executive branch, you are in fact, moving the county seat.”

Cohoe said the county’s efforts to jump-start Bremerton’s economy, bring county government closer to constituents and share resources are valid concerns, but the plan can’t continue.

All or part of the offices of administrator, assessor, auditor, county commissioners, community development, personnel and human services, and treasurer were to move under the plan. The government center also would have housed Bremerton City Hall and federal and state offices.

So far, Kitsap County has committed up to $320,000 for planning, studies and preliminary design work. The Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority, which was to have operated the facility, hasn’t yet purchased the property, located between Fifth and Sixth streets and Pacific and Washington avenues.

County officials now are considering their options, which could include amending their plan to bring it into compliance with Cohoe’s ruling. There has been no talk of appealing the decision.

“We have to wait to see the written ruling,” said County Commissioner Tim Botkin. “For us, the focal point is what can we do to get Bremerton moving.”

Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman said the city will continue to pursue the project.

“We will move on. ... We need the county to be part of the bond issuance process,” Bozeman said. “We need new space (at City Hall). We are not convinced that the county won’t be in need of new space also.”

Deputy Prosecutor Sue Tanner, who argued the case for the county, said the written order could take two weeks to write.

“The oral ruling did give general guidance on the order and what it will mean,” Tanner said. “But there are some ambiguities.”

The county feels pressured to reach a resolution soon because of cramped conditions at the courthouse.

“We have an immediate need to improve the conditions of the county employees,” County Commissioner Chris Endresen said.

The “friendly” lawsuit was brought to Cohoe after Port Orchard officials expressed concerns that the plan constituted a de facto move of the county seat and could adversely effect on local commerce.

Botkin said he was concerned with how the ruling could impact other downtown Bremerton revitalization projects, including conference center and marina expansion proposals.

Botkin said he still remains optimistic the county can meet its own space needs as well as Bremerton’s revitalization needs.

Housing Authority Director Norman McLoughlin said the agency plans to push ahead with plans for the government center building — with or without the county on board.

During the Jan. 11 hearing, Port Orchard City Attorney Loren Combs compared the county’s plan to Boeing’s departure from Seattle.

When Boeing moved its headquarters, it became a Chicago company, even though most of its employees are still in Seattle, he said.

“What the county would have you believe is that they could have a janitor’s office at the courthouse with an official’s name on it and have all the files and business kept in an office in Bremerton,” Combs said.

— John R. OIson contributed to this report.

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