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Court rules in Port Orchard's favor

After a judge on Friday torpedoed Kitsap County’s plan to relocate nearly one-third of the courthouse workforce and several offices to a government center proposed for downtown Bremerton, more questions than answers bubbled to the surface among county officials.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bruce Cohoe on Jan. 11 ruled the

county’s relocation plan as it presently exists doesn’t square with state law and constitutes a de facto move of the county seat.

Cohoe also ordered the county to cease its plans to move those offices and personnel from the courthouse to Bremerton.

“This plan goes too far,” Cohoe said on Friday, following about 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 also said the county’s efforts to jump-start Bremerton’s economy, bring county government closer to constituents and share resources in a regional center are valid policies.

Even so, he said, the plan can’t continue.

Kitsap County has discussed shifting about 245 county jobs from Port Orchard to the proposed regional government center along with several county offices in whole or in part.

County departments slated for some type of move include the offices of administrator, assessor, auditor, county commissioners, community development, personnel and human services and treasurer.

Bremerton has planned to locate its City Hall at the government center, which would be developed and operated by the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority.

State and federal offices could locate there as well.

So far, Kitsap County has committed up to $320,000 for planning, studies and preliminary design work.

The Housing Authority hasn’t yet purchased the property — located between 5th and 6th streets and Pacific and Washington avenues — that’s sited for the government center.

In the hours after Cohoe handed down his decision, county officials started to wonder whether the plan to move county offices and personnel would jive with state law if amended.

There has been no talk of appealing the judge’s decision.

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

Kitsap County Deputy Prosecutor Sue Tanner, who has worked on the government center case on behalf of the county, says that the judge’s written order could take two weeks to craft.

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

In the days ahead, Port Orchard City Attorney Loren Combs plans to work on crafting the written order. When complete, the order will be submitted to the county, at which time both parties will discuss the contents.

If the city and county can’t agree on the specifics of the order, they could ask Cohoe for clarity at a second hearing.

Meanwhile, the county feels pressure to reach a resolution soon, since courthouse employees are already cramped and need more space to do their business.

“We have an immediate need to improve the conditions of the county employees,” said County Commissioner Chris Endresen last Friday, just hours after the decision was handed down.

County Commissioner Jan Angel is currently out of town and couldn’t be reached for comment this week.

Both Botkin and Endresen have rallied around the construction of the regional government center in downtown Bremerton, seeing it as a way to boost and revitalize the blighted town and solve the county’s need for additional space.

They’ve also argued the county could do so without moving the seat of government.

Angel, on the other hand, has had misgivings. While she supports most efforts to boost Bremerton, she didn’t endorse plans to move county offices and personnel to the proposed government center.

Last summer, Port Orchard officials, concerned the proposed plan constituted a de facto move of the county seat and could impose adverse affects on local commerce, put their collective feet down.

In the end, both the county and the city agreed to enter into a “friendly” lawsuit to ask a judge whether the county’s plan did in fact mean moving the county seat.

The county first asked that both parties stick to whatever decision the judge arrived at, but the city balked at the request. That means the city and county have retained their right to appeal a ruling.

Now that Cohoe has made a decision, county officials are wondering what effect his order could have statewide as well as on Kitsap County’s situation.

Botkin for one, worries about the ruling’s impact on other revitalization movements in downtown Bremerton that have dovetailed the proposed government center, such as the conference center and marina expansion proposals.

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

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

On Friday Combs, the city attorney, and Sue Tanner, the county attorney, argued both sides in front of Cohoe within an hour’s time last Friday.

Combs likened the county’s plan to move several offices and staff from Port Orchard to Bremerton to Boeing’s departure from Seattle.

Boeing moved it’s heart, it’s movers and shakers and support staff to Chicago, said Combs. So even though most of its employees are still in Seattle, the company is really a Chicago company, 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,” said Combs.

Tanner, meanwhile argued the county’s plan doesn’t involve moving the county seat. She based the county’s argument on case law as well as a recent Michigan case.

In the end, Cohoe sided with Port Orchard.

“My biggest surprise is how quickly the decision came down,” said Botkin.

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