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Pierce County Council reviews 'special purpose' taxing districts after KING 5 investigation

A KING 5 investigation revealed problems with election and oversight in a small government body accused of refusing state audit for 16 years.

Pierce County leaders want to know “who is minding the store” in some of the smaller government entities that serve citizens.

“I think that’s the crux of the county’s interest,” Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Mike Lonergan told county council members on Monday.  “Who is making sure that everything is being done properly in these various districts?”

The questions were asked after a KING 5 investigation in June raised questions about elections, taxing, and spending in Pierce County Drainage District No. 23.

The story revealed that state law allows drainage districts – and some other “special purpose governments – to evade the county elections process.  For many of them, that means that they have not held elections in decades.

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Pierce County Drainage District No. 23 has not had an election since 1998. Yet its three commissioners assess land-owners in the Fife area about $180,000 per year for maintenance of the 83-year-old storm drain system.

County council held a study session on Monday to learn more about the “quirky” set of laws that govern some special purpose districts.

Those laws allow little oversight from voters or other governments.

“I think what we’re looking for is that the fox isn’t watching the hen house. Someone needs to be watching the hen house. We need to figure out who that is,” said county Council Member Connie Ladenburg.

The county elections manager explained to council members that drainage district commissioners are automatically elected if no one challenges them.   Since the races do not appear on a ballot, many voters may not even know they exist. 

RELATED: New leaders sworn in to replace ousted King County drainage district commissioners

In Pierce County Drainage District No. 23, commissioner Max Jaquez was last elected in the 1980s.

He told KING in June that the district is “… utilizing (taxpayer) money the best we can.”

However, Jaquez and the two other elected commissioners have not submitted to the legally required audits, according to the state auditor’s office.

The auditor said drainage district 23 has not been audited for 16 years.

No one has alleged that commissioners are improperly spending money.

RELATED: Seattle FBI searches home of ousted King County commissioner

But county council members are discussing whether there is anything they can do to improve accountability and transparency in some special purpose governments.

“I’m trying to figure out a stop-gap,” said Commissioner Derek Young, who suggested the ultimate solutions might be up to state lawmakers.

Pierce County will continue discussions and what, if any, action it can take.

In King County, the former long-term commissioner of drainage district No. 5 is under FBI investigation after KING 5 reported that he diverted more than $400,000 in tax dollars to his private bank account.