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Judge to county: get out of city/county government center

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 in downtown Bremerton, questions bubbled to the surface.

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, 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.”

“I was expecting it, absolutely,” Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman said of the judge’s ruling. He said he and Norm McLoughlin of the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority still want to build a Bremerton government building (see related story).

“We will move on. We both feel the same way,” Bozeman said. “We need the county to be part of the bond issuance process.”

Cohoe 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. Still, he said the plan could not 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, including: 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 center. 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 KCCHA hasn’t yet purchased the property — between 5th and 6th streets and Pacific and Washington avenues — selected for the government center.

In the hours after Cohoe handed down his decision, county officials talked about amending or 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.”

Meanwhile, the county feels pressure to reach a resolution soon, since courthouse employees are already cramped.

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

Both Botkin and Endresen rallied around the regional government center as a way to boost and revitalize the blighted downtown and solve the county’s need for additional space without moving the seat of government.

Last summer, Port Orchard officials balked, concerned the proposed plan constituted a de facto move of the county seat and could impose adverse affects on local commerce. New South Kitsap Commissioner Jan Angel agreed with many of their concerns.

In the end, both the county and the city agreed to enter into a “friendly” lawsuit to ask a judge to rule on the move.

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

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