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August 26, 2013 at 6:00 AM

In Spokane, local initiatives stricken from the ballot

triplet election 140x90 gabiAnother two local ballot measures, in Spokane, have been thrown off the November ballot, reports the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

The stricken measures are from Envision Spokane and from Spokane Moves to Amend the Constitution. Envision Spokane’s began with, “Neighborhood majorities shall have the right to approve all zoning changes proposed for their neighborhood involving major commercial, industrial, or residential development.” It went on to create a legal right of the Spokane River, its tributaries and the local aquifer “to exist and flourish, which shall include the right to sustainable recharge, flows sufficient to protect native fish habitat, and clean water.” The other initiative would prohibit corporate political donations in any election within the city and corporate lobbying of any Spokane elected officials.

The backers got the required signatures for both of these and the city council followed the law and voted to put them on the ballot. A group of interests opposed to them sued to get them off the ballot.

In Vancouver, Clark County, a ballot measure to prohibit local funding for light rail across the Columbia River was thrown off the ballot July 31,  according to a story in the Columbian. The lawsuit was filed by the city.

In Spokane and Vancouver, a Superior Court judge ruled that the measure(s) was “beyond the scope of the initiative power.”

Initiatives backer Tim Eyman brought these stories to my attention, though they are not his initiatives. His motive was to promote Initiative 517, which will be on the statewide ballot in November. Under I-517, if a local initiative gets the required valid signatures, it’s on the ballot, period, and any court challenges must come after the election. That’s the  general rule for statewide initiatives, and Eyman argues that it should be the rule for local ones too.

I think this makes sense. First, the distinction between “beyond the scope” and “unconstitutional” is not meaningful. But to argue that a measure is unconstitutional, you have to wait until the voters pass it, and to make a “beyond the scope” argument, you don’t. The result is, the people who don’t want a public vote make “beyond the scope”arguments. It’s how they keep things off the ballot. Several cities have done this to protect automated traffic cameras from a public vote.

Second, having a measure on the ballot is in itself a political act. It causes a topic to be discussed, public commentators to take sides and private decisions to be made. Most of all, it makes clear what the citizens think. That can be powerful, even if the measure itself is ruled unconstitutional later on. Keeping a measure off the ballot prevents the conversation, the taking sides, the head count and the clarification.

It also effectively erases the citizens’ names on the petitions and nullifies the proponents’ achievement in getting the signatures.

Initiative 517 has some provisions around protecting signature gatherers that have caused some opposition. Save that discussion until later. On the matter of ballot access, 517 is right.

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