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October 16, 2013 at 6:08 AM

Why I support Initiative 517

Initiative 517 does several things. I support it because it does one thing especially:  it ends the anti-democratic practice of kicking local initiatives off the ballot before people have a chance to vote on them. This doesn’t happen much at the state level because of a couple of strong court rulings, but at the local level it happens all the time. Either the public authorities don’t want a vote or a private interest doesn’t want a vote. They sue, and the measure may be removed from the ballot because a judge finds it “beyond the scope of the initiative power.”

Here is a list of those efforts. It is a long list because it’s a widespread problem:

Teamsters organizer Leonard Smith delivers petitions on the $15 wage initiative to SeaTac city hall earlier this year. The measure was challenged in court for lack of enough signatures, but made it on the November ballot. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Teamsters organizer Leonard Smith delivers petitions on the $15 minimum wage initiative to SeaTac city hall earlier this year. The measure was unsuccessfully challenged in court for lack of enough signatures–a type of challenge that would still be allowed under Initiative 517. A “beyond the scope of the initiative power” challenge would have to wait until after the election.
(Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

In Vancouver earlier this year, a measure against light rail on the proposed I-5 bridge over the Columbia River  was kicked off the ballot by court order.

In Spokane earlier this year, a measure to enhance the rights of neighborhoods and curtail the rights of corporations was ruled “outside the scope of the initiative power.

In Monroe, the city sued to block the vote on a measure against traffic cameras. The lower court ruled in favor of the vote and in 2013 the appeals court ruled against it.

In Renton, on an initiative to forbid moving the city library, the city council voted in 2012 not to place it on the ballot but changed its mind after being threatened with a lawsuit. The initiative passed with more than 70 percent support.

In Bellingham in 2012 a court removed a measure against coal trains after a lawsuit by the city and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Also in Bellingham in a measure against traffic cameras, the camera company sued, and in 2011 the state appeals court allowed the initiative to stay on the ballot as advisory only.

In Mukilteo Initiative 2 was the first one here against traffic cameras. In 2012 the Washington Supreme Court ruled against it, 5 to 4. (Not coincidentally, three weeks after this Initiative 517 was filed.)

In Redmond in 2011 the city clerk refused to turn in petitions for Initiative 1, against traffic cameras. There was a lawsuit, and the court ruled that initiative was “outside the scope” of the initiative power.

In Longview the appeals court ruled earlier this year that Initiative 1, against traffic cameras, was invalid. Proponents have appealed to Washington Supreme Court.

In Wenatchee the city sued to stop the collection of signatures for Initiative 1, against traffic cameras, and in 2011 it won in court.

In Seattle in 2011 the city sued and won an order to take Initiative 101, concerning the Highway 99 tunnel project, off the ballot. Later, a portion of a referendum made it on the ballot.

In Port Angeles in 2006 two initiatives to block fluoridation of water went to the Washington Supreme Court, which ruled 5 to 4 to remove them from the ballot.

In King County in 2006, three measures challenging the Critical Areas Ordinances were removed from ballot by court order.

In Seattle in 2003, Initiative 80, to daylight creeks, was removed from the ballot by court order.

In King County in 2003, Initiative 18, to reduce the size of the King County Council, was removed from the ballot by a lower court judge and put back on by a higher court.

In the late 1990s, King County Initiative 16 and Seattle Initiative 43 to block the construction of the Mariner baseball stadium were removed from the ballot.

Under Initiative 517, all these measures would have been on the ballot, with the possible exception of the anti-cameras measure in Wenatchee, which was not even allowed to collect signatures.

Some of these measures would have been struck down after the election. And that’s fine. Judicial review is good — after the election.

Why wait? Because the judges’ time need not be wasted on measures that lost. And because it lets the people have their say.

There is value in allowing the people to have a conversation, and a vote. Even if the measure is illegal for some reason, at least the politicians know what the people want. Sometimes an illegal measure can be made good by changing a minor aspect. And once in a while the voters’ approval can change the whole discussion. Consider Initiative 502, the measure to legalize marijuana under Washington law. It conflicts with federal law. Doesn’t that make it “beyond the initiative power?” By the rules for Bellingham, Redmond, Seattle, Renton, Vancouver, Spokane, and the others, 502 should have been kicked off the ballot.

But it wasn’t. The people of Washington (and Colorado) voted to legalize marijuana. Their approval made it more difficult for Attorney General Eric Holder, and probably President Obama, to ask a court to overturn 502. They have accepted it.

The vote itself was powerful. The people of Washington could have that power at the local level if they support Initiative 517.

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