April 7, 2009 in City

Petition proposes big changes to charter

Coalition begins gathering signatures
By The Spokesman-Review
 

A coalition of neighborhood activists, union members and environmental groups has begun gathering signatures to put a wide-ranging change to the Spokane City Charter on the November ballot.

But some city officials wonder if it’s so wide-ranging it won’t stand up in court.

The initiative, filed late last month with the Spokane city clerk, would give city residents the right to affordable health care, housing and energy and to “determine the future of their neighborhoods.” Neighborhoods could veto any proposed development project if 15 percent of the residents objected to it.

Workers would have the right to receive a prevailing wage on any construction project of more than $2 million, plus guarantees that a share of the jobs would go to apprentices and the right to “employer neutrality” when unionizing.

Environmental systems, such as the aquifer and the Spokane River, would have “the right to exist and flourish.”

All are part of a proposed “Community Bill of Rights,” drafted in a series of workshops and town hall meetings over the last year by a group known as Envision Spokane. Supporters see the proposal as giving citizens more voice in the way their city operates.

To provide that voice, the initiative must pass two major hurdles: Supporters must gather at least 2,795 valid signatures from registered city voters by July 6 to get it placed on the general election ballot; and a majority of voters must approve the entire package in a straight up or down vote.

But because it contains so many different ideas, critics such as City Councilman Al French question whether the proposal would face immediate legal challenges if it passes, from any business affected by new restrictions.

The state requires initiatives to stick to a single subject, French said, and collecting ideas about wages, health care, housing and the environment can’t possibly pass the single-subject test.

Kai Huschke of Envision Spokane disagreed. The initiative falls “completely within the single-subject requirement” he said, because all proposed changes are about rights.

Initiatives, which are the public’s way of passing a law separate from the Legislature or the City Council, generally must be about a single subject. Some statewide initiatives that received voter approval were later invalidated by the state Supreme Court because they joined things that weren’t closely related, like lower license tab fees and a requirement that voters approve tax increases.

Breean Beggs, an attorney for the Center for Justice who reviewed the initiative for Envision Spokane, thinks it has some novel concepts, but would survive a challenge. A judge would look for a “rational unity” and he thinks the unifying piece for this initiative is that all the rights affect the community.

Even the environmental protections can be drawn under that umbrella, he said. “It’s the community rather than the individual’s rights, and ecosystems are part of the community.”

City attorneys have studied the initiative but haven’t issued a formal opinion because sponsors aren’t asking the council to put the proposal on the ballot. They’re going straight to the signature-gathering phase because, Huschke said, no council member was interested in supporting the initiative and time is limited to collect the needed signatures.

Assistant City Attorney Mike Piccolo, who has read the initiative, said he was sure the question of multiple issues will come up at some point, but he wasn’t prepared to say yet whether he thinks it is a collection of different issues, or “a single topic with related, minor subtopics.” If the city thinks the measure covers too many issues, it could mount a challenge to keep the initiative off the ballot if the supporters get enough signatures, Piccolo said.

But the courts set a high standard for keeping an initiative from voters, he said. They usually wait to see whether a proposal passes.

“Once a proposal is approved by the voters … it becomes the city’s responsibility to defend it in court,” he said.

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