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Spokane’s Initiative process gets look

THURSDAY, NOV. 19, 2009

Council’s proposal based on state rules

Less than a month after the defeat of a citizen initiative opposed by each member of the Spokane City Council, officials are considering rule changes that critics say will make it harder for residents to use the ballot box to seek changes in municipal operations.

Under the proposal, residents still could change city ordinances by gathering signatures to put an issue before voters. However, the question that appears on ballots would have to be written by a city attorney – not the citizens proposing change.

The city’s finance department also would be required to write a fiscal impact statement that would be printed on the city’s Web site and in voter guides. No such requirement is made of City Council members who propose changes to city law.

Supporters of the changes say the proposal is meant to clarify the process and ensure voters are accurately informed.

Councilman Al French said the new rules are based on the state’s initiative process, which has withstood several court challenges.

“This is a vehicle to make sure that the referendum that’s presented to the voters is accurate,” French said.

Earlier this month, 76 percent of voters rejected the proposed Community Bill of Rights. Envision Spokane, the group that led the effort, collected more than enough signatures to place the initiative before voters, but some members of City Council argued that Envision’s ballot question was biased.

Thomas Linzey, Envision Spokane’s legal adviser, accused the council of trying to “ram (the rule changes) through during the holidays.” The council was originally scheduled to consider the changes next Monday, but that vote has been delayed a week.

Linzey said the city attorney would have a conflict of interest in writing a ballot question. “It really takes the power from the supporters and the people who are preparing the initiative to the City Council,” Linzey said.

Envision Spokane members also criticize changes to the signature-gathering schedule. Currently, supporters of an initiative can start collecting signatures as soon as their concept is filed with the city clerk. Under the proposal, however, signature-gathering can’t start until a ballot title is finalized by the city attorney’s office, which could take about two months.

Supporters of the change note that initiative backers still would have 12 months to gather signatures and would keep full control over the language that would become law.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said the controversy over placing the bill of rights on the ballot demonstrates a need for change. “The initiative process has lacked clarity in certain respects,” she said.

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