A resident’s right to bypass the Spokane City Council to craft city laws could be revamped on Monday.
Along with a host of minor changes that have general acceptance, two proposals – one to require residents to work with the city attorney on ballot language and another to require the city to craft a financial impact statement about the measure – have generated significant opposition.
Spokane voters through initiatives have banned fees for using city swimming pools (later reversed by voters), outlawed the sale of parkland without a public vote and even crafted the current system of city government.
Currently, if residents don’t use the city attorney’s help, they craft the language, file the intiative with the city clerk, and then collect a required number of signatures – based on the number of people who voted in the previous city election. The City Council is technically allowed to change the ballot question, but it likely would face a lawsuit or the whole initiative could be tossed because signatures were collected based on old language.
Supporters of the changes, sponsored by City Council members Mike Fagan and Steve Salvatori, argue that requiring the attorney to help draft the language ensures that once a group starts collecting signatures on the ballot question, it won’t be changed or challenged by the city. They say there are plenty of protections to ensure the final version represents the filers’ intent, and that the proposals would echo the state initiative process.
Fagan said he supports the change because it would limit the city’s liability and provide voters with a better financial understanding of an initiative’s impacts.
“What we’re doing is basically bringing the current ordinance in line with the state policy and procedure,” Fagan said.
But opponents say eliminating the direct filing method infringes on the citizens’ right to craft an initiative without government interference.
The current push to revamp the process resulted from the Community Bill of Rights initiatives proposed by Envision Spokane in 2009 and 2011. No City Council member endorsed those proposals, and some council members felt the language drafted by Envision Spokane should have been amended by the City Council. But the council was advised it would likely face a lawsuit if it did.
Kai Huschke, campaign director for Envision Spokane, said the proposals appear to be aimed squarely at hurting the Community Bill of Rights.
“It’s very perplexing to me as to why Fagan and Salvatori are driving this so hard,” Huschke said.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said he will float a different initiative proposal on Monday night that excludes the controversial items. He noted that at a recent City Council forum on the topic, opposition was vocal and strong.
“If you’re going to change the process for how the citizen interacts with the government, it has to be citizen-drawn,” Stuckart said.
Former City Councilman Steve Eugster, who has proposed several initiatives and authored the initiative that created the city’s current strong-mayor system, said he opposes the requirement for a financial impact statement.
“That really bothers me,” he said. “There’s so much mischief in that.”
But Eugster said he’s less concerned about eliminating the direct-petition method. He’s worked with the city attorney’s office on each of the initiatives he’s authored and never found a city attorney over multiple administrations to impart politics on the process. He said a “reasonable person” would want assistance from the city attorney’s office – unless the proposal was extremely simple – to help the ideas function properly in conjunction with the rest of city code.
“I found that I got a great deal of benefit in dealing with the city attorney’s office,” Eugster said.
Fagan said if the new system doesn’t work, the council can reconsider.
“You revisit it. You modify it. You repeal it,” he said.