The city of Spokane’s initiative process isn’t broken, the initiatives are.
But that doesn’t mean tune-ups proposed Wednesday by Mayor David Condon and City Council President Ben Stuckart are not worth making.
The two – seldom political allies – introduced changes in the city’s initiative ordinance that would replace the city attorney’s opinion on a proposal’s validity with one from the city hearing examiner, and have the determination rendered before signature-gathering begins.
Both are good ideas.
Collecting the signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot is no small task, one preceded by discussions with the city attorney on its name, and a summation of its intent and contents. If those circulating the petitions are paid – atypical for local petitions – there can be a significant investment of money as well as time.
Putting initiative backers through that process, only to have the red flags raised at completion, is a sure-fire provocation, sharpened by the current practice of entrusting those flags to the city attorney, whose allegiances will always be suspect.
A hearing examiner, once approved by the city council, becomes an independent adjudicator whose effectiveness depends on impartiality – and the perception of impartiality. The public knows them best now as arbiters in land disputes, but they also deal with cases involving dangerous dogs, and drug seizures. Zoning and other development issues often puts them in the center of the storm, but with only a limited number of the aggrieved.
Initiative rulings that affect everyone in the city will raise their profile, the heat, and the risk that the hearings officer reputation for exercising a free hand will be degraded.
Initiative supporters resent any naysaying as interference in the pure democracy of a public vote.
Unfortunately, the two initiatives now set for a vote in November demonstrate the threat democracy can pose to freedom.
Proposition 1, sponsored by Envision Spokane, and Proposition 2, a creature of Spokane Moves to Amend the Constitution, would infringe on the constitutional rights of individuals and organizations who have business with the city. The City Council agreed to put them on the ballot without a challenge, despite the reservations members expressed about the wisdom of the proposals.
The potential – no, certainty – of litigation put the city in a lose-lose position.
In June, a group of business organizations, joined by Spokane County, filed the Superior Court challenge that the city would not. The city, in fact, became a defendant.
Thursday, Envision’s attorney asked the court to reject an injunction that would block a vote on the propositions, and award damages based on the business/county alleged intervention against public participation, i.e., voting.
However the court may rule, any measure that specifically curtails First Amendment rights, as propositions 1 and 2 would do, does boundless damage.