July 14, 2013 in Opinion

Court should review bids

Barry Baker
 

I was a teenager when I moved to Spokane with my family in 1972; I came of age in this great city and I care about it and my friends who live here. That’s why I’m concerned from a personal and professional standpoint regarding two initiatives submitted for the Nov. 5 ballot.

I believe the “Community Bill of Rights” sponsored by Envision Spokane and the “Voter Bill of Rights” sponsored by Spokane Moves to Amend the Constitution (SMAC) would bring serious and unintended harm to Spokane, its residents and the local businesses.

Recently, I joined the Alliance for a Competitive Economy, representing a growing number of local community members including Pearson Packaging Systems and the Downtown Spokane Partnership. Our Alliance supports the Spokane County commissioners and a group of Spokane citizens and companies that have requested a judicial review of the two initiatives to determine whether they are legal or even constitutional.

We think the court will agree that a city – whether through an initiative or any other process – cannot deprive its citizens of their protections guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution, the Washington state Constitution and state and federal laws.

As a board member for several local nonprofit organizations, including the Boy Scouts, Greater Spokane Incorporated, Spokane Valley Chamber and others, I am particularly concerned that the SMAC initiative would block a volunteer or staff person representing a nonprofit from speaking to Spokane elected officials outside of an official public meeting on legislative matters important to their group.

We are really fortunate to have many volunteers from many boards that volunteer thousands of hours and millions of dollars to make Spokane the great place that it is and have the vision to create its tomorrows. We do not want to do anything that will discourage their involvement and support.

If the SMAC initiative should pass, I could not have an elected official visit my company or meet me for a cup of coffee to discuss any issue that might touch on legislative policy or regulation. That would include budget requests a nonprofit might have pending before local, state or federal officials.

Spokane’s 27 neighborhood councils, some of which are nonprofit corporations, would also likely be prevented from fully engaging in their advocacy on important matters affecting their residents.

The SMAC initiative would not only make it illegal for us to have those conversations in any nonpublic forum, it would make it a criminal offense, punishing violators with imprisonment and fines. There is also a question about whether the initiative would prevent nonprofits, businesses or individuals from defending themselves.

Designating any form of free speech a criminal act is deeply disturbing, and it violates the principles upon which our country was founded.

Spokane voters have said no twice before to the Envision initiative, and this year’s version is also deeply flawed.

It would allow a small minority of residents to block a new building or expansion project, making it difficult for businesses or nonprofit organizations to make plans, what’s more carry them out. This measure is unnecessary because current law already assures the public many opportunities to voice opinions and concerns about potential construction projects.

There are other problems with the Envision initiative, including its conflict with state and federal laws and regulations designed to protect the Spokane River.

My partners and I have spent our lives building our business and I am certainly not a lawyer, however I think it’s clear that much about the Envision initiative can’t pass legal muster. Lawyers, including Spokane’s city attorney, have released reviews raising serious questions.

What’s more, judges elsewhere in the state have already weighed in on an initiative quite similar to the Envision Spokane initiative. Last year, two Washington courts ruled that an initiative proposed in the city of Bellingham represented an abuse of the citizens initiative process. As a result, that initiative was dropped from the ballot.

It makes no sense to present voters in Spokane, Bellingham or anywhere else with initiatives that are essentially illegal and can’t be enforced. It doesn’t make sense to spend taxpayer dollars to pay for the inevitable litigation that could go on for years. That’s why it’s appropriate to ask the court to also weigh in on the SMAC and Envision initiatives before they appear on our ballot.

Taking away legal rights from any individual or group is simply wrong. Let’s work together – neighborhoods, businesses, nonprofits, elected leaders – to continue making Spokane a desirable community for everyone.

Barry Baker is president of Spokane-based Baker Construction & Development, a company founded by his parents 61 years ago.


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