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We’ll learn more if we let folks vote

Sat., May 18, 2013, midnight

As the city amasses legal rationalizations for denying citizens a vote, there has been a refrain from those who object to these pesky citizens’ initiatives.

It runs something like this: No one wants to deny citizens a vote. No one relishes the burden of pre-empting democracy. It’s a rare, rare circumstance that brings us to this difficult point … BUT.

But the sky is falling. But these initiatives are a special case. But the heinousness of these initiatives is such that responsible public officials have no choice but to go to court and try to prevent a vote.

Tim Eyman, who knows a bit about initiatives, says the refrain is disingenuous. Governments don’t try to block initiatives rarely, he says. They do it all the time.

“The exception is when you get a chance to vote,” Eyman said.

That’s why he’s running – what else? – another statewide initiative, this time to deny city officials the ability to do what they’re probably going to do here in Spokane: Sue to block a properly vetted initiative.

Two local initiatives that have qualified for the ballot here seem likely to face opposition from the city government in court.

One measure would implement a Community Bill of Rights in the charter, giving neighborhoods the right to reject developments, expanding employee rights, granting fundamental rights to the river and environment, and asserting individual rights over corporate ones. The other would ban corporate contributions and participation in local elections.

These initiatives are problematic, to say the least. They attempt to establish priorities within the city that exceed the city’s authority and contradict Supreme Court decisions. I don’t think either one could withstand a legal challenge, and yet if a majority of Spokane residents did indeed support them, then a legal challenge – and not a paternalistic pre-emption – would be the proper way to sort it out.

Spokane critics of the proposals are quick to cite a case out of Bellingham – where the city successfully sued to keep a very Community Bill of Rights-like measure off the ballot. This case does indeed suggest the city may be able to keep the initiatives off the ballot. It doesn’t say a thing about the more important question: Should a city do that?

Cities often do. Eyman cites a recent case out of Redmond: An opponent of red-light cameras started an initiative to order the city to disband its program. The petitioner gathered thousands of signatures and turned them over to a city clerk – who then refused to have them validated with the county auditor.

The case eventually wound up in the courts, which ruled that the red-light camera program did not fall under initiative power, but under the city’s legislative power. And yet the local governing body learned, through that process, what the powerless local electorate wanted done and wisely heeded it. The City Council disbanded the red-light program.

But the man who started it all – and who did, in a manner of speaking, win – told a legislative panel recently that he felt like he lost.

“If I knew then what I know now about the municipal initiative process, I never would have started the initiative campaign,” he said, according to a written copy of his testimony. 

Eyman has made anti-tax initiatives his life’s work. I could not be less in favor of most of his measures, and I’m unenthusiastic about initiatives as a profession or paid signature-gathering.

But he can’t make anyone vote his way. His efforts would be for naught if they didn’t win at the ballot box. And Eyman’s arguments in favor of giving citizens a voice – and his experience as someone who has been on the other side of government officials and elected officials’ “patronizing and condescending” efforts to stop voters from inflicting their will – have a certain logic and elegance. He says that the vote itself has value. That what the voters say tells us something important that goes beyond practical or legal predictions.

“The vote itself has a lobbying effect,” he said. “It has political free speech value associated with it.  …  Let ’em vote, and if there are legal issues with the initiatives, just like at the state level, they have the pleasure of our wonderful court system.”

The city has obtained – and distributed – two legal analyses that assail these initiatives on several legal fronts. There is, these evaluations say, plenty of legal basis to try and pre-empt them.

What if people voted on them anyway? What if they passed? Would it tell us something about the electorate that might be worth knowing? Would it indicate something about the state of mind of citizens, circa 2013, that government officials should understand? Might it provide some gauge of citizen concerns and attitudes that the mayor and City Council would profit from knowing? And, if the measures are indeed so incredibly legally weak, is it really possible that it will take millions of dollars in legal resources and shatter the foundation of city government in implementing or defending them?

Or is it much more likely that they would die a quick and relatively inexpensive death in courts and the halls of bureaucracy?

Interesting questions, all. To my way of thinking, answering them is the more democratic, if messier, way of running a democracy.

In the end, the sky will still be up there.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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