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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Initiative draws countersuit

Envision Spokane, a group that has failed twice at the ballot box with its far-reaching Community Bill of Rights, has countersued a coalition of business and government groups that sought last month to keep Envision’s initiative off the ballot with legal action.

The countersuit filed Wednesday argues that the coalition is seeking to “mis-use the judicial process” and cannot show it would be injured by the initiative simply appearing on the ballot. The suit also claims that the coalition’s legal action was directly intended to suppress public involvement with the electoral process.

“They really don’t have grounds to prevent it from appearing on the ballot,” said Brad Read, president of Envision’s board. “This is a move to stifle public participation.”

The coalition is made up of Spokane County, Spokane Entrepreneurial Center, Greater Spokane Incorporated and Avista, along with 12 other plaintiffs. Spokane City Council members Nancy McLaughlin, Steve Salvatori and Mike Allen are also part of the coalition.

“I want it stopped from going on the ballot because I’m convinced it’s illegal,” said McLaughlin, noting that her primary concern with the initiative was its potential to open the city to enormous lawsuits. “The insanity’s got to stop.”

Envision said the coalition was in violation of the Washington Act Limiting Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP. The act was created to protect free speech rights, but it also gives protection to those filing valid ballot measures from invalid lawsuits.

Washington was the first state to pass such legislation, in 1989. It was expanded by the Legislature in 2010.

If the suit is judged groundless, the act allows for penalties of $10,000 for every plaintiff, plus attorney’s fees. In Envision’s case, this could amount to more than $160,000.

Tim Eyman, a longtime proponent and filer of initiatives, said Thursday he believed the coalition is facing “enormous legal liability.”

“Even if one piece of the initiative survives the (judicial) process, then these guys lose. It’s really, really risky,” he said. “In order to file a lawsuit, you have to show you’re harmed in some way. … Every single person on this lawsuit will have a hard time saying they’d be harmed if there were a vote. If it passed, maybe. But not a vote. That’s a really tough hurdle to clear.”

Calls to a number of the plaintiffs, including council members Allen and Salvatori, and county commissioners Todd Mielke and Shelly O’Quinn, were not immediately returned Thursday.

Envision, which is alone in filing its countersuit, was joined on the coalition’s original legal action by the city of Spokane, Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton and Spokane Moves to Amend the Constitution, which had filed its own initiative against corporate lobbying.

Similar measures sponsored by Envision protecting the environment, as well as neighborhood and labor rights, were rejected by voters in 2009 and 2011.