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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Vestal: Mike Fagan reaffirms principle over politics


Let the record show that Mike Fagan took the high road this week.

He considered the contradiction inherent in something he was doing and issued a public statement acknowledging that he had been wrong.

And though the subject at the heart of Fagan’s reversal – two liberal initiatives that have the business community all atwist – remains veiled in political uncertainty, Fagan himself has set a sterling example of what to do when you find that you’ve made a mistake.

Just say so.

Furthermore, he has set an example that the rest of the conservatives on the City Council should heed, by acknowledging that you can’t be all for the voice of the people only when it suits you. You can’t worship it when it comes to blocking taxes and then do your best to subvert it when it’s less ideologically agreeable. You shouldn’t, anyway.

There are now two legal analyses proceeding for City Hall, examining the possibilities of blocking the initiatives; whatever the merits of these initiatives, elected officials should act with great caution, and perhaps less enthusiasm, in denying voters a say.

Let Fagan explain: “I do not believe the policies in either of these initiatives are good for my constituents. (But) I do want to be consistent and I am acting in accordance with what I feel the electorate wants and this is one of the reasons they put me in office. … Let the voters decide.”

We’ve been here before, with these initiatives. One is the Community Bill of Rights, the proposal from the group Envision Spokane that would give citizens control over development in their neighborhoods, would grant legal rights to the Spokane River, would subordinate corporate rights to individual rights and would guarantee workers’ constitutional rights on the job. The other initiative would ban corporate representatives from speaking to city officials on certain electoral matters outside of public forums.

These initiatives – somewhat entertainingly – get the business community very exercised. The first time Envision Spokane took a run at this in 2009, the City Council stacked the deck against it with an “advisory vote” on the ballot, asking citizens to choose whether to raise taxes or cut services to pay for it. In 2011, the council considered doing that again and wisely voted not to.

The Community Bill of Rights won more than 49 percent of the vote in 2011. The possibility of its actual passage has opponents scouring the law books for obstacles. Opponents argue the measures are unconstitutional, and it may be that they are; opponents also say the measures will prompt a flood of expensive lawsuits.

But the way to figure this out is not by pre-emptive strike. Legal analyses – even really good ones – are not court decisions. Court decisions are how we determine constitutionality.

Fagan might not have seemed like the person to set this particular example, given how relentlessly he stuck to the low road not that long ago, in terms of calling Gov. Jay Inslee a “lying whore.” When he suggested that he might support finding ways to keep the initiatives off the ballot, the contradiction was stunning: Here was Fagan, who has been a loyal foot soldier in the Tim Eyman initiative machine, saying he would consider preventing a vote on a citizens’ initiative.

Fagan recognized this himself, eventually. He issued a course correction this week. On Thursday, he described a process of soul-searching that brought him to the decision and the need to announce it loudly.

Citizen activist was his primary public role for years before he was elected to the Council, he said, and he believes that was a large part of why voters picked him. They wanted change, they wanted someone who supported the principle of placing power in the hands of the people, he said. In addition, he reviewed the municipal code and determined that the City Council has but two choices when it is presented with a valid initiative, once signatures are validated: pass it into law or put it on the ballot.

Of course, as a new council member, he was sensitive to concerns about the cost and impact of these initiatives, he said. And there is no shortage of doomsayers – if you find yourself cornered by the right people, the Community Bill of Rights can come to sound like Introduction to Armageddon. Even if you find yourself cornered by liberals you might expect to support it, you’ll hear that there are problems with these measures.

But the citizens do not need paternalistic, pre-emptive decisions made on their behalf by their elected representatives. Even if a legal rationale is discovered, any effort to keep properly vetted initiatives off the ballot should strike people – and especially people who serve at the pleasure of the voters – as repugnant.

In the meantime, credit Fagan for setting a good example.

“I’m going to stick with what got me into office,” Fagan said. “This is who Mike Fagan is. This is what Mike Fagan has been pontificating about for the last 15, 16 years.”

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