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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Court orders initiative vote

Appeal ruling: Put Envision Spokane on ballot

Envision Spokane, the twice-failed initiative seeking to bolster environmental protection and neighborhood and labor rights, will be before voters again, after a decision Thursday by a state appellate court.

The ruling reverses a 2013 decision by a Superior Court judge to remove the controversial measure from that year’s general election ballot. The court ordered the city to put the measure on the next available ballot.

It’s unclear, however, when the measure will be considered by voters. The next ballot comes in April, which will have a proposed tax increase for expansion of Spokane Transit Authority’s system. Envision’s leaders said they believe the issue should be put on November’s general election ballot, since it would amend the city charter.

City officials still are reviewing the court’s decision.

“We’re discussing what it means, what the options are, and what the timeline may be,” said Brian Coddington, spokesman for Spokane Mayor David Condon. “There is some discussion that the April ballot may not be appropriate.”

Supporters and detractors of the measure were surprised by the court’s decision, and both sides promised a robust campaign.

Kai Huschke, campaign coordinator with Envision, said he is “very, very happy and pleased that this will be before voters. … We’re definitely ready to pick up the (campaign) when it comes to the Community Bill of Rights.”

Michael Cathcart, government affairs director at the Spokane Home Builders Association, said his group, which was part of coalition of business and government groups that sued to keep the measure off the 2013 ballot, was investigating its next steps.

“We’ll work with the coalition to explore any legal remedy that may be available,” he said. “If there are none, then we’ll continue to inform voters that this measure is illegal, it is unconstitutional, it is bad policy and it is dangerous policy for the city of Spokane. Hopefully, the voters will vote accordingly.”

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said he wouldn’t support efforts to keep the measures off the ballot.

“I wasn’t opposed to private industry suing, but the courts have now spoken,” he said. “The government is of the people and by the people. … So (the City Council) suing the citizens as a government does not sit well with me.”

County commissioners, who were part of the coalition opposing the measure, were hesitant to say how the court’s decision might affect the proposed renewal of sales tax that funds juvenile detention that will be considered by voters later this year.

County Commissioner Al French, who served on the City Council the first time the initiative was defeated by voters, said Thursday he was waiting to hear from the city and county’s legal team about potential appeals.

County Commissioner Todd Mielke said he believes the court’s ruling will place the initiative back on the April ballot, and that wouldn’t change the county’s election strategy.

“We have things that are scheduled to expire and need to be renewed,” Mielke said. “Regardless of what else the city puts on the ballot.”

In 2009, Envision Spokane first attempted to convince voters of a need for a “Community Bill of Rights,” but the nine rights it listed were roundly defeated with only 24 percent of voters giving their approval.

The group scaled back its efforts in 2011, and put forth a measure with four rights on the ballot. It failed again, but by only about 2 percentage points.

In both 2009 and 2011, Envision Spokane’s list of supporters included no elected city leader - current or former - and no candidate on the November ballot.

When the group ramped up a third effort in 2013, the same forces clashed: Envision Spokane against Spokane County, Downtown Spokane Partnership, Greater Spokane Incorporated, Spokane Homebuilders Association, and Avista Corp., among others. Three Spokane City Council members – Mike Allen, Nancy McLaughlin and Steve Salvatori – also signed on to fight the measure.

The opposing groups began suing each other and the case landed before Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno, who eventually ruled that the measure fell outside the scope of the initiative power.

The appellate court decision said Moreno was wrong, noting that “a pre-election challenge to a local initiative by private citizens can be brought only in very narrow circumstances and that this initiative does not constitute one of those occasions.”

“Efforts to derail prospective legislation through a lawsuit necessarily bring the judicial and legislative powers into conflict,” the ruling continued. “When the legislative process in question involves the constitutionally or statutorily protected right of citizens to initiate legislation, courts have an additional reason to step gingerly.”

Mark Richard, president of Downtown Spokane Partnership, questioned the appellate court ruling and suggested the coalition was looking for legal avenues to stop the measure from appearing on the ballot.

Still, if it goes to voters, Richard said his group was ready.

“My sense is it would be a very aggressive campaign,” he said. “It might sound good on a ballot, but when the public starts realizing the economic ramifications it would have if passed, it merits a very aggressive campaign.”

Richard said he hoped Spokane Mayor David Condon would support their efforts. Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, said that discussion was “premature.”

Brad Read, president of the board of Envision, agreed with Richard: the campaign will be fierce, primarily because his group’s measure “threatens the people who run Spokane,” he said. He added that he believed the bill of rights would be successful this year.

“In 2009, we won zero precincts. In 2011, we won more precincts than the opposition,” he said. “What we did in 2009 resonated because voters heard our message. I think they’ll hear it again. … Given the arc of the work we’ve done in Spokane, I think we’re on the trajectory to win.”

Reporter Kip Hill contributed to this report.