Spend a little time at Spokane Valley City Council meetings and you can be certain to hear two things from the dais: “We should let the voters decide that” and “That would be a good thing to get on the ballot.”
Councilman Ed Pace is especially fond of reminding the audience that government is by the people and for the people, especially when it comes to taxes and making decisions about spending.
“People don’t think they can get something on the ballot,” Pace said before a recent City Council meeting, “but they can. We do have a process for doing that.”
However, getting something on the ballot is not as simple as it sounds.
“There is no online form or procedure that you can click on and that’s the way to do it,” Spokane Valley city attorney Cary Driskell said. “It depends on what it is.”
In 2005, shortly after it incorporated as a noncharter code city, Spokane Valley adopted powers of initiative and referendum.
“But we are not the same as the city of Spokane. Spokane has a lot more leeway to set its own rules,” Driskell said. “And it’s not everything that can go on the ballot.”
Driskell said an initiative is a way for residents to propose new legislation, and a referendum is an attempt to reject newly adopted legislation.
The City Council has the power to put an issue that’s subject to initiative on the ballot, but Driskell said taxation is not subject to initiative.
“Also, anything the city manager would normally do is not subject to initiative,” Driskell said, adding that an initiative also can’t conflict with state law.
“For instance, comprehensive plan stuff is not subject to initiative,” Driskell said. “And zoning is not subject to initiative.”
It’s the council that has the last word on zoning and comprehensive plan amendments.
He recommends civic groups seek legal advice before they begin a process of signature-gathering.
“And I can’t provide that help because I represent the city,” Driskell said. “That’s the law. They have to go somewhere else for that advice.”
If an initiative or referendum makes it to the ballot it is, however, the city attorney’s office that writes the text for the ballot measure.
Recently a group of Spokane Valley residents collected signatures in support of banning semitractor-trailers and semitrucks from parking on residential streets.
The group said it gathered nearly 200 signatures, which may be enough to get the City Council’s attention but is nowhere near enough to put an issue on the ballot.
Driskell explained that at least 15 percent of registered voters in the last city election must sign a petition for it to go anywhere.
In Spokane Valley, that means 7,726 registered voters would have had to sign a petition to get something on the ballot in 2015.
The number changes with each election and is verified by the Spokane County Auditor’s Office.
“The auditor also counts and verifies the signatures,” Driskell said. “We pay them to do that.”
In the case of the truck parking issue, Driskell said in his opinion banning trucks from parking on residential streets is a traffic law and not subject to initiative.
Initiatives are rarely successful in Washington, Driskell said, and even if they pass locally they may still be appealed and overturned by the state Supreme Court.
In 2011, voters in Longview passed an initiative demanding to get rid of red light cameras. However, that was later overturned by the courts, which ruled it a traffic safety issue and not subject to initiative.
Driskell said as far as he knows no one is working on getting a measure on the ballot in Spokane Valley.
“It’s not something we hear a lot about,” he said.
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