Spokane voters are one step closer to deciding whether the city should fine coal and oil trains moving through downtown.
The City Council voted unanimously Monday night, after testimony mostly deriding the proposal as potentially unconstitutional, to submit a petition signed by 4,937 people for review ahead of a potential appearance on the ballot in November. The council also voted to forward a petition by former state Rep. John Ahern banning marijuana sales within 1,000 feet of a health care center or church with facilities for children.
City Council President Ben Stuckart stressed to a crowd of roughly three dozen people, most of whom opposed the coal and oil train proposal but supported the pot restriction, that the council’s options were limited to either approving the measure as written; proposing an alternative; or sending the measure to the city clerk’s office for signature review.
“We can’t just punt it, because a group of people don’t like it,” Stuckart said of the coal and oil train proposal, which would fine the owners of rail cars $261 for each car carrying uncovered coal or highly combustible oil traveling on the downtown tracks. “That’s not in the municipal code.”
Stuckart said it was possible private citizens or members of the city government could mount a legal challenge if the measure moves forward. Todd Ekloff, the sponsor of the petition, said he believed the provision was crafted to withstand the scrutiny of the courts. He said it was designed to prevent an oil explosion downtown like the one that occurred a year ago near Mosier, Oregon.
“It does offer some legal arguments, that the city examiner did not address in the rebuttal, that we think will hold up in court,” Ekloff said. “And more importantly, this did come from the citizens.”
Railroad companies and other groups have slammed the initiative and hinted a legal battle may be brewing. Michael Cathcart, executive director of the group Better Spokane, said the measure sent the wrong message to businesses who wanted to locate in town.
“So many of our jobs rely on our railroads,” Cathcart said. “If our eye is not on the ball, the jobs we’re trying to get to Spokane are going to Boise, they’re going somewhere else.”
Ahern’s measure also was sent to the city clerk’s office for review of its 3,223 signatures. A petition needs 2,586 signatures from city voters, or 5 percent of the total turnout in the November 2015 municipal election, to appear on the ballot.
City Councilman Mike Fagan proposed passing Ahern’s measure without an election, but that proposal died when none of his colleagues seconded the motion.
City Councilwoman Karen Stratton acknowledged the passion of initiative supporters and opponents Monday night, but told the crowd the elected officials were listening to both sides and the vote was procedural to allow the question to make it to voters, if the signatures are deemed valid.
“In the spirit of being respectful, I just want people to know a good leader is going to look at both sides and make decisions that give people choices,” she said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.