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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lawsuit aims to keep natural gas measure off Spokane ballot

A natural gas drilling site in the Susquehanna County township of New Milford, Pennsylvania on Jan. 17, 2013.   (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Environmental advocates are asking a court to invalidate a citizen initiative, which would enshrine protections for natural gas hookups in the Spokane City Charter, before it appears on the November ballot.

The lawsuit filed in Spokane County Superior Court on Monday argues that the Spokane Cleaner Energy Protection Act is beyond the scope of what is allowed in a ballot initiative.

If approved by city voters in November, the Spokane Cleaner Energy Protection Act, or Proposition One, would preemptively prohibit the Spokane City Council from enacting a ban on natural gas service or hydroelectric power for homes and businesses in Spokane.

Named plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke and Protect Spokane Action, a nonprofit formed this week.

The nonprofit’s leaders include Amanda Parrish, executive director of The Lands Council, who pointed to a United Nations report on climate change released on Monday that declared a “code red for humanity.”

“Given this report, I think it’s really important that we as a community keep our options open for what we are going to do locally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Parrish told The Spokesman-Review.

No sitting elected leader in Spokane has recommended a ban on natural gas or hydroelectric power.

The Sustainability Action Subcommittee, a volunteer group formed under the City Council’s direction, included a proposal to ban “gas hookups from all new commercial and multifamily residential buildings by 2023, and from all new construction by 2028” in a draft “action plan” released earlier this year.

The draft action plan sparked immediate reaction, culminating in the citizen’s initiative from Jennifer Thomas, director of membership services for the Spokane Home Builders Association.

The lawsuit was filed by Seattle-based firm Smith and Lowney, which has represented clients in environmental litigation before.

“These extremists want to block the citizens of Spokane from choosing clean energy that doesn’t fit Seattle’s far left vision. We look forward to the courts reaffirming the right of the people of Spokane to control their own destiny through the initiative process,” Jon Seaton, a partner at Camelback Strategy Group, the Phoenix-based political consulting firm spearheading the initiative, wrote in a statement.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent the measure from appearing on the ballot, and alleges that the initiative is illegal in three ways.

The initiative would stand in the way of the city’s quest to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals outlined by the state legislature, the lawsuit argues, and local initiatives cannot threaten “to interfere with city or county efforts to implement state policies.”

The plaintiffs also contend that by preventing the city from amending its own building codes, the initiative would deprive the Spokane City Council of the authority granted to it by the state legislature.

“The purpose of Prop 1 is simple: permanently strip the City of its power to enact a natural gas ban, and thus permanently remove this from the toolbox of strategies to achieve State Climate Policy,” the lawsuit states.

The third contention is a matter of process, as the groups argue that the issue is an “administrative matter.”

“Once the City adopted its climate policy legislation and codified an administrative process for implementing that policy, it was no longer subject to interference through a local ballot measure,” the lawsuit contends.

The initiative has been backed almost entirely by the Spokane Good Government Alliance, a political action committee with major donors that include developer Larry Stone and hotelier Walt Worthy, according to Public Disclosure Commission records.

Protect Spokane Action has yet to raise money, according to Parrish, but it expects to receive support.

This article was changed on Aug. 11 to include the full name of Camelback Strategy Group and correct its location. It is based in Phoenix.