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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Anti-homeless camping initiative will go before Spokane voters after judge rejects legal challenge

Attorney Brian Hansen poses for a photo this spring at the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex. Hansen has proposed a citizen’s initiative to make it illegal for a homeless camp to exist within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds and child care facilities.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

A legal challenge to an anti-homeless camping initiative set to appear on Spokane’s November ballot was thrown out Wednesday by a Spokane County Superior Court judge.

Judge Tony Hazel denied a request for injunctive relief from Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium Executive Director Ben Stuckart and Jewels Helping Hands, the service provider led by Julie Garcia that once managed Camp Hope.

The plaintiffs had filed suit earlier this month against Brian Hansen, the lawyer leading an effort to ban camping within 1,000 feet of schools, day cares, parks and playgrounds.

With the financial assistance of developer Larry Stone, Hansen gathered enough signatures to get his anti-camping initiative on the November ballot. The proposal would make Spokane’s existing law far more strict and ban camping throughout much of the city. Hansen has said he believes the change is necessary to protect kids.

Knoll Lowney, one of the Seattle-based attorneys who filed the lawsuit, had stated that Hansen’s initiative would be illegal. Lowney argued that citizens can’t use local ballot measures to usurp authority that the Washington Legislature has granted to municipal governments, such as the Spokane City Council.

In the lawsuit, Lowney says state law gives city councils the power to craft homeless plans and make land-use decisions. Hansen’s initiative would supersede the Spokane City Council’s authority and is therefore invalid, according to the lawsuit. In a prior interview, Lowney said a judge in 2021 pulled a similar initiative off a Seattle ballot.

Hazel disagreed, ruling that neither the Spokane City Charter nor state law preempted the provisions of the initiative, allowing the question to go before the voters this November.

The lawsuit had also argued Hansen’s proposal would violate federal court rulings if it became law and likely would be overturned.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2018 ruled that cities can’t ban camping on all public property unless they can offer campers a bed. The court found that criminalizing people for being homeless was cruel and unusual punishment, and violated the Eighth Amendment.

Hazel acknowledged that decision, Martin v. Boise, could create enforcement issues for the initiative if passed. But Hazel added that it would be “improper for the court” to rule on such matters prior to the election.

Mark Lamb, the attorney representing Hansen and who recently unsuccessfully argued to Hazel that Spokane’s City Council district maps were illegally gerrymandered, called Wednesday’s ruling a “well-reasoned decision.”

“I respect Judge Hazel a great deal, and he obviously put a great deal of thought into the decision,” Lamb said. “I think the fact that he took as much time as he did showed that he had thoroughly researched it.”

Legal fees for the plaintiffs were paid by the Spokane Community Against Racism PAC, Stuckart wrote in a text shortly before Wednesday’s hearing. The political action committee’s only fundraising this year has been a $10,000 contribution by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund.

Mayor Nadine Woodward’s re-election campaign has for weeks demanded Stuckart and Jewels Helping Hands disclose the source of funding for the legal challenge.

“Ben Stuckart and Julie Garcia must step into the sunshine and tell citizens who is bankrolling their lawsuit to block the citizens from voting on the protection of our children,” Woodward wrote in a Aug. 10 campaign press release.

On Wednesday, Stuckart wrote in a text that the PAC paying for the legal challenge was following all applicable disclosure laws.