That's what King County election officials were no doubt thinking on Friday, when a judge ruled that the county had missed the deadline for validating signatures for Seattle Initiative 71. As a result, Superior Court Judge Suzanne Barnett validated the 26,759 signatures necessary to put I-71, which would require the city to create 400 new homeless-shelter beds, on an upcoming ballot.
The city charter says that the city clerk must respond to an initiative petition within 20 days or the signatures will be presumed valid, but there was some confusion about the process because the charter doesn't directly address the responsibility of the county elections division, which counts signatures on the city's behalf. Judge Barnett's order makes the matter clear, says Chris Beer, attorney for I-71's backers. "The issue has been resolved that if I give a stack of signatures to the city clerk, the 20-day clock starts ticking."
What Judge Barnett's decision didn't do was answer the question of whether county elections superintendent Julie Anne Kempf had erred by deleting every signature that appeared on the petitions more than once, an issue I-71 proponents had raised in their original lawsuit. Nor did it explain what happened to 1,500 signatures initiative backers claimed were misplaced by the elections office. And it didn't answer the larger question of why the county has had so much trouble validating initiative petitions in recent years, a question raised most recently by backers of the monorail initiative, who also took the county to court. In that case, on which Beer was the attorney as well, monorail supporters argued that the county's practice of invalidating duplicate signatures was illegal under state law, a claim the county still contests. That lawsuit never made it to trial, however; at the last minute, the county discovered some 1,800 signatures it hadn't counted, thus allowing the monorail initiative to move forward and ultimately gain success with city voters.
It won't be that easy this time around. The City Council took no action on I-71 on Monday, which means it will be at least February—the earliest possible date for a special election—before the initiative makes it onto the ballot. (Another option under discussion would have the initiative bypass the ballot entirely.) An alternative proposal under consideration by the council would provide 200 shelter beds, 100 transitional-housing units, and 100 units of permanent housing over a period of two years, according to Tim Harris, a homeless advocate and member of the coalition behind I-71. Harris says he's optimistic about the ongoing negotiations, which are being brokered by council member Peter Steinbrueck. Harris notes, "There is a tremendous amount of goodwill in city government to reach a compromise."
Erica C. Barnett