THERE WASN'T MUCH debate on Sept. 3, when the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to put four seemingly innocuous city charter amendments on this year's ballot—but government watchdogs say there should have been. If passed, one of the amendments, which was described by city clerk Judith Pippin as simple housecleaning, would take away an important safeguard meant to ensure that ballot initiative signatures are processed promptly. Critics say Pippin pulled a fast one on the council and that the amendment could open up Seattle's already-contentious initiative process to political abuse and unnecessary delays.
"We don't see this as housecleaning," says Knoll Lowney, founder of Yes for Seattle, a group that sponsored last year's Initiative 63, a water-conservation measure, and Initiative 80 this year, which would fund urban-creek restoration. "We see this as an attack on the citizen initiative process."
The initiative charter amendment started out innocently enough as an attempt to close a loophole that could allow initiatives on the ballot without enough signatures to legally qualify them. The loophole came to light when sponsors of Initiative 71 (I-71), a homeless-shelter initiative, sued the city last year. As campaign manager for I-71, I was a party to the lawsuit. The city was caught between a charter that says initiative signatures must be verified within 20 days and state law, which says that the county, not the city, has to verify the signatures. So when the county took more than 20 days to count I-71's signatures, the city was held legally responsible by a King County Superior Court judge, who ordered the city to certify I-71's signatures as sufficient—even though it wasn't the city's fault that the county took too long and even though I-71 might not have had enough valid signatures to deserve to be on the ballot.
But the council's fix for the problems that I-71 raised might be too much, too fast.
The fix was one of four charter amendments passed right after Labor Day, on the last day amendments could be placed on the ballot, and breaking with City Council tradition on important matters, it was introduced and voted on during the same meeting.
If passed in November, the amendment would eliminate the 20-day rule and defer to the state requirement that initiative signatures be verified "with reasonable promptness." It also gives the city clerk three days to transmit signatures to the county for verification, and, for no obvious reason, it gives the clerk 20 days just to let the City Council know when the county has finished counting signatures.
The resulting time delays—at least 23 days, possibly months if the county takes its time—could be chilling, say initiative sponsors.
"It makes the initiative process significantly harder," says Ben Livingston, who has been involved in a number of recent initiatives, including I-75, which would make marijuana a lower priority for Seattle police. "There's no way to guarantee a spot on the ballot, and it cuts that much time off summer signature gathering."
"We've already seen that some City Council people will go to great lengths to stop citizen initiatives," says Lowney, "and this just opens up one more avenue."
The Seattle League of Women Voters has called on the council to reverse its vote and take the amendment, along with at least one other the League objects to, off this year's ballot. That might not be possible, says council member Nick Licata, who is looking into rescinding or modifying the charter amendment on Monday. "I regret that we didn't devote more time into looking into what the implications could have been," he said.
Meanwhile, Livingston says he wants to get an opposition campaign going, even though it might keep the city liable for the county's problems: "It's better to screw the city clerk than the people of Seattle."
Freelance writer Trevor Griffey was the campaign manager for I-71, a homeless- shelter proposal last year.