WA State Supreme Court lets I-18 stand - King County voters can
amend county charter by initiative
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Sep. 26, 2003
King County, WA- In a far-reaching decision that allows King County
voters to amend the county charter by initiative, the state Supreme
Court yesterday ordered onto the Nov. 4 ballot an initiative aimed
at shrinking the County Council.
Proponents and opponents alike expressed little doubt that county
citizens, seemingly in a mood for change, will vote overwhelmingly
in favor of an unusual, possibly confusing, two-election process to
reduce the council from 13 members to nine.
The unanimous decision, reversing a lower court judge's ruling, validated
Initiative 18, sponsored by the King County Corrections Guild, a union
of jail guards. Under it, county voters will decide in November whether
to order the council to put on the November 2004 ballot a proposed
charter amendment to reduce the council size.
Supported by most of the council's Republican members and opposed
by most of its majority Democrats, the measure promises to bring political
uncertainty to a council that in the past two years has operated with
less partisan quarrelsomeness than it did previously.
Some Democrats as well as some Republicans think it might improve
GOP chances to end the Democrats' one-vote majority although Republican
council members denied yesterday that they believed it would do so.
The King County Democratic Party has gone on record opposing reducing
the council size. King County Republicans have taken no position,
but county Chairwoman Pat Herbold said, "I think it does have
pretty widespread support."
Bob Ferguson, a first-time Democratic candidate and supporter of a
smaller council, advocated it in his successful campaign to defeat
Council Chairwoman Cynthia Sullivan in last week's Democratic primary
in the 2nd District of Northeast Seattle. He said support for the
idea was broad.
Passage of I-18 could force several council incumbents to run against
each other for election to a reduced number of seats.
"The most troublesome part (of the Supreme Court opinion) is
the ability to pay signature gatherers to change what amounts to the
county's constitution through the initiative process," said Councilman
Larry Phillips, D-Seattle. Like many others, he believed that the
charter didn't allow the charter to be amended through the initiative
"Who knows what's next via the paid signature-gathering process?"
Phillips said. "We already have a budget crisis which lends tremendous
instability to county government, and adding a governance crisis onto
it makes it very difficult to effectively govern."
But Councilman David Irons Jr. of Sammamish, one of three Republican
co-sponsors of a proposed charter amendment to reduce the council
size, applauded the decision, predicted that voters will pass I-18
by 70 percent, and said, "I think streamlining government is
a worthwhile cause."
The Supreme Court opinion surprised even many supporters of the concept
of a smaller council. Some, like Councilman Rob McKenna of Bellevue,
another co-sponsor of the council-reducing ordinance, which council
Democrats have not allowed to come to a vote, had thought I-18 was
"I thought they would rule the other way," McKenna said.
But he said it was obvious from the unanimous decision and the relative
brevity of the seven-page opinion "that the court thought it
was a very clear issue."
"I think it's a dark day for King County," said Councilman
Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, because the Supreme Court "has expanded
the ability of the initiative process to erode government in Washington
The Supreme Court rejected the contention of county Prosecutor Norm
Maleng that only the County Council may propose amendments to the
charter, which is the county's version of a constitution.
Unlike the state constitution, which gives the Legislature the exclusive
authority to place proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot,
the county charter does not restrict the people's authority to amend
the county charter, the court said in an opinion written by Justice
"One of the foremost rights of Washington state citizens is the
power to propose and enact laws through the initiative process,"
He said the initiative power is limited to acts that are legislative
in nature, and "although Initiative 18 is coined as an initiative
proposal, it is legally equivalent to an ordinance proposal as it
purports to follow the voter-initiated ordinance process" set
forth in the county charter.
"It's an absolute win and now puts the power of King County government
back in the hands of the people," said Jared Karstetter, an attorney
for the Corrections Guild. He said that because I-18 is "viscerally
opposed by many members of the council, we are obviously concerned
about retaliation against us."
I-18, however, was the guild's retaliation against the council, which
last year reduced jail spending in the 2003 county budget in the process
of trying to eradicate a $50 billion general fund deficit.
The guild has contended that reducing the council by four members
would save as much as $4 million a year. But council budget analysts
have said it would reduce the budget by only $1.3 million, and that
only one-third, or about $440,000, would be saved in the general fund,
the general government operating fund where the budget crisis exists.
Despite the Supreme Court decision, another possible legal glitch
remains in Initiative 18, but one that McKenna said can be remedied
without jeopardizing the initiative.
The initiative provides that all nine of the reconstituted council
seats would be up for election in 2005 after the county is divided
into new districts, with five members elected to four-year terms and
the other four members elected to two-year terms, in order to stagger
future council elections.
The problem, said McKenna, is that six members, including himself,
are standing for re-election this fall to four-year terms that wouldn't
expire until the end of 2007. "Under established constitutional
law," said McKenna, a lawyer, "you cannot effectuate this
change in a way that would affect current terms of incumbents. So
anyone elected in 2003 would have to (be able to) serve out that four-year
If I-18 passes, he said, the elections to some of the new council
seats might have to be put off until 2007.
P-I reporter Neil Modie can be reached at 206-448-8321 or email@example.com