WA State Supreme Court lets I-18 stand - King County voters can amend county charter by initiative



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 process.

"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 legally flawed.

"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 state."

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 Charles Johnson.
"One of the foremost rights of Washington state citizens is the power to propose and enact laws through the initiative process," Johnson wrote.
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 term."

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 neilmodie@seattlepi.com


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