King County’s controversial plan to spend $135 million in public funds on Safeco Field upkeep might not be a done deal despite the county council’s approval. A petition to put a repealing referendum on the ballot has been filed — meaning that the issue may go before voters early next year.
The referendum — officially titled Referendum 25 — was filed with the county council clerk at 12:01 p.m. Sept. 27 by a group calling itself “Citizens Against Sports Stadium Subsidies.” While it is still unclear who exactly is behind the initiative, Dmitri Iglitzin, legal counsel for the group, said in a statement that they are a “coalition of organizations and individuals that opposes public subsidies of sports stadiums and professional sports teams” and that they believe that “given the enormous challenges facing our county and region – growing income inequality, an affordable housing and homelessness crisis, and need for public investment in range of areas, effectively giving $135 million in taxpayer funds to a wealthy sports team is a misuse of public funds.” (Iglitzin declined to tell Seattle Weekly who exactly is fielding the referendum.)
Iglitzen added that the group is still considering whether to move forward with the referendum.
“A final decision has not been made, but the referendum had to be filed today to meet the deadline to be able to move forward if public support is there for a referendum,” he wrote.
If the initiative’s backers can get around 40,000 signatures from county voters by Nov. 2, the initiative will be placed on the February 2019 special election ballot.
Back in May, King County Executive Dow Constantine rolled out a proposal to invest roughly $180 million in public funds from the lodging tax (a tax on hotel and motel stays) in maintenance and upkeep at Safeco Field — an investment that was requested by the Seattle Mariners, which previously claimed that they wouldn’t sign a new 25-year lease at the stadium if the county didn’t allocate the money.
After the plan went through a series of hearings where it received extensive criticism from some county councilmembers and housing advocates — who argued that the money should be spent on affordable housing and services for homeless youth — the council narrowly approved an amended version of the ordinance on Sept. 18 by a final vote of 5-4 that would decrease spending on the stadium to $135 million while boosting funding for affordable housing. This was achieved by significantly reducing the amount of money originally slated to fund tourism promotion in Seattle and South King County. The Mariners gave public statements afterward that the $135 million was satisfactory, and that the ballclub would proceed with signing the lease.
Rebecca Hale, a spokesperson for the ballclub, declined to comment on how the prospect of a referendum on the stadium spending plan going to a ballot will affect whether the club signs its lease and if the initiative will derail ongoing efforts by the Mariners to find a buyer for the stadium naming rights — proceeds of which would all go to the club.
Spokespersons for Executive Constantine did not respond to requests for comment.
One of the councilmembers who voted for the $135 million spending plan, Claudia Balducci, wrote in a text to Seattle Weekly: “I think it’s important for the council to be neutral and respect the process for petitioners and voters.”
In contrast, Councilmember Kathy Lambert, who also voted for the ordinance, said the initiative’s backers should have “had the courage to have a plan” to replace the spending plan they passed earlier this month. “To just say repeal, that’s disappointing,” she said.
Councilmember Rod Dembowski, a critic of the ordinance who ultimately voted against it, had pushed an amendment to the legislation to put the issue before voters as an advisory vote. That amendment was ultimately voted down by a majority of his colleagues at the Sept. 18 council meeting. In a text, Dembowski praised the referendum.
“Based on the overwhelming feedback, the $135 million giveaway to the Mariners is strongly opposed by King County taxpayers,” he wrote. “I look forward to signing the petition and strongly believe Referendum 25 will pass if it makes it to the ballot.”
The referendum’s backers still need to get around 40,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot. However, Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, one of the original critics of Constantine’s plan to spend public funds on Safeco Field, said he thinks that the campaign will get enough signatures to put the referendum on the February ballot and also garner the necessary funding from labor unions, the hospitality industry, and progressive organizations to field a high-profile initiative campaign.
“I think it’s realistic that it gets on the ballot,” he said, adding that once it goes before voters, the county’s Safeco Field spending plan will go “down in flames.”
Correction (Sept. 28): This post has been updated to reflect the accurate number of signatures required to get Referendum 25 on the Feb. 2019 ballot.