The Seattle City Council’s warm embrace of Initiative 45 is more like a choke hold.
Quietly approved by the council on August 9, the initiative proposed last year by activist Jordan Brower won’t go to the voters—ever. Instead, the city will attempt to defuse this bomb behind closed doors.
Initiative 45 was designed to appear on last November’s ballot opposite the city’s library bond issue (Proposition 1). Although both measures proposed a plan to build and renovate Seattle’s library system, the city’s proposal used $196.4 million in new property taxes to accomplish its aim. Initiative 45 featured a lower price tag ($160 million, with savings accomplished through cutting the size of the downtown library) and a different funding source, bonds repaid from general city revenues. A major bond issuance like this would have chewed up a large portion of the city’s debt capacity and forced the council to take more future projects to the voters. Brower hoped this would change the city’s spending habits—stopping “corporate welfare” (symphony halls, parking garages, and stadiums) and instead “funding the basics.”
Then, after invalid petition signatures delayed the certification of I-45 last summer, the City Council found itself in a powerful position. By waiting until the last minute to take action on the initiative, the council caused I-45 to miss the deadline for last November’s ballot. The city’s library plan ran alone, garnering about 70 percent approval.
But what to do with I-45? Under city law, the council could put it on the ballot this year, create their own alternative measure to run with it, or approve it. They chose the final option.
Given the popularity of the power of initiative with voters, few officials are eager to leave any fingerprints during the I-45 caper. Nick Licata, a council member who helped organize an I-45 opposition group last year, says Mayor Paul Schell backed the council’s plan to approve the initiative but admitted that the mayor’s office never put that recommendation in writing. The council is also claiming attorney-client privilege in not sharing its own legal advice on the topic.
City officials will cop to the goal of keeping library construction on schedule. “Our goal is to not delay the process, and the initiative is a tangle of things,” says council president Sue Donaldson. “We could wait for the courts to sort them out, or we go ahead and act legislatively.”
Good enough, but why wouldn’t approving I-45 gum the works? An examination of the measure gives hints to the city’s approach. As I-45 was written to compete on the ballot with the city’s bond proposal on a winner-take-all basis, it includes no language invalidating the city’s library program. In effect, approving I-45 merely allows the city to issue another $160 million in non-voter approved debt, which it could already do with a simple council vote. The city, in fact, doesn’t have to issue the debt, and the smart money says it never will.
Some provisions might be trickier for the city to ignore. For instance, I-45 requires the council to beef up the library system budget with an extra $5 million annually. However, the city charter restricts budgeting authority to the City Council, so this requirement raises questions. Will the city request a judicial review? Other parts of the initiative—like I-45’s ban on naming library facilities after persons or corporations—could be legally deleted after two years. In fact, there’s already speculation that the new downtown branch will be named for the late school superintendent John Stanford.
Brower, the initiative’s sponsor, refuses to answer questions from Seattle Weekly. However, Sherry Bockwinkel, who directed the initiative’s paid signature gathering, says she’s glad the city will finally act on I-45. She also criticized the council’s use of “archaic, arcane laws” to keep the measure off the ballot last year. “The city purposely played a bunch of games with us,” she says. “If we’d had it our way, it would have been on the ballot at the same time.”
Fred Bucke, a local activist with a long record of opposing tax increases, agrees that the city’s manipulation of the process has crossed the line. “The way they’re playing around with this initiative is wrong,” he says. “[City officials] don’t want it, but it shouldn’t be up to them to decide—it should be left up to the voters.”
Others are content to let the issue die. Alan Deright, a Capitol Hill resident active in opposing last year’s library bond, says the public has spoken. “Nobody’s interested in going out and talking about this library thing all over again,” he says.
The power of initiative has always been controversial with public officials. Allowing the public to propose laws is part of most Western state constitutions and has been used heavily in California, Washington, and Oregon. At the same time, courts have repeatedly struck down politicians’ attempts to meddle with the initiative process. A 1993 Washington law banning signature-gathering firms from paying by the signature was struck down by a federal court. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court invalidated a Colorado law requiring that signature-gatherers be registered voters, wear identification badges, and disclose their earnings to the state.
The big bonus for the city in approving I-45 is that, come November, the initiative won’t appear opposite the next property tax increase: a $72 million Seattle Center/Opera House/community centers bond. City officials are worried enough about that measure’s chances that they scrapped plans to add an extra $10 million in projects after polling detected a tax-weary public.