Sammamish City Council doesn’t adopt initiative, referendum rights
December 16, 2012
By Caleb Heeringa
New: Dec. 16, 11:16 a.m.
The signature gatherers outside local grocery stores likely won’t be approaching you about city-specific issues any time soon.
At their Dec. 11 meeting, the Sammamish City Council passed on the opportunity to grant citizens the rights of initiative and referendum, questioning the need and worrying about the prospect of disruptive and costly citizen-approved measures. The council elected to postpone discussion of the matter indefinitely on a 5-2 vote, with Deputy Mayor John James and Councilman Ramiro Valderrama the only members in favor of asking city staff to craft an ordinance granting the powers.
“I feel like this is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” Councilman Don Gerend said. “In the 13 years we’ve been a city, we’ve endeavored to do our best to communicate with the city …. We’ve endeavored to get the pulse of the community on all the important issues. I just don’t understand what would be gained by formalizing an initiative and referendum process that we’ve seen abused at the state level.”
That rings hollow to Sammamish resident and attorney Sam Rodabough, who originally brought the issue to the council’s attention earlier this year.
“It really comes down to a matter of ‘Do you trust the citizens of Sammamish or not,’” Rodabough said in an interview. “They came down on the side of distrust.”
Rodabough points out that Sammamish is one of the few cities in King County that hasn’t granted its citizens direct democracy rights. Both Issaquah and Redmond allow initiatives and referendums, while Kirkland and Auburn do not.
James pointed out that when the issue was originally brought up, many of the councilmembers characterized the lack of initiative and referendum powers as “an oversight.” State law requires that the city proactively institute the powers.
“Now it’s not just an oversight, we’re intentionally not going to have it,” James said.
The direct democracy powers could still be instituted at the city level through citizen action – by the collection of signatures of more than half the city’s voters that submitted ballots in the last general election. With more than 24,000 ballots returned by Sammamish residents in November’s election, that would be more than 12,000 signatures.
But there are no immediate signs that such a collection effort is on the horizon. Harry Shedd, who organizes local advocacy group Citizens For Sammamish, said the group has discussed the issue at the theoretical level but no one was enthusiastic about organizing such an effort.
“That’s a lot of people and a lot of time,” Shedd said.
Councilman Tom Vance said he worried that granting the powers could end up costing taxpayer money as the city is forced to spend time reviewing the legality of initiatives and paying to put them on the ballot. He pointed to the example in neighboring Redmond, when the city spent $30,000 fighting an initiative on red-light cameras. A judge threw out the initiative, though the city ended up pulling the plug on the cameras anyways.
“Win or lose, someone always ends up suing someone else – and at that point the city is also involved,” Vance said.
Rodabough said such “doomsday scenarios” are few and far between. State law has limits on what sort of actions can be subject to initiative and referendums on the city level, including any ordinance that appropriates money, involves employee pay or benefits or tax rates. And he argued that the fact that Redmond ended the red-light camera program despite the failure of the referendum illustrates another benefit of direct democracy – a quick way for voters to exert their will without waiting for election season.
“The exercise of initiative and referendum power – even if it’s ultimately not upheld – still has important political and free speech implications,” Rodabough said. “It’s still a method for citizens to convey their preferences to the City Council, which is a worthy, laudable goal.”
Mayor Tom Odell said he felt direct democracy has been counter-productive at the state level and said he didn’t want to see the same effect locally.
“I’ve watched the initiative and referendum process at the state level and I don’t view it as being constructive at all — in fact I view it as being destructive,” he said.
Odell pointed out that citizens who were aggrieved about a specific councilmember can currently have that person recalled if they’d like. Rodabough said a recall process is a high bar to jump over – a judge must rule that the person being recalled violated the law and their oath of office and then the recall motion must get the signatures of 35 percent of the city’s voters.
“You can’t just recall someone because you don’t like the way they voted on something,” he said.
Despite the lack of support for local direct democracy, the discussion prompted many on the council to call for an increased commitment to engaging the public. Valderrama, who ran Citizens For Sammamish before being elected to the council, suggested the council meet quarterly with the group. Odell suggested finding a better time to do the council’s open house hours, which have been sparsely attended in recent months. Odell suggested holding town hall meetings on controversial subjects, perhaps on the weekends when more people could attend. But Odell said he didn’t feel that the council was currently lacking in transparency and open communication.
“I list my home phone number on my business card and on the city’s website,” Odell said. “I think I’ve had one or two calls in the three years I’ve been on the council … Any one of us is willing to sit down at any time with any member of the community when they want to talk about something.”
Reporter Caleb Heeringa can be reached at 392-6434. ext. 247, or firstname.lastname@example.org.