New Initiative Referendum

Our Bainbridge City Council is considering an Initiative and Referendum resolution and will be discussing, and perhaps voting on, it at a summer Council meeting (It was scheduled for July 10 but is not on the July calendar at this time. We will alert you to the schedule on our Facebook page and website).

The power of an initiative and referendum gives citizens the ability to enact legislation (initiative) that the elected body didn’t enact, or to repeal legislation that was enacted (referendum).  The process involves filing a notice of initiative (or referendum), having the title assigned by the governing body, and then collecting a minimum number of signatures within the jurisdiction to get the measure on the ballot.  The minimum number of signatures needed on Bainbridge Island would be equal in number to 15% of those registered to vote at the time of the last general election (in 2018 the number registered is 18, 929 so 15% would equal 2839 signatures).

People who support the I/R power believe that their elected representatives are not serving them well, and there is a need to move independently of the elected to enact or repeal laws.  Originally, “Proponents argued that the initiative process would neutralize special interest groups, curtail corruption, provide a vehicle for civic education (MRSC Guide)”.  As a citizens’ movement, that makes some sense. However, the system has been changed by the ability of people with funds to pay other people to collect the signatures, as opposed to volunteers doing this task.  Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, corporate or major donor money can be used to override the decisions of local elected officials and manipulate the I/R process to their own ends.

Our other concerns regarding the I/R measure being considered by the Bainbridge Island City Council follow.  The measure would:

(1) Increase the cost of city-wide elections particularly if sponsors seek a single issue special ballot.Each special election for a sole initiative is…” estimatedbetween $80,000 and $100,000. If Bainbridge holds an election in February or April of 2019 with another district that has the same or more voters to share the cost, it is estimated between $60,000 and $70,000.” Email from Dolores Gilmore, Kitsap County Auditor

(2) Add complexity and manpower demands on City staff.  State code requires city staff must prepare detailed information text before the item goes on the ballot.  It must also be determined to be legal. Many Islanders already believe City processes takes too long. Adding to City staff workload could delay other tasks.

(3) Add to the workload of current members of Council and extend the hours of weekly Council meetings as these items are given time on the agenda, perhaps excluding or delaying other community and City priorities.

(4) Allow single issues to override the Comp Plan and agreed-upon budget and priorities. The current and previous councils have spent time establishing the planning and spending priorities.  This could potentially overturn all that.

(5) Facilitate complex issues being portrayed as simple issues. The community changed to the Council-Manager form of government with wide approval by the voters. When the community voted for this change we decided to elect the leaders and hire the management.  We expected our City Council and City staff to work through governance issues because many of us, neither individually nor collectively, have the time or resources to devote to researching the best ways to address the needs of our City.

Some council members argue this process would allow the citizens more participation and that citizens will exercise their communal wisdom in their votes.  However, a relatively small group of activists can bring items forward that will result in much expense in time and costs but may well be defeated when the vote is held. Do we want to add this burden to our local government?

If citizens really want the City to have the I/R power, we believe there is a more democratic option for the City to acquire it. That alternative is the Petition Method. The adoption of the powers of initiative and referendum may be initiated by registered voters of the city filing a petition with the city requesting their adoption. To be valid, the petition must contain signatures equal in number to 50 percent of the votes cast at the last general municipal election (the total number voting in 2017 was 9019, so that would mean 4510). The petitions with signatures would then be transmitted by the city to the county auditor for verification of the signatures.

If the petition is found to be sufficient by the county auditor, the city council must adopt a resolution declaring the intention of the city to adopt the powers of initiative and referendum. The city must publish the resolution in a newspaper of general circulation within the city not more than 10 days after passage of the resolution. If no referendum petition is filed within 90 days after publication of the resolution, the city council must enact an ordinance formally adopting the powers of initiative and referendum.

If a referendum petition is filed within the 90 days after publication of the resolution that is signed by qualified electors of the city equal to not less than 10 percent of the votes cast at the last general municipal election, an election must be held on the issue of whether to adopt these powers for the city. The vote will be held at the next general municipal election if there is one within 180 days of the filing of the petition. Otherwise, the vote will be at a special election called for that purpose pursuant to RCW 29A.04.330. (Taken from the MRSC Initiative and Referendum Guide for Washington Cities and Charter Counties - )

If this proposal gets Council approval, we strongly recommend that members supporting/sponsoring any effort under this process must make their effort transparent.  They should be required to complete monthly financial statements to the Public Disclosure Commission and each should be prepared to regularly respond to FOI requests (which add substantial operational costs for the City) for their communications-emails and correspondence.

Change is inevitable, our responsibility is to determine how we manage it.