For the second time in a week, a Washington state judge has ruled against government transparency and the right of local residents to adopt laws by citizen initiative.
On Wednesday, Mason County Superior Court Judge Amber Finlay denied a lawsuit filed in October in response to the Shelton City Commission’s decision a month earlier to keep a pair of legally submitted labor-reform initiatives off the city’s November general election ballot.
The ruling comes just a week after a Clallam County judge issued a terse, one-page decision in a similar lawsuit after the Sequim City Council voted this fall to keep a pair of identical measures off the ballot in that city, too.
Proposition 1 would have required that contract negotiations between the city and the union representing its government employees be open to the public. Proposition 2 would prohibit the requirement that city employees be members of — or at least pay dues to — a labor union.
In all, the initiatives were run in four Washington communities — Shelton, Sequim, Chelan and Blaine. Volunteers in each city spent the summer circulating petitions to their fellow residents, needing hundreds of verified signatures in order to qualify for a spot on the November ballot.
The effort in all four cities produced more than enough valid petitions, and the measures were then submitted to their city councils, which were required by law to either pass them directly or send them on to the voters.
Acting in concert with the public employee unions, however, all four councils cited potential legal problems with the initiatives and refused to let voters consider them.
On Wednesday, Finlay became the second judge to side with the cities and unions against the voters.
In her ruling, she said Proposition 2 was administrative rather than legislative in nature, rendering it outside the scope of the local initiative power. However, Judge Finlay left unexplained how and why Proposition 2’s new labor policy of free association was administrative.
Proposition 1, Finlay said, conflicted with state laws that keep the public from watching contract negotiations between Washington’s governor and the unions representing state employees.
“That’s a dangerous and unconvincing reading of the law,” said David Dewhirst, litigation counsel for the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based in Olympia that has supported the local volunteers and assisted with the lawsuit. “Under the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, collective bargaining negotiations can be closed to the public, but there’s no reason why they must be.”
Dewhirst said the two rulings, if allowed to stand, would effectively kill the right of local initiative in Washington.
“The whole point of initiatives and referendums is to give private citizens the ability to write and pass laws their elected representatives can’t or won’t,” he said. “It’s a long, arduous process to qualify a measure for the ballot, and even at that point it can still lose. But the decision should be left to the voters.”
Allowing city councils to block measures they don’t like simply by declaring them invalid, and forcing initiative supporters into court, he said, discourages activists from filing initiatives in the first place.
“Career politicians hate the idea of people writing their own laws,” Dewhirst said. “Killing initiatives by violating the law is nothing more than a way to keep the voters from having a say on issues important to voters.”
Union leaders from around the state marshaled their forces to keep the initiatives off the ballot in all four cities. Dewhirst said their objection to letting the voters decide was all the more hypocritical in light of the unions’ enthusiastic support of ballot initiatives when cities like SeaTac and Seattle were debating the $15 minimum wage.
“Considering Washington already has a statewide minimum wage,” he said, “I wonder why the unions haven’t noticed that local minimum wages contradict state law — the very argument Judge Finlay used to disqualify Proposition 1.”
Dewhirst said he’s waiting to see how a Chelan County court rules next month on a lawsuit in that community before deciding whether to appeal the decisions from Sequim and Shelton.