Corporate Lobbyists Puppetting Council President Stuckart In Next Attempt to Interfere with Citizen Rights

MEDIA RELEASE – Spokane (12/8/2015) – In the latest attempt by corporations to effectively eliminate citizens’ right to direct democracy through the constitutional right of initiative, City Council President Stuckart is seriously entertaining a request from Greater Spokane Incorporated (GSI), Avista, the Spokane Home Builders Association, and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), to amend the Spokane City Charter to increase the required petition signatures to qualify a charter amendment initiative by 400%.

In addition, Stuckart is proposing legislation to overhaul the municipal code for initiative and referendum. Such changes would include cutting the signature-gathering period in half and requiring all petition signature gatherers to disclaim that they’ve witnessed each signature.

In the 100+ year history of Spokane’s initiative and referendum process, it is believed that there have only been five charter amendments ever qualified for the ballot, with only one of those passing. The one that passed was in 1987, which required that a proposed sale of parkland be put to the vote of the people.

This is just the latest round in a string of actions by corporate interests over the last eight years to interfere with citizen rights. The Spokane Homebuilders, GSI, and other industry groups have used corporate lobbying, campaign spending in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and litigating, all to thwart people exercising their right to direct democracy.

Below is a short history of what has transpired over the last eight years in response to citizen legislative proposals to increase neighborhood decision making power over development, protections for the Spokane River, worker rights, including addressing income inequality, and eliminate corporations ability to lobby or influence elections:

2008-2009

  • Attempted exposé by the Spokane Homebuilders Association to discredit individual members of Envision Spokane that were working on a Community Bill of Rights citizen initiative (Envision Spokane publicized the effort and the investigation stopped)
  • Public records request filed by the Spokane Homebuilders Association in an attempt to find impropriety against a board member of Envision Spokane who is a public employee
  • Attempted legal challenge by the Spokane City Council, led by then-Councilor Al French, to block the Community Bill of Rights from being on the ballot (the effort was thwarted by pressure from the public and Envision Spokane)
  • Ballot advisory questions, proposed by Al French and adopted by the City Council, insinuating that taxes will go up and services will be cut if voters support the Community Bill of Rights (the City Council voted to place the questions on the ballot ahead of the Community Bill of Rights citizen initiative, significantly affecting the vote; the Spokesman-Review referred to the advisory questions as “poison pills”)
  • $350,000 of corporate money raised to defeat the Community Bill of Rights (80% of monies came from corporate interests outside Spokane)
  • Overhaul of the initiative and referendum process introduced by Al French (tabled by the City Council under pressure from the public and Envision Spokane)

2011-2012

  • Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin proposed a series of advisory questions similar to those put forward in 2009 (facing public pressure, the City Council voted them down 4 to 3)
  • Corporate interests raised $125,000 to defeat the Community Bill of Rights initiative; a 1000 vote swing would’ve passed the Community Bill of Rights
  • An overhaul of the initiative and referendum process was re-introduced by City Councilors Steve Salvatori and Mike Fagan (despite overwhelming public testimony at an open-house and City Council meeting opposing the overhaul, the Council voted 4 to 3 to make it more difficult for citizens to qualify an initiative for the ballot)

2013

  • A resolution to authorize the mayor to take legal action against the Community Bill of Rights was sponsored by City Councilors Mike Allen, Nancy McLaughlin, and Steve Salvatori (facing significant public pressure, the Council voted against the resolution 4 to 3)
  • Legal challenge filed by Spokane County Commissioners, led by Commissioner Al French, City Councilmembers Allen, Salvaotori, and McLaughlin, and every major corporate lobbyist group in Spokane
  • Judge Maryann Moreno struck the dully-qualified Community Bill of Rights initiative from the ballot, denying the right of the people’s vote; the corporate-backed ongoing litigation (the case is currently in front of the Washington Supreme Court) is estimated to be in excess of $250,000; the City of Spokane, forced by the corporate interests into the litigation, has hired outside legal assistance, which is estimated to have cost taxpayers $75,000 to date.

2015

  • Spokane Mayor Condon, at the urging of Spokane’s corporate interests, sued, using citizen tax dollars, to keep the Worker Bill of Rights citizen initiative off the ballot. Judge Salvatore Cozza denied the challenge and secured the ballot vote for the Worker Bill of Rights
  • Council President Stuckart proposed, and was part of the majority City Council vote to place advisory questions on the ballot insinuating that taxes will go up and services will be cut if voters support the Worker Bill of Rights; these “poison pills” affected the vote
  • Corporate interests disclosed raising nearly $250,000 to defeat the Worker Bill of Rights at the ballot (98% of campaign funds came from corporations).
  • Council President Stuckart, at the request of GSI, Spokane Homebuilders, Avista, and BOMA, is suggesting raising the signature qualification threshold for charter amendment initiatives to 20% of votes cast in the proceeding general election. This amounts to a 400% increase in initiatives proposed in odd numbered election years or requiring 20,000 to qualify a charter amendment initiative. In addition Council President Stuckart is proposing cutting the signature gathering period in half (from 365 days to 180) and that all signature gatherers must disclaim that they witnessed every signature on their petition sheet.

Council President Stuckart

Endorsed for re-election by the Spokane Home Builders Association, Stuckart explained in a recent communication that the Home Builders, GSI, Avista, and the BOMA have proposed to him that the signature threshold should be raised to 20% when a charter amendment is proposed through the initiative process. He has brought that proposal to the full City Council.

Practically speaking, to qualify a citizen initiative in an odd numbered election year requires (on average) 5,000 signatures. If Spokane voters were to approve increasing the threshold to 20% that would mean 20,000 signatures would be needed, which is equal to approximately 40% of total voter turnout in an odd numbered general election.

Stuckart is also sponsoring legislation that would significantly change the municipal code for initiative and referendum (Chapter 2). Besides minor housekeeping changes sprinkled in, one of the deep substantive changes would be to cut the signature-gathering period from 365 days to 180 days.

In 2015 there were three citizen initiatives that could have qualified for the ballot, but only one did – the Worker Bill of Rights (known to voters as City of Spokane Proposition 1). The other two initiatives used the full 365 days to gather signatures yet they were still unable to gather enough valid signatures.

This is the third time after a vote and loss at the ballot of a local Bill of Rights initiative that the City Council has considered an overhaul to the initiative process.

In 2012, the City Council voted in favor of overhauling the citizen initiative process, adopting the proposal put forward by then Councilman Al French in 2009. Council President Stuckart voted against those changes in 2012 as well as having proposed an alternative version that substantively kept the process as is – pro-citizen.

In a Spokesman-Review article by Mike Prager dated May 1, 2012 titled “Council Revamps Initiative Process” he reported, “Council President Ben Stuckart said involvement of the homebuilders organization in the initiative issue was troublesome.”

“It is crystal clear that what is happening here is a political attack on a single organization – Envision Spokane – and in doing so, if successful, would render a large chunk of the citizen process of direct democracy comatose,” said Kai Huschke, with Envision Spokane.

“Anyone who believes in the Washington State constitutional right of citizen initiative, regardless if they support Envision Spokane initiatives or not, should be offended and outraged at the blatant collusion between powerful corporate lobbyists and the City Council President to effectively nullify the people of Spokane’s right to amend the people’s charter.”

Communication of Stuckart-corporate alliance

Draft changes to the municipal code on initiative and referendum