Initiative 124 sends Council down procedural rat-hole

Initiative 124, which provides several kinds of protections for Seattle hotel workers, has been certified by the City Clerk that it has enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Getting it from here to there, however, sent the Council off into a cloud of confusion today.

According to city ballot initiative rules, now that the initiative has been certified, it goes in front of the City Council, where one of four things can happen:

  1. The Council can decide that it’s a wonderful idea and vote it directly into law.
  2. The Council can pass a different ordinance as an alternative under the same title, in which case they both appear on the next available ballot and the voters can choose between them.
  3. The Council can reject the initiative, in which case it goes to the next ballot.
  4. The Council can do nothing, which is the equivalent of rejecting it and it still goes to the next ballot.

Currently the next available ballot is in November, but the deadline for getting something onto that ballot is Monday, August 1st — and there are two Full Council meetings now between today and that deadline.  That presents some challenges because the Council’s official procedures require a 7-day delay between introduction of an ordinance and the Council’s final vote on it, to allow for public notice and its own deliberations.

Option #3, rejecting the initiative but moving it forward to the ballot, doesn’t require an ordinance; it only requires a “resolution” which can be introduced and voted upon the same day if necessary (though it rarely happens for anything substantial). But Options #1 and #2 are ordinances and require the longer timeframe.

Council President Harrell, upon being notified this morning that I-124 had been certified,  realized that time is of the essence and wanted to get the Council moving the paperwork forward to make sure they beat the August 1st deadline. His office drafted a resolution to move I-124 onto the ballot and amended today’s Introduction and Referral Calendar to get it officially introduced this afternoon so it could be voted on next week — with another week to spare just in case. That part was pretty straightforward and sailed through.

But Council member Sawant wants the Council to vote the initiative directly into law, rather than just move it forward onto the ballot. Knowing that the Harrell’s resolution is on pace to be considered next week, she optimally needs an ordinance to be up for consideration at the same time — because once the Council puts it on the ballot, it won’t consider any of the other options.

The fastest way for her to get an ordinance introduced is to have the “clerk file” (319639)  released that contains a copy of the initiative text (which serves as an ordinance) and the certification of sufficient voters. So she moved this afternoon to do just that. And that’s when everything went haywire.

As Council member Burgess pointed out this afternoon, the Council has only voted an initiative directly into law three times: in 1974, 1982 and 1997. But 1972 was the only time it did so by voting on the initiative text in the clerk file; the other two times it introduced a separate ordinance with the text of the initiative so that it could go through the Council’s regular process, amendments could be considered, and the public would have the opportunity for comment along the way. So there is exactly one 44-year-old precedent for what Sawant is asking the Council to do. As she pointed out this afternoon, that alone is not a good reason not to do it if it’s the right thing to do, but to Burgess’s point it is a departure from the Council’s best practice.

Chaos ensued as the Council tried to sort out all these issues in the course of their meeting this afternoon. Their staff attorney was called in, but he reminded them that this initiative is extremely contentious — even the initiative’s title has been challenged — and he told them “no matter what you do, there is a likelihood of litigation.” Several organizations have already been lobbying against the initiative, apparently including the ACLU.

Even though it was fairly clear to the Council members that releasing the clerk file would not bind them to vote it into law next week, the fact that they couldn’t get legal advice today as to whether doing so changes the landscape for litigation made most of them very nervous and unwilling to take that step. In the end, Sawant’s motion to release the clerk file failed, 2-6: Sawant and Juarez voted for it, and Gonzalez was absent today.

So what happens next? Next Monday the clerk file will get released as a matter of routine. Monday morning there will likely be an executive session for the Council with its attorneys to discuss their options. Based on its outcome, they will have a robust discussion over whether they would prefer to move the initiative to the November ballot, vote the current initiative into law as it’s currently written, or introduce a new ordinance and try to craft their own modified version of the initiative. My guess is that much will happen between now and then, including an enormous amount of outside lobbying to try to convince the Council members that the current initiative text is not acceptable — so that they opt not to vote it directly into law. From there the calculus gets even more complicated: if the anti-124 forces don’t believe they can defeat it at the polls, they will push the Council to rush through an alternative version. On the other hand, if the pro-124 forces believe that they have the votes to pass it in November, they may choose not to push  the Council too hard to legislate and instead just encourage them to authorize if for the ballot.

The big question is how many Council members will support I-124 once they have had time to study it. You can expect that many Council staff members will be burning the midnight oil studying up on the initiative over the next few days so they can brief their bosses. We’ll know more in a week. In the meantime, given what is expected to play out next Monday in Council chambers, we should expect the factions on both sides to argue this in the court of public opinion this week.