Wenatchee did it. By convincing a court to shield it from those annoying petition-hawking citizens wanting to second-guess the City Council, Wenatchee has become a model for municipalities facing an inconvenient wave of public opinion. Wenatchee showed them the way.
Made it look easy, as a matter of fact. With an approving vote of the City Council, Wenatchee installed red-light cameras and signed a contract with an Arizona traffic-camera company to issue automated citations to red-light runners. Incensed citizen Matt Erickson filed Initiative No. 1, the first in the city’s history, to overturn the decision. The city, with an assist from the red-light camera company lawyers (this is not about the money!), went to Chelan County Superior Court asking that pesky Erickson be ordered to cease and desist and stick his petitions in some dark hole, never to be seen again. All this came before signatures had been collected or submitted. Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges agreed that Initiative No. 1 was beyond the scope of the people’s power, as it interfered with an act of the state Legislature, which vested the power to decide on red-light cameras with local legislative authority, the City Council in this case.
Other communities that have or want red-light cameras (for public safety purposes!), facing initiatives and potential electoral thrashings, saw the Wenatchee ruling and breathed a sigh of relief. They see the way out.
The Monroe City Council did. The city had red-light cameras, then it had an initiative. Signatures were gathered and submitted to the Snohomish County Auditor, which certified the initiative. The signatures represented nearly two-thirds of Monroe’s voters, backers said. Last week the City Council went into executive session, emerged and voted unanimously to declare the initiative invalid. It will go to court asking the inititiative be trashed based on the Wenatchee model. There are similar initiative efforts under way in Bellingham, Longview and Redmond, which may face similar legal blockades.
The primary legal issue is not settled. The state Supreme Court has heard a Mukilteo case with arguments similar to Wenatchee’s, and has yet to rule. We will see. What is certain is how arrogant and imperial city councils appear when denying voters a chance to overrule their decision, especially one that authorizes the harvesting of traffic fines by out-of-state companies with spy cameras (I mean automated safety devices). In Monroe’s case, the council voted to go to court to stop an initiative already signed by the majority of their voters. In Wenatchee the city asked the court to forbid the gathering of petition signatures altogether. The court refused that, but forbid petitions be filed.
While we all await the Supreme Court’s decision, people in Monroe joined in the spirit of this legal loopholing and Wednesday filed a new initiative. It would require a public advisory vote on red-light cameras in every municipal election cycle, to repeat as long as the city keeps the cameras in use. That will be a quantum leap in annoyance, but cities reap what they sow. The City Council will have the chance to appear obstinate on a regular basis.
Better it would have been just to let the anti-camera petitions run through Wenatchee, and if there were enough signatures, let there be a vote. Chances are Wenatchee’s law-abiding nature would come through and people would vote to keep the red-light cameras. That’s how my vote would go. If not, then the Supreme Court might invalidate the initiative anyway. We have had initiatives passed and invalidated by the courts many times before, and it was not the end of the world.
Blocking public votes by judicial decree makes the whole thing bigger than it needs to be. It’s not just about cameras anymore.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Tuesday through Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.