The city of Wenatchee has a statute granting its citizens the right of initiative, to make law by petition and a vote of the people. More accurately, we should not call it a right, but a privilege. Rights are inviolable. Privileges can be granted or withdrawn depending on the mood of those in authority. Currently, the mood is not accommodating to those clumsy, inconvenient and expensive citizen efforts to make law on their own.
Now, Wenatchee Initiative No. 1 is Initiative Zero. Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges ruled Friday that a local initiative cannot interfere with the authority granted by the Legislature to the City Council, to decide if and how red-light cameras can be used in the city. The initiative filed by Matt Erickson, his We The People Wenatchee and cohorts, is therefore moot even before signatures can be collected and submitted and, perhaps, the proposed law placed before voters.
This is, or was, the first initiative under the city’s law. It is shot down while nothing more than a pile of empty petitions. There may never be a Wenatchee Initiative No. 2 because, really, what’s the point?
This is not to say Bridges is mistaken. On that we should leave judgment to higher authority. The gist of the argument is the Legislature, when adopting a statute that allowed for the possibility of automated traffic citations and red-light cameras in this state, specifically left the issue to the “appropriate local legislative authority.” In this case, the judge said, that is the Wenatchee City Council. The authority is vested in the council and a local initiative cannot overturn or modify an act of the Legislature. We can’t — otherwise local petition-wavers could nullify state law in little disagreeable pockets. Chaos would ensue.
These issues were presented before the state Supreme Court this very day, as it heard oral arguments in the case of a Mukilteo anti-red-light-camera initiative. The issues are very similar to Wenatchee’s, except in that case the Superior Court judge allowed the matter to go to voters, who trounced the city’s red-light camera plan. The Supreme Court may or may not untrounce it. The pro-red-light forces argued that local initiatives have absolutely no authority to pass direct legislation relating to “traffic safety cameras.” No referendum to undo the statute, nothing. Cameras stand, unless the City Council says otherwise, they say.
To avoid these conflicts perhaps some enterprising person can go through the statutes and law and compile a list of rules that can’t be changed by local initiative. Probably, they mostly would be land-use decisions, the Growth Management Act, that kind of thing. There are laws beyond the power of citizen initiative — we cannot amend the state constitution on our own, for instance. A nice list might help avoid a lot of wasted time in the courtroom, and the appearance that the City Council, when faced with any initiative that might ruffle its legislative feathers, can just tell people to, well, shove it. Arbitrary denial of initiative rights is not endearing. Don’t call them rights.
What should bother us most is just how far the red-light camera defenders and investors and profit-makers wanted to take these restrictions. The First Amendment says Congress shall make “no law” infringing on the people’s right to petition the government. The state’s constitution says the right of petition “shall never be abridged.” The original order in the Wenatchee case, as presented to Judge Bridges for his signature, “enjoined” the troublesome petition hawkers from “taking any action to include proposed Wenatchee Initiative No. 1 on the ballot.” This presumably would include the collection of signatures on petitions. Bridges crossed that out. Signatures can be collected, he told Erickson. The initiative just can’t be submitted for the ballot.
“I’m not really happy with this,” Bridges said, as if striking an apologetic tone. Under the circumstances, that was the most appropriate legal comment of the day.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Tuesday through Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.