Initiative/Referendum no sure thing at Sammamish City Council despite 10 pt win at polls

If anyone thought that the Sammamish City Council will honor voter wishes after a 55%-45% victory at the polls in an April advisory vote, it looks like this faith in government may well be premature.

Even though there was a consensus expressed informally at the Council’s January retreat that they would follow the wishes of voters, and despite the assurances of Mayor Tom Vance to local newspapers on several occasions that he couldn’t see the Council going against voter wishes, Vance has since been walking back these assurances and the June 15 study session did nothing to provide assurances.

Deputy Mayor Kathy Huckabay, a staunch opponent to granting Sammamish citizens the right of initiative and referendum, flatly stated there had been no assurances the Council would follow voter wishes.

She then went on to use an argument often used by opponents to a measure that passes over their objections: voter turnout was low and voters were, essentially, too stupid to understand what they were voting, or not voting, for.

Alarmingly, Council Member Bob Keller, a close ally of Huckabay, Vance and Council Member Tom Odell, each of whom also oppose the initiative, sided with Huckabay on the voting argument.

Twice Keller said during the June 15 Council meeting that the vote was “close,” despite the 10 point margin of victory.

Keller told this column after the results he “planned” to honor the result.

Now it’s not clear what he will do. He is the swing vote, with Council Members Don Gerend, Nancy Whitten and Ramiro Valderrama previously saying they will honor the voter wishes. Keller is a member of what’s become known as the Gang of 4, voting together as a bloc on most issues.

The City Council set a special election in April for the Advisory Vote, and this was the only issue on the ballot. Elected officials know full well that special elections usually produce a low voter turnout compared with tying a local issue to a general election ballot in November. Thus it was no surprise that there was only about a 24% turnout.

But 55% of the voters said they wanted the right of initiative and referendum, a greater margin than the 53% of the voters who said they wanted a $33m Community Center. Huckabay, who has been on the YMCA board and who supported a YMCA-run City-owned Community Center, was fine with this margin. So was Keller, who chaired a citizens committee in favor of the Community Center. That vote was concurrent with the November 2012 presidential election, and while the top of the ballot brought out a voter turnout of more than 80%m (typical in Sammamish), there was a voter drop off on races and issues further down the ballot. More than 5,000 voters did not cast a vote in the Community Center issue.

Opponents tried to argue that this essentially invalidated the Community Center vote, a suggestion I found ridiculous at the time even though I opposed the measure on procedural grounds. With a seven point margin of victory, Sammamish voters were clear they wanted a Community Center. (The margin was higher than President Obama’s national victory and Jay Inslee’s margin for Washington governor.)

But having stacked the deck in the Initiative and Advisory vote by choosing April for a special election, keeping news out of the City newsletter (which I’ve written about), and engaging in a stealth campaign led by Huckabay against the issue, Huckabay, now joined by Keller, are using a low turnout to raise doubts about the outcome.

The Council meets July 7, ostensibly for the first reading of an ordinance to adopt the Initiative and Referendum. But the vibes are anything but positive.

3 thoughts on “Initiative/Referendum no sure thing at Sammamish City Council despite 10 pt win at polls

  1. I moved to Sammamish a year ago (almost to the date) and have held off commenting on local politics until now in order to attempt to better understand the dynamics. After observing for a year, it is easy to see that the Initiative/Referendum movement has been one of the most hotly debating local political issues that I have been privy to.

    Before responding directly to the valid questions raised regarding city council honoring the wishes of the city’s citizens expressed through a legitimate vote with a clear cut outcome, I would like to pose a few questions:

    1.) Despite witnessing obvious public and personal opinions on the Initiative/Referendum movement itself I cannot help but see a greater problem at hand. The citizens of Sammamish have obvious disagreement with and disapproval of city council opinions and actions. How then, have city council members not been replaced by other candidates? Despite the mention of a “typical” voter turnout of nearly 80% (an utterly astounding percentage), I read about a revolving door of names listed as council members or candidates. Have no new faces stepped forward from an obviously politically-active community?

    2.) In regards to the council’s apparent distaste for the Initiative/Referendum movement, can you blame them? Often times proponents balk at legislators and local officals’ claims that the Initiative/Referendum hinders their ability to govern in a responsible and timely fashion, a great deal of legitimacy rests in that claim. In many ways, we saw/are seeing the effects of this legitimacy at the state level. Fears of Tim Eyman-like initiatives are valid. No adoption of Initiative/Referendum movement has come about without the idealistic notion that it would serve as an additional check against unfavorable officials, along with the electoral process. The reality however, is that the system inevitable becomes too bogged down by Initiative powerhouses (i.e. Tim Eyman) or Big Money interest groups for the legitimate initiatives/referendums to gain traction. Again, there is – in my opinion – NO greater check over elected officials than the ability to vote them out of office.

    I do hope that a response is given – especially one with differing opinions as those are the most fun. I have waiting an entire year before diving into the politics of a city I have quickly come to love.

    To bring an obtusely long comment to an end, I would like to thank you immensely for creating a political commentary and forum such as this site.


    -Connor Griffin

    • Conner,

      The 80% turnout is in a presidential election year. On off-year, city council elections (the “odd year” elections), turnout is about 45%.

      That said, whether a race is contested is directly related to what’s going on at the time. If there are no burning issues, then unopposed candidates are likely. When there are burning issues, then there are usually contested elections. Two years ago, two of the three races were unopposed and the third was token opposition. Since then, this City Council has practiced benign neglect on a number of issues: King County’s bullying of property owners on the north end of the East Lake Sammamish Trail, in which excessive numbers of trees were removed, environmental violations occurred, and trail construction damaged property and even effectively eliminated garage access to some property owners. It wasn’t until this column did an investigative report in January 2015 about the willful neglect on the part of the city that action was taken.

      The city’s “emergency tree” ordinance was a belated reaction to developer violations of the existing tree ordinance.

      Benign neglect of neighborhood barricade issues came to a head this year, with little action taken since.

      The city’s stealth campaign to undermine information and discussion of the initiative is a classic example of voter suppression (after which, the leader of this stealth campaign, Kathy Huckabay, had the temerity to complain about low voter turnout as a reason to undermine the outcome).

      The leadership of this city council has done everything possible to isolate council members Nancy Whitten and Ramiro Valderrama, who have been squeaky wheels and routinely challenged the leadership on these and other issues.

      I actually agree with you about the abuse of Initiative by Tim Eyman and Big Money at the state level, and so wrote on several occasions. However, given the control of the council by the Gang of 4, aided and abetted by the Administration (which famously knows how to count to four), this abuse of power and neglect of the public trust persuaded me to endorse the Initiative as a means of a check-and-balance.

      As for voting people out, each of the three races is contested this year: incumbents Tom Vance and Ramiro Valderrama are up. Incumbent Whitten decided not to seek a fourth term. Vance is the mayor and his leadership is a key part of the problem (along with Huckabay, who is not up for election this year). Valderrama challenges the leadership and the status quo, and Vance, Huckabay and other members of the Gang of 4 oppose his reelection. The Gang of 4 hopes to become the Gang of 7, supporting Valderrama’s opponent (and in fact recruiting Hank Klein to run against him); and a former city councilman, Mark Cross, who is running for Whitten’s seat against newcomer Christie Malchow. Cross and Klein endorsed Vance, who cross-endorsed them; and council members Huckabay, Bob Keller and Tom Odell have endorsed Vance over opponent Tom Hornish; and some (not sure about all yet) endorsed Cross and Klein.

      In other words, this election is about bringing in new blood with new approaches or preserving the status quo of poor leadership, benign neglect and reactive rather than proactive policies.


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