SeaTac Will Vote on Minimum Wage Initiative After All

Attorney Knoll Lowney argues in King County Superior Court in one of two hearings held Friday. King County said no, the Court of Appeals said yes.

Attorney Knoll Lowney argues in King County Superior Court in one of two hearings held Friday. King County said no, the Court of Appeals said yes.

OLYMPIA, Sept. 7.—A last-minute ruling by the state Court of Appeals Friday afternoon means SeaTac voters will get their say after all on a minimum-wage ballot measure of national significance, the first real test of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. It also may clarify once and for all how persnickety cities can be when they count signatures in initiative campaigns.

The decision was handed down without explanation an hour after the court heard oral arguments Friday afternoon – just in time for King County elections officials to dispatch ballots to the printer. Its decision ended six weeks of pre-election courtroom skirmishes over the minimum wage measure, which faces strong opposition from SeaTac’s business community. The so-called Good Jobs Initiative is backed by Working Washington, an organizing arm of the Service Employees International Union, and it has become a focus of agitation from activists and worried business owners alike.

Advocates celebrated the decision as a victory for voting rights – “it is a citizen’s right to vote,” said Brian White, who signed the petition in SeaTac but whose signature was tossed out because he failed to write the date after his name. “My intention was clear.”

Meanwhile  business-community leaders acknowledged that the campaign has entered a new phase and will move from the courtroom to the front stoop. Their new challenge is to attempt to convince a relative handful of voters that the measure is bad for business and for Sea-Tac International Airport, the driving force of the local economy. The measure would impose the nation’s highest minimum wage on the airport and terminal concessionaires, as well as nearby hotels, rental-car companies, and parking lot operators. It also would require mandatory sick leave and impose workplace rules that would give union organizing efforts a significant advantage.

Alaska Airlines, which joined the Washington Restaurant Association in challenging the initiative, says it has not decided whether to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. Other points of legal dispute remain untried in the case, and even if opponents drop their challenges to the signature-gathering process, other legal challenges seem sure to continue after the election if SeaTac voters say yes. Said Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan, “We continue to share the concerns of residents and businesses in SeaTac that creating the nation’s highest minimum wage of $15 an hour with a 63 percent pay raise would hurt them as well as the entry-level workers the initiative is intended to help.”

Last-Ditch Legal Struggle

The Court of Appeals in Seattle sits down to work Friday.

The Court of Appeals in Seattle sits down to work Friday.

The frantic courtroom battle was launched six weeks ago after King County elections officials certified that 1,780 valid signatures had been submitted during a campaign last May and June – just a tad over the 1,536 that are required. But after King County elections officials gave the thumbs-up, a city Petition Review Board found reason to throw out an additional 201 signatures. Still it was enough to win the measure a place on the ballot. Two weeks ago, King County Judge Andrea Darvas sided with opponents and threw out 61 more – leaving the measure 18 signatures shy of the number required. She ordered elections officials to remove it.

Two last-ditch hearings were held Friday in Seattle as the initiative’s advocates sought to reinstate the signatures. One effort, a new lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court against the city of SeaTac, was filed on behalf of White and another voters who had signed the petition but whose signatures had been thrown out. That suit was rejected by Judge Kimberly Prochnau Friday afternoon. But as the clocked ticked toward the 4:30 deadline, the Court of Appeals, in a separate motion, overturned the earlier decision by King County Judge Darvas in the Alaska Airlines case that the signatures were insufficient.

Because neither court released a full opinion, the reasoning behind the rulings is unclear. But the sharp questioning from the three-judge appeals panel made it clear that the jurists took a dim view of city ordinances that led so many signatures to be rejected. “What is up with that goofy ordinance?” asked Appeals Judge Stephen Dwyer. “It has the city clerk acting as a Superior Court judge by determining the legality of a petition, which is clearly contrary to case law. And instead of referring to the county auditor for determination of whether or not people are registered voters, [the city gives] that power to the police chief.”

Tossed Out on a Technicality

One of the key issues is a state law governing the counting of signatures in municipal initiative campaigns. It says that when a voter signs more than once, all signatures must be tossed, including the original. That was the fatal point in the initial King County ruling – Judge Darvas ruled that the law could not be ignored. It should be noted that a 1977 Supreme Court ruling, Sudduth v. Chapman, tossed out that requirement for statewide initiatives as an unconstitutional disenfranchisement of voters, but a 2010 ruling held that municipal initiatives may be treated differently. Arguments about whether the law can legally be applied to municipal initiatives have raged ever since. Earlier this year a judge in Cowlitz County decided municipal initiatives should be covered by the 1977 ruling, and that the duplicate-signature law is unconstitutional. But because the decision was not appealed, no precedent was recorded, and the same issues had to be argued anew before the Court of Appeals in the SeaTac matter.

Supporters of the initiative campaign argued that the rule denies voters their free-speech rights. They also argued that the city’s Petition Review Board acted improperly in throwing out signatures after King County already had ruled that the initiative met the test. It might be argued that the city took a bit too hard of a look when it second-guessed the county. For instance, some 145 of the signatures tossed out by the petition review board were flunked because signers failed to write the date alongside their names – many signers apparently used ditto marks. No city ordinance or state law required that the date be included. But the city’s reasoning was that another ordinance says signatures cannot be more than six months old – and without a date there was no way to tell. Yet the petition forms were not approved by the city until May of this year, meaning the signatures could not have been gathered before that time.

“It comes down to one thing,” argued attorney Dmitri Iglitzin, who represented the Yes for SeaTac Committee in both court hearings. “Do we side here today with an effort to respect the expressed desire of the 1,780 registered voters in the city of SeaTac to have Proposition 1 placed on the ballot in November, or do we seize upon legal arguments and technicalities to disenfranchise all 1,780 of those voters by avoiding letting the voters vote?”

Makes Common Cause

Pressing the signature case in King County Superior Court was noted liberal attorney Knoll Lowney, known for his vigorous prosecution of civil cases with a political bent. An irony here: On this one he found himself making the same arguments that conservative light-rail opponents did in Cowlitz County this year. “When the state gave the city of SeaTac the right of initiative, it was a fundamental right and it could not be abridged without a really good reason,” he said during the King County hearing. “The courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have found that when voters make a mistake like signing multiple times, it is an honest mistake, and that is why the Supreme Court has said that we need to follow procedures which don’t punish voters for honest mistakes.”

The city of SeaTac maintains that it acted properly in bouncing the signatures for technical reasons, but agrees the duplicate-signature rule is unconstitutional. Wayne Tanaka, representing the city, pointed out that the last 61 signatures were tossed by a judge, not by city officials. “The law has no reason,” he said. “There is no basis for the law, and if there is no reason or public purpose for the law, it is illegal.”

Because no opinions were issued Friday, it was unclear why the legal tactic worked at the Court of Appeals level but not in King County. It might have been an argument raised in the King County case by attorney Harry Correll, who represented Alaska Airlines and the Restaurant Association. He pointed out that the same issues had been decided by Judge Darvas at the same level, with plaintiffs who had a common identity. “The plaintiffs have been sitting back and watching and waiting for her to act, and when it goes a way they don’t like, they file a new case,” he said.

Campaign Will Proceed

Certainly it isn’t the end of the court fight. The suit from Alaska Airlines and the Restaurant Association maintains that the initiative violates the state constitution’s “single subject rule” for legislation, a point that has not yet been litigated, but which has brought down many an initiative. The suit also contends that the initiative is preempted by federal labor laws governing airlines and other common carriers.

But for now the campaign moves to the more traditional battleground of public opinion. The Common Sense SeaTac Committee, which is organizing the opposition, released a statement Friday: “SeaTac Prop 1 is a wide-ranging intrusion into private sector labor-management issues, perhaps more expansive than any single municipal ordinance in the United States.  But for the citizens of SeaTac, it’s not about ‘big business’ or ‘big labor,’ it’s about the unintended consequences – how the initiative will affect them and their city directly.  It’s time to move beyond the one-dimensional minimum wage story and explain to the public the implications of the whole initiative.”