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SeaTac’s $15 Minimum-Wage Initiative May Have Been Booted from Ballot – a Matter of 18 Signatures

From high atop the Sea-Tac Holiday Inn, a view of the nation's 15th busiest airport and one of the many commercial parking lots that ring the terminal.

From high atop the Sea-Tac Holiday Inn, a view of the nation’s 15th busiest airport and one of the many privately owned parking lots that ring the terminal.

UPDATED 10 a.m. Aug. 27 with new information about legal wrangling.

OLYMPIA, Aug. 26.—Looks like that momentous drive for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the city of SeaTac has hit a great big pothole – and it’s a little hard to tell at this point whether a judge’s decision in King County Superior Court represents a jolt or a head-first slam into the concrete.

Judge Andrea Darvas tossed out 61 signatures that had been filed for what advocates are calling the SeaTac Good Jobs initiative. That puts the campaign 18 signatures short of the number required to place the initiative on the November ballot. The judge ordered the city to withdraw its “certificate of sufficiency” and told the King County Elections Department to strike the measure from the November ballot. But there’s still a chance it may survive – the initiative’s backers plan an appeal, and intricacies of municipal procedure and elections law may or may not provide another out. Advocates submitted additional signatures Monday, apparently permissible under city ordinances, but city officials say it’s going to take a court order to get them to process them. Backers say they are on the way to court today. Meanwhile King County elections officials say it may take another court order for them to place the initiative on the ballot.

A great big legal mess? That’s what it sounds like. “I think there’s going to be a lot of argument about that, and we’re just going to have to see how this unfolds,” says Bruce Beckett of the Washington Restaurant Association, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

The stunning decision comes just as the spotlight has been turned to this small city of 27,000, where a national campaign for a $15 minimum wage faces its first real test. The initiative, backed by Working Washington, an organizing arm of the Service Employees International Union, would impose the nation’s highest minimum wage on Sea-Tac International Airport and the businesses located at the terminal, as well as the hotels, car-rental companies and parking lots that operate beyond the airport boundaries. Although the $15 minimum wage has become a rallying cry for activists nationwide and has become something of a litmus test for political candidates wishing to demonstrate their progressive leanings – it is favored by both candidates in the current Seattle mayoral election — SeaTac is the first city where the issue has actually has been sent to the ballot and a decision might be forced.

Highest in Country

SeaTac council votes to refer the initiative on the ballot July 23.

SeaTac council votes to refer the initiative to the ballot July 23.

The $15 minimum wage is 63 percent higher than Washington’s current $9.19 an hour, currently the highest state minimum wage in the country. San Francisco, it should be noted, has the highest municipal minimum wage, at $10.17. Advocates say the minimum doesn’t provide a living wage, and it just isn’t fair in a community dominated by the nation’s 15th-largest airport, an enterprise that generates billions annually in direct and indirect revenue. The city presents a ripe target, with just 12,000 voters and a poverty rate of 15.4 percent — higher than the King County average of 10.5 percent. And while the minimum wage is the attention-getting element of the initiative, there’s more to it – the measure also would require paid sick leave and make it more difficult for airlines to replace unionized in-house employees with non-union contractors. It also would provide an incentive for hotels and other businesses to open their doors to unionization by permitting exceptions to the rules only when a labor contract is in place. 

Just like the canvassers who gathered signatures for the initiative last May and June, SeaTac’s business community has been gearing up for a campaign that will take the issue to every front stoop in the city. Hotel operators, airport concessionaires and other business owners say they would be forced to lay off workers and cut back on services in order to meet the higher overhead costs. To this point the campaign has been looking like the biggest political battle the suburban city has faced since its incorporation in 1990: So far the two sides have raised a total of $441,365, according to reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

But while a battle has been queued up for the political arena, opponents have quietly been pressing a lawsuit that takes dead aim at the initiative itself. Alaska Airlines, the Restaurant Association and a Sea-Tac restaurant concessionaire filed suit in July on multiple grounds. Judge Darvas declined to take action before the SeaTac City Council referred the measure to the ballot.

The council’s July 23 decision eliminated that obstacle. In her decision Monday, Judge Darvas ruled only on one portion of the lawsuit – a challenge to the signatures collected for the initiative. By rejecting the 61 signatures, she completed a whittling-down process that eliminated more than 1,000 signatures and left the measure 18 signatures short of the 1,536 signatures that were required.  

Striking the Sigs

Back in June, advocates turned in 2,506 signatures – a comfortable margin of safety. But many could not be verified; another 668 were tossed on the grounds that they didn’t come from registered voters in the city of SeaTac and because of other legal deficiencies. King County found that 1,780 signatures were valid. A SeaTac Petition Review Board eliminated another 201. That left organizers a slim margin of 43 signatures.

In her opinion, Judge Darvas said Monday that the Petition Review Board had been too generous. State law and a city ordinance say that when a voter signs a petition more than once, all signatures should be rejected, originals included. The city counted the originals. Darvas said, “no authority has been cited for the proposition that a city is free to ignore its own municipal code, let alone a state law that has been enacted by the Legislature. Indeed, the law is to the contrary… Accordingly, the SeaTac Petition Review Board was in error when it reached the legal conclusion that the first signature of persons who signed the petition should be counted.”

But maybe it’s not so clear. Back in April, a Superior Court judge in Cowlitz County ruled that the duplicate-signature law was unconstitutional and ordered the city of Vancouver to count the original signatures on a similarly-flawed petition drive that had fallen short by 32 signatures. Last month, a different judge found other reasons to bar the anti-light rail initiative from the ballot. But there was one key point about that Cowlitz County ruling: The issue never made it to the state Court of Appeals, and so no precedent was recorded.

Not Over Yet

The Restaurant Association’s Beckett points out that by the time the authorities scrubbed the signatures, some 40 percent were tossed out — an almost unheard-of rejection rate. “This thing never had the level of public support that was touted,” he says. Even if advocates beat the signature rap, other issues remain in play and might be considered if the initiative passes. The  suit also argues that the initiative violates the state’s single-subject rule, and that it is preempted by federal rules governing airlines and other common carriers.

Despite the King County ruling, it is too soon to count this one as done. That’s because a SeaTac city ordinance states that when the city issues a certificate of insufficiency,  “the sponsor shall have 10 days from the date of the certificate in which to amend the petition by filing additional signed petitions.”

Backers say they have done exactly that. On Monday afternoon, just after the court ruling, they dropped off petitions containing another 250 signatures. But there are a couple of hitches. For one thing, the court order doesn’t order the city to issue a “certificate of insufficiency” — it just says that the city has to withdraw the certificate of sufficiency that it issued in July. For another, the ruling is “pretty heavy handed,” says SeaTac city attorney Mary Mirante Bartolo — it tells city officials and King County elections officials precisely what to do, and the city isn’t going to do anything in defiance. The city ordinance might be read as a procedure that applies in ordinary cases, and not when signatures have been thrown out by a judge. The ruling is silent on whether there is any sort of a “cure period” in this case. “Until we get a court order telling us to process those signatures, we are not going to be able to process them,” she says.

So now backers are going back to court today to seek clarification and a court order. “We’re spending a lot of time trying to clean this up, and that’s just what the opposition wants us to do,” says Heather Weiner, spokesperson for the campaign.

And then there is a question of elections deadlines. Aug. 6 was the deadline for the city to refer initiatives to the ballot — and as a result of the judge’s order, the measure is now off the ballot, says Kim Van Eckstrom, spokeswoman for the King County Elections Department. So can the city re-refer the matter to the ballot? At a hearing last week on the issue, attorneys argued that the deadline for a re-referral was Sept. 6, though it is unclear under what legal authority. Van Eckstrom said the county is already printing ballots for the November election — and it will take another court order to the elections department to permit a re-referral.

And then there are other procedural hurdles. If organizers gather additional signatures, they must be reviewed and verified by the King County Elections Department, the Petition Review Board must rule again, and then the city council must take another vote to send the matter to the ballot. Even if the deadline is Sept. 6., the city council isn’t scheduled to have a regular meeting until Sept. 10, a special meeting of the council would have to be called.

Forschler notes that it takes three members of the council to call a special meeting. That may not be an issue, given that three members were elected in 2011 with strong financial backing from the Service Employees International Union and UNITE HERE — perhaps better known under its former name as the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. But will a majority of the seven-member council go along with it?  Last time the issue came up, on advice from counsel, all seven members said they were compelled to vote yes. Yet there have been cases where city councils have found legal arguments to reject initiatives even when sufficient signatures have been gathered, as with initiative promoter Tim Eyman’s city-by-city campaign two years ago to force public votes on red-light cameras. If the council says no, advocates might sue – but a resolution in time to meet ballot deadlines is an iffy proposition. No telling how this one will turn out, Forschler says. “It’s going to be a push.”   

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