Judge rejects Condon’s attempt to block vote on worker rights

August 14, 2015 – Spokesman-Review – Nick Deshais

A Superior Court judge on Thursday denied Spokane Mayor David Condon’s request to block Envision Spokane’s Worker Bill of Rights from appearing on the Nov. 3 ballot, saying that the state Supreme Court generally rules against preventing an election from occurring.

“There is a process that the court has to give some respect to,” said Judge Salvatore Cozza.

Cozza’s ruling brings some certainty, for the time being, for Envision, Condon and Spokane County Auditor Vicki Dalton, who is facing a Sept. 3 deadline to print ballots. All parties asked the judge to act quickly, and by ruling from the bench after hearing 30 minutes of oral arguments, with no recess, he complied.

“I certainly appreciate that time is of the essence,” he said.

The latest measure put forth by Envision Spokane – the group’s fourth to qualify for the ballot – would amend the city charter to require large employers to pay workers a “family wage,” ensure equal pay for equal work regardless of gender or race and add protections against termination. The measure would make the rights of corporations secondary to people’s rights.

Cozza’s decision follows a flurry of court briefs filed by Envision and the city this week, in which they laid out their arguments.

Condon and the city, represented by special counsel Michael Ryan, depended on an opinion made by the city’s hearing examiner in April, which called the initiative “legally flawed.” The examiner’s written opinion called into question the measure’s fourth “right” regarding the subordination of corporate powers, saying it exceeded “the jurisdictional limits of the initiative power.”

Envision’s attorney, Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, argued that the mayor doesn’t have the authority to prevent the measure from reaching the ballot, and that only a supermajority of City Council members can block an initiative from appearing before voters.

Cozza rejected Envision’s argument, saying that the mayor does have the power to “initiate and control litigation.” He also rejected the city’s argument that the corporate subordination clause was unconstitutional, saying such an argument had no bearing on his decision.

An initiative’s constitutionality, he said, “is not grounds to prevent an election from going forward.”

Still, Cozza acknowledged that the corporate provision wasn’t without problems. He said the initiative’s other “rights” regarding wages and employment issues are “within the scope and proper subject of legislation,” pointing to recent votes on minimum wage on the West Side. Regardless, he said, the court had no power or precedent to edit an initiative or amend a ballot title.

As such, Cozza expected the case to make its way through the legal system, much like Envision’s 2013 initiative, which was challenged by a coalition of government representatives and business groups. The 2013 initiative was booted from the ballot by Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno, a ruling overturned by a state appellate court. It’s currently pending before the state Supreme Court.

This measure “may very well end up in the same situation,” Cozza said.

Envision Spokane has collected enough signatures to place a bill of rights on the ballot four times starting in 2009. Voters rejected it twice.

In a statement after the ruling, Condon said filing suit was not something the city took “lightly.”

He reiterated the hearing examiner’s opinion that the initiative was flawed but made no mention of a potential appeal.

“The hearing examiner’s opinion identified legal flaws that we determined were best evaluated by a judge because placing a legally flawed measure on the ballot leaves taxpayers vulnerable to costly litigation that arises out of enforcing an invalid initiative,” Condon said.

Ryan, the city’s counsel, asked the judge to immediately petition the state appellate court to hear the case and rule quickly, if the city did decide to appeal. Cozza agreed.

“At this time, the city has made no decision to appeal,” Ryan said after the ruling. “All this does is preserve my client’s rights.”

Brad Read, Envision’s campaign manager, applauded Cozza’s decision, though he admitted he couldn’t “track” where the judge was heading during the proceeding.

“I thought we were going down,” Read said.

Read accused the mayor of acting on behalf of powerful interests but was satisfied that the judge was “ultimately reasonable.”

“The nobility rang the bell. This time it didn’t work,” he said. “But the nobility hasn’t exhausted all their bells yet.”

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