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Turf petition held up

t Proposed law won’t be on the November ballot.

Voters may get their say over artificial turf fields on Bainbridge Island, but a few fake-grass fields may already be finished by the time they do.

The City Council voted 3-2 (Bill Knobloch and Kim Brackett opposed, Chris Snow and Debbie Vancil were absent) not to place on the November ballot a citizen initiative that would ban artificial turf and impose a half-cent sales tax to pay for natural grass fields.

The proposed ban was introduced by islander Chris Van Dyk and signed by about 1,100 people. Van Dyk presented the petition to the council last month, in hopes it would be forwarded to the county for placement on the general election ballot this fall.

Instead, it will go to the council’s Land Use Committee, which will craft language for a possible ballot measure in February. Rather than a traditional initiative in which citizens vote directly on whether to enact legislation, this would be a non-binding advisory vote that would still require a typical ordinance process and approval by the council.

It also would come too late to stop work on two separate artificial turf field projects. One is already under way at Bainbridge High School; the other, for two artificial grass fields at Battle Point Park, is in the permitting process.

Still, Van Dyk said he wants the push to continue, since it’s likely other artificial turf fields will be proposed in the future.

“It’s entirely unfortunate that three city councilors chose to ignore the citizens’ constitutional right to initiative,” Van Dyk said.

Councilors based their decision on legal advice from city and other attorneys who said the island government doesn’t have the authority to place citizen initiatives or referendums on the ballot; those powers are available to cities, but must be formally adopted, something that hasn’t happened on Bainbridge.

As a result, City Attorney Paul McMurray said, any initiative the council chose to forward to the county would be prone to legal challenge.

Van Dyk, who started the website plasticfieldsfornever.org, said he is considering a legal challenge of his own to counter the council’s decision. A lawsuit would have to happen quickly, since the deadline for submitting November ballot measures is Aug. 12; the deadline for February ballot measures is Dec. 12.

“This is a councilperson’s nightmare,” Chair Bill Knobloch said. “My dilemma as a councilperson is not being able to ignore 1,100 signatures.”

Knobloch agreed the council shouldn’t place the issue on the ballot as an initiative, but he and Councilwoman Kim Brackett thought an advisory vote would provide a good alternative.

“I think that’s a real compromise,” Brackett said. “A significant number of people took the time to talk to Mr. Van Dyk and sign the petition.”

According to the Kitsap County election officials, an advisory vote would cost the city between $40,000 and $60,000, depending how many other districts hold elections – and as a result share costs – in February; a general election would cost less, typically about $10,000.

Other council members worried about the legal implications of forwarding the initiative as is.

“I really believe we cannot lawfully honor this petition because we just do not have the legal authority at this time to entertain initiative and referendum votes,” Councilman Barry Peters said.

Councilman Kjell Stoknes agreed that the city had enough reason to keep the resolution off the ballot.

“When we get legal advice from three different sources, we should follow that,” he said.

Attorneys at the nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, which offers legal advice to municipalities around the state, concurred with the opinions of McMurray and lawyers from Seattle firm GordonDerr.

They said that even if the city had the authority to place the initiative on the ballot, Van Dyk was mistakenly operating under the assumption that he needed the signatures of 10 percent of registered voters on the island, rather than the requisite 15 percent.

According to MRSC, it’s not uncommon for cities in Washington to not have adopted powers of initiative and referendum; of 188 “code” cities – the designation into which Bainbridge fits – only 50 have formally adopted them.

The city still could do so, though not concurrently with a specific initiative.

One way to make the change is by a citizen petition requiring 50 percent of the votes cast in the last general election. It could also happen by resolution of the council.

Van Dyk argued that citizens’ rights to the initiative process are in the state Constitution.

He said he hopes the proposal will go before voters eventually.

Even if voters approved a ban in February, Van Dyk said, it wouldn’t likely impact the fields being planned or installed now.

But it would have repercussions on future fields here and elsewhere, he said.

“This is a broad issue that goes well beyond Bainbridge Island,” he said.

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