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Change of government challenge for the State Legislature

The city council and proponents of the change-of-government initiative have succeeded in setting a ballot date, and a challenge, that depends on the actions of the state legislature in Olympia.

The final motion passed by the city council Tuesday night set a May 19, 2009 ballot date for the measure which could turn the current mayor-council city government into the council-manager form of government.

However, the measure depends on the actions of the state legislature to change a law (RCW 35A.06.050) that requires Washington cities to hold a change-of-government referendum on a November ballot - the same time that island citizens will vote to elect a new mayor.

The motion will require the mayor and council to actively lobby the state legislature in their opening January session to change the law restricting change-of-government referendums.

Dennis Vogt, the organiser of the change-of-governement petition which was certified by the county auditor in October, spoke to the numerous conflicts the current law imposes on cities such as Bainbridge.

"It's unfair to mayor candidates because they don't know whether they will have an office to win," Vogt said. "The community suffers because this will winnow the pool of potential mayor candidates. Voters who would like to change the form of government, they may vote yes, then they have to support a mayor in case the initiative loses."

It is because of these inherant problems that Vogt backed a move to set the May election date. However, he also agreed the law needed to be changed at a state level before the vote happens.

"This law has never been tested," Vogt said. If the vote happend outside of November "it's not clear what kind of litigation could occur."

Council member Debbie Vancil spoke of the worse-case senarios if the city were to pull off a change-of-government election outside of the state-required Novemeber date.

"We're the first Washington city to encounter this law and reveal its flaws," Vancil said. "If we go ahead and (conduct an election), we could be challenged for having an illegitimate city government, anything that we passed could be challenged."

The motion to set a May election passed unanimously, but is contingent on follow-up by the council and mayor to lobby the legislature on changing the state laws. The council discussed the possibility of hiring a lobbyist to ensure an emergency measure would pass and be signed by the Governor before the May election.

If the state legislature does not change the state laws pertaining to change-of-government elections, the city will hold its election on the required November 2009 date.

"I've been an advocate of the city manager form of government since I've been a council member," Kjell Stoknes said. "But I do think we have a very difficult road ahead of us."

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