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Bainbridge change of government vote set for steep climb

The Bainbridge City Council and proponents of the change-of-government initiative have succeeded in setting a ballot date of May 19, 2009 – contravening state laws regulating referendum dates.

A vote on the initiative could change the current mayor-council form of government to the council-manager system.

However, the date is contingent on the state Legislature changing applicable election laws at a time when it is dealing with its own financial crisis.

The special referendum could also cost the city a significant amount of money in a time of fiscal constraint.

The issue hinges on the actions of the Legislature to amend a law (RCW 35A.06.050) that requires Washington cities to hold a change-of-government referendums during a November general election – at the same time island citizens will vote to elect a new mayor.

The law was originally put in place to save municipalities the heavy costs they incur when they hold special referendums.

According to Kitsap County Election Manager Delores Gilmore, the City of Bainbridge could pay as much as $70,000 if the measure is on a May ballot. If the issue were on a November general election ballot, as ordered by state law, the measure could cost the city as little as $5,000.

“When it is on the ballot makes a significant difference,” Gilmore said. “Election costs go by the number of voters in the district and the number of other districts that are participating and sharing costs. November would be the least expensive.”

Council member Barry Peters said the cost the city could incur is a necessary part of the council’s obligation to follow up on the measure, which started last year as a citizen-driven petition.

However, the financial implications of a spring referendum may be moot. The issue largely rests in the hands of lawmakers in Olympia and their ability to pass an emergency measure to give Bainbridge the legal right to hold a May election.

The Legislature reconvenes in Olympia in mid-January for a 105-day session. If legislation amending the relevant state law is passed smoothly by both the House and Senate, it could be sent to the governor’s desk for signature by mid-March. The amendment would go into effect immediately only if it is considered an “emergency,” otherwise it would go into effect 90 days after the governor’s signature – too late to alwlow for a May referendum.

Bainbridge Island-based state representatives, while lauding the efforts of citizens and the council, were pessimistic that the applicable law would be changed by the Legislature in time for a May ballot.

A statement released by Rep. Christine Rolfes spoke of the difficulties, and risk, that using an “emergency” clause could create.

“While it may be an important issue locally, I don’t think that the situation on Bainbridge would constitute ‘an emergency’ for the state,” Rolfes said. “I don’t think I would include the language in a bill that I put forward to resolve the situation. To do so would probably result in losing some credibility with my colleagues in Olympia, and possibly result in losing the bill.”

Sen. Phil Rockefeller also spoke of emergency measures as an action that has fallen out of favor with representatives and has been curtailed significantly in recent years.

“There has been a lot of criticism about the use of emergency clauses because it takes away the right of citizens to challenge state legislation,” Rockefeller said. “The question is, does it rise to the level of statewide emergency, I think the answer is no.”

Even if Bainbridge’s issue were to be heard in Olympia it would likely receive a thorough dress-down by other representatives.

“It has to go through both House and Senate, go through the committee process, and you have to anticipate any bill would provoke some opposition,” Rockefeller said, “Lawmakers are not anxious to do something that will drive up costs for local budgets, putting this option in the hands of local governments could lead to major additional election costs at a time when all the budgets across the state are stretched.

“The chances of getting it through, I think, are remote or marginal, so I don’t really see how this will be done.”

Still, council members and proponents of the May election date decided to pursue the issue by hiring a lobbyist, an issue that was backed by council action. That issue, and grassroots lobbying, would have to be headed up by the council’s chair, Bill Knobloch, Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, and proponents of changing the law to allow for an election outside of the November General Election date.

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

Proponents worry that a November vote will lead to voter confusion as citizens will have to choose a new mayor, and whether the position of mayor would exist, during the same election. A May election would also be fairer for potential mayoral candidates, and reduce the likelihood of post-election litigation, proponents of the spring election claim.

There is also some speculation that the issue could show up on an August ballot if the proposed amendment runs its course through the legislature. An August election would put the issue on a ballot with mayoral primary candidates.

“The (state) legislature has a huge job and their priorities are to balance the budget,” said Council Member Kjell Stoknes. “The question is whether we can find a lobbyist to get access to the right people and make them understand what an easy fix this is… but I do think we have a very difficult road ahead of us.”

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