City won’t hire lobbyist to change election law

The city will not hire a lobbyist to petition the state Legislature for a law revision that would allow Bainbridge’s change-of-government vote to go forward in May.

Instead, the city will work with the Olympia-based Association of Washington Cities to bring the matter up for legislative consideration.

The decision to work with AWC was based on a number of factors, including cost and the ability for the AWC to present a united municipal front on the issue.

“We never did pursue talking to any lobbyist,” Mayor Darlene Kordonowy said. “The estimates were $10,000 to $20,000 for a single issue, that would amount to almost two months in front of legislative committees to be sure the governor would sign a bill as soon as possible.”

The City Council has set a May 19, 2009, date for a change-of-government referendum, contravening state law.

That law holds that the referendum should go forward during a November general election – the same time islanders will vote for a new mayor.

The AWC, a private, nonprofit corporation that represents Washington’s cities before the Legislature, seemed open to idea of promoting a change to the corresponding law.

According to AWC Executive Director Stan Finkelstein, the organization would pursue the matter if it is backed by its board of directors.

“Generally on an issue of this nature we try to help the city to address their concern,” Finkelstein said. “The executive committee and the board have been accommodating at addressing cities needs as long as they don’t intrude on other cities interests.”

Bainbridge-based state legislative representatives Sen. Phil Rockefeller and Rep. Christine Rolfes, had opined that their fellow Olympia representatives could stonewall Bainbridge’s attempt to change the state law, fearing its effects on their local economies and constituents.

The law regarding change-of-government elections (RCW 35A.06.050) was originally enacted in 2004 in a bid to reduce the costs of holding a special elections.

The Kitsap County Auditors office estimated a special election could cost Bainbridge up to $70,000, holding the vote during the state-mandated general election could cost as little as $5,000.

According to Finkelstein, if acted upon, the AWC could back an amendment that would still allow municipalities to save on special referendum costs.

He foresees adding language that would allow municipalities to continue holding change-of-government votes during a general election, unless a city council decrees it is an inappropriate date given the election cycle.

It would then be up to city council to set a new special referendum date.

However, Finkelstein was not certain that the measure would pass as an emergency clause in time for a May election. The council had voted to declare the matter an “emergency.”

“The governor tends not to like emergency clauses,” Finkelstein said. “But I am guardedly optimistic. One can make a compelling case, because of the immediacy of the action occurring, that if we don’t change things now we will have a screwy general election.”

“As long as (the amendment) doesn’t deal with money or encroaching on the rights of any other party, the Legislature tends to be responsive to those sorts of issues.”

Bainbridge City Attorney Paul McMurray spoke with Finkelstein Tuesday regarding the matter.

At the same time, the mayor and six other staff members were in Olympia meeting with other state agencies.

Although the mayor said she supports the citizens’ right to vote, she distanced herself from some citizens who had earlier suggested she should actively lobby Olympia on the issue.

“It’s odd to me that a couple citizens said, ‘We hope the mayor would go down there to lobby the legislature,’” she said. “Of course we should take it to a vote. Whether it is appropriate to lobby as an emergency matter, I haven’t made a decision on that. It’s a complex issue but there are always complex issues. I think that is good for democracy.”

At Monday’s council meeting, some citizens expressed concerns that a special referendum would result in a low voter turnout and could mean heavy costs for the city.

The mayor expressed her opinion that the council should host a workshop on the change-of-government issue that would ensure “both sides of the issue are debated vigorously.”

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