July 26, 2021
People’s choice: renter protections, police tech, workers’ rights initiatives make November ballot
Ella Banken

Grassroots support has paved the way for general election votes in Bellingham on four initiatives on renter protections, police tech and workers’ rights. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

July 26, 2021
People’s choice: renter protections, police tech, workers’ rights initiatives make November ballot
Ella Banken

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After a major volunteer-led effort, four initiatives presented by People First Bellingham received enough signatures to be on November’s ballot. Some Bellingham City Council members, however, are wary of potential legal challenges the initiatives may present. 

At its July 12 meeting, the council faced three options for addressing these initiatives: They could propose alternate ballot measures that address the same subjects, they could vote to enact the initiatives into law or they could defer the initiatives to the voters, resulting with the initiatives appearing on Bellingham’s general election ballot. 

To introduce alternate measures, city council would need to submit resolutions by Aug. 3, according to county auditor Diana Bradrick. Some council members felt that there simply wasn’t enough time to propose different measures. 

Council voted 4-0-3 (Lisa Anderson, Hollie Huthman, Gene Knutson and Hannah Stone in favor; Daniel Hammill and Pinky Vargas excused: Michael Lilliquist abstained) on July 12 to defer each of the four initiatives to the voters. An executive session will be held on July 26 at which the council will discuss legal issues presented by the initiatives.

‘Legal landmines’

In a discussion before voting on the initiatives, several council members expressed concern about possible legal threats that the initiatives pose.

“This initiative has legal landmines in it,” Lilliquist said. “Things that simply shouldn’t be there, aren’t workable, aren’t legal, conflict with some other requirements, or conflict with established constitutional protections or individual rights.”

Lilliquist favored the option to present revised measures, ones without “red flags” that could be challenged in court, but still maintain the ideas of the petitioners.

The city attorney’s office provided council members with a confidential memo which outlined some of the legal issues, according to city attorney Alan Marriner. The information in the memo will not likely be shared with the public, so as to not point towards challengeable components.

The challenges could come from many directions, according to assistant city attorney James Erb. An initiative could face a pre-election challenge, as well as challenges in court post-election if it were to pass. Individuals who might be legally affected by the initiatives would have standing to challenge, such as landlords, tenants, business owners, etc. 

Belong on the ballot

“These are the citizens of Bellingham out there collecting these signatures, no matter what I feel about any one of these initiatives, they’ve done everything they’ve legally had to do to put it on the ballot, and that’s where it belongs,” council member Gene Knutson said. 

The majority of the council agreed with the statement made by Knutson, but maintained serious doubts about different components of the initiatives.

During the initiative-writing process, People First consulted a lawyer who volunteered for the campaign, according to campaign manager Sage Jones. In addition, they consulted existing municipal laws, as well as people familiar with policy writing.

“I think that a lot of their concerns are … because of lack of resources, time and capacity to do the research themselves,” Jones said. “They’re relying on a city attorney that may have political disagreements with the initiatives.”

Signed and certified

Each initiative needed to receive 6,187 authenticated signatures — 20% of votes cast for mayor in the last mayoral election — in order to be placed on the ballot; all four initiatives received enough verified signatures to be certified by the auditor’s office. According to a June 25 Instagram post, People First collected and submitted an average of more than 3,000 signatures over the required number for each initiative. (Read more: “Down to the wire, petitioners seek signatures to put initiatives on city ballot,” Salish Current, June 23, 2021.)

The initiatives address four areas:

  • No. 2021-01: Renter Protections, expanding tenant rights to require 90-day notice for uncaused eviction, mandatory communication of raised rental rates of more than 8%, and relocation assistance for eviction without cause and more.
  • No. 2021-02: No Invasive Police Tech, prohibiting facial recognition software for police, prohibit the use of data collected by facial recognition software, prohibit predictive policing technology, prohibit the use of information collected by facial recognition and predictive policing software in court proceedings and more.
  • No. 2021-03: Protect the Right to Organize, encouraging labor neutrality, prohibit the use of city funds for blocking unionization efforts, protections for nonmanagerial workers to participate in union activities and more.
  • No. 2021-04: Worker’s Rights, ensuring consistency and good-faith assurance of hourly employment, $4 per hour hazard pay during declared states of emergency for certain hourly wage employees, compensation for schedule changes without sufficient notice and more.

People First Bellingham is a coalition of several left-leaning community organizations, Jones said, which are listed on their website. Leading up to the election, the coalition will focus on further outreach to educate voters on the initiatives. People First will be calling on partner organizations to engage their communities in ways specific to their missions. Jones, a member of the Whatcom Democratic Socialists of America, said that organization will be educating on systemic inequalities that these initiatives are designed to address.

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in the Salish Current. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.