Save Tacoma Water measure blocked from November ballot

Sherry Bockwinkel, a co-sponsor of Save Tacoma Water, leads fellow members in a chant on the way to the Tacoma City Clerk’s office to turn in a petition containing 4,839 signatures last month. On Friday, a Pierce County judge blocked the ballot measure from going to voters.
Sherry Bockwinkel, a co-sponsor of Save Tacoma Water, leads fellow members in a chant on the way to the Tacoma City Clerk’s office to turn in a petition containing 4,839 signatures last month. On Friday, a Pierce County judge blocked the ballot measure from going to voters. Staff photographer

Save Tacoma Water’s ballot measure to require a public vote for new large uses of city water won’t be on November’s ballot.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Jack Nevin ruled Friday morning that the citizen group’s proposal exceeded the scope of the local initiative power and the authority of the city of Tacoma.

“Therefore, I do declare the Save Tacoma Water initiatives to be invalid and I grant a permanent injunction, and I enjoin placement of the initiatives on the ballot,” Nevin said.

The Port of Tacoma, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County sued last month to challenge two ballot measures proposed by Save Tacoma Water. Two days after the lawsuit was filed, the city of Tacoma, which had been named as a co-defendant because it would have had to enforce the measures if they passed, filed a cross-claim reiterating the measures’ flaws.

The port and business groups argued that the measures went beyond the legal changes allowed by citizen initiative, attempted to override state water law and sought to strip the legal rights of corporations as established in the U.S. and state constitutions, as well as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

Nevin agreed with all the arguments made by those groups. He rejected the arguments of Save Tacoma Water’s lawyers, who claimed that challenges to the initiatives should wait until voters have had their say.

“I understand and respect the legitimate community concerns underlining the positions of each side of this matter today,” Nevin said before announcing his decision. “However, at the end of today my task is to follow the law as best as I am able to.”

Nevin said he was guided in part by a state Supreme Court decision in February on a similar case that involved the same legal group that backed Save Tacoma Water. In the Spokane Entrepreneurial Center v. Spokane Moves to Amend the Constitution case, the court said the scope of local initiatives conflicted with state law, and deemed that a pre-election challenge was appropriate.

Carolyn Lake, the attorney for the Port of Tacoma, said it’s rare to have such a “clear legal road map” going into court, referring to the recent 9-0 Supreme Court decision.

“In our mind, the initiatives being as flawed as they were was distracting from having a more meaningful, more productive conversation,” Lake said after the judge’s order. She added that a condition in the original lawsuit that sought for the plaintiffs to be reimbursed for legal fees and damages was struck, so the Save Tacoma Water group won’t be on the hook for any costs.

“This was not directed toward any person, it wasn’t for money, it wasn’t for damages, it was to get the issue before a neutral judge so there could be a decision sooner rather than later so time, money and expense wasn’t further spent,” she said.

Save Tacoma Water had submitted 4,800 signatures of city residents last month to change city code to require a public vote for any project that would use 1 million or more gallons of water a day. That proposal was headed to the November ballot after elections officials verified the signatures.

On Thursday, Save Tacoma Water submitted an additional 8,774 signatures from within city limits for its second ballot initiative, a proposed amendment to the city charter. That measure is also blocked by Nevin’s ruling.

“The local initiative is dead in Washington,” said Save Tacoma Water attorney Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin after the decision.

Schromen-Wawrin, an attorney with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, also argued on behalf of the defendants in the Spokane case. “People shouldn’t say that this is Judge Nevin, this is the court system, and what it feels the people’s initiative power gets. … the people have lost a 100-year-old right to lawmake directly.”

Some of the Save Tacoma Water supporters who packed the courtroom cried after Nevin announced his order.

“Thank you for arguing against democracy, beautifully done,” Claudia Riedener said to the city’s attorney, Kymberly Evanson of Pacifica Law Group, as she left the courtroom.

Riedener is an organizer of the RedLine Tacoma group, one of several groups that emerged during the debate against a proposed methanol plant that was planned for the Tacoma Tideflats. The water ballot initiatives grew out of the public fervor against the now-abandoned methanol project, which would have used more than 10 million gallons of water per day.

“The city believes the result is legally correct,” Evanson said. “As we stated in the hearing, the city certainly welcomes the involvement of all citizens of the city of Tacoma in the public process, but these initiatives were outside the scope of what any local initiative could do, and so we believe that the court properly struck it down.”

Save Tacoma Water supporters turn in signatures for water initiative

Save Tacoma Water supporters submitted about 6,000 signatures for one of its two initiatives to the Tacoma city clerk.

Lui Kit Wong wong@thenewstribune.com

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud