A drone's eye view of an encampment south of Seattle.

Judge Strikes Homelessness Charter Amendment from Ballot

by Erica C. Barnett

(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted with permission.)


Late Friday afternoon, King County Superior Court Judge Christine Shaffer struck Charter Amendment 29 (CA 29), the “Compassion Seattle” homelessness initiative, from the November ballot, agreeing with opponents of the measure that it went beyond the scope of the initiative process. Specifically, Chambers said, the amendment attempted to overrule the City of Seattle’s authority to determine its own homelessness and land-use policies — authority granted to local jurisdictions by the State Legislature that cannot, she said, be overturned by an initiative at the local level.

The amendment, if adopted, would require the City Council to spend a minimum of 12% of its general fund revenues on homelessness, dictating further that in the first year, that money would have to pay for 2,000 new units of “emergency housing” (shelter). It would also change local land use and zoning laws by requiring the City to waive code requirements, regulations, and fees to “urgently site” the projects it would mandate.

The groups that sued to remove the proposal from the ballot, including the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and the ACLU of Washington, argued that the voters of Seattle lack the authority to overturn these sort of legislative decisions and that the amendment would effectively undo the agreement the City and County made to create the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Judge Shaffer agreed.

“There’s a direct effort in Charter Amendment 29 to control the City’s budgetary authority and that is not disputed in this record, any more than the efforts to control zoning and land use is disputed,” Shaffer said. “These are measures specifically required by Charter Amendment 29, and they both are outside the scope of a proper initiative in a way that is not even close. There are so many prior Supreme Court cases on both those topics.”

In arguing for the amendment, Compassion Seattle’s attorney Tom Ahearne said the court should let the proposal move forward and give opponents a chance to challenge it if and when it’s adopted. “When thousands of voters have signed a petition, opponents should not be able to hold the people’s measure hostage merely because it opposes the policy or raises questions about the measure’s validity,” he said. “Instead of rushing to suppress the vote, this court should allow citizens to consider this charter amendment in November, and if citizens adopt it, allow the plaintiffs’ claims to be fully litigated and resolved through the trial court and appellate process.”

Judge Shaffer said she personally liked the solutions proposed in the amendment and might vote for it if it was on the ballot. “But as judge,” she continued, “it cannot stand, and I am required to strike it from the ballot.”

“Judge Shaffer’s ruling affirms well-established limits to the local initiative process and recognizes the importance of the proper functioning of our democratic systems,” ACLU of Washington staff attorney Breanne Schuster said in a statement. “We are pleased that CA 29 will not stand as an impediment to solutions that meaningfully address our housing crisis and do not punish people for trying to meet their basic life-sustaining needs like shelter, sleep, and food.”

Compassion Seattle has issued an appeal, and said this in response to the ruling Tuesday morning:

“This morning, Compassion Seattle’s lawyers filed an emergency motion of appeal with the Washington Court of Appeals seeking a stay of last week’s decision to remove Charter Amendment 29 from the November ballot. If granted, voters will have their say on a critically needed measure to address the number one issue facing Seattle — a measure that has majority voter support.

As we said last Friday, we strongly disagree with Judge Catherine Shaffer’s decision to strike Charter Amendment 29, a decision that blocks Seattle voters from being able to voice their opinion about the continuing crisis of homelessness. The Judge’s decision caused an outpouring of support over the weekend from supporters who want us to press on with an appeal. We decided that we must take this action to represent the interests of tens of thousands of voters who signed petitions to put this amendment on the ballot.

The people of Seattle deserve their say on how City Hall should be addressing this worsening crisis, and we will do everything we can to make that happen, whether by fighting for a vote on this Charter Amendment or by holding the candidates for Mayor, City Council, and City Attorney accountable for their positions on homelessness.”


Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.

Featured image is attributed to David Lee on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY 2.0).

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