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Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
"Monorail Recall" can go to a vote, court says
By Mike Lindblom
A state appeals court ordered yesterday that Initiative 83, known as "Monorail Recall," should go on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The judges did not determine whether the measure is legal. Instead, by a 2-1 ratio, the court decided its immediate priority was preserving the public's opportunity for a revote.
However, a place on the ballot is not assured.
The Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) asked the state Supreme Court yesterday to suspend the appeals-court decision until the legality of I-83 is determined. The SMP's request, if granted, would keep the measure from making the November ballot.
"It is the people's first opportunity to pass judgment on the current monorail plan, and we think the Seattle Monorail Project should stop spending money immediately," said I-83 co-chair Liv Finne, whose group contends the project has changed for the worse since voters narrowly approved it in 2002.
"They should stop buying properties, they should stop everything they're doing, because their project is coming fast to a halt. Then, when we win on Nov. 2, we expect them to do the honorable thing, which is dissolve their agency, since they cannot use the city right of way to build their monorail."
Anne Levinson, deputy director of the Seattle Monorail Project, said the public interest is not served by holding an election that the agency believes would be declared void.
"It hinders trust and confidence in government and in the courts," she said in a statement. "On top of that, the public not only pays for the costs of campaigning and the cost of an election, but any additional costs due to project delay while this works its way through the court system. It may serve special interests, but it does nothing to serve those stuck in their cars day after day."
Meanwhile, a deadline of Friday looms for the Seattle City Council to forward the measure to King County elections officials, so there's enough time to print voter guides and ballots.
Council members were afraid to waste the approximately $880,000 that it will cost to place the measure on the ballot if it could still die in the courts.
Despite those worries, council members have said all summer they would obey the city charter and forward the measure to the ballot, as long as it is declared legal.
"I believe the signers of the petition intended for it to go on the ballot this year, and it would be unconscionable for the council to play any games and delay the vote," Councilman Jim Compton said yesterday.
Two years ago, Seattle voters narrowly approved the 14-mile, $1.75 billion Green Line from West Seattle to Ballard, after they passed two earlier planning initiatives.
The monorail's income from a car-tab tax income has come in nearly one-third below projections, the agency chose a controversial path through Seattle Center, and its plans show support columns wider that the slender three-foot profile advertised in the 2002 campaign. Only one team, the Cascadia Monorail Co., has submitted a bid to build and operate the project.
On the other hand, the agency has made significant progress toward its goal of beginning construction by the end of the year.
The agency has gotten tentative approval from the City Council for its 14-mile route and bought more than half of the needed land for stations. It's also begun fixing budget problems by making it tougher for Seattle residents to avoid paying the tax. In addition, the SMP says Cascadia's bid is affordable, but the details are secret while the team and agency hold contract negotiations.
Pro-monorail campaign veterans Peter Sherwin and Grant Cogswell are girding for what could be a fourth citywide vote on elevated transit.
"It's really a bunch of wealthy Republicans and NIMBYs who don't want strange people in their neighborhoods, who don't care about transit and all the social and environmental good it can do," Cogswell said of opponents, referring to the "not in my back yard" attitude.
"Seattle is all about different kinds of people going to every neighborhood and getting to know each other. That's why Seattle isn't like those harsher, freeway-oriented cities like Houston and L.A. We're a gentler city."
To qualify the Monorail Recall for the ballot this year, the I-83 group spent about $250,000, according to city election records.
Most of the money came from developer Martin Selig, who said he will give whatever it takes to move the measure through the courts. Equity Office Properties, which controls six downtown skyscrapers, also backs a revote, according to senior vice president Pat Callahan, who said the company has not decided yet about possible campaign donations.
Monorail supporters will likely be able to raise substantial funds, as well. During the 2002 campaign, pro-monorail forces raised more than $500,000, including large donations from potential contractors.
The appeals-court order yesterday dissolves a King County Superior Court ruling in August by Judge Steven Gonzalez, who declared I-83 illegal.
He agreed with the monorail attorneys that the initiative circumvents state land-use laws, as well as a more-stringent recall process prescribed in a 2002 state law. That law would have required more than 50,000 petition signatures and stopped the monorail only if the city attorney certified that there were "significant financial problems."
The monorail agency and supporters, who include former Gov. Dan Evans, also argue that the first 10,089 signatures collected for the measure should be tossed out because they were gathered before Gonzalez rewrote the ballot title for more clarity. Without those, I-83 would fall short of the minimum requirement of 17,229 valid signatures.
In their brief written order yesterday, appeals-court Judges Kenneth Grosse and Susan Agid didn't comment on the legality of I-83. They noted simply that "we hold there is insufficient justification to permit this court to interfere with the initiative process in this case."
In her dissent yesterday, Judge Ann Schindler said the state law spells out a recall process, and therefore precludes a measure like I-83.
Cascadia executive Six Silva, of Washington Group International, said talks are still on.
"We're disappointed in the decision, understandably, but continue to look forward to working with the SMP," he said.
The agency has spent $143 million on the project so far, including $55 million for real estate.
If voters were to halt the project, taxes would still need to be collected to pay off $76 million in debt to the city and a bank, according to the monorail agency. Assuming the land is sold off, the debt would be sliced to around $21 million or about six months worth of citywide monorail taxes.
However, the numbers would certainly change as the agency continues its work this year, said SMP finance director Jonathan Buchter.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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