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Originally published April 6, 2011 at 3:45 PM | Page modified April 6, 2011 at 5:46 PM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Kudos to Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes for seeking court review of tunnel referendum

Three cheers for City Attorney Peter Holmes, who showed courage and conviction by going to court to find out if the tunnel agreements can be referred to the ballot. He thinks not.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Seattle is the Land of Great Dithering, at least around City Hall. By contrast, getting something accomplished makes us queasy.

Case in point: the latest political fireworks surrounding the replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Opponents of the tunnel gathered bundles of signatures in favor of a referendum. Dueling news conferences filled the airwaves. A lawsuit was filed.

Amid the latest bout of our municipal malady, the lawsuit revealed encouraging boldness and pluck on the part of one public official. City Attorney Peter Holmes did his job and did so without worrying about, you know, re-electability.

For more than two months, Holmes has privately and separately been advising the City Council, which has eight members supporting the tunnel, and Mike McGinn, the anti-tunnel activist whose day job is Seattle mayor.

Holmes has been telling them that a referendum on the tunnel agreements is probably illegal. So on the same day referendum supporters turned in an impressive, estimated 29,000 signatures, Holmes marched into King County Superior Court asking a judge to decide if a public vote is permissible.

Why, one might ask, is it a big deal for someone to do his job? Good question.

Even though the sometimes rabid supporters of the surface-transit plan are natural supporters of Holmes, they get riled when anyone, even a usual friend, sings off key.

"The Protect Seattle Now campaign would like to know who asked City Attorney Pete Holmes to sue the people and silence the voice of 29,929 (actually, 29,023) voters?" was the opening salvo from the group backing the referendum.

Au contraire. Holmes should be congratulated for putting concern for the law ahead of all the clangor. He wants a judge to decide if the tunnel agreements are subject to referendum before all the campaigning and wasted money that would occur if the project is delayed.

Keep in mind that Holmes, as city attorney, is policy neutral on the debate between the mayor and the council. He is appropriately agnostic on a tunnel, an elevated roadway or surface transit. Heat or no heat, he felt he had to go to court.

"I've used some political capital from my base, nightlife reformers, marijuana reformers, maybe some social-justice advocates," Holmes conceded. "But it was the right thing to do. ... This has nothing to do with whether they should replace the viaduct. It has everything to do with having an honest election system and whether this is referable or not."

In legalese, Holmes believes the city ordinance approving the tunnel agreements was an administrative act and therefore not subject to referendum. The group leading the charge for a vote needs the ordinance to be deemed a legislative act, which can be referred to a public vote.

One has to chuckle. Holmes, who several times earlier came out forcefully in favor of legalizing marijuana, is the darling of younger voters. (The Seattle Times editorial page also supports legalizing marijuana.)

As for the timing, can you imagine if referendum supporters gathered signatures, got names verified, proceeded to a public vote, won at the ballot box, and then a judge ruled that the agreements could not be undone by referendum?

McGinn and his merry band of surface-transit advocates would have spent months volunteering on a hopeless campaign and all they would accomplish is increased costs. Delay equals higher costs. They would have a cow!

Gov. Chris Gregoire praised Holmes for leading the way on the litigation and said if the city hadn't sued, the state would have. She, too, seeks a prompt answer as to whether the ordinance can be referred to the ballot.

You don't have to agree with Holmes all the time to give him a round of applause for doing his job in a timely manner. He is willing to use his political capital and do us all a favor by seeking a speedy answer to the question of whether a referendum on the tunnel is legal or not.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

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