WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?
The latest library election results show that each side recorded a couple dozen new votes over Friday and Saturday, leaving the margin nearly unchanged with a current 46 vote spread in favor of joining KCLS.
In a city of 85,000 people, 46 votes is not a clear mandate. The data simply affirms what I was hearing… the community has been divided over whether to join KCLS or continue with Renton’s Independent Library System.
I’ve received a number of meaningful comments and emails regarding the impact this will have on our century-old library system. The letters also express concern for the uncertainty faced by library staff, the increase in our taxes, and questions –including criticisms– about the election process.
Several writers and commenters have gone on to ask whether the city council could review the way the election was conducted, and do something to annul or rescind the results– to provide opportunity for a do-over with more data and no mistakes.
I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve been studying this question over the last four days, and my research tells me that there is no legislative role in the certification of this election– and that separation of powers and built-in checks and balances actually prevents the council from getting involved in election oversight. (Without such separations, legislative bodies around the country might be too quick to try to discard election results they don’t like.)
By statute, the only role that the council had in this election was as described in
RCW 27.12.360 and RCW 27.12.370, which was to receive a recommendation by the library board and then decide whether to place the item on the ballot. The law also allowed the council the opportunity to pass a resolution for or against the measure, and the council chose not to do that.
The election activities were then handled by executive branches of government, the Elections Office of King County and the Mayor’s office and the Attorney’s office in the City of Renton.
Citizens with grievances about how the election was conducted would turn to the judicial branch–the Court– for redress and resolution.
Such election challenges happen from time to time. One of the most memorable cases in our state’s history regarding the conduct of an election was the first Gregoire/Rossi governor’s race, which gave the initial victory to Rossi, then the machine recount to Rossi, and then the hand-recount to Gregoire. Needless to say, this created quite a few issues, and they were all extremely well-vetted in court. The judges oral decision can be found here . Of particular interest is the fact that the judge created a high burden for the Rossi supporters to overturn the final recount. For instance, even with thousands of felons illegally voting, (and a vote spread of between Gregoire and Rossi of only about 100 votes), the Rossi camp was required to prove that more felons voted for Gregoire than Rossi in order to overturn the election.
In the case of the library election, my main regret about the process was that the city produced a fact sheet (allowed under RCW 42.17.130), but which (1) contained errors (such as a numerical error that we corrected a week after balloting began) as well at least one erroneous statement “Renton and Enumclaw are the only two cities in King County not part of the King County Library System .” (which left out Seattle, Hunts Point, and Yarrow Point); and (2) has been characterized as biased by commenters, particularly regarding presentation of numbers, here on my blog. A PDC complaint was filed regarding this flyer, and the PDC ultimately ruled that they would not be opening an investigation in the case as they had reviewed the flyer prior to it’s publication, and the city had included the PDC suggestions; but they did caution Renton to be careful with such flyers in the future when including cost figures.
Other cities have had trouble with these. The City Manager of Burien once got in some trouble with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) for a fact piece under RCW 42.17.130. In this case, the PDC ruled that the fact piece was a violation, and fined the team that produced it $1000. (here is further reading). In the Burien case, the fact sheet went against a state-wide ballot issue which passed, and there is no discussion about the impact of the piece on the election outcome. The PDC and Association of Washington Cities has tried to help clarify this issue, and the AWC has published this guidance (starting at page 15) to try to help out.
So, for those who are very disappointed in this election outcome and wish to challenge it, I would summarize by saying that it looks to me like you would approach this by seeking legal advice (again, I’m not a lawyer) with an eye toward getting in front of a judge for a ruling on whether the election was conducted fairly. This basically requires a lawsuit. I’m not recommending this, but I won’t take it personally if someone chooses to do this.
As if things could not be more divisive, there is one more wrinkle. My understanding is that the executive branch, through the attorney, would have an obligation to defend the election outcome if it goes to court. This would have been true regardless of whether or not the Mayor endorsed joining KCLS. (I’ve seen the Washington Attorney General’s office actively defend new laws that were adopted by Washington Voter Initiative, even when the Attorney General personally had supported the campaigns opposed to the initiatives.)
If the results stand, it’s obvious to me that while some will be happy with the outcome there will be other members of the community that are very disappointed. I’ll do whatever I can to lesson this disappointment. We would like to have everyone in our community engaged and contributing to all our future decisions and projects.
Finally, I was lead to believe that our library staff would get a fair deal from KCLS. If the KCLS annexation wins at the polls, I want to know that KCLS is doing all they can to make this transition for our employees as easy and fair as possible. Since salaries are a matter of public record, I’m considering making a public records request specifically to generate data on how our transitioning employees make out as a group in pay and benefits, to compare it to what we were told would happen.
With regard to the other details if annexation happens, I will plan on covering that in a later blog entry.
WHY DID I VOTE TO LET THIS GO TO THE BALLOT?
Some of you have asked me how I could have allowed this to go on the ballot. While I know not everyone agrees, and I won’t answer the question for the other council members, I want to be very transparent about my actions on this issue. Starting in August 2008 I posted a couple early blogs on this topic here , and here , and while I did not get an overwhelming amount of comments, I received more comments favoring joining KCLS than remaining independent. Later, we were presented with a Renton staff recommendation that we join KCLS. Then we received a Library Board Recommendation that we put this on the ballot. At this point, I felt that this issue, with all its implications, belonged to the voters of Renton, not the City Council. By the summer of 2009, city council received more data that made me feel okay about asking the voters to decide this question: 62 percent of the 888 people responding to our city’s (non-scientific) on-line poll (page 16) said they agreed with the statement “Renton should join the King County Library System”. Twenty percent said the disagreed. I recognized that there would be many people who could switch their position when all the debate occurred during the campaign, but there still appeared to be enough interest that it seemed okay to be going to the voters. I posted this blog two weeks later to remind people to study this issue for themselves, and to reinforce that there was nothing wrong with library staff backing a position on their own time.
I was reluctant to have the council take an official council position on this race, and I jumped in after a council meeting pro/con debate forum to recommend that the city stay neutral in the race. Other councilmembers agreed with my recommendation, and ultimately we chose not to pass a city resolution in support of proposition 1. Regarding my personal vote, I leaned slightly toward joining KCLS, so the pro-KCLS campaign added me to their endorsement list. I was not an active participant in either campaign, which unfortunately left me unaware of how the number conflicts were brewing until the debate broke out on my blog. At this point, voters pamphlet statements, the yes on prop 1 brochure, and the city utility flyer “fact sheet” were all published and in circulation. I followed up on a math error that Renton Ben ws commenting about, seeing it through to the release of a city press release which we rushed in order to get it into the week’s print edition of the Renton Reporter. I followed up a couple days later when I was concerned there was another major math error, meeting with several officials in the Mayor’s office; I was then reminded that the numbers mapped to a spread sheet, which mapped to some analysis of the Master Plan, and that what I feared was two years budget presented as one year was actually the addition of the master plan costs into the same line item — more of a choice in the presentation method than an error. At this point I publicly described the situation on my blog, and also published in my blog Ben’s rebuttal to the city numbers as well as his review of the city’s utility flyer. I didn’t feel I could make any further adjustments in my official role as council member– I had done as much to the election process as I dare, considering ballots were being marked and returned every day, and the process belonged to the executive branch (and the courts if something were amiss).
I was thinking the problem would simply go away if the election came in as a landslide for KCLS or a loss for KCLS. Which, of course, it didn’t.
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