The King County Superior Court struck down Charter Amendment 29, which had become a defining issue in the upcoming election, Friday, Aug. 27, as Judge Catherine Shaffer ruled it would violate state law.
“You can’t amend a city charter to conflict with state law,” Shaffer wrote. “I like this charter amendment as a voter. But as a judge, it cannot stand.”
And just like that, after supporters and opponents of the divisive amendment had dedicated hours and hours to signature gathering, the court process and more, its opponents involved in the case celebrated a victory over Zoom. It looked like the battle was over.
Until it wasn’t.
Despite a resounding ruling against the amendment from an admitted supporter in Shaffer, the lawyers for Compassion Seattle — the name of the group behind the amendment — filed an emergency motion of appeal with the Washington Court of Appeals midmorning Aug. 31. Former City Councilmember Tim Burgess, a guiding force of Compassion Seattle, reportedly said that the group did not plan to appeal on such a short timeline. Clearly, Compassion Seattle had a change of heart as its lawyers seek a stay of last week’s decision to remove CA 29 from the November ballot.
“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,” Compassion Seattle said in an email statement sent to many journalists. “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.”
Essentially, Compassion Seattle is trying to do what would normally take a year in a week, before the ballot is printed. Knoll Lowney, a lawyer for the plaintiffs who made the case against CA 29, said that the amendment is illegal in so many ways — “To put something back on the ballot that has been declared illegal is going to be a heavy lift.”
“It may not be too late to file paperwork with the Court of Appeals,” Lowney said. “But it’s too late for them to fix the problems with their measure.”
Initially after the court’s ruling, Compassion Seattle appeared to have accepted partial defeat. Burgess told the SCC Insight news outlet that they wouldn’t appeal because there was not enough time to get CA 29 back on the ballot before King County Elections’ deadline.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and the Transit Riders Union filed the lawsuit on the grounds that CA 29 went “beyond the scope of local initiative power” and conflicted with state law on how local governments can address homelessness.
Homeless advocates vehemently opposed CA 29 because it would make it easier to continue the city’s tactic of sweeping away homeless encampment residents and their belongings and did not allocate a clear funding source for its proposals, like housing units for unsheltered people.
CA 29 was heavily financed and pushed by the Seattle business community and garnered over 64,000 voter signatures to make it on the ballot.
“This is a political stunt,” Lowney said of the appeal. “This is not about the law — this is not about new policy. It’s about political stunt after political stunt. The measure seems to be written for soundbites, and not as sound public policy. I think that’s the same with this appeal. It's about press releases, and not about, you know, serious legal arguments.”
According to the Northwest Progressive Institute, 68% of Seattle poll respondents say that homelessness is at the top of their list of issues for the next mayor to address. In a city ruled by Democrats, the issue of CA 29 added political nuance to a crowded mayoral race and reinforced the clear divide between the two candidates for city attorney. CA 29 might be dead, regardless of the appeal, but Compassion Seattle is still on the ballot.
“We urge the public not to give up the fight,” the campaign said in a statement on its website. “We can still make our voices heard in the elections for mayor, city council and city attorney. In each race, the difference between the candidates is defined by who supports what the charter amendment was attempting to accomplish and who does not.”
The two Seattle mayor candidates who made it past the primary, Bruce Harrell and Lorena González, stand on opposite sides of the issue.
González is against sweeps. She told Capitol Hill Seattle Blog that she does not support CA 29 because “it is an unfunded mandate that does not identify a sustainable progressive revenue source. I oppose cuts to essential city services and support progressive revenue measures to build more housing.”
Harrell sent out a press release the business day following the ruling to express his continued support. He called for the current Seattle City Council and mayor to adopt the framework of CA 29.
In a race that is about as divided as they come, city attorney candidates Nicole Thomas-Kennedy and Ann Davison both represent polar departures from Seattle’s status quo and represent voters in opposition to CA 29 and in favor of it respectively.
According to Polly Grow of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, if Compassion Seattle’s campaign ends, the ballot measure committee can use any surplus funding to refund contributors, reimburse for lost earnings incurred as a result of the campaign, fund a political party or caucus of the state legislature, donate to a charity registered in Washington, or transmit a deposit to the state treasurer for the general fund; alternatively, the committee could re-register as a continuing political committee and use the funds to support or oppose candidates and ballot propositions.
Compassion Seattle won the fight to get on the ballot, and its opponents won the lawsuit, but regardless of who comes out on top in the next chapter, the conflict over Seattle’s homelessness crisis is far from over.
Samira George contributed to this report.
Hannah Krieg studied journalism at the University of Washington. She is especially interested in covering politics, social issues and anything that gives her an excuse to speak with activists.
Read more of the Sept. 1-7, 2021 issue.