By Polly Keary, Editor
The court of appeals has overturned a case against the city of Monroe.
Snohomish County Superior Court earlier ruled that the city was right that an initiative couldn’t change traffic laws, including traffic camera laws.
But it said that Monroe was wrong about part of the initiative, and ordered the city pay damages to the people who filed the initiative.
The city attorney disagreed with the ruling and the city decided to appeal.
Monday, the city found out that it had won.
“Today, the Washington Court of Appeals finally put to rest one of the longest-running legal sagas in the city of Monroe’s history,” said Monroe mayor Robert Zimmerman.
It was indeed a long saga.
Two years ago, Tim Eyman came to town and partnered with local activists’ group Seeds of Liberty to run a voters’ initiative against Monroe’s traffic camera program. Monroe was one of four cities in which Tim Eyman took action against traffic cameras.
The activists worked hard to gather the required number of signatures, and eventually contacted every home in the city, getting enough signatures to qualify just before the deadline.
That meant that Monroe had to put the initiative on the ballot so that everyone could vote on it.
The initiative had several parts.
One part demanded that the current contract with the camera company be terminated. Another part demanded that no such contract ever be signed again without voter approval. And a third part demanded a non-binding advisory ballot on whether voters wanted traffic cameras.
Monroe’s lawyer didn’t think that was legal.
Only certain things can be governed by advisory ballots. For example, you can’t run a ballot to raise the speed limit to 80, or to lower the drinking age.
The city attorney didn’t think you could change traffic safety programs, either, such as taking out traffic ticketing cameras.
So the city sued for a declaratory judgement. The city didn’t ask for money from the people who filed the initiative, it wasn’t that kind of suit. But it did ask the judge to declare whether or not the initiative was legal.
That stopped the initiative from going to voters until the legality of the initiative was decided.
The Snohomish Superior Court agreed with Monroe’s attorney, and said that initiatives didn’t have power over traffic camera programs.
But the judge said that the city made a mistake by not dividing the initiative into its parts, and running the parts that didn’t try to change the program.
The part calling for an advisory ballot should have gone to the ballot instead of to the judge.
And, he said, because it didn’t, Monroe was guilty of using a lawsuit to keep a legal initiative from voters. That meant Monroe was liable for a SLAPP settlement, meaning Monroe had to pay damages to the people who filed the initiative.
Monroe filed an appeal, and Monday the city learned it had won.
“By unanimously ruling in the city’s favor in the Monroe v. Seeds of Liberty case, the appellate court reversed the negative aspects of Superior Court’s original decision and held that the traffic camera “initiative” filed by Seeds of Liberty and other sponsors was invalid in its entirety,” said Zimmerman. “The Court of Appeals also vacated the award of statutory penalties, costs and attorneys’ fees that the Superior Court had erroneously imposed against the City under the Anti-SLAPP law.”
The case will be important to more cities than just Monroe, Zimmerman added.
“The importance of this victory extends far beyond the immediate facts of the camera dispute,” he said. “The court’s decision reaffirms the fundamental role of the city council as the lawful representative of local citizens, and it reiterates that outside parties cannot co-opt or hijack the city’s legislative process in disregard of the law.”
(See next week’s Monroe Monitor for reaction from Eyman and Seeds of Liberty, as well as further analysis of the court case)