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Smith on Politics: Nominations for Council Vacancy Show Effects of Non-Partisan System

County Council to interview three Democrats for vacancy. The Non-partisan election will affect the way we vote.

The Metropolitan King County Council soon will interview the three candidates that County Executive Dow Constantine has nominated for the vacancy on the Council: Seattle attorney Rod Dembowski, Shoreline City Councilor Will Hall and Democratic 32nd District State Rep. Cindy Ryu. The position became vacant when Bob Ferguson took office as state attorney general Wednesday.

The eight remaining Council members have 60 days to appoint one of the three to represent Council District 1, which includes Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, Kenmore, Woodinville, the King County part of Bothell, north Kirkland, unincorporated areas between Bothell and Kirkland, and northeast Seattle.

If no candidate gets votes from five council members within the 60-day limit, Gov. Jay Inslee must pick one of the three.

Constantine selected the three nominees from a list of five finalists selected by a citizens’ committee from 13 original applicants.

The other two finalists were Shoreline Planning Commission member Keith Scully and King County deputy ombudsman Chuck Sloane.

The person appointed will serve through the November election.

Party groups out of appointment process; partisanship remains

When voters made King County offices non-partisan a few years ago, they took party organizations out of the appointment process, but they couldn’t take partisanship out of the process.

Prior to 2008, the County Council, county executive and county assessor were partisan offices. In fact Ferguson had twice been elected as a Democrat before he won re-election as a non-partisan candidate in 2009. Had he resigned when the office was still partisan, Democratic precinct committee officers from within his District would have nominated three candidates, with the County Council making the appointment from the list.

Now, the nominally non-partisan county executive nominates three candidates for the nominally non-partisan county council.The executive and council are non-partisan in name, but Executive Constantine originally was elected to the Council as a Democrat and all eight remaining Council members previously were elected to either the Council or some other office as Democrats or Republicans.

Since four of the Council members were Democrats and four were Republicans a deadlock seems possible, but with Democrat Constantine making the nomination and Democrat Inslee in the tie-breaking position, the person selected needs to be someone acceptable to Democrats, whether highly active in the party like Ryu or having been acceptable as a city council candidate like Hall.

A Seattle Times story about the nominations called Dembowski, Hall and Ryu “three Democrats."

Even the citizens’ advisory committee that narrowed the list of 13 applicants to the five qualified finalists seemed to know that a Republican had no chance. Committee members may have viewed Kenmore Mayor David Baker as qualified, but they certainly knew that a man who has twice been a Republican candidate for the Legislature had no chance for the appointment.

Different rules for non-partisan council elections

When we elect a full-term replacement for Ferguson, we'll do it under different rules than when he won in 2003 and 2005.

State rules for non-partisan elections require a primary only with three or more candidates.

When Ferguson first defeated former Democratic Councilwoman Cynthia Sullivan in 2003, the office still was a partisan one, meaning that there was a primary even with only two candidates. Since the old blanket primary rules still applied, Ferguson's primary victory over Sullivan meant that Ferguson was unopposed in November. 

Even with the current top-two primary, a partisan office appears on the primary ballot even with only one or two candidates.

Now, the non-partisan position appears on the primary ballot only when three or more candidates file.

County Council candidates raising money for campaign

All three candidates have reported fundraising activities with the State Public Disclosure Commission.

Registration with the PDC allows candidates to raise and spend money for the August primary and November general election, although they don’t file for ballot positions until May.

Dembowski has reported raising $63,936 and spending $3,752; Ryu has reported raising $31,710 and spending $2,639: and Hall has reported raising $3,070 and spending $120.

Ryu has been barred from fundraising from a month before the Legislature convened and will not be allowed to raise money until after the session.

Two statewide initiatives appear headed for November ballot

Elections officials in the Secretary of State's Office are checking signatures on two initiatives to the legislature that may be headed for the November ballot.

Sponsors of Initiative 517 and I-522 both submitted far more than the required 241,153 signatures by the Jan. 4 deadline. Sponsors try to submit more than the required number of signatures because some signatures may be duplicates and some may be from people who aren't registered to vote.

I-517 would protect signature gatherers from harassment and extend the time for collecting signature for initiatives. I-522 would require labeling of genetically engineered food.

Elections officials scan a sample of the thousands of petition sheets submitted for each initiative. If the sample indicates that enough of the signatures are valid the initiative goes to the legislature. If not, officials must look at every sheet to determine if enough of the signatures are valid.

Initiatives to the Legislature become bills in the Legislature, but I-517 sponsor Tim Eyman points out that 99 percent get no legislative action and end up going to a general-election vote of the people.

The Legislature has the option of proposing an alternative to the initiative so that ballots ask voters, first, whether the initiative should be enacted, and, second, whether they voted yes or no, if they prefer version A or version B. Eyman notes that this has happened only once in the 100-year history of initiatives in Washington.

The period for gathering initiatives to the Legislature was from mid-March, 2012, to early January; so the number of required signatures was 8 percent of the number of voters in the 2008 state general election. Sponsors who will seek signatures for initiatives to the people between now and July and for initiatives to the next legislature will need signatures from 246,372 registered voters -- 8 percent of the number of voters in the 2012 general election.

About this column: Journalist and Shoreline resident Evan Smith has covered local issues for more than two decades. 

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