For the past six months, advocates of a $15 minimum wage, including Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council, warned that a charter amendment filed by 15 Now activists could result in a strong wage measure on the November ballot.
That sense of urgency led Murray’s committee of business and labor leaders to reach a compromise agreement on May 1, after just four months of deliberation, to raise the minimum wage in Seattle to $15 an hour over the next seven years.
The City Council approved the deal June 2 with only a few changes, lightning speed compared with typical Seattle process.
But an opinion issued by the Seattle City Attorney’s Office late Thursday says that charter amendments can only appear on the city ballot in general municipal elections, which are held in odd-numbered years. That means the 15 Now measure could not have legally gone to voters until 2015.
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Business owners say they are angry that no city official alerted the public sooner about the city rules governing charter amendments, and that they were struggling to reach an agreement under a false deadline.
That includes a group of small, independent business owners who filed their own charter amendment Thursday for a $12.50 minimum wage that they planned for the November ballot.
“Why, within 24 hours of us submitting our measure, all of a sudden it can’t be considered? We would like an explanation,” said Angela Cough, campaign chair of that group, Forward Seattle.
City Attorney Pete Holmes declined to comment Monday. His office is responsible for approving ballot titles after measures have been submitted to the City Clerk’s office. Holmes’ office has also brought legal challenges to citizen-initiated ballot measures, such as one to stop an anti-waterfront tunnel referendum in 2011.
City Clerk Monica Martinez Simmons said she asked Holmes’ office for an opinion early last week after her office got queries on the issue. She said Holmes’ attorneys asked for some time to research the issue and got back to her at the end of the week.
City Council members said that they received the City Attorney’s opinion late Thursday.
A citizens guide to filing initiative, referendum and charter amendments posted in January on the City Clerk’s website includes no mention of when a charter amendment can appear on the ballot.
In fact, it includes a section with a “Recommended Timeline for 2014” that urges citizens to submit signed petitions early in order to compel the City Council to send the charter amendment to King County Elections by Aug. 5, 2014, for placement on the ballot.
“The question had not come up before,” Simmons said Monday. “The guide is relatively new. We try to lay out all the steps, but it’s not comprehensive.” She also said the clerk’s office doesn’t want to discourage people from filing measures nor should it give legal advice.
Councilmember Sally Clark said Holmes’ office should be familiar with city law governing elections.
“This is definitely something Pete’s shop could have caught,” Clark said. But she added that the city was primed to debate raising the minimum wage this spring and should not have put off action for a year.
“I think it was better to make a decision in the time frame we had and move on to other issues important to the city,” Clark said.
Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association, which represents local manufacturers, said, “It’s amazing to me that all this political strategy was about something nobody could do in 2014. It’s illegal. Holmes should have clarified it.”
Wasserman was part of a group last year pushing a charter amendment to elect City Council members by district. But that group was advancing its measure in an odd-numbered year, so it wasn’t an issue.
Dave Meinert, a small-business owner who served on Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, said he was angry that the pressure put on the committee to reach a decision was based on a threat of a 15 Now ballot measure in November.
“We rushed through the process based on a deadline that was false,” Meinert said. “Many people now feel the process was dishonest, manipulative or incompetent.”
He said the mayor’s staff should have known that a charter amendment couldn’t be filed this year.
Murray said he didn’t know about the issue until he was asked by a reporter on Monday. He noted that 15 Now could have filed an initiative instead of a charter amendment to get its proposal on the November ballot.
“The polling showed overwhelming public support for a $15 minimum wage. This thing was going to win,” Murray said.
Advocates for 15 Now, which backed an immediate higher minimum on big business with a three-year phase-in for small business, said they also were unaware that a charter amendment couldn’t qualify this year.
“We chose a charter amendment because it would be strong, because it could overrule a City Council ordinance,” said Jess Spear, 15 Now campaign manager.
“In no way were we plotting a fake backup plan,” she said.
Backers of the Forward Seattle measure who filed their charter amendment Thursday said they still don’t have an official response from the city.
“The City Attorney’s Office said the City Clerk will let us know. Basically, they’re all pointing fingers at each other,” said Cough, who runs Flying Apron gluten-free bakery. “We have been unable to get a straight answer.”
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305 On Twitter @lthompsontimes