The Washington state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and two advocacy groups have filed a lawsuit over the November ballot initiative known as “Compassion Seattle,” which would require the city to quickly build 2,000 shelter units and then potentially give the next mayor grounds to ramp up camp removals to keep parks and sidewalks clear.
The complaint filed in King County Superior Court argues the tactics used by Charter Amendment 29 to make those things happen — an amendment to the city’s bedrock document, its charter, that expires in six years — bends Washington law too far and contradicts work on the county level to make the region’s homelessness response less Seattle-centric.
“(Charter Amendment 29) misleads voters about what they’re doing by filling in the bubble on their ballot,” Katie Wilson, the general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, one of the other plaintiffs, wrote in a news release. “It gives voters the impression that they’re shaping the city’s homelessness response, when in fact these policies will be illegal and unenforceable because they’re beyond the scope of the initiative process.”
The petition made the November ballot with nearly 35,000 signatures.
The lawsuit argues that the ballot initiative is an overreach of petitioners’ power to influence homelessness policies. State code lays out guidelines for influencing homelessness policy and a local initiative is not among them. The lawsuit also argues the initiative contradicts the recent creation of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which Seattle’s mayor, its City Council, the county executive and the County Council agreed to make the driver of homelessness policy in the region.
The initiative has been boosted by downtown businesses and has split the nonprofit homeless provider community, with leaders of some organizations praising it and others joining a campaign against it. While the heads of United Way and Seattle’s largest downtown shelter have lent their voices in support — though they stopped short of endorsement — the Seattle-King County Homelessness Coalition has now come out against the measure, joining the lawsuit as a plaintiff.
The Compassion Seattle campaign responded harshly, attacking the plaintiffs as a “small group of activists,” though the Seattle-King County Homelessness Coalition had 77 member organizations in 2019, from shelters to meal programs to housing providers.
“This group has dictated City of Seattle policy on homelessness for the last decade, with no accountability, all while the crisis has only gotten worse,” the campaign said in a statement. “These same activist groups have had their opportunity to address this crisis for years. It’s time for voters to have their say.”
The news release pointed to a poll by the Northwest Progressive Institute that found 61% of Seattle voters would vote “yes” on the charter amendment.
The initiative has been controversial from its inception. The vague wording leaves both supporters and opponents room to debate what it would actually accomplish. It divided mayoral candidates in the primary election this month. Among the two winners who will go on to the November general election, Bruce Harrell supports it and M. Lorena González opposes it.
It’s unclear how far the lawsuit will go in the courts. Hugh Spitzer, a University of Washington law professor, said he’s been on the losing end of similar lawsuits.
“The courts tend to avoid interfering with local choices,” Spitzer said, and beyond that, courts don’t like to rule on “nonexistent” legislation. “It’s too early. They say you gotta wait until it either passes or doesn’t pass.”
But Knoll Lowney, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, feels confident the lawsuit will be successful, because he filed a similar one against a safe injection site ban in King County that was struck down by a judge in 2017, and the state Supreme Court upheld that decision.
“These cases happen all the time,” Lowney said. “It’s pretty hard to defend a local initiative or referendum, and this one is unlikely to survive.”
The court will likely have to rule quickly, according to a spokesperson for King County’s elections department, who are also named in the lawsuit. The department will start mailing out ballots on Sept. 18, and the department will begin designing them this month.