The Yakima City Council will not put a proposal to switch to a new form of government before voters in a Feb. 11 special election.
The council voted unanimously Tuesday to remove the measure from the ballot following an executive session. The council voted 4-3 in November to ask voters to change the city’s charter to set up a strong mayor form of government.
Councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez said she agreed with removing the measure from the ballot to allow staff to ensure any changes would comply with state and federal law.
Councilman Brad Hill said he agreed that putting the decision on the February ballot appeared unconstitutional.
The council’s unanimous decision to pull the measure happened hours after two lawsuits were filed against the city regarding the proposal.
Yakima voters Marguerite Wright and Leigh Kronsnoble filed separate lawsuits Tuesday in Yakima County Superior Court challenging the proposed change. Columbia Legal Services, the American Civil Liberties Union-Washington and the UCLA Voting Rights Project represent the women.
One of the lawsuits challenged the ballot title, saying it didn’t provide an accurate description and was prejudicial.
The second lawsuit said that while the state Constitution allows charter amendments proposed by voters to be submitted in special elections, amendments proposed by city councils must be submitted in a general election.
Councilwoman Kay Funk, who has opposed the proposal, acknowledged the groups’ opposition.
“We anticipated this, and it is my opinion that the way the referendum moved forward was imprudent,” she said.
The charter change was proposed by Yakima Valley Business Times Publisher Bruce Smith, Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita, and former Mayor Dave Edler. They said voters have a right to decide for themselves what form of government they want and that a citywide elected mayor would be accountable to all voters, rather than voters from a specific district.
Smith said supporters modeled the proposal on a similar measure in 2011. Voters turned it down, with 52% voting no.
“Apparently, state law requires city-sponsored charter changes to be voted on in November,” Smith said. “We regret, but understand, the City Council’s decision to cancel the strong mayor vote.”
Smith added, however, that nothing brought up by Tuesday’s lawsuits challenge the core issue of the charter change, which is whether an elected mayor can replace the city manager. He said the lawsuits challenge two technical issues with the proposal: when the election can be held and what needs to be in the ballot title.
“No one is challenging the city’s right to put the strong mayor question before voters, which is a good thing,” Smith said. “We modeled our charter change after the 2011 strong mayor charter change, which was developed by the city of Yakima’s legal staff. The two are very similar.”
Leita said he remains confident that the initiative represents the best way forward for Yakima residents.
“We want all citizens to understand there is a better way,” Leita said. “We are willing to do abide by whatever process will allow our citizens to vote and be heard.”
Smith said proponents plan to approach the new City Council with a request to add the same proposal to the November 2020 ballot.
“Since five members of next year’s council are on the record as supporting a public vote on the issue, I expect that will happen,” he said. “The Yakima City Council knows the public deserves the final say.”
Incoming or existing council members who have gone on record in favor of putting to vote a possible shift to the strong mayor form of government are Patricia Byers, Soneya Lund, Holly Cousens, Jason White and Brad Hill. Councilwoman Kay Funk and incoming Councilwoman Eliana Macias have spoken against the shift.
Smith said upcoming deadlines don’t allow for proponents to go after needed signatures to add the measure to the February election through the state-permitted initiative process.
Friday is the deadline to finalize measures on the February ballot with the Yakima County Auditor’s Office.