Councilputs forth its own airport initiative

Published on Thu, Oct 6, 2005 by ara Nelson

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Council puts forth its own airport initiative

By Tara Nelson

The Blaine City Council in an emergency meeting on Tuesday, voted unanimously to reject a Blaine citizen initiative from being put on the November ballot but the council will go ahead with its own version of the initiative.

The original initiative, put forth by the citizen group Revitalize Blaine Now (RBN) and organized by local realtor Dennis Hill, asks Blaine voters if the city should permanently abolish the Blaine airport as a municipal function.

After the council voted that Hill’s initiative did not meet certain legal requirements, the council voted unanimously on its own advisory version of the initiative. Theirs asks the question, “Shall the city council explore the feasibility of closing the Blaine municipal airport?” and carries no legally binding obligation. Council member Bonnie Onyon, however, said, given thorough examination of both sides, the council should follow through with the results of the poll.

“I would consider this to be somewhat of a mandate for the city to explore all these issues with an open mind,” she said. “Is there more to be gained from closing the airport or keeping it open?”

Onyon added she would like to see both sides “agree to disagree” until more time is given to explore the issue. She said the airport advisory committee has not completed an economic feasibility analysis yet and the alternative use committee still has not had its first meeting.

“Most of us need to know a little more information,” she said. “Some facts need to be brought out and I just think people need to let that happen. In my feeling, you don’t close something of this monumental nature without having a plan for what you’re going to do with it first.”
The meeting came after a legal dispute involving Hill’s citizen advocacy group, the city of Blaine, the Whatcom County auditor’s office and a handful of citizens on both sides of the issue.

In a September 12 city council meeting, the RBN committee presented more than 500 signatures supporting its initiative to the council. In a later interview, Hill said the auditor had found 340 of those signatures to be valid. Hill said he thinks this was because volunteers gathered many of the signatures near the county border and some were not aware they had strayed outside city limits. Regardless, that number still met state mandates for the required number of signatures.

Later that month, Hill’s initiative was sent to Whatcom County auditor Shirley Forslof to be validated but before that could happen, the city of Blaine and city attorney, Jon Sitkin, filed a temporary injunction barring Forslof from doing so.

Sitkin said the injunction sought to push Forslof to make a determination of sufficiency in regards to the legal weight of the initiative. Sitkin argued that the initiative was invalid because it did not mention a specific city ordinance the committee sought to eliminate or modify, or propose a new ordinance. In addition, he said because the airport is a municipal function, it is not subject to the initiative process.
Forslof, however, refused to make a determination beyond validating signatures. A memorandum put forth by the Whatcom County prosecuting attorney’s office argued in Forslof’s favor that the Whatcom County auditor is only responsible for checking the validity of signatures and not “a substantive review of a submitted ballot title.”

Last Friday, Judge Steven J. Mura struck down the injunction in Whatcom County Superior Court and while he did not make a decision as to the legality of the petition, he ruled that the responsibility to issue a determination of sufficiency lies with the city.

“No auditor has to go out and research city ordinances,” he said. “It’s the city’s job to do that.”

Pete Griffin, elections supervisor at the auditor’s office agreed.
“We would never try to interpret the law, we’re not attorneys,” Griffin said. “We do not have the authority to say yes or no to these things.”
Mura, however, told Sitkin he would look at the issue again after the election was over if the city wished to appeal the case again. In the meantime, Mura said if the city found an inconsistency with an initiative, it would not have to send it back to the auditor to be put on the ballot.

Sitkin said he thinks Mura made the ruling partly because of the closeness of the November election. “In our view he decided not to decide these issues before the election,” he said. “He made a practical decision, one that I believe is legally incorrect but practical. My opinion is not changed that the petition as submitted does not meet the requirements of law.”

He added that no party argued either in writing or before the court that the petition met the requirements for legal sufficiency concerning a lack of reference to an existing city ordinance or a proposed new ordinance. “One of those two things has to occur at a minimum,” Sitkin said. “This (initiative) does neither.”

Hill said he was more or less satisified with the decision. “It was a bit of a compromise,” he said. “But as long as it’s on the ballot.”