Initiative and Referendum

There is increasing interest in the power of the people to directly exercise authority to enact and repeal laws. This authority is exercised through the powers of initiative and referendum. Most cities in Washington have not adopted the powers of initiative and referendum, but the City of Olympia has.

What are the Powers of Initiative and Referendum?

Basically, the power of initiative as applied to municipalities refers to the authority of voters of a City to directly initiate and enact legislation. The process involves an initial petition containing a specified number of signatures that proposes an ordinance for adoption. If the proper form and the number of signatures is sufficient, the issue must either be adopted by the City Council or submitted to the entire electorate of the City for adoption or rejection at an election.

The power of referendum is the right of the people to have an ordinance that has been enacted by the City Council submitted to the voters for their approval or rejection. The process also includes the filing of a petition with a required number of registered voters, prior to the effective date of the ordinance. If the required number of signatures in the proper form is obtained on the petition, the ordinance is suspended from becoming effective until it has either been repealed by the City Council or is submitted to the voters for approval or rejection at an election.

Briefly, the power of initiative is used to propose new legislation and the power of referendum is used to review previously adopted legislation. 
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What Types of Legislation are Subject to the Initiative and Referendum Process?

Not every type of legislation is subject to initiative and referendum powers. There are a number of statutory limitations. Only ordinances may be enacted by initiative or repealed by referendum. The powers of initiative and referendum are not applicable to any other type of legislative enactment by a City Council, such as motion, order or resolution.

The following is a list of ordinances that are not subject to the power of referendum:

  • Ordinances initiated by petition
  • Emergency ordinances necessary for the immediate preservation of public peace, health and safety or for the support of the city government and its existing public institutions which contain a statement of urgency and are passed by unanimous vote of the Council
  • Ordinances providing for local improvement districts;
  • Ordinances appropriating money
  • Ordinances providing for or approving collective bargaining
  • Ordinances providing for the compensation of or working conditions of City employees
  • Ordinances authorizing or repealing the levy of taxes.

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How is the Power of Initiative Exercised in the City of Olympia?

The proponent of an initiative must obtain signatures on a petition equal in number to 15 percent of the total number of registered voters within the City as of the date of the last preceding City general election. See RCW 35A.11.100.

Everyone who signs the initiative petition must add to their signature his or her place of residence, giving the street and number. Petitions must also be printed in the form required by RCW 35A.01.040.

The signed petition must be filed with the City Clerk, who then has three working days to transmit it to the County Auditor who will review and determine the validity and adequacy of the signatures on the petition. After review, the County Auditor will certify whether or not the petition has been signed by a sufficient number of registered voters.

If the number of signatures is found to be insufficient, the petitioners have ten additional days to amend the petition. The amended petition then needs to be resubmitted to the City Clerk who will retransmit the petition to the County Auditor. If the County Auditor finds the number of signatures insufficient a second time, the petition will be returned to the person filing it. Any taxpayer then has the option of filing an action in Superior Court to determine if the petition is sufficient.

If the County Auditor determines that the number of signatures is sufficient, then the City Council has two options. The City Council can pass the proposed ordinance without alteration within 20 days of receipt from the County Auditor, or submit the measure to a vote of the people.

If submitted to a vote of the people, the ballot title of any initiative will be composed of three elements: (a) identification of the enacting legislative body and statement of the subject matter, (b) concise description of the measure, (c) a question asking the voters whether the enactment should be approved or rejected by the voters. The concise statement will be prepared by the City's Attorney and will not exceed 75 words.  See RCW 29A.36.071.

Once the ballot title is filed, the County Auditor will notify the proponents of the initiative of the exact language of the ballot title. If the persons filing the initiative are dissatisfied with the ballot title formulated by the City's Attorney, they may file an appeal within ten days in the Superior Court of Thurston County. They must indicate their objections and ask for an amendment. The court will hold a hearing and render a decision certifying the correct ballot title. The decision of the Superior Court is final. See RCW 29A.36.090.

If the majority of the number of votes cast favor the proposed measure, it is adopted and will become effective upon certification of the election results.

An ordinance that has been adopted by means of the initiative process after an election of the people may only be repealed or amended by a vote of the people.

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How is the Power of Referendum Exercised in the City of Olympia?

The proponent of the initiative must submit a petition with attached signatures equal to 15 percent of the number of persons listed as registered voters within the City on the day of the last preceding City general election.

Everyone who signs the referendum petition must add to their signature his or her place of residence, giving the street and number. Petitions must also be in the form required by RCW 35A.01.040.

The petition must be filed with the City Clerk, who then has three working days to transmit it to the County Auditor who will review and determine the validity and adequacy of the signatures on the petition. After review, the County Auditor will certify whether or not the petition has been signed by a sufficient number of registered voters.

If the number of signatures is found to be insufficient, the petitioners have ten additional days to amend the petition. The amended petition then needs to be resubmitted to the City Clerk who will retransmit the petition to the County Auditor. If the County Auditor finds the number of signatures insufficient a second time, the petition will be returned to the person filing it. Any taxpayer then has the option of filing an action in Superior Court to determine if the petition is sufficient.

If the County Auditor determines that the number of signatures is sufficient, then the City Council has two options. The City Council can reconsider the ordinance within 20 days and repeal it in its entirety, or submit the measure for approval or disapproval to a vote of the people.

If submitted to a vote of the people, the ballot title of any referendum will be composed of three elements: (a) identification of the enacting legislative body and statement of the subject matter, (b) concise description of the measure, (c) a question asking the voters whether the enactment should be approved or rejected by the voters. The concise statement will be prepared by the City's Attorney and will not exceed 75 words. See RCW 29A.36.071.

Once the ballot title is filed, the County Auditor will notify the persons proposing the referendum of the exact language of the concise statement. If the proponents are not satisfied with the concise statement formulated by the City's Attorney, they may file an appeal within ten days in the Superior Court of Thurston County. They must indicate their objections and ask for an amendment. After a hearing, the Superior Court will certify the final ballot title. The decision of the Superior Court on the wording is final. See RCW 29A.36.090.

If the majority of the number of votes cast is in favor of the repeal of the proposed ordinance, then the ordinance is deemed repealed and does not become effective.

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