City Hall

Conlin Recall Campaign Faces Major Hurdles

By Erica C. Barnett June 1, 2011

As we noted in Morning Fizz, Magnolia neighborhood activist Elizabeth Campbell has filed a recall petition against city council president Richard Conlin, who supports the tunnel. (Campbell supports rebuilding the Alaskan Way Viaduct.)

The petition alleges, among other charges, that Conlin violated the constitutional separation of powers by signing off on an early draft of the tunnel environmental impact statement (tunnel opponents argue that only the mayor had the right to sign off on the document); that Conlin "colluded" with city attorney Pete Holmes to sue proponents of the anti-tunnel referendum; and that Conlin violated his duty to put Campbell's anti-tunnel initiative on the ballot by delaying a vote on the measure until a judge rules in the case.

The process for recalling a local official is outlined in the state constitution, and requires that recall petitioners prove malfeasance or misfeasance---one reason, perhaps, that a movement to recall Mayor Mike McGinn hasn't gone anywhere beyond a 759-member Facebook page.

According to Katie Blinn, assistant director of the elections division at the state Secretary of State's office, "The public cannot simply disagree with a discretionary decision made by the elected.  The elected has to have actually done something that is contrary to law."

Before Campbell, or anyone, can start gathering signatures to recall an elected official like Conlin, a county superior court (in this case, King County Superior Court) has to agree that the official has violated the law. This, Blinn says, "is where most recall efforts die because the petitioners simply don't like something that the elected did, but that action is actually within the elected's decision-making authority." The charges against Conlin do not appear to meet that standard.

Another potential flaw in Campbell's filing: One of the documents she uses to back up her recall petition includes a story that ran in the Stranger last month alleging that Holmes had spent nearly 1,500 hours, and $80,000 in city money, waging two lawsuits against the tunnel.

That math, however, doesn't add up. According to the documents (here and here), the hour figure the paper attributed to anti-tunnel lawsuit work actually includes staff and attorney time spent dealing with aspects of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project that are not related to the initiative and referendum against the tunnel. That includes time spent meeting with the mayor and various council members; attending and speaking at city council meetings, reviewing documents related to environmental review, the request for proposals for tunnel construction, and potential funding sources for the tunnel that are not a subject of the lawsuit, and discussions about the Gates Foundation's concerns over the fact that northern entrance to the tunnel will go directly underneath its new campus.

The time sheets also include many hours of attorney and staff time whose purpose is not specified.

Holmes public disclosure officer Naomi Hillyard tells PubliCola (echoing what she told the PI last month when they questioned the math), "All of the time reported on these generic viaduct numbers were related to viaduct issues but not necessarily reflective of time spent on referability and initiability.  As it is difficult to narrow individual's recorded time to just this subject, and in order to be overinclusive rather than underinclusive, I decided to include everything in a response to the Stranger's records request."

In an email, Holden said the city attorney's public records officer told him that "these numbers pertained to the research relating to the preferability of the referendum and initiative and the lawsuits 'as best as I could narrow it'," adding, "Of course, if there is any information in my report that is not correct---and if Holmes's office believes it mischaracterized the content of that records request at the time--I'm happy to correct it."
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