The city of Longview on Thursday unexpectedly sent a citizens' initiative petition calling for a repeal of red-light cameras to the county auditor for signature verification, but that doesn't mean the public will get to vote on it.
Officials insisted they're taking the step merely as a matter of "legal procedure."
The city clerk dropped off a box containing the petition signatures to the county auditor's office in Kelso at about 2 p.m.
Late Thursday afternoon, Longview City Attorney Marilyn Nitteberg-Haan issued a statement saying the action "is nothing more than a legal procedure." The city still insists that the petition is illegal, and officials will continue to fight that out in court.
"The City Council and city of Longview concede absolutely nothing," Nitteberg-Haan wrote. "The bottom line is the city agreed to take the petitions to the county auditor," which must verify that the initiative has enough valid signatures. "But the city still fully maintains this is not subject to the initiative process or can be legally put on the ballot.
"The city only agreed to transmit the petitions to take that issue out of the loop and focus on the real issue, which is the matter is not subject to the local initiative process," Nitteberg-Haan wrote.
The city's request for a judge to declare the initiative invalid will be heard at 9:30 a.m. June 27 in Cowlitz County Superior Court. The city has retained Seattle attorney Stephen DiJulio for the case and will pay his fees out of the city's traffic safety fund, which is fueled solely by traffic safety enforcement ticket revenues, according to City Manager Bob Gregory. The fund will contain about $18,000 after the city pays the $113,000 camera-rental fee for the first three months of the program out of it, city officials said Thursday.
If the judge denies the city's request, the city could appeal the decision or take no action, in which case the initiative would be placed as written on the November ballot for a public vote — if there are sufficient valid signatures.
Backers of the petition turned in 3,628 signatures May 23, about 900 more than the number of valid signatures needed to force the measure on to the ballot. However, two days later, the City Council declared that its action to establish a traffic safety camera program is not legally subject to the initiative process. But as a concession to initiative supporters, the council also set a non-binding advisory vote on the camera program in November.
The initiative petition would repeal the city's traffic camera program, which has been nabbing red light runners at three Ocean Beach Highway intersections and speeders at two school zones since March. Backed by Longview residents Mike Wallin and Tim Sutinen with support from Mukilteo initiative hawk Tim Eyman, the initiative would bar the city from reimposing the program without a public vote.
Nitteberg-Haan argues that the Legislature specifically gave cities authority to adopt traffic safety measures, and those measures would not be subject to the initiative and referendum process. Because the Longview council adopted an ordinance allowing the traffic cameras for an 18-month pilot study, it would be illegal to allow the initiative, she said.
Meanwhile, the auditor's office is going to start verifying the petition's signatures Friday to make sure they match voters' signatures on file and ensure they live within city limits, said county elections supervisor Carolyn Myers. The trouble is, elections employees are scheduled to be out of office from Monday through Thursday next week for their annual election conference.
"At this point, we're considering working all weekend hoping to get this complete prior to leaving for the conference," Myers said.
From Feb. 14 through May 31, the city has issued 1,604 red light violations and 1,387 school speed-zone violations, according to the police department.