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March 29, 2011 at 12:48 PM

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Seattle city attorney moves to block anti-tunnel referendum

Posted by Lynn Thompson

City Attorney Pete Holmes moved to block an anti-tunnel referendum Tuesday morning, saying he will ask a judge to rule on its legality before the measure is certified for an election.

Holmes filed a motion for declaratory judgment in King County Superior Court, basically asking a judge in advance whether city agreements with the state to proceed on the deep-bore tunnel are subject to referendum.

Backers of the anti-tunnel referendum turned in nearly 29,000 signatures Tuesday to place on the August ballot the City Council agreements with the state to replace the Highway 99 viaduct. The referendum needs 16,503 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Holmes said he was asking for a judge to rule now to reduce uncertainty about the tunnel project and save time and money.

He said referenda only apply to legislative policy actions, not administrative actions, and so this may not be legal.

"Based on my reading of the law, the history of this project, and these agreements, on balance I believe (the ordinance) is more likely administrative than legislative," Holmes said in a statement.

The Seattle City Council's tunnel agreements deal mainly with utility relocations, street right-of-way, and insurance issues.

Holmes said these appear "administrative" because they carry out earlier policy laws -- the 2009 law by the Legislature instructing the state Department of Transportation to design a tunnel; and the City Council's own October 2009 memorandum of agreement with DOT selecting a tunnel as the council's "preferred solution."

Echoing the city charter, Holmes said the challenged ordinance cannot go into effect until after a vote upholding it. That means the referendum would delay the agreements with the state until after the August primary.

State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said Monday that delaying the project to wait for a vote on a referendum would cost $54 million through August plus $20 million per month for every additional month the agreements weren't in effect. Holmes cited those figures at a press conference Tuesday.

Protect Seattle Now, the anti-tunnel campaign group, said in a mid-day press release, "Who asked the City Attorney to sue the people?"

City Council President Richard Conlin said he's discussed the legal issues with Holmes "since last summer." Holmes said it was his own decision to file the case, and that Conlin has conferred with him, on behalf of the council.

"Nobody's 'suing the people,'" said Conlin, who in September signed an environmental report to help the state, when anti-tunnel Mayor Mike McGinn didn't. "That's the silliest thing I've ever heard."

Holmes' announcement ventures past the immediate charter issues, to ponder what might happen if a tunnel is blocked. "And if there's discussion of another advisory ballot," he says, "I think it would be significantly more useful if it included more options, preferably giving supporters of one specific viaduct replacement option the opportunity to state their second choices."

Protect Seattle Now called on council members to "uphold the democratic process" by forwarding the referendum to voters.

[Times reporter Mike Lindblom updated this article at 4:55 p.m.]

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.