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July 7, 2011 at 10:33 AM

Seattle candidates can now rip opponents in Voters' Guide

Posted by Bob Young

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission has ditched a long-standing rule that prohibited candidates from discussing their opponents in the taxpayer-funded Voters' Guide.

In a 7-0 vote Wednesday, commissioners cleared the way for possible incivility in the 400-word statements candidates can submit to the guide.

The new policy will be in play for the Nov. 8 general election Voters' Guide.

Candidates will not be allowed to use defamatory, libelous, profane or obscene language under city rules. City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who's running for re-election this year, asked the commission to bar statements that are false or materially misleading.

But Wayne Barnett, executive director of the commission, said such a ban was beyond the watchdog group's authority; it would require the council to change city law. "That's where the media comes in and calls it out. Hopefully there's a penalty to be paid at the ballot box for lying on your voters' pamphlet statement," Barnett said.

The commission's decision has been brewing for years. Back in 2001, City Council candidate Grant Cogswell wanted to criticize the record of his opponent, then-incumbent Richard McIver.

City rules didn't allow that so Cogswell challenged them in federal court, where ultimately the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that city government provided the voters' guide forum so it could set non-discriminatory rules.

In 2004, the City Council pushed the issue to the commission, saying it was important for the commission's independence that it have the final say. At the time, Councilmember Jean Godden said the ban was "almost an incumbent-protection clause."

Why now? Seven years later? "The commission had routine revisions of the rules on the agenda and took the opportunity to look at the rule, which has long divided the commission," Barnett said.

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