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How Local Ballot Measures Fared in the 2021 General Election


November 10, 2021  by  Steve Hawley
Category:  Elections Forms of Government-City Courts and Criminal Justice System Transportation Finance Forms of Government-County Inclusive Communities

How Local Ballot Measures Fared in the 2021 General Election

For 10 years now, MRSC has been tracking local ballot measures in Washington State and compiling them in our Local Ballot Measure Database, where you can research them by category or through a keyword search.

The votes are still being tallied for last week’s general election, but as the uncounted ballots dwindle the overall results aren’t likely to change except perhaps in the tightest of races. I’ll update our database with the final results in a few weeks, after the results are certified. But for now, here’s a recap of some of the ballot measures that caught my eye.

As usual, there are too many for me to possibly write about them all! Whenever possible, I’ve included links to local news articles if you want some additional details and context about a particular measure. Let’s dive in!

Governance Changes

In Kitsap County, voters easily approved a proposition to replace the elective coroner’s office with an appointed medical examiner, as authorized by RCW 36.24.190 (which only applies to counties with a population of 250,000 or more). The current coroner himself campaigned to eliminate the coroner’s office and “professionalize” the role. Kitsap County becomes just the seventh with a medical examiner — joining Spokane County and five charter counties. Recent state legislation will require coroners and medical examiners to undergo training and maintain accreditation, as well as making other changes, as we wrote about in August.

Voters in Clark County overwhelmingly supported charter amendments to make all the county elected offices nonpartisan, add an ethics code and autonomous review process, and change the structure of the county council. Currently, the county elects one commissioner each from four districts, with a fifth member elected at-large to serve as the council chair. The new system will eliminate the at-large seat and add a fifth geographic district, and the five councilmembers will then select which members should serve as chair and vice chair.

Voters in Pierce County approved a charter amendment to make the prosecuting attorney’s office nonpartisan (all the other county elected offices are still partisan). In the past year, the number of nonpartisan prosecuting attorneys in home rule counties has increased from one (King County) to four (adding Clallam, Clark, and Pierce counties).

Meanwhile, voters in Woodland rejected a proposal to adopt the council-manager form of government. (In Benton City, a similar proposal to change to the council-manager system failed in August.)

Criminal Justice and E-911

Voters in Clark County rejected a proposed 0.1% juvenile detention sales tax. According to the Columbian, the intent of the proposition was to provide a new revenue stream for juvenile and jail facilities, allowing the county to redirect general fund money from jails to purchase body cameras and dash cameras for the sheriff’s office instead. However, the body/dash cams were not specifically mentioned in the ballot measure.

In Puyallup, an $83 million bond measure to fund a new public safety building housing the police department, jail, and municipal court appears to be falling just shy of the required 60% supermajority.

In Yakima County, voters easily reauthorized the existing 0.3% public safety sales tax to support law and justice services. Previously, the county had included a sunset clause and submitted the sales tax to voters periodically for reauthorization but this ballot measure removes the sunset clause and will impose the sales tax permanently.

Kitsap County voters approved increasing the E-911 sales tax from 0.1% to 0.2% to replace the aging emergency radio system by 2028, and Whitman County voters approved a similar E-911 sales tax increase from 0.1% to 0.2%.

Libraries

In Whatcom County, a ballot measure to form the Birch Bay Library Capital Facility Area and authorize the issuance of bonds for a new library appears to be falling just short of the required 60% supermajority. Until recently, library capital facility areas required two separate ballot measures: one to form the area and a second to issue bonds — and it was not uncommon for the first to pass only for the second to fail. However, SB 6305 in 2020 streamlined these into a single ballot measure.

Transportation

Voters in Ridgefield supported a 10-year, 0.2% sales tax for a transportation benefit district (TBD), and now the city council is expected to vote on repealing the city’s car tab fees. In nearby Woodland, voters are rejecting a similar TBD sales tax for the third time in five years.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has been a big topic recently and it showed up on the ballot in several home rule charter counties.

In Clark County, voters rejected a charter amendment to establish an office of diversity, equity, and inclusion and create a DEI advisory commission. According to The Columbian, some voters may have opposed the measure because they thought it created unnecessary bureaucracy or because they thought the measure was advancing critical race theory.

In San Juan County, voters rejected charter amendments to create a DEI and justice commission, add acknowledgments to the Coast Salish people and their rights — which created some concern about potential impacts to property owners’ rights on the islands — and replace the existing preamble with a new preamble referencing topics including self-governance, equal protection, the economy, and the environment. (Voters also opposed a proposal to create a new climate and environment commission.) But voters are narrowly supporting a separate amendment to add nondiscrimination provisions.

King County voters approved a change to the charter preamble that will include the stated purposes of a more equitable government for all and promotion of a superior quality of life.

Initiatives and Referenda

In Bellingham, voters weighed in on four local initiatives. Voters supported two initiatives that would prohibit police from using facial recognition and predictive policing technology, as well as prohibiting organizations that receive city funds from using that money to discourage unionization. Meanwhile, voters appear to have rejected two initiatives that would have expanded tenant rights to include rental relocation assistance and expanded workers’ rights to include hazard pay during declared emergencies and extra compensation for sudden schedule changes. The city council had unanimously approved a resolution opposing all four initiatives, saying that they were “well-intentioned” but practically and legally flawed.

Clark County voters approved a charter amendment that will restrict voting on initiatives and referendums that solely affect the unincorporated areas (such as fireworks bans), so that only voters in the unincorporated areas may vote on them — similar to a provision already in place in King County. Previously, the entire county was eligible to vote on measures that only impacted the unincorporated areas.

Meanwhile, voters appear to have approved lowering the signature thresholds for initiatives and referenda in Bellingham and Whatcom County. The signature thresholds will now be calculated based on voter turnout in the last local election rather than the last state or governor’s election.

In San Juan County, voters rejected a charter amendment that would have lowered the signature thresholds for initiatives and referendums, removed the requirement that initiatives provide any necessary revenue to implement the initiative, and required paid signature gatherers to be clearly identified.

Advisory Votes: Fireworks and High-Density Housing

In nonbinding advisory votes, voters in Yelm and Lake Stevens are opposing proposed fireworks bans, while voters in Mukilteo overwhelmingly said that the city should not encourage more high-density housing.

Other Measures

In Yakima, voters supported charter amendments to ban the city council from imposing a local income tax, update parts of the charter to make it consistent with state law, and allow the city council to declare a seat vacant if a council member fails to meet attendance requirements (in response to one councilmember who missed a year’s worth of meetings while continuing to collect a city salary).

In Pend Oreille County, voters approved the dissolution of Cemetery District #2 because it was no longer financially feasible. The cemetery will be returned to the Town of Metaline.

A plan to combine the Aberdeen and Hoquiam fire departments into the Central Grays Harbor Regional Fire Authority appears to be falling just shy of the required 60% supermajority. (While a regional fire district may be formed with simple majority approval, the formation of a regional fire district that includes fire benefit charges or 60% voter-approved taxes, as this one does, requires a supermajority.)

Anything Else?

Well, I ran out of room here — but feel free to contact me if you’d like to call my attention to any other ballot measures in Washington! I’ll update the Local Ballot Measure Database in a few weeks with the full results.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Steve Hawley

Steve joined MRSC in July 2014 and is responsible for writing, editing, and conducting research for many of MRSC’s website resources, with a particular focus on local government finance, budgeting, ballot measures, and procurement. He has a broad communications and public policy background with over a decade of local government and nonprofit experience.

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