The Stanwood City Council heard Thursday of the progress that city staff has made in updating Stanwood’s municipal code, the collection of laws passed by city government.
The last comprehensive update was in the late 1960s, and 50 years of amendments have resulted in inconsistencies and outdated regulations, said Community Development Director Patricia Love.
The staff update aims to modernize the code, improve clarity and make it consistent with current laws. Because of the size of the code document, it’s been broken into sections.
Love reported progress on the first section, which sets the basics for the code, such as style and a numbering system and notes the city is classified as a noncharter code city, a system operating under the mayor-council plan of government.
New definitions have been added, and at the city attorney’s request, a general penalty chapter was added to cover cases that don’t specifically refer to penalties when codes are violated.
Initiative and Referendum
The biggest council discussion was whether to allow citizen advisory votes as petitioned by voters or to adopt an initiative and referendum process.
The petition method allows voters to propose changes to some city laws, but as an advisory vote, council members are not bound by it.
Initiatives let voters directly enact a new ordinance. A referendum allows voters to reject or overturn ordinances adopted by the City Council.
At the request of council member Steve Shepro, this issue was brought up for review and debate. During discussion, council members leaned toward changing to the initiative/referendum form but were concerned about costs, which apply to any issues put on the ballot.
Costs could be significant, particularly in an off-cycle election year, City Attorney Nikki Thompson said.
“There’s costs associated with it. There’s time and effort associated with it that puts extra work on staff. When something does come through, you have to weigh that against the potential rights of the people to request these types of changes,” Love said.
Both processes start with a petition listing registered voters who want to put a measure on the ballot. In the case of the initiative/referendum process, if the vote is successful, the measure becomes law.
Mayor Sid Roberts said people don’t realize that if a citizen initiative becomes law and they don’t like it — the council can’t change it back. It has to go through the referendum process again to remove it.
Initiatives and referendums are also restricted to ordinances. They’re narrow in scope and can’t change resolutions or zoning, Roberts said.
The city can choose whether to allow voters the powers of initiative and referendum, which are guided by state law. Of the 195 code cities in the state, 56 —about 28% — have adopted these powers. All 10 of the cities with populations of more than 10,000 have adopted a charter allowing voters these powers.
Initiatives and referendums give voters more power and can decrease a council's power.
Shepro said he has faith in Stanwood citizens to use the powers effectively and “offer sensible and imaginative solutions to our problems.”
“I do like that people have a voice and the fact they can vote on things, but I like an advisory because it helps us know what direction they want us to go to,” said council member Andreena Bergman, who asked about the cost.
Council member Pearce said he was open to all options.
“I’m a firm believer that being a republic, we are voted in by the people to represent them,” he said. But he said he understood what council member Tim Schmitt said, that advisory votes can be frustrating, and it takes time to vote out council members if you don’t like their decisions.
“I would like to think that the council would listen to that and have good discussions over that, like we plan to over the fireworks,” Pearce said. “I’m leaning toward the referendum, but my mind’s wide open.”
Council members Marcus Metz and Dani Gaumond were also leaning toward the initiative/ referendum process. Metz doesn't like advisory votes. Gaumond likes giving voters a voice and creaing more voter interest.
A guide published by Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington echoed the advantages of giving voters more say and participation. But the guide added that the initiative powers can take lawmaking out of the hands of those elected to do the job and reduce complex issues to a yes/no vote.
The council is scheduled to take action on this matter March 23.
In other city business, the council confirmed Robert “Chili Dog” Hicks’ appointment to the Planning Commission.
Hicks has served the community in various ways over the years; he coaches youth basketball and has served the American Legion and the YMCA board of directors.
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