Judge removes ‘Compassion Seattle’ charter amendment from ballot; initiative aimed to curb homelessness crisis

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Tents are pitched in a grassy lot along Dexter Avenue in Seattle in January 2021. The Space Needle and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are seen in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

A state judge removed the “Compassion Seattle” measure from the November ballot on Friday, saying the proposal to change the way the city deals with its homeless population exceeds what the initiative process can legally do.  

King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer said in an afternoon ruling that the initiative to amend the city’s charter conflicts with existing state law. The judge explained that while voters might appreciate the mandates on the City Council to build more housing and clear tent encampments, such specific requirements are not what the charter amendments are for.

“You can’t amend a city charter to conflict with state law,” Shaffer said. “I like this charter amendment as a voter. But as a judge, it cannot stand.”

Proponents of the measure, who said there is no time for an appeal, criticized the judge’s reasoning. 

“While we are gratified that Judge Shaffer said that she would have voted for Charter Amendment 29 if, given that option, we strongly disagree with her ruling today denying Seattle voters the opportunity to have their voices heard on the number one issue facing our city,” said a spokesperson for the initiative’s backers. 

“This ruling means the only way the public can change the city’s current approach to homelessness is to change who is in charge at city hall.” 

Already qualified for the November ballot, “Compassion Seattle” sought to require the city to provide 2,000 units of emergency or permanent housing within a year and require the city to ensure parks, playgrounds and sidewalks remain clear of encampments if the housing and services are in place.

The initiative also would require the city to keep “parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets clear of encampments” once the mandated housing, drug, and mental health services are in place. There is an ongoing push within the Los Angeles City Council to implement similar rules. 

Debate about the measure comes at exactly the same time that large employers such as Amazon are returning workers to their headquarters in Seattle’s business district, which has been hit hardest by the homeless crisis.

Compassion Seattle, according to its supporters, had been polling well and pushing 65% approval.

But opponents of the measure, among them the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, argued that the measure criminalized homelessness and that it exceeded the intended scope of charter amendments by bypassing the City Council, setting specific policy that should be controlled by the city.

It was the ACLU, along with Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and the Transit Riders Union, who successfully sued earlier this month to strip the measure from the ballot.

“Judge Shaffer’s ruling affirms well-established limits to the local initiative process and recognizes the importance of the proper functioning of our democratic systems,” Breanne Schuster, ACLU of Washington staff attorney said in a statement.

“We are pleased that CA 29 will not stand as an impediment to solutions that meaningfully address our housing crisis and do not punish people for trying to meet their basic life-sustaining needs like shelter, sleep, and food.”

Backers of the initiative urged its supporters to pay attention to which candidates supported it and which did not in the upcoming election for mayor and two city council seats. The Seattle mayor’s race pits former council president Bruce Harrell against current council president Lorena Gonzalez. In the two council races for the at-large seats, Nikita Oliver is running against Sara Nelson. In the other contest, it’s Teresa Mosqueda versus Kenneth Wilson.

“We urge the public not to give up the fight. We can still make our voices heard in the elections for Mayor, City Council, and City Attorney,” a Compassion Seattle spokesperson said. “In each race, the difference between the candidates is defined by who supports what the Charter Amendment was attempting to accomplish and who does not.”

Tim Burgess, a former City Council President and former Interim Mayor of Seattle who helped write the ballot measure, called it a “compassionate, outcome-based plan of action,” in a Civic Conversation hosted by GeekWire.

Tim Burgess (bottom left), Rachel Smith (top right), Kieran Snyder (bottom right) and host Mike Lewis of GeekWire

But however well-intentioned, critics said the initiative process is the wrong tool to fix the problem.

“We’re grateful this ruling will prevent a misleading and illegal use of local ballot initiative powers,” Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union said in a statement. “It’s important that voters fully understand what they are being asked to weigh in on, and CA 29 makes promises it can’t keep.”