When the Seattle City Council repealed a controversial business tax on Tuesday, it looked like a referendum campaign to repeal the tax would back off. But today, business leaders who opposed the tax filled more than 45,000 signatures anyway.
The Seattle City Clerk’s Office confirmed Thursday the No Tax on Jobs campaign turned in signatures to try to get a referendum on the tax on the November ballot. The office did not yet know how many signatures the campaign turned in.
In a letter to No Tax on Jobs, City Clerk Monica Martinez Simmons said she does not plan to forward the signatures to King County Elections, which reviews signatures for initiative petitions. That could make the signatures moot.
Although the council repealed the tax, a new lawsuit alleges city officials violated state law when they quickly called a special meeting to vote on the repeal.
“We believe that the mayor and the city council proceeded lawfully, but we needed an insurance policy, essentially, given that some folks are contesting it under the open meetings law,” said James Maiocco, chair of the No Tax on Jobs campaign. Reached over the phone, Maiocco said he is out of town and didn't realize that the clerk didn't plan to transmit the signatures.
The employee hours tax, also known as the “head tax,” would have collected $275 per employee from businesses grossing more than $20 million a year. It was scheduled to take effect in 2019.
Opponents began collecting signatures soon after the council passed the tax last month. Amazon, Starbucks, and other companies raised more than $375,000 for the repeal effort.
No Tax on Jobs waged an aggressive canvassing strategy, spending most of its money on a firm to oversee signature gathering, all but ensuring their referendum would make it onto the ballot. Of the more than 45,000 signatures the group had collected by June 12, only about 15,000 were gathered by volunteers, KIRO reported. The consulting firm hired to carry out the canvassing campaign, Arizona-based Morning in America, is associated with conservative causes and politicians.
When they voted to repeal the tax Tuesday, some council members said they still supported the tax but didn’t believe they could defeat a ballot measure.
While No Tax on Jobs cited the lawsuit as the reason for turning in signatures, it’s not clear that lawsuit could actually invalidate the council’s vote to repeal the tax.
When the mayor and city council issued a press release Monday about the planned repeal vote, it included a statement signed by seven council members. That release raised questions about potential Open Public Meetings Act violations, says Katherine George, a Seattle attorney who has worked on Open Public Meetings Act cases and sits on the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. It indicated that a majority of council members had reached a decision behind closed doors about how they would vote on the repeal.
However, they voted in public on the repeal the following day. “Let’s say that a court found that the vote actually took place in secret before the public meeting and [the court] invalidated that secret vote,” George says. “Then the question would be, ‘Well, so what?’”
George said the lawsuit could result in fines or orders to pay attorneys fees against the city. However, she believes it is “unlikely” it would overturn the final vote to repeal the head tax.
Steven Hsieh contributed reporting.
This is a developing story that will be updated as new information becomes available.