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I-27 case has first day in King County court

A pilot program for two safe injection sites has been approved for King County. (AP)
LISTEN: Two I-27 supporters report from King County court

Friday was the first hearing for the lawsuit challenging I-27 in King County. The initiative aims to ban safe injection sites in the county by voter approval. The lawsuit against it wants to prevent voters from weighing in.

“I just left the courthouse and we had so much support, it was really awesome to see,” said Lindie Freed. “People were wearing red scarves and there was overflow. There was a lot of energy in the room.”

“Why do we have an initiative process if we cannot be heard?” she said. “We need to let the people vote. The energy is off the charts right now on this.”

RELATED: Do Seattle leaders think voters are stupid? 

Freed, along with her husband Josh, have supported Initiative 27, gathering signatures to get it on the ballot. Two safe injection sites are planned for King County — one in Seattle and another elsewhere in the county. If approved, Initiative 27 would ban such sites. It is slated for a February vote, but a lawsuit challenges it. Opponents argue that the initiative process is not where public health decisions should be made. Rather, it’s elected officials who should decide. That was essentially the arguments in court Friday, according to Freed as well as Jennifer Aspelund who was also present.

“We got completely lost in the argument … it was bizarre listening to them speak,” Aspelund said. “There was no human element to it. It was more trying to convince the court, and this judge in particular, that we as citizens of Seattle and King County are not intelligent enough to understand injection sites.”

“The way they say it, is it’s out of the scope of the people to form an initiative such as this, because we have elected officials that know pretty much what’s best for the people of King County,” she said. “They didn’t say you are stupid, they said it is ‘out of the scope.'”

Freed said that the judge’s decision on the matter is expected Monday.

I-27 in court

Aspelund said that the judge seemed focused on whether or not people should have the right to vote on public health matters. The group that brought forth the lawsuit includes the City of Seattle. King County’s attorneys have refused to defend it.

“The judge made it very clear that this whole hearing today was not based on the merits of the case, but more the merits of the people’s right to be able to have this initiative to go forward,” Aspelund said. “While she listened and was amused, I think somewhat, by ‘should we have them or should we not have them,’ that was not her concern.”

“Her concern was whether or not the people have a right, when it comes to a public health issue, to be able to vote on it,” she said. “The other side that wants this blocked, they were coming up with things like, ‘Well, there are elected officials at King County Board of Health.’ They are absolutely correct. But that person was not elected by the people of King County, that person was elected by the state board of health … he was not elected by us.”

Both Aspelund and Freed report that the number of petition signers was also called into question.

“They said that the 70,000 signatures that we collected really doesn’t represent the county; there are 1.3 million people in the county,” Freed said. “And we need to allow everybody to decide, so the 70,000 signatures really don’t count…”

Aspelund echoed that statement.

“I find it appalling. It’s degrading. It’s humiliating. It’s not OK,” she said.

While there is an effort to block I-27 from getting to voters — based on the argument that initiatives are not meant for public health matters — the county has moved to place a counter initiative on the same ballot.

Five King County Council members have proposed legislation that would put an initiative up for vote in February. That initiative would support all the findings of the county’s Heroin and Opioid Addiction Task Force. One such recommendation is the safe injection sites that have become so controversial. The legislation would need five council members’ votes to be approved.

Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles proposed the legislation. Councilmembers Joe McDermott, Claudia Balducci, Rod Dembowski, and Larry Gossett are cosponsors. The council is expected to consider the counter initiative on Monday, at the same time the county court determines the fate of I-27.

According to the King County Council:

Initiative 27, which qualified to be placed on the February ballot, would ban community health engagement locations (CHEL) anywhere in King County. The proposed alternate was proposed as Ordinance 2017-0420.  If passed by voters, it would authorize a three year pilot project during which  a maximum of two CHELs could be operated in King County in hotspots of concentrated substance use and related overdoes.  If this proposed alternative ordinance were adopted by the Council on Monday, it along with I-27 would be on the ballot, giving the voters a choice between I-27 and the Council’s alternative ordinance.


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