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Petition to remove Sawant from council gains momentum

<p>Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant</p>

An online effort to recall Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant is gaining momentum. But a legal expert says it doesn't have much legal merit.

The online petition was started in November 2016 and has gathered more than 20,000 supporters, with a goal of reaching 25,000. It was launched after the socialist councilmember urged people to protest the election of Donald Trump on his inauguration day.

The group says it wants to send a message to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray that Sawant should be impeached because they believe it's not appropriate for elected officials to call for protests.

"Kshama Sawant is not respecting the will of the people. She's using her platform to incite violence and call for protests and riots," the online petition reads. "Let's send a message to our local Mayor that she should step down from her position or be impeached. It is not appropriate for elected officials to call for protests."

The writer of the petition is listed as Carron Chernobieff, but it's unclear if Chernobieff is actually a registered voter of Seattle.

Sawant supporters have started multiple online petitions of their own. One petition titled "We support Kshama Sawant and reject calls to remove her from Seattle City Council" claims the petition to remove Sawant was started "by individuals in Texas and North Carolina, who have no business in Seattle politics." Another petition supporting Sawant says, "My goal is to show there is more support to keep Ms. Sawant in office than there is to remove her from office."

Recalling an elected official in Washington state is a complicated and explicit legal process that goes beyond having digital signatures on an online petition, says attorney Jeff Helsdon. Helsdon has been involved in the recall petition process for multiple public officials in Washington, including Pacific Mayor Cy Sun, Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam, and State Auditor Troy Kelley.

Citizens are granted the authority to perform a recall, but only if the public official has engaged in the "commission of some act or acts of malfeasance or misfeasance while in office, or who has violated his oath of office," according to Article 1, Section 33 of the Washington State Constitution.

To recall a member of Seattle City Council, Helsdon explains, a registered voter in Seattle would have to file a petition with the King County Auditors Office, in which the voter would have to swear under oath that official committed malfeasance, misfeasance or has violated her oath of office. The petition must be found to be factually sufficient - meaning it must set forth specific facts that gave rise to the petition, not generalities - and legally sufficient - detailing that a violation of oath of office, malfeasance or misfeasance took place.

The King County prosecutor also drafts and submits to King County Superior Court a proposed ballot synopsis that would appear on the ballot during a special election, if the petition is approved. Once that's filed, the process is out of the prosecutor's hands. The registered voter who filed the petition must then be the proponent in court.

A sufficiency hearing takes place in King County Superior Court, where the elected official has an opportunity to defend him or herself. The court weighs the evidence and determines if the petition is both factually and legally sufficient. If the judge says yes, then the process moves toward the ballot synopsis. The opposing side can move to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

If the petition does not get appealed or if the state Supreme Court gives approves the petition, the voter sponsoring the petition can then begin collecting signatures on a detailed petition titled "Approved Petition Synopsis." Helsdon stresses actual signatures, not digital signatures, only count, and collection can only begin until the Supreme Court or Superior Court give the green light.

The ballot proponent then has 180 days to collect the necessary number of signatures - for Seattle, 25 percent of total votes cast for all candidates who ran for office in the most recent election. If that happens, then a special election is held for the people in that particular jurisdiction.

If the recall election is successful, then a board of commissioners appoints a successor from a list submitted by the political party of the official recalled.

So bottom line, when it comes to the various online petitions for recalls, they're more for the court of public opinion.

"It has no legal merit. It is just an expression of dissatisfaction by some people," said Helsdon.