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D.C. Judge Shoots Down Public Vote On $15 Minimum Wage

Labor activists in D.C. want the city's residents to vote on whether the minimum wage should go up to $15.
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Labor activists in D.C. want the city's residents to vote on whether the minimum wage should go up to $15.

A D.C. judge on Friday ruled that an effort for a public vote on raising the minimum wage to $15 cannot be placed on the November ballot, handing a temporary victory to business leaders who say a wage that high would at best limit hiring and at worst drive businesses out of the city.

In a ruling from the bench, Judge Maurice Ross said that the D.C. Board of Elections improperly approved language for the ballot initiative last July. He said that at the time the language was approved, the three-person board was not properly constituted, since two of its members were serving under expired terms.

The decision prompted promises of a quick appeal, as well as concerns of the far-reaching impacts on the city's elections.

At issue at Friday's hearing were competing views of how and when those members' terms officially expire. Rudolph McGann, an attorney for the Board of Elections, argued that the city's Home Rule Charter specifies that members of the board can remain in their positions until the mayor and D.C. Council approve new members to replace them.

But attorneys for Harry Wingo, the former head of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce who sued to stop the vote, countered that D.C. law specifies that members of D.C. boards and commissions can only stay on for 180 days after their terms have expired.

The last appointments to the board came in late 2011, when Mayor Vincent Gray picked three people for the board — Devarieste Curry, Stephen Danzansky and Deborah Nichols. Nichols' term expired in July 2012, Curry's in July 2013 and Danzansky's in July 2014. They were not reappointed, but remained on the board through this year.

McGann vociferously insisted the charter should prevail, but Judge Ross disagreed.

An exasperated McGann argued that Judge Ross's ruling could have far-reaching implications for the city's elections. McGann said that if Ross's decision stands, a number of past decisions made by the board — ranging from approving language for ballot initiatives to conducting and certifying elections — could be thrown into question.

"In this instance, you're saying there's no board. There's no Board of Elections. That's what you're saying," said McGann.

"Then new members have to be appointed," responded Judge Ross.

"They do, but they aren't at this point in time. So how do you deal with that?" asked McGann, raising the possibility that the board's decisions over the last year — including to approve the vote on marijuana legalization, and certify the 2014 election that saw Muriel Bowser elected mayor — could be voided.

"Because of legislative and executive inertia, you just want me to follow the line?" shot back Judge Ross.

A spokeswoman for the Board of Elections said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.

But backers of the ballot initiative said they would appeal as soon as Judge Ross signs an order, which is expected to happen early next week. Still, having to appeal and await a result will likely delay when they can start collecting the 25,000 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot. Under normal circumstances, they would have until July to collect the signatures. If the appeal process drags on, they may have fewer months to work with.

In a statement, they expressed anger over the decision and the lawsuit that prompted it.

"The Chamber of Commerce is willing to blow up democracy just to keep wages low," said Delvone Michael of D.C. Working Families, one of the group's spearheading the push for the vote.

"Today's outrageous ruling asserts that we do not have the right to determine our own destiny in the District of Columbia. But the fight for a fair, $15 minimum wage has only just begun. And this ruling might slow us down, but it won't stop us, and the right of the people to decide the kind of city we deserve will not be delayed for long. We'll be appealing soon, and we know justice will prevail," he added.

The decision caps off months of legal battling over whether or not D.C. residents should be allowed to vote on raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2020. The initiative would also do away with the tipped minimum wage for restaurant workers, moving them up to a $15 minimum wage by 2025.

Advocates say that in a city that is growing increasingly expensive, the current minimum wage isn't sufficient. But business leaders led by Wingo have said that pushing the minimum wage above $11.50 would saddle D.C. businesses with higher operating costs and leave them at a disadvantage relative to neighboring jurisdictions.

In August, Wingo — with backing from trade groups representing D.C. restaurants, hotels and hospitals — sued to stop the vote from happening. If it were to happen, it's expected that the $15 minimum wage would pass. A Washington City Paper poll this week found that 87 percent of residents would likely vote in favor of the higher wage.

This story will be updated.

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