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AGO 1973 No. 6 - February 09, 1973
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Slade Gorton | 1969-1980 | Attorney General of Washington

OFFICES AND OFFICERS ‑- STATE ‑- MUNICIPAL ‑- IRRIGATION DISTRICTS ‑- REPORTS OF FINANCIAL INTEREST UNDER INITIATIVE NO. 276

(1) The members of the board of directors of an irrigation district are "elected officials" within the meaning of § 24 of Initiative No. 276, requiring annual reports of the financial interests of elected officials.

(2) Section 24 (1) (b) of Initiative No. 276 which requires the reports of a candidate or elected official to disclose certain financial interests does not include financial interests in tangible personal property but it is, instead, limited to such interests in intangible personalty.

(3) Section 24 (1) (b) of Initiative No. 276 only requires the reporting of financial interests in excess of $5,000 in a bank or savings account or cash surrender value of any insurance policy, or in excess of $500 in other items of intangible personal property; it does not require the lumping together of separate items in any given class which themselves have a lesser value so as to require reporting if the aggregate value of all items in the class exceeds the applicable minimum reportable amount.

                                                              - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                 February 9, 1973

Honorable Irving Newhouse
State Representative, 15th District
Legislative Building
Olympia, Washington 98504

                                                                                                                   Cite as:  AGO 1973 No. 6

Dear Sir:

            This is written in response to your recent request for our opinion on several questions relating to the reports of financial interests which are required of certain candidates and elected officials by § 24 of Initiative No. 276.  We paraphrase these questions as follows:

            (1) Are the members of the board of directors of an irrigation district "elected officials" within the meaning of § 24 of Initiative No. 276 regardless of the fact that only persons who own property within the district may vote at the election of such officers?

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            (2) Does § 24 (1) (b) which requires the reports of a candidate or elected official to disclose certain financial interests include such financial interests in tangible as well as intangible personal property?

            (3) Must the value of each separate item in each class of financial interests (e.g., separate bank accounts) be added together for reporting purposes under subsection (1) (b) of § 24?

            We answer question (1) in the affirmative and questions (2) and (3) in the negative for the reasons set forth in our analysis.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            In AGO 1972 No. 29 [[to Irving Newhouse, State Representative on December 22, 1972]], copy enclosed (responding to certain other questions submitted by you regarding this portion of Initiative No. 276), we quoted the text of § 24 in full at pp. 3-5; for present purposes, however, we need quote only so much thereof as reads as follows:

            "(1) Every elected official except President, Vice President and precinct committeemen) shall on or before January 31st of each year, and every candidate (except for the offices of President, Vice President and precinct committeeman) shall, within two weeks of becoming a candidate, file with the commission a written statement sworn as to its truth and accuracy stating for himself and his immediate family for the preceding twelve months:

            ". . .

            "(b) Each direct financial interest in excess of five thousand dollars in a bank or savings account or cash surrender value of any insurance policy; each other direct financial interest in excess of five hundred dollars; and the name, address, nature of entity, nature and value of each such direct financial interest;"1/

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            Question (1):

            The term "elected official" as used in this section (and throughout the initiative) is defined in § 2 (9) thereof as follows:

            "'Elected official' means any person elected at a general or special election to any public office, and any person appointed to fill a vacancy in any such office."

            Subsection (10) of the same section then defines the term "election" as follows:

            "'Election' includes any primary, general or special election for public office and any election in which a ballot proposition is submitted to the voters."

            Reduced to its simplest terms, then, the specific issue raised by your first question is whether the election of irrigation district directors is a "general" or "special" election within the meaning of § 2 (9) and (10) of the initiative.

            As may be seen from the definition of "election" set forth above, the problem is that the initiative uses the qualifying terms "general election" and "special election" without separately defining them.  The solution to the problem, therefore, is basically a matter of statutory construction.

            Our first resort, in any such process of construction, must be to the terms of the initiative itself.  Hatzenbuhler v. Harrison, 49 Wn.2d 691, 306 P.2d 745 (1957).  All parts of an act must be read together as constituting one harmonious law, wherever possible.  State ex rel. Tacoma R & P Co. v. Pub. Ser. Com., 101 Wash. 601, 172 Pac. 890 (1918).  Furthermore, to the extent that terms (e.g., the term "elected official" and related terms in Initiative No. 276) are not fully defined in the enactment, they must be given their ordinary meaning, unless a different meaning was clearly intended.  Miller v. Pasco, 50 Wn.2d 229, 310 P.2d 863 (1957).  In addition, a legislative body (including the people in the case of an initiative) must be presumed to be familiar with the ordinary meaning of the terms which it uses in its enactments.  Union Oil Co. v. State, 2 Wn.2d  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] 436, 98 P.2d 660 (1940);Hatzenbuhler v. Harrison, supra;In re Raines Estate, 193 Wash. 394, 75 P.2d 933 (1938).  And finally (insofar as is here pertinent), the lawmaking body is also presumed to be aware of existing legislation on the same subject matter.  Hatzenbuhler v. Harrison, supra; Graffell v. Honeysuckle, 30 Wn.2d 390, 191 P.2d 858 (1948).

            The usual and ordinary definitions of the election terminology in § 2, which we are thus required to adopt according to the principles of statutory construction just cited, are those which are contained in the general body of this state's election laws; statutes with which the lawmaking body was presumably aware in enacting Initiative No. 276.  Therefore, the "general" and "special" elections referred to in the initiative, at which the "elected officials" mentioned in § 24 are to have been chosen, must be deemed to be the elections governed by or included generally within the provisions of Title 29 RCW and related statutes.

            RCW 29.01.050 defines the term "election" as follows:

            "'Election' when used alone means a general election except where the context indicates that a special election is meant.  'Election' when used without qualification never means a primary election."

            The term "general election" is defined in RCW 29.01.070 as follows:

            "'General election' means an election required to be held on a fixed date recurring at regular intervals."

            and RCW 29.01.170 defines "special election" as follows:

            "'Special election' means any election that is not a general election."

            Thus, in all cases involving a determination of whether or not a public official is an "elected official" under § 24, supra, the essential question will be, as now, "Is the election a 'general election' or 'special election' within the general contemplation of our state's election laws?"

            Addressing ourselves specifically to your question,  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] irrigation districts are public corporations created under chapter 87.03 RCW for the primary purpose of benefiting lands within their boundaries.  See for a description of their nature and purposes, RCW 87.03.010 (10) and AGO 1968 No. 12 [[to H. Maurice Ahlquist, Director, Department of Water Resources on March 19, 1968]], copy enclosed.  The governing body of an irrigation district is, of course, its board of directors.  RCW 87.03.070-87.03.110 govern the general conduct of the elections at which the board members are chosen periodically.  RCW 87.03.080 sets the times for holding such elections as follows:

            "An election of directors in an irrigation district shall be held on the second Tuesday of December of each year, and the term of each director shall be three years from the first Tuesday of January following his election.  The directors elected at the organization election shall serve until their successors are elected and qualified. . . ."

            Such regularly recurring elections clearly fit the definition of a "general election" in RCW 29.01.070, supra, for they are ". . . required to be held on a fixed date recurring at regular intervals."  However ‑ and this is the reason for your question ‑ RCW 87.03.045 establishes the following qualification for voters at such elections:

            "A person eighteen years old, being a citizen of the United States and a resident of the state and who holds title or evidence of title to land in the district or proposed district shall be entitled to vote therein, except that any such person shall only be entitled to vote in a district comprising two hundred thousand or more acres, or in any other district to which this exception is made applicable as hereinafter provided, if he holds title or evidence of title to land other than land platted or subdivided into residence or business lots and not being used for agricultural or horticultural purposes, in which event, in a district comprising two hundred thousand or more acres, he shall be entitled to one vote for the first ten acres of said land or fraction thereof and one additional vote for all of said land over ten acres. . . ."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 6]]

            Directly answering your question, it is our conclusion that this qualification requiring voters at irrigation district and similar district elections2/ to own property within the district, does not make them any less "general elections" within the meaning of § 2 of the initiative.

            Clearly, nothing in § 24 of that measure, or in the state's general election laws, excludes from the definition of "election" those elections at which property ownership may be a qualification for voting.  Moreover, those general statutes themselves show an awareness on the part of the legislature that such elections were embraced within the general definition of "election" therein.  As evidence of that awareness, RCW 29.13.020, which prescribes the times for holding municipal elections, expressly excludes such elections from that particular provision; an exclusion which would not have been necessary if such elections had not been included within the general definition.  RCW 29.13.020 provides in pertinent part that:

            ". . .

            "This section shall not apply to:

            ". . .

            "(2) Public utility districts, or district elections whereat the ownership of property within said districts is a prerequisite to voting, all of which elections shall be held at the times prescribed in the laws specifically applicable thereto."

            And finally, we are required to adopt, in any case of doubt, an interpretation which would include such elected officials within the scope of that term in § 24 rather than exclude them.  Section 47 of the initiative provides as follows:

            "The provisions of this act are to be liberally construed to effectuate the policies and purposes of this act.  In the event of conflict  [[Orig. Op. Page 7]] between the provisions of this act and any other act, the provisions of this act shall govern."

            In our opinion, therefore, the recurring elections of irrigation district directors are "general elections" within the meaning of RCW 29.01.070,supra, and § 2 (9) and (10) of the initiative notwithstanding the qualification that voters must own property within the district; therefore, such directors are "elected officials" within the meaning of § 24 (1) of the act.

            Question (2):

            For convenience we again set forth your second question as follows:

            "Does § 24 (1) (b) which requires the reports of a candidate or elected official to disclose certain financial interests include such financial interests in tangible as well as intangible personal property?"

            Also repeated for ease of reference is the pertinent subdivision of § 14,supra.  In defining the substance to be contained in the financial report of a candidate or elected official, this section requires, among other things, that such report list

            ". . .

            "(b) Each direct financial interest in excess of five thousand dollars in a bank or savings account or cash surrender value of any insurance policy;each other direct financial interest in excess of five hundred dollars; and the name, address, nature of entity, nature and value of each such direct financial interest; . . ."  (Emphasis supplied.)

            The term "financial interest" is not expressly defined in the initiative, and therefore we must resort to and rely upon the usual rules of statutory construction in order to determine its meaning.  The principles which we find to be most helpful in resolving this particular question are as follows:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 8]]

            The meaning of a doubtful term should be resolved, if possible, by its usage and the context of the act itself.  State v. Houck, 32 Wn.2d 681, 203 P.2d 693 (l949).

            Specific words, when followed by general words in a statute, govern the character or kind of matter included in the general words (often referred to as the "ejusdem generis" rule).  King County Water Dist. No. 68 v. Tax Comm., 58 Wn.2d 282, 362 P.2d 244 (1961).

            It is proper, when necessary, to resort to extrinsic aids to ascertain legislative intent.  Burdick v. Kimball, 53 Wash. 198, 101 Pac. 845 (1909).

            Of course, the fundamental object of statutory construction or interpretation is to ascertain and to give effect to the intention of the legislative body.  In re Kurtzman's Estate, 65 Wn.2d 260, 396 P.2d 786 (1964).

            Additionally, as we pointed out in AGO l972 No. 29, supra, the legislative body is presumed to be familiar with existing law on the subject.  Thus, consideration may be given to previous legislation upon a statutory subject along with other facts, of which a court may take judicial notice, that may have prompted the legislative body in enacting the statute.  Seattle v. Reed, 6 Wn.2d 186, 107 P.2d 239 (1940).  As also pointed out in that previous opinion, § 24 of the initiative makes an express internal reference to RCW 42.21.060, a similar reporting statute.  The earlier reporting statute, RCW 42.21.060, also contains the term "direct financial interest."  It provides that public officials and certain public employees and candidates must file annually with the secretary of state a written statement containing among other things,

            "(1) The name of any corporation, firm or enterprise subject to the jurisdiction of a regulatory agency in which he has a direct financial interest of a value in excess of one thousand five hundred dollars:  Provided, That policies of insurance issued to himself or his spouse, accounts in banks, savings and loan associations or credit unions are not to be considered financial interests; . . ."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 9]]

            Subsection (5) of that same statute then requires the statement to contain:

            "A list of legal description of all real property in the state of Washington, in which any interest whatsoever, including options to buy, was acquired during the preceding calendar year . . ."

            Thus, another reporting statute with which the lawmakers were demonstrably familiar in enacting Initiative No. 276 required employees and candidates to file statements of their direct financial interests only in certain described intangible property; and in real property.  Interests in tangible personal property were simply not mentioned.  See, incidentally, AGO 65-66 No. 69 [[to Bernard G. Lonctot, Administrator Securities Division, January 18, 1966]], copy enclosed, explaining the "direct financial interest" required to be reported by that earlier act.

            Obviously the reporting requirements of § 24, supra, were patterned at least in part after the reporting requirements of RCW 42.21.060, supra.  Section 24, like its earlier counterpart, lists certain specific examples ofintangible personal property in which financial interests must be reported; and later in subsection (1) (h) through (k), requires listings of interests in real property.  Like RCW 42.21.060,supra, however, § 24 of the initiative makes no reference to any tangible personal property by class or by item.  Thus, guided by theejusdemgeneris rule3/ we must conclude that the interests which are encompassed within the term ". . . other direct financial interests . . ." in § 24,supra, were meant to be intangible interests in personalty.

            A further guide to legislative intent is found in the closing phrase of that subsection, which calls for a description of the ". . . name, address, [and] nature . . ." of the entity in which the interest is held together with a description of the ". . . nature and value of each such direct financial interest; . . ."  That is clearly a reference to financial interests in business entities or in "choses in action" such as bonds, stocks, insurance policies and similar interests held in or acquired from  [[Orig. Op. Page 10]] such entities; not to tangible assets.

            As a final aid to our interpretation and as we said in AGO 1972 No. 29,supra, words in a statute must be given a sensible meaning where possible rather than a strained construction which would lead to absurd results.  To construe the term "direct financial interest" so as to require candidates and elected officials to list for themselves and families all items of personal property having a value in excess of five hundred dollars (including such things as automobiles, furniture, appliances, jewelry, art work, etc.) would attribute to the legislative body an intention to require reporting to an extent far greater than any presumable need for such reporting.  In addition, a likely practical use of such a listing would be a "who's who" index for prospective burglars and thieves.  In the absence of any clearly expressed intention to that effect, we simply cannot indulge in that presumption.

            In our opinion, therefore, the phrase ". . . each other direct financial interest in excess of five hundred dollars . . ." in § 24 relates to financial interests possessing the same general nature as those listed in the preceding phrase; e.g., bank or savings accounts or cash surrender values of insurance policies; bonds and stocks; and similar intangible financial interests.

            Question (3):

            Finally (also with regard to subsection (1) (b), supra, you have asked:

            "Must the value of each separate item in each class of financial interests (e.g., separate bank accounts) be added together for reporting purposes under subsection (1) (b) of § 24?"

            The subsection in question requires the report to declare for the preceding twelve months ". . . each direct financial interest in excess of five thousand dollars in a bank or savings account or cash surrender value of any insurance policy . . ." or in excess of five hundred dollars in the case of other classes of intangible personalty" and the name, address, nature of entity, nature and value of each such direct financial interest . . ."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 11]]

            In our opinion that subsection does not require either the lumping of separate items together for reporting purposes, or reporting the aggregate totals of amounts that may have gone in and out of a particular bank or other account during the year to reach the qualifying five thousand (or five hundred) dollar amount.  Rather, in our opinion, it requires a candidate or elected official to report each such bank account or insurance policy in which he owned a financial interest in excess of five thousand dollars at any one time during the reporting period ‑ and to similarly report each such other item of intangible personal property in which he owned a financial interest in excess of five hundred dollars at any one time during said period.

            We reach these conclusions, again, primarily from the wording of the act itself.  First, its wording is distinctly singular in form.  It refers to "each" such interest in ". . . a bank or savings account . . ." (Emphasis supplied.) The use of this singular descriptive language is then supplemented by using the disjunctive "or" rather than the conjunctive "and" ‑ clearly emphasizing the legislative intent to treat each such account or policy separately for reporting purposes.  Finally, the wording of the last clause of that subsection again makes such a construction mandatory.  It reads (again quoting for ease of reference):

            ". . . and the name, address, nature of entity, nature and value of each such direct financial interest; . . ."

            The lawmakers, obviously knowing that an individual may have deposits or policies in various separate entities, in various amounts at various times, nevertheless required that the report identify separately each such entity, and ". . . each such direct financial interest; . . .".  That wording very clearly refers to an identifiable interest of a certain amount at a certain time in such an account or policy.  Nothing in that language expresses or implies any intention to add separate interests together nor to add together different balances held at different times in the same account.  Legislative intent not expressed in some appropriate manner has no legal existence.  State ex rel. Gebhardt v. Superior Court, l5 Wn.2d 673, 131 P.2d 943 (l942).

             [[Orig. Op. Page 12]]

            We trust that the foregoing will be of some assistance to you.

Very truly yours,


SLADE GORTON
Attorney General


ROBERT F. HAUTH
Assistant Attorney General

                                                        ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/See, AGO 1973 No. 1 [[to R. Frank Atwood, State Senator on January 3, 1973]], copy enclosed, with respect to the initial "due dates" for these reports both in the case of "elected officials" and that of "candidates."

2/See, for example, such similar districts wherein qualified voters must own property.  RCW 85.05.050 (diking districts); RCW 85.06.050 (drainage districts); and RCW 85.08.290 (improvement districts).

3/The rule that the meaning of general words following an enumeration of specific items is limited to the nature of those specific items.

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