Voters to decide ‘initiative on initiatives’

OLYMPIA — Washington state residents have plenty of experience voting on new law proposals, but next month they’ll decide on an “initiative on initiatives” that would make it easier to get such measures on the ballot.

The proposal, Initiative 517, was sparked in part by a series of legal battles over local measures seeking to block red light cameras, including one case last year that went to the state Supreme Court.

By requiring that voters be allowed to have their say on any proposal that qualifies for the ballot, even if a lawsuit has been filed against it, the initiative pushes back at cities that have sued — some successfully — to block local challenges to the cameras.

“Initiative power is not subject to pre-election challenges,” said Mark Baerwaldt, a spokesman for the campaign. “It’s the way the will of the people is expressed.”

The initiative also would give supporters a year, instead of the current six months, to collect signatures, and it would make it a misdemeanor to interfere with the signature-gathering process.

Business groups and others have lined up in opposition, saying the proposal will affect their ability to deal with nuisances outside of their stores.

Jan Gee, a spokeswoman for the No on I-517 campaign, said her group has a problem with language that creates a 25-foot protected area around initiative supporters and details where they can gather signatures.

The initiative gives signature gatherers the right to work on any sidewalk or walkway that has pedestrian traffic, “including those in front of the entrances and exits of any store, and inside or outside public buildings such as public sports stadiums, convention/exhibition centers, and public fairs.”

“The bottom line is, if a petitioner comes onto the property and blocks the doorways or follows the customers into the parking lot and is anyway aggressive, there’s not anything our store owners can do to make their property safe and a pleasant place to shop,” said Gee, president of the Washington Food Industry Association, which represents independent grocery stores.

Gee’s group is part of the coalition that makes up the No on I-517 campaign, which includes the Seattle Seahawks and the Seattle Sounders FC, Safeway and the Association of Washington Business.

A state Supreme Court ruling in 1981 found that initiative backers have a constitutional right to gather signatures at a large regional shopping mall. A 2007 attorney general opinion notes a Court of Appeals ruling stating that right is tempered by the property’s owner’s ability to place “reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on the activity.”

The attorney general’s office has not stated whether I-517 would override time, place, or manner restrictions, or whether that would violate the constitutional rights of property owners.

Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Even declined to comment on the implications of the initiative, saying that if the measure passes the attorney general’s office would need to defend it against any potential legal challenges.

Baerwaldt says nothing in the proposal takes rights from business owners. For example, he said signature gathers aren’t able to work inside CenturyLink Stadium at Seahawks games, and he says that won’t change if I-517 passes.

The initiative will appear on the ballot Nov. 5.

Initiative promoter Tim Eyman filed I-517 last year just weeks after the state high court ruled that city laws allowing for red light traffic cameras are not subject to repeal by voters.

But unlike every other measure he’s backed since the late 1990s, the usually loquacious activist has been very pointedly avoiding the spotlight. Eyman didn’t respond to phone or email requests for an interview.

Baerwaldt, who now serves as the official spokesman for I-517, says Eyman has been focused on another ballot proposal that would restore legislative restraints on tax increases next year.


Full text of Initiative 517:

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