Washington initiative would make it easier to get initiatives on ballot

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

“The reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions that currently exist, and trump everything else, will continue,” he said in an email. “And more importantly, from a practical, common sense perspective, signature gathers will not buy an admission ticket for $100, when they can stand outside the stadium and collect signatures for free.”

The initiative will appear on the ballot Nov. 5.

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