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Originally published Saturday, October 19, 2013 at 8:45 PM

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Initiative on initiatives: expand free speech or intrusive tactics?

Initiative 517 would make signature gathering for initiatives easier, giving sponsors more time to collect signatures. Opponents say the measure also would vastly expand where signature gatherers could go, including inside stadiums during Seahawks and Mariners games.


Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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Tim Eyman, who makes a living sponsoring initiatives, has a measure on the ballot that would make his job easier.

Initiative 517 would give initiative sponsors an additional six months to collect signatures, make it illegal for anyone to maintain “an intimidating presence” within 25 feet of a signature gatherer, and prohibit local government from blocking votes on ballot measures.

The initiative also contains language that opponents say would vastly expand where signature gatherers could go, including inside stadiums during Seahawks and Mariners games.

Peanuts, hot hogs, petitions?

“If we paid for that sports stadium, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal for me to be able to walk up to somebody while they’re waiting for their garlic fries to say, ‘Would you like to sign this petition?’ ” Eyman told legislators at a hearing this year .

A broad coalition of groups and individuals, including the Seahawks, Northwest Grocery Association and former state Attorney General Rob McKenna, opposes I-517, arguing it takes away the right of private businesses, which now can decide when and where signature gathering can occur on their property.

Eyman, who is listed by the state as the measure’s sponsor, isn’t talking to reporters about the initiative, referring emails and phone calls to Mark Baerwaldt, a co-chair of the Yes on I-517 campaign.

Baerwaldt, for his part, contends the initiative would not expand where signature gatherers could go and says they would continue to be subject to the same restrictions that exist today.

I-517 has been endorsed by the state Republican Party, as well as some lawmakers, but the campaign said it does not list supporters.

Baerwaldt says he has taken over as spokesman because “Obi-Wan,” as he refers to Eyman in his emails, is busy with other initiatives.

Baerwaldt was a drafter and sponsor of Initiative 91, a local measure approved in 2006 that requires Seattle to make a profit on any publicly financed sports arena in the city.

I-517 started out as an initiative to the Legislature. At the time, Eyman said he was working on the measure along with Edward Agazarm, longtime owner of a signature-gathering firm, and Paul Jacob, who is with an initiative-advocacy group based in Virginia called Citizens in Charge.

When lawmakers did not act on the initiative this year, it was automatically placed on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Baerwaldt says the main purpose of I-517 is to prevent local governments from blocking a vote on measures that qualify for the ballot.

He argues that in Vancouver and Spokane and elsewhere, court challenges too often have prevented a vote.

“Over and over again there are these pre-election challenges,” he said. “This is the biggest First Amendment issue to come before the voters in a long, long time.”

Hugh Spitzer, a University of Washington constitutional law professor, said I-517 could run into a separation of powers problem.

While courts have held that initiatives can’t be challenged on constitutional issues until after voters have had their say, courts will look at the scope of initiatives before they’re put on the ballot, Spitzer said.

For example, in 2003, a Thurston County judge invalidated a proposed measure that would have allowed voters to declare whether Eyman is “a horse’s ass,” saying it was “outside the power given the people.”

In 1996, the state Supreme Court did the same to an initiative that sought to create a national initiative process, ruling “it is simply not within Washington’s power to enact federal law.”

I-517, Spitzer said, “can’t take away the court’s authority to review” whether state or local government has the authority to enact a proposed ballot measure.

When it comes to the 25-foot buffer zone for signature gatherers, Baerwaldt noted that state law already says it’s illegal to interfere.

I-517 just makes the law more explicit, he said, by saying that interfering includes “pushing, shoving, touching, spitting, throwing objects, yelling, screaming, or being verbally abusive, or ... maintaining an intimidating presence within 25 feet of any person gathering signatures.”

Eyman, when testifying before the Legislature in March, said, “The goal here is to make it where at least the violence will be deterred and, at least, if you throw something in their face that says the law says you have to stop spitting on me, that maybe that person will stop doing that.”

The proposed six-month time extension for signature gathering would give sponsors a year to qualify an initiative to the people, and 16 months for an initiative to the Legislature.

Baerwaldt said that aside from ensuring initiatives reach the ballot, creating the buffer zone for signature gathers and giving sponsors more time to collect signatures, I-517 changes little.

He disagreed with concerns raised by opponents that the measure would expand where signature gatherers could collect signatures, citing, for example, a 2007 opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office that says prior case law lets stores “place reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on the activity.”

I-517 would not change that, Baerwaldt contends.

Phil Talmadge, a former state Supreme Court justice, disagrees.

“They need to read the language of their own initiative. The very broad, mandatory language of the initiative overrides” prior case law, Talmadge wrote in an email, and “is something that a court would need to address.”

Opponents point to wording in I-517 that states signature gathering “shall be a legally protected activity on public sidewalks and walkways and all sidewalks and walkways that carry 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.”

McKenna views the initiative as too aggressive in that respect. “It clearly broadens the rights of signature gatherers at the expense of property owners and limits the ability of property owners to deny access to signature gatherers,” he said.

Former Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed said he’s worried I-517 could do harm to the initiative process by alienating voters. “The last thing I think Washington citizens want is to go to a Seahawks game or Sounders ... or whatever, and have them operating inside the stadiums and in your face,” he said.

The I-517 campaign has raised no money for advertising, according to state records. The main opposition group has raised $379,000, including from retail and food industry associations and Kroger. Much of the money has been spent on advertising and polling, records show.

A poll by Stuart Elway last month found that 58 percent of the people surveyed supported the initiative. The poll surveyed 406 registered voters, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com



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