Fill the Boot event hobbled

Complaints, city law force fundraiser out of Vancouver limits

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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The sight of firefighters at intersections, boots in hand, raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association has been a familiar one for decades in Vancouver.

But not this year: Complaints about traffic holdups and a city ordinance against pedestrian interference in roadways has forced the Vancouver Firefighters Union “Fill the Boot” event out of city boundaries and to an intersection in unincorporated Clark County.

Fill the Boot

• What: Off-duty firefighters raise money for Muscular Dystrophy Association.

• When: Noon to 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

• Where: Intersection of Highway 99 and Northeast 78th Street.

“It’s very disappointing to us, I can tell you that,” Union President Mark Johnston said. “We would like to do it within city limits of Vancouver. It’s where we live and we have pride in the community.”

At issue are complaints the city said it's received from motorists about traffic the event causes, along with constitutional concerns about equal enforcement of a law forbidding pedestrians from blocking traffic.

Since 2003, Vancouver has had an ordinance on its books — drafted to tamp down aggressive panhandling — that makes it an infraction for a pedestrian to walk or stand in a such a manner as to cause a driver to take an evasive action to avoid contact, Vancouver City Attorney Ted Gathe said.

“There were complaints last year from motorists, enough for this to become a concern for law enforcement,” he said.

But Johnston said he’s heard about all of one complaint about the event. There has never been an accident at a Fill the Boot intersection — firefighters wear safety vests, there are signs posted to alert drivers and a “corner captain” blows a whistle to clear the volunteers from the road before the light changes. Only off-duty firefighters are allowed to participate, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association provides indemnity insurance, he said.

“We don’t want to cause a problem for police or the public,” he said. “(The city is) unwilling to make an exception this year for us to do that.”

Last year, they raised more than $18,000 in two days at two intersections: Fourth Plain Boulevard and Andresen Road and at Northeast 162nd Avenue and Northeast 18th Street.

With plans to hold the event at just one intersection in unincorporated Clark County — Highway 99 and Northeast 78th Street — Thursday and Friday, Johnston said he doesn’t expect to raise as much. The county does not have a similar rule against aggressive panhandling.

However, laws on the books must be enforced equally, City Manager Eric Holmes said. The 14th Amendment requires equal application of laws.

“The police don’t have the option of just turning a blind eye, they have to be fair and equitable,” Holmes said.

Pedestrian interference is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The city has promised to work to find ways to allow Fill the Boot and possibly other qualified charities to hold limited events in intersections, and a draft ordinance has been created, Gathe said.

But, other cities across the United States have also run afoul of the 14th Amendment and so any ordinance would need “careful legal scrutiny” before it could be enacted, he said.

Holmes said his office will continue to explore solutions well before the event is held next year. The city council would have to approve any ordinance changes.

Johnston said it was a letdown that a draft of a new law already exists but didn’t make it to the city council this year.

“We wanted to work with them in the interim to meet everybody’s needs,” he said. “We’re just disappointed that it’s happening. It’s our intent to be as safe as possible and raise money for a great cause.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall.