Boots fill to record levels, out of the city

Firefighters’ efforts for charity may have benefited from move

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Despite getting the boot from intersections within Vancouver city limits, the city’s firefighters union set a fundraising record for its Fill the Boot campaign last week.

The amount of publicity over the union’s plight probably helped as the off-duty lifesavers set a record of $20,310 raised for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Fill the Boot coordinator Randy Marler said.

“It seems like we had more big bills, which is kind of indicative of people coming out specifically just to donate,” Marler said. “I think the additional money we made was due largely to people getting upset with the city and coming out and making donations.”

Complaints about traffic holdups and a city ordinance against pedestrian interference in roadways meant that firefighters had to stay on sidewalks — not walking up to drivers to accept donations — or ask drivers to visit a private lot to donate.

With fears that the changes would cause a precipitous drop in donations, they opted to head to the corner of Highway 99 and Northeast 78th Street in unincorporated Clark County last Thursday and Friday.

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

“Firefighters have been doing this across the country for 57 years without incident, without problems,” Marler said. “I just can’t really wrap my brain around why people want to make it so difficult to make a 57-year tradition continue.”

The trouble stems from an ordinance passed by the city council in 2003, aimed at curbing aggressive panhandling. The law 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.

The U.S. Constitution requires that all laws are enforced equally, so two years ago, firefighters and the city sat down to create a draft ordinance that would create an exception to the law for particular fundraisers to operate in intersections.

Except it’s never gone before the city council. Last year, Police Chief Cliff Cook granted a one-year exemption from the law that he did not give this year.

“We were promised it would be in place by this year, and it wasn’t,” Marler said. “There’s been a new mayor and new city manager, there’s been a lot going on. But this ordinance is already drafted up, they just have to pass it.”

Former State Rep. Deb Wallace, whose adult son lives with muscular dystrophy, said she’s appalled by the lack of action by the city council to make Fill the Boot happen in city limits.

“As far as I’m concerned, they should have done everything possible to make sure this would be allowed,” Wallace said. “I understand they were working on it, and someone dropped the ball and it was not actually taken to council.”

She said the complaints of a few got more attention than the large benefits of what the Muscular Dystrophy Association does, including sending children with the disorder to summer camps and providing often life-saving equipment.

“The point is, there are good laws and there are laws that need to be changed — this is one law that needs to be changed,” Wallace said.

City Attorney Ted Gathe did not return an email sent late Tuesday asking for details about why the ordinance was stalled.

He said last week that creating an ordinance to balance all the legal issues would require “careful legal scrutiny” before it could be enacted.

Chief Cook said Wednesday that the firefighters could have stayed within city limits and they chose to leave.

“We did not say they could not solicit within the city, but the decision was made there would be no exemption to current ordinance,” he said.

He said that while the firefighters had protested they would make less on private lots, people do drive out of their way to donate to worthy causes.

Cook pointed out that their July “Fire in the Park” event at Esther Short Park pulled in more than $19,000 for Share.

“If you let people know where you’re going to be, they’ll go out of their way to support,” he said.

After hearing about the move to Hazel Dell this year, Burgerville’s public relations also offered their Vancouver locations as possible fundraising locales. But Union President Mark Johnston said that the offer came too late to organize it.

Vancouver firefighters, who wear safety vests and have a “corner captain” who whistles to signal a change of light, have never had an accident in the more than 30 years they’ve held the event, Johnston has said.

By next year, Marler, the union’s event coordinator, said he hopes this will have blown over.

“In an ideal situation, we’d be back in the city … and still get a little bit of media attention as far as telling people who we are where we’re going to be,” he said.

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