City seeks way to allow street activity

Proposed law would lift the block from firefighters' Fill the Boot fundraiser

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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photoNortheast Hazel Dell: Firefighter Casey Taylor and his friend Tiller helped fill the boot for the Muscular Dystrophy Association on May 19, 2007. In 2011, the city of Vancouver told the firefighters union that it would not be allowed to use city streets for its annual fundraiser; the city council is now working on a way for groups to apply to safely close off vehicle lanes.

Fill the Boot might be able to return to Vancouver’s streets in August, but a proposed law that would allow it might have a few kinks to work out.

The city told members of the firefighters union in 2011 that their annual charity drive -- in which uniformed but off-duty firefighters ask drivers to fill their boots with spare change for the Muscular Dystrophy Association -- couldn’t happen in city limits.

City officials cited driver complaints and a law that prohibits pedestrians in the roadway, forcing the long-held tradition onto the roads of unincorporated Clark County. Firefighters raised a record $20,310 for the MDA last year, in large part due to the publicity, a Fill the Boot coordinator said.

A proposed law would allow anyone wishing to hold an event protected by the First Amendment -- which includes protests and asking for charitable donations -- to apply for a permit to close a portion of the road to hold an event, said Phil Wuest, the city’s transportation program development manager.

The city would evaluate the plan for safety -- not for content -- and then hold the group accountable to a safety plan that would include hiring certified flaggers, providing cones, and other measures.

Lane closures on main streets would not be permitted during the rush hour -- from 6:30 to 9 a.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m. -- the proposed code reads.

“We’re trying to come up with a procedure where it’s safe,” Wuest said Wednesday. “We think the only safe way is to close a travel lane.”

But the ordinance -- introduced to the city council for the first time during a March 19 workshop -- raised plenty of questions from elected officials.

Several councilors shared worries that forcing “expressive activities” such as protests to get a permit to be in the street flies in the face of the council’s stance on free speech. Two years ago, the council ruled that First Amendment activities could take place on city property without any forewarning to police or other officials, saying only that groups “may” notify officials before their event.

“This is a restriction, when clearly we wanted no restriction,” Councilor Jeanne Stewart said. “I’m not advocating for fools to jump out in the street because they’re advocating something … but I’m disturbed to see (a permit) added here.”

It’s currently against the law for anyone, including those exercising free speech, to be in vehicle lanes, City Manger Eric Holmes pointed out. People protesting in the streets today could be cited.

“We struggled greatly with this at the staff level,” Holmes said. “There’s no clear correct path -- this is one of them.”

The ordinance, as proposed, also would allow any group that could pass safety muster to close a lane of travel for free speech activities, meaning Fill the Boot and the Girl Scouts would have equal right and opportunity to be there.

The council asked staff what the city’s liability would be if someone were hurt.

Councilor Bart Hansen noted that he’s not heard about other groups wanting to use the road for charity events.

“Really when it comes right down to it, it is about Fill the Boot,” Hansen said, before Councilor Jeanne Harris interrupted that the ordinance was not just about that event.

“We don’t legislate by specific special interests,” Harris said. “We legislate for the greater good. So we’re not talking about Fill the Boot; that’s one example, maybe, but there could be many others.”

In any case, staff’s goal is to get a new ordinance set up in time for Fill the Boot this August. Another workshop on the topic is set for May 14.

Both Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina and Vancouver Firefighters Union President Mark Johnston attended Monday’s workshop, but did not speak.

After the meeting, Johnston said the ordinance was too new for him to comment as to whether it would work for Fill the Boot.

“We’re just hoping we can work together to make something work,” Johnston said. “We’re not out to create havoc and mayhem in city streets.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://twitter.com/col_cityhall; andrea.damewood@columbian.com.