Light-rail opponents file suit

Group will challenge state law that invalidated signatures on petition

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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A group that failed to collect enough signatures to force a vote on light rail filed a lawsuit Monday, challenging a state law that invalidated some of their signatures.

The lawsuit names Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey and Clark County as defendants.

Initially, members of the group threatened to sue the city of Vancouver, and a preliminary copy of their lawsuit named City Clerk Lloyd Tyler, but they backed off from a plan to also challenge a provision in the city charter. They also decided to change the venue from Clark County Superior Court to Cowlitz County Superior Court.

An initial hearing was set for 1:30 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Hall of Justice in Kelso.

The plaintiffs are asking for a judge to rule that a state law regarding municipal petitions, which reads, "Signatures, including the original, of any person who has signed a petition two or more times shall be stricken," is unconstitutional. They want Kimsey ordered to go back and count the original signatures of people who signed more than once.

Defendant Kimsey said he welcomed the lawsuit.

"I am very pleased that someone has finally taken action to challenge this state law," Kimsey said. "This is a bad law, and I'm glad to see it being challenged."

Kimsey said his office followed the law by invalidating all of the signatures of people who signed more than once.

The group, which spent more than two years collecting the signatures, fell short by 32 names.

75 plaintiffs

The lawsuit lists 75 plaintiffs, including initiative sponsors Debbie Peterson, Larry Patella, Ralph Peabody, Charlie Stemper, Steve Herman and Don Yingling and people who signed the petition more than once. Those include 44 people who, after a sponsor realized they had already signed, had one of their signatures crossed out.

Still, the auditor's office rejected all duplicated signatures, per the state law.

The law, plaintiffs argue, doesn't match restrictions on other types of petitions, for instance statewide petitions. For other types, the original signature can be counted.

Vancouver City Councilor Bill Turlay, who was part of the group that started the signature drive before he was elected to the council, isn't named as a plaintiff.

The lawsuit was filed by Everett attorney Stephen Pidgeon. Pidgeon decided it was best to file in Cowlitz County, because he figured Clark County judges would recuse themselves, causing a delay in the case, said Tim Eyman, a prolific initiative sponsor who has been helping the Clark County petitioners.

The group has been trying to raise $20,000 to retain Pidgeon, and according to Patella's latest email the group's still taking donations.

Petitioners were initially told their effort failed in April 2012. But under the Vancouver city charter, they were given extra time to collect additional signatures.

Last month, they learned their petition fell 32 signatures short of the 5,472-signature requirement.

More than 8,000 signatures were tossed, including all those from people who signed the petition multiple times.

If the petition had succeeded, the Vancouver City Council would have asked voters to decide on a proposed ordinance that would have prohibited any city resources from being used to extend TriMet's MAX line from Portland to Vancouver as part of the Columbia River Crossing project.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.