A group of light-rail opponents who have been working for more than two years to petition the Vancouver City Council for a public vote on light rail enjoyed a short-lived victory this week, after City Attorney Ted Gathe said their latest effort had been successful.
By the next day, however, the petition had been ruled invalid by the county.
Any petition seeking to force a light rail vote will now have to start from square one.
On Thursday, Gathe’s opinion — that the group had submitted enough signatures for the council to consider putting the ordinance on the November ballot — was included in materials for Monday’s council meeting and sent to Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey.
The certified petition had names of 5,479 city residents, seven more than were required, people were told.
On Friday, however, Gathe heard from Tim Likness, the county’s elections supervisor.
At issue, Likness said, were 94 signatures that had been set aside by Kimsey because of a technicality but subsequently accepted by Vancouver City Clerk Carrie Lewellen.
Signature gatherers are required to tally the number of signatures on each page, to protect against signatures being added later, and pages with 94 signatures did not have a tally.
Gathe said the city assumed those 94 signatures had been checked to see whether they were otherwise valid; Likness said they had not.
The 94 signatures were checked Friday.
In an email to Gathe, Likness wrote, “We determined that 19 of the 94 signers had already signed the petition on another page and this additional signature created a duplicate. Both of the duplicate signatures become invalid, thereby removing 19 duplicate signatures from the 94 signers and 19 duplicate signatures from the number of signatures which had already been determined to be valid.”
“One of the 94 signers had signed two other pages of the petition, and those two signatures were already marked as duplicate signatures and had not been included the count of invalid signatures,” Likness wrote.
“Adding these three numbers comes to a total of 39 additional invalid signatures. The 94 signatures minus the 39 signatures, which are now duplicates, equals 55 additional valid signatures added to the certification. This changes the total number of valid signatures on the petition from 5,385 to 5,440, which is still fails to meet the 5,472 valid signature requirement,” Likness wrote.
Gathe said the city council will be briefed on the situation at Monday’s meeting, 7 p.m. at City Hall, 415 W. Sixth St.
Kimsey said Friday that he should have been more clear in his Dec. 19 letter to Lewellen. He said it was his understanding that those 94 signatures would be ineligible because the gatherer failed to tally the names. He said he should have added in the letter that if Lewellen accepted the 94 signatures, they would need to be checked for validity.
Kimsey’s office took about seven months to inspect the signatures. He said those were an exceptionally busy seven months, including a candidate filing period, redistricting, a primary election and the largest general election in county history.
“We had a very difficult petition to examine,” Kimsey said. “We only allowed our most experienced employees to work on it. It wasn’t like we were going to bring in 15 temporary employees.”
There are 14 different categories under which a signature may be considered invalid.
Second failed effort
An earlier petition effort by light-rail opponents failed in April, after the Clark County Auditor’s Office declared more than two-thirds of signatures to be invalid.
Under Vancouver’s charter, however, the group was able to make a second run at it. After this second invalidation, however, any petition against light rail would have to start from square one.
The proposed ordinance would have prohibited any city resources from being used to extend TriMet’s MAX line from Portland to Vancouver.
Had the second effort not fallen 32 signatures short, the Vancouver City Council would have had 60 days to decide what to do next. The council would have had three choices: adopt the ordinance as written, amend the ordinance or place it on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.
Light-rail opponents first started collecting signatures in June 2010, but they abandoned the effort when it became clear they would not have enough to make a deadline. The effort started up again with the hope to put the issue on the November 2011 ballot, but it again fell short. On Nov. 30, 2011, they submitted 9,039 signatures. In April, they learned that 6,048 were invalid.
There were three primary reasons that signatures were ruled invalid, according to Kimsey. One, signers were not registered voters in Vancouver, either because they live outside of city limits or weren’t registered voters. Two, the signatures were more than six months old. Three, signatures were duplicates.
Taking advantage of a city rule that allows for a second batch of signatures, an additional 4,726 signatures were submitted to the Clark County Auditor’s Office on May 7, but again, many were invalid.
In all, 13,765 signatures were submitted, and 8,380 were invalid.
Councilor Bill Turlay started work on the signature-gathering effort before he was elected to the city council. Other residents behind the effort have included Larry Patella, Debbie Peterson, Steve Herman, Charlie Stemper, Ralph Peabody and Donald Yingling.
After the April loss, Peterson said many residents who were asked to sign the petition were confused about where they lived, because they had a Vancouver address but didn’t understand they don’t live within city limits.
On Friday, Peterson did not immediately return a request for comment.
What started as a volunteer effort to collect signatures turned into a paying gig, as a political action committee, Stopping Light Rail Bridge Tolls, paid gatherers $2 a signature. Donors to the PAC include Clark County Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke.
According to the PAC’s expenses filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission, $17,280 was paid to signature gatherers.
Light rail would extend into Vancouver as part of the Columbia River Crossing, a $3.5 billion megaproject that would also replace the Interstate 5 Bridge connecting Vancouver and Portland. Project leaders are banking mostly on federal money to build the new light rail line.
How to pay the annual cost to operate light rail in Vancouver is less certain. Voters soundly rejected a sales tax increase for that purpose in November. Other funding options floated since then have included city of Vancouver dollars — that would have been barred under the ordinance promoted by the ill-fated petition.
Eric Florip contributed to this story.