Vancouver won't push to validate light-rail petition

Petitioners for a public Vancouver vote want more signatures to count

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Citizens pushing for a vote on light rail made their case to the Vancouver City Council on Monday, but ultimately appeared no closer to reviving a petition the county declared invalid this month.

Petitioners fell just short of the required number of valid signatures to force council action or a public vote. Light-rail opponents circulated a proposal that would have prohibited the use of any city of Vancouver funds to extend a light-rail system into town from Portland. On Monday, they urged councilors to take action anyway, and give residents a direct vote on light rail, planned as part of the Columbia River Crossing project.

The council took no formal action Monday. Some members largely deferred to an initiative process they said played out beyond their purview, but not before a discussion highlighted state rules that left the light-rail petition without hundreds of signatures that may have counted under a different set of rules.

Still, it's not up to a city council to change or re-interpret state law, Councilor Jack Burkman said.

"That is the law of the land," Burkman said. "To me, I don't have a choice. I have to follow that."

A key issue raised Monday: How duplicate signatures should be counted on a petition.

The state law governing city petitions says that if a person signs a petition multiple times, all of those signatures are invalid. Petitioners have argued the name should count once, citing a 1977 Washington Supreme Court decision declaring that practice unconstitutional. But that ruling came in response to a different state law, governing the state petition process.

If all duplicate names were counted once, it would put the light rail petition well over the required number of signatures to move forward, according to the county. County officials threw out all duplicates, per state law.

Without city action, it will likely be up to the petitioners themselves to challenge the county's ruling, or take the matter to the state level. But several of the dozen or so who spoke Monday said the city doesn't have to wait.

"Just bring it to the people," said Vancouver resident Carolyn Crain.

Councilor Bill Turlay, who helped gather signatures before he was elected to the council in 2011, said both supporters and opponents of light rail should welcome the chance to put it on the ballot.

"All we wanted was a vote," Turlay said. "And I don't think that's an unreasonable thing to do."

Petitioners submitted the most recent batch of signatures in May, after an earlier effort had fallen short of the threshold required to force a public vote on light rail. By that time, the group had submitted 13,785 total signatures.

More than 8,000 of those were thrown out, but on Jan. 3, City Attorney Ted Gathe had called the latest effort successful, if only by seven valid signatures. The next day, however, Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey said the petition was invalid after reviewing 94 signatures that had been set aside because of a technicality. (The city had assumed those signatures were valid.)

After 39 of those names were tossed, the petition dropped below the magic number. The total came to 5,440 valid signatures, according to Kimsey -- just short of the 5,472-signature requirement. In addition to duplicates, many signatures were thrown out because they were not from Vancouver residents.

Light-rail opponents have been collecting signatures since as early as 2010.

Light rail is planned as part of the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing project, which would also replace the Interstate 5 Bridge and rebuild five miles of freeway.


Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.