State to weigh in on light-rail petition controversy

Sen. Benton asked for informal opinion on issue of signatures

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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The state Attorney General's Office will weigh in on a controversy surrounding a petition that fell just short of the required number of valid signatures to get the Vancouver City Council to put light rail to a public vote.

Deputy Solicitor General Jeff Even will give an informal opinion in response to a request from state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

Even will decide two issues: whether duplicated signatures should count once, and whether signatures should count even if they didn't match the number tallied by the petition "circulator."

Benton asked for an informal opinion to shorten the turnaround time.

A group of light-rail opponents worked for more than two years to gather enough signatures to petition the Vancouver City Council for a public vote on light rail.

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

Earlier this 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. Signatures were also tossed if they didn't add up to the number certified by the petition circulator.

The proposed ordinance would have prohibited any city resources from being used to extend TriMet's MAX line from Portland to Vancouver.

Even gave City Attorney Ted Gathe and Chief Assistant City Attorney Judith Zeider a chance to explain their positions.

In a Jan. 22 letter to Even, Gathe and Zeider wrote that the city charter specifies that "if a petition paper is found to be signed by more persons than the number of signatures certified by the circulator, the last signatures in excess of the number certified shall be disregarded."

The purpose of that rule, they wrote, "is to prevent irregularities in signature gathering and in particular, to prevent signatures being added when the circulator is not present. In general, requirements for the form and execution of petitions are aimed at guarding against fraud and mistake in exercising the rights of petitions."

As to multiple signatures from the same person, the city attorneys wrote that the Vancouver city charter doesn't address the issue. Rather, it was the Clark County Auditor's Office that rejected duplicate signatures based on state law governing city petitions. That says "signatures, including the original, of any person who has signed a petition two or more times shall be stricken."

Petitioners argue that state law isn't valid because it's in conflict with a 1977 Washington Supreme Court decision that says the name should count once. But that ruling was in response to a different state law governing the state petition process.

It's unknown when Even will have his decision ready.

Light rail is planned as part of the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing project.

Benton has introduced four anti-light-rail bills in the Legislature this session.

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