Backers of voting on light rail raise money to pay attorney

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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About 50 people turned up at a fundraiser in Vancouver aimed at putting an initiative on the ballot to stop light-rail portions of the Columbia River Crossing project.

The Stop Light Rail group has been trying to raise $20,000 to pay Everett lawyer Stephen Pidgeon, who has already appeared in Cowlitz County Superior Court on its behalf to help resurrect the initiative, which was blocked in January, and get the measure on the ballot in November.

The group had raised about $9,000 before the Saturday event, said initiative advocate Tim Eyman, who supports the effort and attended the meeting.

"The mayor and the city council desperately want to stop people from voting on this initiative, because they already know what the result will be," Eyman said. "It's hard to stop a public vote."

The initiative is sponsored by Larry Patella and would prohibit the city of Vancouver from spending any money or staff time on issues related to light rail. Debbie Peterson, Ralph Peabody, Charlie Stemper, Steve Herman and Don Yingling support it.

It failed in January after falling 32 signatures short of the 5,472-signature ballot requirement.

But as part of that, the city of Vancouver also tossed about 8,000 signatures under a state law that says in the case of duplicate signatures on local petitions, both the original and duplicate must be discarded.

Fighting the law

The Stop Light Rail group is fighting that law, saying that the original signatures should be counted and only the duplicates discarded, which is the law for statewide petitions, Eyman said.

"The writing is on the wall that the judge is going to say these signatures should count and order this to be on the ballot," Eyman said

At the meeting, Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey said he also thinks local petitions should be processed like state petitions.

He told the group his hands were tied until Patella and others "came along and sued me. So thank you," he said, looking at Patella.

Kimsey also testified in Cowlitz County Superior Court that he prefers the statewide procedure, he said.

County Commissioner Tom Mielke also spoke to the group, saying he thinks the initiative will make the November ballot.

Of the law that tossed out the original signatures, Mielke said, "I never cease to be amazed by the things that go on."

The discussion will continue Wednesday, when a Cowlitz County Superior Court judge hears the case.

Eyman said that even if the group doesn't raise the full $20,000 by Wednesday, the effort will continue. The group raffled several items at the fundraiser, including a ukulele, a painting, a gift certificate for a print shop, T-shirts and wine.

Hurdles ahead

Even if the anti-CRC group wins in court this week, the initiative may not make the ballot. On March 18, a majority of the Vancouver City Council made it clear that they would follow City Attorney Ted Gathe's recommendation to decline to place the ordinance on the ballot because it falls outside the scope of the city's initiative powers and would not be legally defensible.

Gathe's written opinion listed more than a dozen ways the petition violates the city charter and state law.

For example, the ordinance seeks to limit "light-rail-related City Council legislative authority, city staff administrative work, City Council budgeting authority, and past expenditure of city resources," Gathe wrote.

All of those limitations, he wrote, "are beyond the permissible scope of the local initiative power."

The wording was problematic, too. For example, the initiative said, "Whereas, Article 1, Section 4 of the Washington State Constitution states that the people's right to petition shall never be abridged."

But that's an error, Gathe wrote. It's Article II of the state constitution that governs the state initiative process.

On March 18, five members of the council -- Mayor Tim Leavitt and Councilors Jack Burkman, Jeanne Harris, Bart Hansen and Larry Smith -- said they would follow Gathe's advice. Councilors Jeanne Stewart and Bill Turlay wanted to explore what question could be put on a ballot regarding the Columbia River Crossing and were told by City Manager Eric Holmes that the city can't ask the public to vote on matters over which the city council doesn't have control, such as a state and federal project.

The city council will still have to formally vote on what to do with the initiative.

Just vote

Eyman said he doesn't think that Vancouver or any other city should be able to block initiatives with the required number of signatures from getting onto the ballot. He said the effort dovetails with his "Protect the Initiative Act," Initiative 517, which he's working on at the state level.

"My big thing is, let the people vote, regardless of the issue," Eyman said. "You shouldn't have elected officials blocking voting on a certified valid initiative."

Pidgeon, who made an unsuccessful bid for state attorney general in 2012, is also known for his challenge of Barack Obama's eligibility to be president.

He is author of "The Obama Error." In the 2011 book, Pidgeon alleges the president is not a natural-born U.S. citizen and has socialist, communist and Muslim ties.

Pidgeon also represents an Amboy resident, David Darby, who has requested a trial in Clark County Superior Court to challenge the county's authority to foreclose on his home. Darby claims the state constitution isn't valid and he patented his land, making him exempt from paying property taxes.

Pidgeon said he strongly supports the Stop Light Rail initiative.

"I love this initiative," he said at the meeting. "It really puts the pedal to the metal."


Stephanie Rice contributed to this story.