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News / Northwest

Yakima mayor’s 911 call over signature gatherers sparks online outrage

By Joel Donofrio, Yakima Herald-Republic
Published: September 20, 2023, 7:34am

YAKIMA — An online posting of Yakima Mayor Janice Deccio’s 911 call asking about petition signature gatherers at the Nob Hill Wal-Mart has sparked a torrent of controversy.

The petition gatherers were seeking signatures on six statewide ballot initiatives regarding taxation, police pursuit and parental rights. Deccio said she contacted police after hearing from constituents who were concerned the signature gatherers were harassing shoppers and asked if anything could be done if the property owner didn’t want them there.

The police dispatcher who spoke with Deccio and the dispatcher’s supervisor indicated that the petitioners had a right to gather signatures at Walmart, and on public or private property under the First Amendment, according to a transcript of the call. The business owner would need a court order to have petitioners removed, police said.

A recording of Deccio’s 911 call posted on YouTube by conservative commentator Glen Morgan has generated local, statewide and national complaints. Deccio said some responses have escalated into doxing and sexual harassment. Doxing refers to revealing personal information about a person online.

“Since this 911 call was made public without my personal phone number being redacted, I have had hundreds of phone calls, texts and voicemails from across the country, some of which are quite juvenile and include sexual harassment,” Deccio wrote in a statement emailed to the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Among the critics of Deccio’s 911 call is Tim Eyman, a Yakima native who now lives in Bellevue and supports the six statewide ballot initiatives. He and other supporters of the ballot measures will be at the West Valley Wal-Mart from 2-4 p.m. Tuesday, then attend Tuesday’s Yakima City Council meeting at 5:30 p.m.

“Once a store opens itself to Girl Scout cookie sales, the Salvation Army or other groups, they have to be open to everyone,” Eyman said. “(Petition signature gathering) is a First Amendment activity — you can’t pick and choose.

“Thankfully the Yakima police and county sheriff understood that. The elected mayor of Yakima did not, and people are holding her accountable,” he added.

The ballot initiative process

Six ballot initiatives, promoted and funded by Republican donor Brian Heywood and his Let’s Go Washington organization, need at least 325,000 signatures statewide to be placed before voters on the November 2024 ballot.

The signatures must be gathered between July and December of this year, according to the secretary of state’s office. If the initiatives receive the required number of signatures, they will be presented to the state Legislature for consideration during its 2024 session.

If the tax, public safety and parental rights ballot initiatives are rejected by the Legislature, voters across Washington will decide the measures in November’s general election.

The initiatives, available in detail at letsgowashington.com, include:

  • I-2113, Responsible Police Pursuit, which would remove certain restrictions on when police officers can engage in vehicular pursuits
  • I-2117, Stop the Hidden Gas Tax, which would prohibit state agencies from imposing any type of carbon tax credit trading
  • I-2124, allowing employees to opt out of the state’s long term care insurance program
  • I-2109, a repeal of the state’s capital gains tax
  • I-2111, a measure prohibiting the state, counties, cities and other local jurisdictions from imposing or collecting income taxes
  • I-2081, requiring parental notification about student health and disciplinary records and the review of certain instructional materials.

Eyman, a Republican who ran for governor in 2020 and supports the six ballot measures, said his opposition to Deccio’s actions to remove petitioners from the front of Walmart would be the same regardless of the political leanings of the initiatives.

“Even if these are initiatives I disagreed with, I would support the public’s right to gather signatures and engage in First Amendment activities,” he said.

Eyman said he has been involved with placing numerous ballot initiatives, most of them involving reductions or restrictions on taxes, on Washington ballots over the past 26 years.

“We’ve qualified 17 statewide initiatives for a public vote — a majority of voters have approved 11 of them — but I feel that all 17 were successes, because 17 times the voters were given the chance to decide. That is true citizen empowerment,” he added.

Deccio’s account of the 911 call

With Eyman and others expected to address the 911 call at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Deccio issued a statement Monday. She said a constituent called her early Sunday morning over Labor Day weekend to say an “extreme right-wing group was petitioning at Wal-Mart and creating problems for shoppers,” Deccio wrote.

“Who the group was is not the issue here, as I don’t care, nor even know, what they were petitioning about, just that he told me they were harassing shoppers and that the manager had called the police numerous times during the week after she had asked the petitioners to move from the entrance of the store.”

Deccio said since her Sept. 3 call, numerous “credible, local people” had told her the petitioner’s behavior was aggressive and they felt harassed and threatened by them.

She said she called 911 because, on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, she could not reach YPD Chief Matt Murray by email and no one answered the department’s non-emergency number.

“I called 911, identified myself (as mayor) and told them it was not an emergency and I needed to talk to someone who may know what was going on,” Deccio wrote in her statement. “I admit I was unaware of all the nuances of the law at that time … and in hindsight, I could have waited to hear from the chief.

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“But I did know that if petitioners were harassing or interfering with shoppers, the business could ask them to move. I just wasn’t aware that it took a court order,” she added. “I never asked the police to go out to Walmart or demanded that anything be done.”

In her statement, Deccio said the harassing phone calls, texts and voicemails in reply to the 911 call have also been directed at her husband, a disabled veteran with PTSD, as well as her fellow City Council members.

“Nearly all of the emails are from people from outside of Yakima,” she added.