BELLINGHAM - Backers of the No Coal! city initiative outlawing coal trains have filed a motion in Whatcom County Superior Court, contending that the city lawsuit attempting to block their initiative is improper under state law.
The motion, filed by attorney Breean Beggs, cites the Washington Act Limiting Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, known as the SLAPP law. The motion says the state act "is meant to protect the people's exercise of their right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and to prevent people who exercise that right from the considerable expense of defending against weak lawsuits that seek to chill their valid exercise of the right, unless all the claims of such lawsuits can be established with clear and convincing evidence within the first 60 days of the litigation."
The motion asks the court to order the city to pay initiative backers $10,000 and cover their legal expenses, as the SLAPP law provides.
City Attorney Peter Ruffato said his office is preparing a response to the motion but declined further comment.
In August 2011, Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Ira Uhrig imposed a SLAPP law penalty against American Traffic Systems, after that company's attorneys went to court in an unsuccessful effort to keep the traffic camera ban initiative off the city ballot. But the Washington Court of Appeals later threw out the penalty and ruled that, while the traffic camera initiative could stay on the ballot, it would have no legal effect on the city's contract with American Traffic Systems to install the cameras.
Attorney Beggs also asks the court to throw out the city's request for an injunction blocking the Whatcom County Auditor from including the coal train ban proposal and related "Community Bill of Rights" on the November ballot that will go to city voters. Beggs argues that the city's lawsuit is based partly on the theory that the coal train ban violates state and federal law and is outside the city's legal jurisdiction, but those legal issues should not be raised before voters have a chance to approve the ban.
Beggs, who now practices in Spokane, formerly lived in Bellingham.
The No Coal! group, organized by Stoney Bird and Rick Dubrow, was launched in response to widespread concern about the increase in coal train traffic that could result if SSA Marine of Seattle succeeds in getting regulatory approval for the Gateway Pacific Terminal to export coal and other cargoes at Cherry Point. Coal trains traveling from Powder River Basin mines east of the Rocky Mountains would travel through Bellingham en route to Cherry Point.
After backers of the initiative submitted about 10,000 signatures to the city on June 18, the Whatcom County Auditor verified that at least 4,990 of those signatures were valid, which meets the legal requirement for a place on the ballot. At that point, the city stepped in with the lawsuit, authorized by unanimous vote of the City Council.
Bird and Dubrow say the initiative is the first step in the struggle to give communities legal rights that trump the power of railroads and other corporations.