BELLINGHAM - Political activists here have a long record of bringing citizen initiatives to the ballot. On occasion, their causes have been limited or altogether stopped by the courts.
If the latest Tim Eyman initiative passes, local initiatives such as a recent anti-coal measure that never came before voters would be guaranteed to make the ballot. Eyman said he submitted more than enough signatures for Initiative 517, the "Protect the Initiative Act," on Jan. 3. It's likely to appear on the November 2013 ballot.
A citywide initiative put forward by No Coal! would have prohibited coal shipments through Bellingham in response to a proposed coal-export terminal at Cherry Point. The Washington Court of Appeals upheld an injunction from the city that prevented the measure from making the November 2012 ballot. The court agreed with the city that the initiative exceeded the scope of the city's authority.
Under Eyman's I-517, the no-coal initiative automatically would have gone to the ballot, and any legal challenges could have followed, if the measure were approved.
Stoney Bird, an organizer with No Coal!, generally disagrees with Eyman's politics, but he likes I-517.
"I signed my very first Tim Eyman petition," Bird said.
Bird was on the citizen advisory committee for Skagit Transit in 1999, when Eyman's initiative setting car tabs at $30 passed. Funding to the bus agency was cut drastically, Bird said, and routes were eliminated.
Eyman is also known for multiple initiatives requiring a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to approve tax increases.
"A general no-taxes approach is really short-sighted and harmful in my opinion," Bird said. "This initiative on initiatives is not about taxes. ... This kind of initiative would make it easier for citizens to take matters into their own hands."
Bellingham also succeeded in blocking a ballot initiative in 2006 that would have required city officials to demand maximum removal of mercury from a cleanup site on the waterfront. As with the coal initiative, the city argued the proposed rule was beyond the scope of its legal authority.
Lisa McShane, who was on the committee behind the mercury initiative, echoed Bird's sentiments about Eyman and I-517.
"This is the first Eyman initiative I'll be voting for," McShane said. "I have never heard of somebody threatening to file suit before a (legislative) bill comes to a vote. ... It should be the same way with legislation the citizens bring forward."
Eyman, an initiative activist for 15 years in Washington state, said governments don't discriminate according to politics when it comes to striking down citizen lawmakers.
"I don't care if it's a left-leaning initiative or a right-leaning initiative like banning red-light cameras, it shows that elected officials don't like initiatives on any topics," Eyman said. "They have no hesitation suing their own citizens."
In the case of Bellingham's anti-red light camera initiative, traffic camera company American Traffic Solutions sued to keep the measure off the November 2011 ballot. The company failed to do that, but the Court of Appeals said the initiative would have no legal weight, reducing it to an advisory measure.
Johnny Weaver, an organizer for the red-light camera initiative, said he supports I-517.
"I think it's ridiculous we have to go to these lengths to exercise our constitutional right to petition our government," Weaver said.
City Council member Terry Bornemann, who participated in the 6-0 vote to block the anti-coal initiative, opposes I-517. He said it would create more legal costs for taxpayers by delaying any legal challenge until after an initiative passes.
"It doesn't serve the taxpayers well," Bornemann said. "We have rules in place about initiatives already. I think they're valid rules."
I-517 has two other elements. Harassing a signature gatherer or a petition signer would become a crime; this would also apply to local initiatives. The other part of the initiative, extending the period for signature gathering, would apply only to statewide initiatives.