I-517 protects signature gathering at expense of businesses

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 10, 2013 

Initiative 517 just goes too far.

Professional initiative promoter Tim Eyman's latest effort to change the initiative process in our state sounds good on the surface, but the details reveal a deeply flawed measure. The basics are this: I-517 would amend the initiative process to extend the amount of time that initiative supporters have to collect signatures, and takes measures to ensure that any initiative that has enough signatures goes to the ballot. But it doesn't stop there; inside the initiative are provisions that are bad for businesses and property owners.

We believe that having a robust discussion about how to make the democratic process more accessible, fairer and more inclusive is a good thing. As business owners we know how important it is to periodically evaluate how we do things and to be able to adapt and make changes to innovate and improve. But after taking a hard look at I-517, a growing coalition of citizens and business leaders are coming together to oppose I-517.

INFRINGES ON BUSINESS OWNERS' RIGHTS

Currently, paid signature gathering is a legally protected activity on all public sidewalks and walkways. I-517 expands these protections to include all walkways that carry pedestrian traffic and the initiative language specifies "including those in front of the entrances and exits of any store." In other words, I-517 prevents business owners like us from having control over allowing paid signature gathering on our own property infringing upon our constitutionally guaranteed property rights. We value and respect the initiative and referendum process and think that participation in this process should be protected. But this shouldn't come at the expense of business owners' rights to have a say in what happens on their property affecting their customers. We also value the rights of our customers who may not wish to be forced to engage in a given political debate.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

A major part of I-517 concerns the establishment of harassment protection for signature gatherers. It establishes a 25-foot "protected bubble" around a signature gatherer within which interference is illegal and punishable as a misdemeanor. While we don't think that harassment of anyone is OK, there are many consequences of this provision that affect store owners.

If a store owner wishes to establish time, location and personal conduct rules as to how a petitioner can gather signatures on their property, they are guilty of interference and are in violation of the law. If a signature gatherer is exhibiting aggressive harassing behavior towards others such as blocking entering or exiting, yelling or threatening customers the business owner would have no right to ask that this individual change their behavior or vacate their property. Further, the customers of the business may hold the business owner responsible for the behavior of the petitioners, perceiving their presence on private property to be endorsement of the petitioners' causes and actions.

I-517 protects only the paid petition signature gatherers from harassment when in reality oftentimes it is the citizens who are being harassed. As conscientious business owners we have a responsibility to create a positive customer experience in a safe, welcoming environment. I-517 takes away our ability to effectively do that.

INTRUSIVE

Initiative 517 makes signature gathering a legally protected activity in public gathering facilities paid for by the public, as well as facilities opening themselves to public gatherings. This means that community institutions such as schools, libraries, hospitals and high school sports stadiums and fields lose all rights to regulate signature gathering, not just outside but inside as well. Safeco Field, Century Link, convention centers and public fairs would also be affected. It is particularly disturbing to think about being bombarded by signature solicitations inside of venues where we choose to spend our free time with our family, friends and loved ones.

We understand what an important democratic tool the initiative process is and we should be having conversations about updates and improvements. However, this haphazard initiative written by a few people who each stand to increase their profits should this pass is the opposite of the democratic process that we are trying to protect. This is bad for business, bad for our customers and bad for Washington.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Kevin Weatherill is president and CEO of The Markets, LLC, Bellingham, and Clement Stevenson is senior vice president of sales and merchandising/co-president of Haggen Food & Pharmacy, Bellingham. For more information on I-517, go online to no517.org. Vote-by-mail ballots will be mailed Oct. 19 and the general election is Nov. 5.

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