Politics & Government

In Wild West of petitions, it’s signer beware

At the Proctor Farmers Market last weekend, peddlers were hawking more than vegetables and flowers.

A couple of signature gatherers also were there, calling to people like barkers at a carnival. “Save the elephants!” cried one.

After he had hooked his mark, the man presented a measure to criminalize the ivory trade in Washington. Then he pulled out another petition. This one was marked with bold letters across the top: “ A Better Tacoma.”

“It’s going to give four-year term limits for the executives, right? For the Legislature, right?” said the signature gatherer who was wearing an Uncle Sam hat and wouldn’t provide his name. “Instead of two six-year terms, they’ve got to get it done in two four-year terms.”

Actually, that’s not right. It’s not even close. What the proposal really would do is change Tacoma’s charter to create a strong mayor to run city government, a change suggested by a charter review commission last year that the City Council declined to send to the ballot.

On this occasion, the signature gatherer apologized after being told that he was giving erroneous information. But under the law, he and his colleagues don’t have to tell the truth. It’s signer beware in the Wild West of citizen initiatives.

Sherry Bockwinkel, who once owned a signature gathering company called Washington Initiatives Now, said state law doesn’t govern what signature gatherers can or cannot say. They, too, have First Amendment rights.

“It basically says it’s free speech and you can lie,” Bockwinkel said.

The Better Tacoma measure does include a term limits change — but only for City Council members and the mayor. Council members could serve up to two four-year terms while the mayor would have separate term limits, also for two four-year terms. Current term limits allow people to serve 10 consecutive years as a council member or mayor.

Paid signature gatherers have been out since last week collecting autographs for the measure, advanced by political consultant Alex Hays and the Pierce County Better Government League.

Hays filed the issue with the city clerk June 5. He has 180 days from that date to turn in signatures, City Clerk Doris Sorum said.

He said signatures could be turned in as early as Friday (June 26), after which they would be sent to the Pierce County auditor to be checked. Hayes aims to collect 10,000 signatures, enough to meet the threshold of 7,197 to qualify the issue for the fall ballot.

Several people have complained to The News Tribune about the signature gatherers’ tactics. Police also have received calls from businesses about disruptive signature gatherers.

Hays said said he received complaints about behavior June 9, the day signature gathering began, and has advised the signature gatherers to behave. He said asked the signature gathering company, Your Choice Petitions of Spokane, to fire one signature gatherer after hearing of a confrontation between the worker and a grocery store manager at one of the signature gathering sites.

“I have demanded that they be normal and appropriate,” Hays said. “We also told them to be polite. This is our hometown. We are the good guys. Behave like it.”

Brent Johnson, who is listed as a governing member of Your Choice Petitions, said the company doesn’t tolerate misinformation. He said the company’s workers are often hassled for being in front of stores, even though they are legally allowed to be there.

“We are slandered all the time because we do our jobs,” he said.

Bockwinkel said that initiative campaigns have a lot invested in making sure their front-line troops are not turning off voters.

“We looked at (signature gathering) as part of the campaign,” Bockwinkel said. “We were building truthful information from the beginning about what the voters would be voting on. Our view of petitioning is it’s part of the entire campaign.”

Hays said the inaccurate information didn’t come from him. The script he provided is printed at the top of the petitions:

“Support accountability and the direct election of our city’s leadership:

Hays says he recently collected roughly $15,000 so far from strong-mayor supporters to help pay the signature gatherers and other campaign expenses. He plans to file campaign finance reports with the Public Disclosure Commission next week.

His last local ballot measure campaign, under a group called the Pierce County Better Government League, worked to successfully repeal ranked choice voting in Pierce County.