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Originally published Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Tim Eyman’s I-517 would help community activists take the initiative

Initiative 517, which says if an initiative has the signatures, it gets on the ballot and can be tested in court after the election, is music to the ears of local activists, writes Bruce Ramsey.

Times editorial columnist

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Stonewall Jackson Bird had never supported a Tim Eyman initiative. But earlier this month the Bellingham progressive rode to Olympia to speak on behalf of Eyman’s newest effort, Initiative 517, the “initiative on initiatives.”

“Stoney” Bird had been a corporate attorney in London. He became disenchanted, moved to the Skagit Valley, and later to Bellingham. He says that for a long time he “wanted to find a way to use my corporate legal experience for something important.”

Last year he found his cause: stopping coal trains.

To put a measure on a city ballot requires signatures from 15 percent of active voters. That’s a threshold almost twice as high as the 8 percent threshold for a statewide initiative. The activists got the signatures. They called their ballot measure the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights.

It was based on an anti-fracking ordinance in Pittsburgh, Pa., that declared that people had a right to a sustainable energy future. The Bellingham measure said any corporation that proposed to ship coal through town would lose “the constitutional rights deriving from legal personhood as well as other constitutional rights.”

Much of this was legally dubious. If it passed, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe could have it knocked out in court. Still, Bird and his allies wanted to show what the people of Bellingham thought about coal trains and corporate rights.

The city government, joined by the railroad, went to court. The Washington Court of Appeals ruled that the measure was beyond the initiative power and struck it from the ballot.

Hence, Initiative 517. It says that if an initiative has the signatures, it gets on the ballot. It can be tested in court after the election.

Bird rode to the legislative hearing with another Bellingham man, Randy Elmore, 65. In 2010, Elmore had collected signatures for a Bellingham proposition opposing red-light cameras. That time, the camera company sued. The Court of Appeals ruled that removing the cameras was beyond the initiative power, but that the initiative could appear on the ballot as advisory only. It did, and it won 68 percent of the vote. The mayor, who had signed the contract with the camera company, lost his seat.

The new mayor removed the cameras.

Bird and Elmore are political opposites, but on this they are together: If you have the signatures, the measure goes on the ballot. That is the rule for statewide initiatives and everyone is used to it.

But at the local level, officials aren’t used to it. They don’t want their decisions put up to a public vote. They fight in court to keep measures off the ballot. In the past three years, officials have done this in Bellingham, Mukilteo, Monroe, Redmond, Longview and Wenatchee, all measures to restrict automated ticketing cameras.

In Renton, the city wanted to demolish the downtown library, a unique structure that spans the Cedar River, and build a new library elsewhere. Citizens got up an initiative to put it to a vote, and the City Council refused to accept it. The citizens threatened to sue and the council changed its mind. Last August, 76 percent of voters chose to rebuild the library in the same place.

Even an advisory vote is powerful, as the anti-camera vote showed in Bellingham. But under an unpublished opinion issued Monday by the Court of Appeals, City of Monroe v. Washington Campaign for Liberty, advisory questions can be stricken from the ballot just as easily as binding questions.

All the more reason for Initiative 517.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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