June 23, 2021
Down to the wire, petitioners seek signatures to put initiatives on city ballot
Ella Banken

With just a few more days to gather signatures from Bellingham voters, People First volunteers have devoted many hours seeking signatures for four proposed initiatives around renter protections, workers’ rights and restrictions on technology used by law enforcement; at left, one of a team sharing information with shoppers at the Lakeway Center.

photo: Amy Nelson © 2021
June 23, 2021
Down to the wire, petitioners seek signatures to put initiatives on city ballot
Ella Banken

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Days away from a June 25 deadline, People First Bellingham is racing to collect signatures from Bellingham voters in order to get their slate of initiatives on November’s ballot. Each petition needs 6,200 valid signatures for the initiative to appear on the ballot, according to Sage Jones, volunteer campaign manager. Their goal is to collect 7,500, to ensure they definitely meet the requirement.

For the past few months, signs that feature multicolored houses, roses, and an emphatic “yes” have been popping up around Bellingham. The whimsical signs are encouraging Bellingham voters to say “yes” to a slate of four initiatives sponsored by a campaign whose mission is in the name — to put people first. 

The initiatives address four areas:

  • No. 2021-01: Renter Protections, expanding tenant rights to require 90-day notice for uncaused eviction, mandatory communication of raised rental rates of more than 8%, and relocation assistance for eviction without cause and more.
  • No. 2021-02: No Invasive Police Tech, prohibiting facial recognition software for police, prohibit the use of data collected by facial recognition software, prohibit predictive policing technology, prohibit the use of information collected by facial recognition and predictive policing software in court proceedings and more.
  • No. 2021-03: Protect the Right to Organize, encouraging labor neutrality, prohibit the use of city funds for blocking unionization efforts, protections for nonmanagerial workers to participate in union activities and more.
  • No. 2021-04: Worker’s Rights, ensuring consistency and good-faith assurance of hourly employment, $4 hazard pay during declared states of emergency for certain hourly wage employees, compensation for schedule changes without sufficient notice and more.

Collecting daily

Volunteers have been collecting signatures at the Bellingham Farmers Market, in front of businesses and in parks and neighborhoods daily.

“I hope that the community would feel empowered if these initiatives passed.” Jones said. 

In April, the Whatcom Democrats passed four resolutions that support the inclusion of the initiatives on the November ballot. 

“What we’ve done is taken a stand that we support giving the voters a chance to look at these issues,” Andrew Reding, Whatcom Democrats executive board chair said, “We think they’re important issues, they’re very valid issues to be considered.”

According to Jones, about 80% of registered Bellingham voters who are approached sign all four initiatives separately.

Guy Occhiogrosso, President and CEO of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, has some hesitancy about “broad stroke” initiatives, specifically in reference to Initiative 4 (Worker’s Rights). 

“It’s a really complicated situation, I guess it’s one of those situations where there’s a time and a place for it,” Occhiogrosso said. “And I would say a $4 [hazard pay] an hour, during a declared state of emergency, is probably a really broad statement that would have more negative impacts than positive impacts if applied that broadly.”

In the continued wake of the COVID-19 pandemic where businesses and workers alike were highly impacted, Occhiogrosso worries about the stress Initiative 4 could put on some industries, such as restaurants, where business is not always steady. 

What is People First?

“People First is more of a coalition of organizations on the left than an individual organization,” Jones said. 

It’s a volunteer-based, grassroots coalition started in January this year as a collaborative effort among local activists from the Whatcom Democratic Socialists of America, Sunrise Bellingham and other groups mentioned on their website. The campaign has a core group of 15 to 20 individuals and has had 50 to 60 volunteers over the course of the campaign, according to Jones. 

The campaign had received $13,813.16 in contributions according to the Public Disclosure Commission as of June 22. “It’s the easiest campaign I’ve fundraised for,” Jones said. “I think it’s easier than candidate fundraising because the issues speak for themselves.”

The coalition and the initiatives grew out of what they saw as a lack of response from elected officials and to push for progressive legislation that they believe Bellingham would support, according to Jones. 

In terms of topics addressed by elected officials, Reding partially agrees with the claim. The Bellingham City Council did pass an ordinance for $4 hazard pay for grocery workers, but it did not go as far as Initiative 4 proposes, which would apply to all hourly workers at businesses of 30 employees or more. Facial recognition technology as addressed in Initiative 2 is a topic of concern to a lot of people but has not been addressed, according to Reding. 

If the initiatives make it to the November ballot, Whatcom Democrats will vote on whether to endorse each initiative.

Future? Uncertain.

People First began with 10 initiative ideas, according to Jones, and narrowed them down to those that could be addressed through the initiative process and would support workers.

“We wanted to include an environmental initiative, too, but we really struggled to find something that was pro-environment, without putting that burden on the working class,” Jones said. 

The future for People First is not certain. The June 25 deadline will determine whether the four initiatives will be included on Bellingham’s ballot in November. According to Jones, they are behind pace to meet their goal. 

“It’s going to be a close matter, whether it makes the ballot or not,” Reding said. “We require a ridiculous amount of signatures here in Bellingham. There’s a requirement of 20% of the votes cast at the last mayoral election. Right now that’s double the requirement in places like Seattle or elsewhere in Washington state; it’s an unrealistic amount.”

According to Reding, there have only been two Bellingham initiatives in the past 30 years. Comparatively, there have been 60 statewide initiatives in the past 20 years. 

On June 21 the Bellingham city council heard proposals to amend the city charter to reduce the signature requirements for ballot initiatives and charter amendments by the petition method. 

The council directed staff to draft a resolution for the November ballot to reduce the required signatures from 20% to 10% (instead of the proposed 8%) of votes in the last mayoral election. If the council votes in favor of the proposals, they will be included on November’s ballot. 

If People First collects enough signatures, they will take a moment to breathe, Jones said. After that, they will create more literature about the initiatives and do more education before the November election. 

“We need people to give us their time if they want to see Bellingham change in these ways,” Jones said.

— Reported by Ella Banken

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