PITCH WITH PETITION DRAWS FIRE
Signature gatherer’s contention that it would help “save our schools” is called “false advertising,” but it isn’t illegal.
Standing on the Jackson County Courthouse steps in a chilly wind last week, a man gathered signatures for a petition that he said would help “save our schools.”
The man was actually gathering signatures on a statewide petition that could lead to repeal of Kansas City’s earnings tax.
His pitch was not illegal. In fact, Missouri law says nothing about what petition circulators can tell voters about the petition they are asked to sign.
That has angered and frustrated petition opponents, who say they think signers have been misled.
“It’s false advertising,” said Councilwoman Cindy Circo. “It bothers me deeply that people think they can save their school district when they’re actually signing something that could devastate their city government.”
A spokesman for Let Voters Decide, the committee seeking the petition signatures, said circulators received training and a fact sheet and were not instructed to mislead the public.
“Signature gatherers are independent contractors,” said Marc Ellinger in an e-mailed statement. “We cannot monitor or control everything one of these independent contractors might say. But we certainly have no desire or need for them to say anything that is not factually correct.”
But Louie Wright, president of Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said
opponents were looking at legal options to address any misleading claims.
“My impression is it’s extremely widespread,” he said.
What legal steps Wright might take are not clear.
“There’s nothing in the statute, beyond what needs to be on the piece of paper itself, that talks about how it’s promoted or described,” said Laura Egerdal, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office.
Several voters on the courthouse steps last week said they thought they were signing a petition dealing with the Kansas City School District.
When asked what repealing the tax had to do with schools, the man gathering signatures, Elvis Minor, said ending the earnings tax could mean more money for education — thus “saving the schools.”
Let Voters Decide has raised $1 million from St. Louis businessman Rex Sinquefield for the petition campaign. Some of that money will be paid to a California company, National Petition Management Inc., for petition circulators, such as Minor, and to supervise the petition-gathering process.
It is legal to pay signature gatherers in Missouri, and many of those seeking signatures are being paid, according to Let Voters Decide.
The California company did not respond to phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment. Its Web site said it had gathered signatures for other area initiatives, including changes in Missouri’s gambling laws and a stem cell initiative.
Complaints about inaccurate information from petition circulators are common in Missouri, where almost two dozen petitions have been approved for circulation this year.
And complaints about inaccurate information are not limited to petition opponents. Let Voters Decide said the other side was also distributing misleading literature in an attempt to dissuade voters from signing.
One anti-petition piece, for example, claims the petition would “cut the numbers of police, firefighters and emergency technicians in Kansas City.”
The petition campaign, though, actually would only force a statewide vote on changes in Missouri’s earnings tax law. If the proposal were to pass statewide, Kansas City and St. Louis would hold referendums on the earnings tax, a 1 percent levy on people who live or work in those cities, every five years.
If local voters were to approve a repeal of the tax, it would phase out over 10 years. The petition would not require specific cuts to any city services, although opponents say a 40 percent reduction in the city’s general fund would make major cuts inevitable if replacement revenue could not be found.
Wright, who met last week with Sinquefield to discuss the earnings tax issue, defended the anti-petition flier.
“It’s certainly a lot more accurate than (their claim) that the petitions are helping the schools,” he said.
While state law does not prohibit circulators from making inaccurate claims about a petition drive, it does allow signers to remove their names from petitions if they think they have been misled, Egerdal said.
Any signer who wants to remove his or her name must file a notarized statement to that effect with the secretary of state, giving the signer’s name, address, county of residence and the name of the petition signed.
The removal must be requested before the petition is filed. The deadline for all petitions in Missouri is May 2.
Circulators need roughly 95,000 signatures from six of the state’s nine congressional districts to put the earnings tax question on the statewide ballot in November. To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send e-mail to [email protected]star.com.