Bremerton chicken signatures invalid, prompting a do-over on hen legalization initiative

Almost 1300 signatures gathered in an effort to legalize backyard hens in Bremerton are invalid due to a procedural oversight, forcing chicken proponents to start from scratch.

The signatures, collected since April, did not include the date of signing with each name - an item required by the Revised Code of Washington for citizens' initiatives such as the one circulated by the urban hen advocates.

The omission was announced with a joint e-mail Aug. 4 from petition coordinators Patty Zwick and Laura Moynihan.

"We had a little snafu with the form," Zwick said.

But that's not stopping petitioners from starting over with a new initiative.

The new initiative is slightly amended to improve the wording of the proposed ordinance and increase its likelihood of approval by the City Council, Zwick said. One change includes requiring chicken runs to be set back five feet from a neighboring property line instead of all property lines. Another narrows the definition of a hen to a female chicken eight weeks old or older instead of all female chickens - this allows time for owners to get rid of young roosters if necessary.

Otherwise, the intent of the measure is the same: to pressure the City Council to pass an ordinance legalizing four hens per residential lot, or else vote on the citizens' initiative with the risk of it going to a spring special election.

Chicken petitioners started collecting the first signatures for the new initiative July 30, Zwick said. As of Aug. 6, they collected more than 200. The goal is to collect 2,500 signatures to ensure that at least 2,100 of them - the amount required for a Bremerton citizens' initiative - are deemed valid by the Kitsap County auditor. With the auditor's approval, the initiative will go to the City Council. If the Council rejects the measure, it is put up for a special election within 45 days.

The deadline to submit the measure for a special election is January 30. The county Auditor's Office has estimated that a special election for the chicken measure alone could cost the city $70,000 to $80,000.

Chicken proponents have cited a lack of cooperation from the city in their struggles to legalize backyard hens, claiming city councilmembers are trying to obstruct the measure and decrying a lack of proper assistance from city staffers in its petition efforts.

City Attorney Roger Lubovich said he and former Assistant City Attorney Ken Bagwell had looked at the language of the citizens' initiative to give legal advice, but never saw the signature form and didn't know it lacked a date line.

"That could have been avoided if we had an opportunity to look at it," Lubovich said.

Petitioners, though disappointed, are undeterred by the do-over.

"I'm pretty confident that we'll have no trouble getting the signatures we need," Zwick said.

The signature gatherers continue to doorbell and canvas community events.

"They feel like it's a shame that it happened," Zwick said of the public's response to the mix-up. "People are mostly sympathetic"

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