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12:44 AM Wed, Nov. 21st

Firm that collected signatures for minimum wage sues question’s backers

Company claims it's owed $65,000

A lawsuit has been filed against backers of a ballot question that seeks voter approval to increase the minimum wage by the firm that was hired to collect signatures to make it eligible for the Nov. 8 election.

Photo by Doug McMurdo.

A lawsuit has been filed against backers of a ballot question that seeks voter approval to increase the minimum wage by the firm that was hired to collect signatures to make it eligible for the Nov. 8 election.

PHOENIX – The private firm that collected signatures to put Proposition 206 on the November ballot is claiming it did not get paid all it is owned.

In a lawsuit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court, Sign Here Petitions, LLC, says it is still owed $65,000 by the backers of the plan to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2012.

Attorney Paul Weich said that does not include a $1,000-a-day penalty that initiative organizers agreed to pay in late fees.

But Bill Scheel, the manager of the campaign, said if anyone breached the contract it was the signature-gathering firm.

He said the deal required them to produce sufficient valid signatures to put the issue on the ballot. But Scheel pointed out that Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joshua Rogers disqualified tens of thousands of names because it turned out the circulators had not properly registered with the state.

The only thing that saved the measure from being thrown off the ballot is that the foes failed to file their challenge within five days after the petitions were filed. So Rogers ruled – and the Supreme Court affirmed – that the signatures gathered by the disqualified circulators could remain and be counted.

Weich sniffed at that response.

“The fact is, they’re not off the ballot,’’ he said, saying the flaws in the circulators’ registration are “kind of a moot point’’ because Rogers did agree to count the signatures.

The lawsuit says the contract, signed in April, requires Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families to pay for signatures collected. In return, Weich wrote, his client agreed to do a validity check on every signature, properly notarize all petitions, conduct a criminal background check on all circulators and ensure the circulators were registered with the secretary of state, a requirement for paid circulators.

Initiative backers turned in petitions with more than 250,000 names. After verification, Secretary of State Michele Reagan said there were 176,472 valid, more than the 150,642 required.

Weich said the final bill was $186,885. He said the committee, which by that point had been sued by foes, signed an addendum agreeing to pay off the balance and the $1,000-a-day penalty.

But the payments stopped on Aug. 10, leaving $65,000 plus the penalty.

The filing of the lawsuit did not go unnoticed by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry which is leading the effort to convince voters to reject the initiative. Chamber spokesman Garrick Taylor derided initiative backers for failing to pay the bill.

“While the Pro-206 crowd says it’s the champion of the little guy, the small business that helped the initiative get to the ballot is taking a beating according to a lawsuit,’’ he said in a prepared statement.

But Scheel told Capitol Media Services that, given the signature-gathering company’s performance, he questions whether it earned the money at all.

“Sign Here Petitions properly failed to screen and register scores of its circulators, resulting in the disqualification of tens of thousands of signatures,’’ he said.

“Our agreement was we were paying for valid signatures,’’ Scheel said. “Their reckless violation of our contract almost cost Arizonans the opportunity to vote on this really important measure.’’

Scheel acknowledged that the initiative did, in fact, get on the ballot after Rogers ruled the signatures gathered by the unregistered circulators should be counted because the challengers waited too long to sue. But he said that does not mean Sign Here Petitions, which he said already has been paid about $900,000, is entitled to the rest of its money.

“We suffered real damages, like legal fees,’’ Scheel said, with the committee having to hire an attorney to convince Rogers to put the measure on the ballot. And he said the time spent in court meant less time to raise money for the actual campaign.

Scheel also said the committee is trying to make sure that individual circulators who properly gathered signatures are not stiffed in the process. He said his group has paid out about $8,000 directly to circulators whose petitions were ruled valid.

He also said the committee was trying to negotiate a final payment and offered to split the difference. He said the filing of the lawsuit came as a surprise to him.

Current law requires Arizona employers to pay at least $8.05 an hour, a figure based on the amount set in a 2006 voter-approved initiative plus inflation. That will go up automatically in January to $8.15.

Proposition 206 would put the 2017 minimum at $10 an hour, going to $12 in 2020, with future hikes linked to inflation. It also would require workers to be given at least three days of paid sick leave each year, something not required under current law.