Walker Recall Petitioners Find Their Place — On the Sidewalk
With most municipalities prohibiting political activity in public buildings, and businesses trying to stay neutral, volunteers must take to public sidewalks to collect signatures.
In her first 15 minutes stationed outside of Nehring's Sendik's store in Shorewood, Karen Morris-Cetin collected five signatures from passers-by for her petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker.
Her folding chair, with the back cushion removed and replaced with a "Recall Walker" sign, stood on the public sidewalk — one of the only places in the North Shore where petition holders are allowed.
Of every public building in Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Fox Point, Bayside, Port Washington and Saukville, the only place people have been allowed to collect signatures is in the lobby of the Shorewood Public Library, due to a precedence of campaigning there.
“The library in the past has been used for political activity,” Shorewood Village Manager Chris Swartz explained. “We either have to say 'yes' to everything or 'no' to everything, but we can’t be picking and choosing.”
Banned from collecting signatures in public buildings in Port Washington and Saukville, groups of petitioners have gathered in downtown Port Washington on the sidewalk along West Grand Avenue — carrying recall posters and prompting honks of support from passing traffic.
According to a memorandum from Kevin Kennedy, director and general counsel for the state's Government Accountability Board, there is no statute governing the use of government buildings for political activity, and it is up to local communities to decide what to allow.
In Whitefish Bay, for example, officials have established rules prohibiting political meetings defined as "gatherings for candidacy for a person or a party" in village hall. Village Manager Patrick DeGrave said he considers collecting recall signatures to meet that definition.
So the petitioners, who have collected more than half the signatures necessary to force a recall election, have kept mostly to the sidewalks.
But even there, they occasionally step onto the private property of businesses and have bothered some customers and managers who want to keep politics out of their establishments.
Pick’n Save manager Frank McGlockin said the store has asked the Shorewood police to investigate the presence of the recall petitioners, but police said they are allowed to collect signatures outside the Oakland Avenue store as long as they stay on the public sidewalk.
McGlockin said some people have crossed the line onto the store property and managers have asked them to move back to the sidewalk.
"I don't care for it; I wish they would go elsewhere,” McGlockin said. "We're not a political entity. We're neutral, and we don't want to upset one group of our customers over the petition … But they are protected by the constitution to be on a public sidewalk."
McGlockin said about two customers per day complain about the recall volunteers outside the store.
"They say they don't want to be bombarded when they're coming into the store,” McGlockin said.
Many businesses consider collecting signatures to be a form of solicitation and prohibit it by policy on their grounds, though they can't force petitioners off the sidewalk.
Bayshore Town Center, while permeated with busy sidewalks, is privately owned and can decide who to allow on the walkways on its grounds. According to marketing manager M.P. Theriault, Bayshore prohibits solicitation and has told the Democratic Party of Wisconsin not to collect signatures there — a request she said they have respected.
Looking to field more serious complaints about petitioner behavior, the Republican Party of Wisconsin set up the Recall Integrity Center, a hotline for concerns about suspicious behavior in collecting signatures.
"The Republican Party of Wisconsin has been alerted to multiple instances of misconduct by means of the RIC, including the use of government resources to communicate documents pertaining to the recall effort, as well as multiple online communications regarding potential recall petition fraud on the part of Wisconsin Democrats," Ben Sparks, communications director for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement.
But Graeme Zielinski, communications director for the state Democratic Party, said most petitioners have cooperated with local business and are abiding by what the business owners ask, which is to not badger and harass customers.
“A lot of businesses support us and the process has been smooth,” Zielinski said. “Republicans are just trying to show there is a problem with petitioners and businesses.”
Morris-Cetin, who has collected signatures in Glendale and Shorewood, said the hasn't had any major issues, and her biggest conflicts are with individuals walking or driving by who disapprove of the recall.
"Scott Walker has totally polarized the state," she said. " My sister and I cannot even discuss this. To me, that's sad."