The signature gatherers strike back!

Dozens of ballot-measure petition signature gatherers plan to besiege the Pleasanton headquarters of grocery giant Safeway at 11 a.m. tomorrow to protest a new company policy barring such solicitors from stores.

Or, as they put it, they’re going “to protest the company’s policy of denying citizens their constitutional right to free speech.”

“Safeway’s unconstitutional policies specifically target the rights of citizens to lawfully collect signatures to qualify ballot measures,” a news release said. “Recently Safeway managers have been harassing, photographing, and threatening signature gatherers with restraining orders, denying their right to participate in California’s direct democracy.”

And their right to get paid, no doubt.

“This is quite hilarious,” Safeway spokeswoman Susan Houghton said today after reading the news release – managers have indeed taken pictures, but only to demonstrate to courts how the signature gatherers are disrupting the stores’ entrances and exits. “We’re taking a pretty aggressive stance, we’re actually filing injunctions against some of these individuals, because our customers are just fed up with it.”

As an example, she sent me this photo taken last month at a store in Palo Alto, where petition signature gatherers had set up a table and canopy that partially blocked a store entrance – a safety hazard for customers, she said.

Houghton said most signature gatherers have refused to comply with the company’s existing “time, place and manner” policy, which required groups wishing to solicit to check with store managers in advance and fill out a form with contacts and other information. The new policy now being drafted, she said, will allow legitimate nonprofit community charities – Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, football teams and so on – to keep doing what they do.

“We want to be community-minded… but what has happened is that it has become an industry, it has become a business, these are professional people paid to gather signatures and quite frankly harass our customers,” she said. “We believe that in the end it’s not good for our customers to have to be exposed to this environment.”

Safeway’s move follows the recent advent of a union-backed group called “Californians Against Identity Theft” which has been running an ad to warn people against signing petitions, drawing criticism from various identity-theft and good-government watchdog groups.

“We’re all a bunch of independent businesses and subcontractors and we’ve had enough. Safeway’s rules have gotten to the point that they’re not just restricting time, place and manner anymore,” Rick Fenton, an organizer of tomorrow’s protest, said this afternoon. “It’s clearly designed to say, ‘Hey, go find someplace else to circulate.’ ”

Safeway has modernized its stores and updated its business model in recent years so that most locations now have cafes and tables at which to consume prepared foods, he noted, becoming “commercial islands” that compete with the traditional town square.

“With that comes responsibility and they’re not acting responsibly,” Fenton said. “Regardless of what you may think of us, we have a right to be there”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.