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What Do We Want? And Who Decides?

In Articles on 29 March 2011 at 8:44 pm

Spokane Seeking a Community Bill of Rights

by Kai Huschke

In the fall of 2007 seven people – active on neighborhood, social justice, and environmental fronts – gathered in a small living room in one of Spokane, Washington’s poorest neighborhoods to talk about their community.

Seated on a puffy brown couch or on the floor – drinks and snacks within arm’s reach – the group considered two questions: 1. What do we want in our community? and 2. Who decides? They had asked themselves these questions because they understood that the tools, outlets, and options currently in place through law and governance were not only inadequate but are at the core of rapid environmental, social, and economic decline found in communities across the United States.

A growing disparity between the have and the have-nots, a 2,000+ shortage of affordable low-income housing units, local government favoring big box stores over local businesses, residents unable to determine the future of their neighborhoods, and a river seriously endangered were a few of the reasons why these folks saw the need to do things differently in Spokane. When you begin to unpeel the layers having to do with who decides in your community you take yourself on a history lesson predating the US Constitution. One discovers that the DNA which runs this nation, the individual states, and our communities like Spokane, is one that favors property and commerce over rights of people, communities, and nature. This is the system we live under and the system works very well. With the mandate to pursue the endless production of more, you find that your local community, no matter the level of destruction it might be suffering, is powerless to do anything about it.

Those seven people left the living room and quickly became a group of thirty. Within that group there were twenty-four organizations representing neighborhoods, social service agencies, environmental organizations, and labor unions, all coming together in a way that had never been seen before in Spokane. Those folks – known as Envision Spokane – came together to explore what it would look like to put the rights of residents, workers, neighborhoods, and nature above corporate interests. Meeting nearly weekly, they spent five months discussing and drafting amendments to Spokane’s home rule charter.

What came out in the fall of 2008 and eventually made it onto the November 2009 ballot was a Community Bill of Rights that contained rights to a locally-based economy, affordable and renewable energy, affordable preventive healthcare, affordable housing, a healthy environment, residents ability to determine the future of their neighborhoods, constitutional protections in the workplace, and prevailing wage and work as apprentices on certain construction projects. In addition an enforcement amendment subordinated corporate rights to community rights when they came into conflict.

Why a Community Bill of Rights?

When you search for an answer of who decides in your community and why you come across something very complex. As a community – citizens and elected officials alike – you find that you are virtually powerless no matter if the issue is labor, neighborhoods, or the environment. The federal constitution, state preemption, Dillon’s rule, regulatory laws, and corporate constitutional rights (corporations are seen as “persons” under the law) supercede community decision making and ultimately shape what our communities look like whether we like it or not. It is set up this way in order to allow commerce to lord over everything else no matter the true cost. And commerce today is almost exclusively the playground of giant corporations. The term “corporate state” is quite accurate, especially when you see how laws get made, whom those laws favor, and how politicians and municipal attorneys end up upholding an oppressive system.

The folks in Spokane understood that stepping into this existing structure of law was suicide. Moving forward they needed to focus on what was truly important in attempting to create a democratic, healthy, and sustainable Spokane. What it meant was restructuring the system of law  that values people, neighborhoods, workers, local economy, and nature over corporate power. Fragmentation of the issues does not allow for an overhaul of the existing system, which they understood is unsustainable.

A Protest in early November 2010 in downtown Pittsburgh. At the end of the month, the City Council banned natural gas extraction from within its boundaries.

What about Spokane’s elected and other community leaders?

Local politicians and other community leaders spent a lot of time opposing the Community Bill of Rights. They campaigned against it based on false economic impacts, an attack on private property rights, creating endless lawsuits, that this is too much to soon, and that the system works just fine. Spokane’s liberal progressive mayor even went so far as to be a lead spokesperson for the corporate funded opposition campaign. Though the Bill of Rights mirrored what was in the city’s comprehensive plan (a document that lays out economic, social, and environmental goals) and in large part Spokane’s Democratic party platform, the liberal progressive politicians and other such community leaders helped squash the Community Bill of Rights at the polls.

In addition, even after the folks of Envision Spokane succeeded in gathering the necessary signatures to qualify for the November 2009 ballot (the first time a citizen’s initiative had done so in the city’s history), the city council fought to try to keep the initiative off the ballot. When they came to the conclusion that they would not be able to, they exercised their power to place two advisory questions on the ballot. These questions, without a single piece of supportive evidence, raised the questions of cost and cutting public services (i.e. fire, police, etc.) if a yes vote were cast for the Community Bill of Rights.

A week after the election in November 2009 a city councilman introduced a proposal to overhaul the citizen’s initiative and referendum process which would’ve, in all intensive purposes, gut citizen’s ability to directly legislate. A protracted six month battle kept this from happening.

And, what about the corporations?

The corporate boys did their job very well during the run-up and through the campaign. They attempted a smear campaign against individuals associated with Envision Spokane, filed a public disclosure complaint against a volunteer of Envision Spokane, filed a complaint to the state on the political dealings of the group, spread through email, letters, direct mail, meetings, and presentations patently false information on what the Community Bill of Rights contained and what it would do, and pulled in over $400,000 – 85% coming from corporate lobbying organizations outside of Spokane – to persuade voters to vote no. Nearly all of the remaining campaign funding came from the city’s powerbrokers – the local utility, an old money family that controls valuable real estate along with local media outlets including the city’s only daily newspaper, the local chamber of commerce, the local chapter of the homebuilders association, and other large developers in the community. The combination of misinformation (most of it wrapped in fear), their entrenched networks including their control of the politicians, and out spending the proponents of the Community Bill of Rights $400,000 to $60,000 it is nothing short of amazing that one in four voters voted yes for a  Community Bill of Rights.

The corporate influence did not stop on Election Day. The local homebuilders association, through an elected representative, had a request made of the Washington state’s attorney general’s office to draft a formal opinion in support of the overhaul of the citizen’s initiative & referendum process proposed by one of city councilman. Though the attorney general’s office did not issue an official opinion they did weigh in favor of removing power from citizen’s ability to directly legislate.

Community Bill of Rights 2011: Round two in Spokane and other communities join in

Out of the defeat in 2009 has evolved a different version of the Community Bill of Rights. This version is more condensed, to the point, and highlights the issues that garnered the most support even from those who voted against the Community Bill of Rights in 2009. The three amendments plus the enforcement amendment aim to do the following:

•    Allow neighborhoods greater control over certain proposed development;
•    Strengthen protections for the Spokane River and our drinking water;
•    Protect workers constitutional rights;
•    Limit corporate special interests when they conflict with community rights

Envision Spokane will be collecting signatures during the spring to qualify the initiative for the November 2011 ballot.
Also, because of what happened in Spokane, other communities have and will be following suit. In the last five months alone three communities have adopted Bill of Rights for their community’s. The most significant coming in November 2010 when Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania passed an ordinance that contained a Bill of Rights recognizing the right to self-government and rights of nature as well as banning natural gas drilling and a provision that stripped corporations of their status as “persons” to keep them from trying to overturn the legislation. Communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, Illinois, Oklahoma, and New Mexico are looking at following what started in Spokane. Two city’s in Washington state – Bellingham and Seattle – have efforts currently forming that could see their versions of a Community Bill of Rights going to the vote of the people in the next year or two.

Envision Spokane aim to build an economically and environmentally sustainable community through democratic self-governance. To learn more about their Bill of Rights go to Envision Spokane and The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

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