Spokane Considers Community Bill of Rights
Of all the candidates, bills, and proposals on ballots around the country yesterday, one of the most exciting is a proposition that didn’t pass.
In Spokane, Washington, despite intense opposition from business interests, a coalition of residents succeeded in bringing an innovative “Community Bill of Rights” to the ballot. Proposition 4 would have amended the city’s Home Rule Charter (akin to a local constitution) to recognize nine basic rights, ranging from the right of the environment to exist and flourish to the rights of residents to have a locally based economy and to determine the future of their neighborhoods.
A coalition of the city’s residents drafted the amendments after finding that they didn’t have the legal authority to make decisions about their own neighborhoods; the amendments were debated and fine-tuned in town hall meetings.
Although the proposition failed to pass, it garnered approximately 25 percent of the vote—despite the fact that opponents of the proposal (developers, the local Chamber of Commerce, and the Spokane Homebuilders) outspent supporters by more than four to one. In particular, they targeted the Sixth Amendment, which would have given residents the ability, for the very first time, to make legally binding, enforceable decisions about what development would be appropriate for their own neighborhood. If a developer sought to build a big-box store, for example, it would need to conform to the neighborhood’s plans.
Nor is development the only issue in which resident would have gained a voice. The drafters and supporters of Proposition 4 sought to build a “healthy, sustainable, and democratic Spokane” by expanding and creating rights for neighborhoods, residents, workers, and the natural environment.
Legal Rights for Communities
Patty Norton, a longtime neighborhood advocate who lives in the Peaceful Valley neighborhood of Spokane, and her neighbors spent years fighting a proposed condominium development that would loom 200 feet high, casting a literal shadow over Peaceful Valley’s historic homes.
Proposition 4 would ensure that “decisions about our neighborhoods are made by the people living there, not big developers,” Patty said.
For years, she and her neighbors have participated in protests, spoke at City Council hearings, attended meetings, and educated their neighbors. But, as with other neighborhoods in Spokane who’ve come together to fight off Wal-Mart stores and other unwanted developments, the residents of Peaceful Valley found that they didn’t seem to have the legal authority to make a decision about something that would have a significant impact on their neighborhood.
Communities Take Power
Barnstead, New Hampshire was the first town in the nation to ban corporate water mining.
Then, in 2007, Patty and several of her neighbors went to a Democracy School in Spokane. Democracy Schools—run by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund—are weekend workshops in which communities examine why the structure of law often gives corporations more power to make decisions than the communities in which they seek to do business. Participants look at why our system of government seems to hamper our efforts to protect the places where we live, rather than to help us protect them.
Because the U.S. Constitution legalized slavery, abolitionists had to change existing law in order to end it. Democracy School students study this and other examples of people’s movements fighting unjust laws, recognizing that sometimes legal changes are the only way to protect their communities and the environment.
Patty and other Spokane graduates of Democracy School began talking with one another about how they might address their concerns about the future of their neighborhoods, the health of the local economy, the heavily polluted Spokane River, and a host of other issues.
A Community Bill of Rights
In the spring of 2008, grassroots organizations, labor unions, neighborhood councils, and other groups across the city began meeting together as part of a coalition they called Envision Spokane. Over the spring and summer, they drafted a series of ideas for addressing the needs of residents, workers, neighborhoods, and the environment. These ideas formed a draft “Community Bill of Rights” for the city.
During the winter, Envision Spokane held a series of 12 Town Halls across the city to engage the community in a conversation about the proposed Bill of Rights.
Taking the community’s feedback, the board of Envision Spokane revised the Bill of Rights and, in March of 2009, began to collect signatures. Despite opposition from the Spokane City Council and a concerted effort by business interests to block the Bill of Rights from reaching the ballot, Envision Spokane collected over 5,000 signatures from voters, successfully qualifying the Community Bill of Rights for the November ballot.
The Community Bill of Rights proposed nine amendments, written to address some very real needs in Spokane, to the city's Home Rule Charter. By recognizing broad rights instead of proposing specific legislation, the amendments were written to change the fundamental structure of Spokane’s legal system so that it would prioritize the protection of the local environment, economy, neighborhoods and residents.
- First. Residents have the right to a locally-based economy. Recognizes the rights of residents to protect their local economy by denying permits to big-box and chain stores.
- Second. Residents have the right to affordable preventive health care. Creates a fee-for-service program for the thousands of Spokane residents who lack health insurance and currently rely on the emergency room for health care.
- Third. Residents have the right to affordable housing. In response to the loss of thousands of units of affordable housing in Spokane over the past few years, the city would have been obliged, through incentives or other measures, to ensure that an adequate supply of affordable housing is available for those most in need.
- Fourth. Residents have the right to affordable and renewable energy. Requires the city and local utilities to make renewable energy accessible to residents.
- Fifth. The natural environment has the right to exist and flourish. Under current law, nature has no legal standing—to prove environmental damage, a person has to prove that he or she has been harmed. The Fifth Amendment would have protected the Spokane River, one of the most polluted in the nation following years of mining and toxic dumping, would have been protected under the Bill of Rights.
- Sixth. Residents have the right to determine the future of their neighborhoods. Patty Norton and her neighbors—and other residents of Spokane—would have been able to enforce their decisions about what’s best for them. (The condominium complex hasn’t been built yet, but it is approved. The Sixth Amendment would have done what years of protesting haven’t been able to: allow the residents to say, “No.”)
- Seventh. Workers have the right to be paid the prevailing wage and to work as apprentices on certain construction projects. As skilled labor leaves Spokane, the Bill of Rights would have protected workers’ right to competitive wages and created apprenticeship opportunities so that young people could learn a trade and stay in the city.
- Eighth. Workers have the right to employer neutrality when unionizing, and the right to constitutional protections within the workplace. Workers would have been free from interference by employers when seeking to form a labor union, as well as from having to attend “captive audience” meetings.
- Ninth. Residents, workers, neighborhoods, neighborhood councils, and the city of Spokane shall have the right to enforce the Community Bill of Rights. For the first time, residents would have the legal authority to enforce their own decisions.
While Spokane is the largest city to attempt these legal changes, and the first whose adoption would have meant a change to a city constitution, other communities have already succeeded in securing similar rights. Towns in Maine, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Virginia have passed ordinances recognizing the rights of nature, prohibiting corporate mining and water extraction, and stripping corporations of constitutional protections and the right to contribute to political campaigns.
The board of directors of Envision Spokane recognizes that fundamental change doesn’t come easily or quickly, and will be meeting in the next few weeks to discuss how to continue the work that they’ve started. Other communities are now reaching out to learn from Spokane about how they might do something similar.
Mari Margil wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Mari, the first associate director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), teaches Democracy Schools across the country. She also advised Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly in its decision to recognize the "rights of nature" in the nation's new constitution.
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