Why your community needs a bill of rights

Guest Opinion: The public comment period may have ended, but communities across Washington and the country are rallying to take back their rights to make local decisions about their resources.
Crosscut archive image.

The Bellingham audience waves and shows signs (no applause was allowed) to support a speaker.

Guest Opinion: The public comment period may have ended, but communities across Washington and the country are rallying to take back their rights to make local decisions about their resources.

I just spoke with an old friend in Portland, OR who didn’t know about coal companies’ plans to construct a coal export terminal just north of Bellingham, WA, where I live. The port would be the largest of its kind in North America, expanding coal companies’ capacity to mine coal from public lands in Montana and Wyoming, put it on freight trains, and ship it to Asia. My friend was impressed. 

Like him, when I learned about the proposal I wanted to know what I could do to stop it. “Make a comment,” environmental activists told me. It was “public comment time” and I mattered. I could make a difference.

The public comment period ended January 22, 2013, so that officials could inventory comments and include them in an Environmental Impact Statement. I never did get around to commenting: Not because I'm lazy or because I don't care about the issue, but because my comments would never have made it into the EIS.               

You see, for citizens’ comments to be heard and addressed in the terminal’s environmental impact statement, they must relate to a topic regulated by a public agency. For example, impacts on local economies are not regulated by a state or federal agency. If your business will suffer from coal trains, your “comment” will not be addressed in the impact statement. The only way to get in on the impact statement is if your comment speaks of a harm that can be quantified and is applicable to something like the Clean Water Act, which regulates water pollution.

The comment I would have made would never have met these requirements. 

In August 2012 a Whatcom County Superior Court Judge granted the city of Bellingham's injunction to keep an initiative off the November ballot, denying citizens the right to vote on a Community Bill of Rights. If approved by Bellingham voters, the measure would have elevated the city’s right to self-government and the rights of ecosystems upon which it depends. Such a designation would have overridden corporations’ rights as “persons,” and outlawed coal trains as a violation of those rights.

My comment would have said that, without a vote of the people, the trains would violate my right to democratically vote on what happens in my community. No agency that I am aware of regulates that.    

What we can do, now that the comment period has ended, is help to pass Community Bills of Rights across the Pacific Northwest that elevate communities’ rights to democratically decide what happens in their jurisdiction; that protect the human rights of their citizens and the rights of nature above corporations.

If Bellingham, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, Vancouver, Portland and the rest of us enjoyed these rights, we’d have the power to decide whether or not the terminal could proceed, rather than leaving it to an agency to regulate.

You might be thinking this sounds impossible. It’s not. A national legal defense fund, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, has already helped more than 150 communities in eight states to adopt such local laws. Much of this work has taken place in the East and Midwest, but it’s creeping west.

Benton County, Oregon is working on a Food Bill of Rights to protect its right to seed heritage from contamination by genetically modified crops. Bellingham is continuing its work on a Community Bill of Rights, California is taking notice and New Mexico has passed multiple community bills of rights.

Just across the mountains in Spokane, citizens are trying for a third time (after being outspent 8:1 and losing by just 500 votes in 2011) to pass a Community Bill of Rights. This bill, which they’re hoping to add to the November 2013 ballot, would give Spokane neighborhoods the right to vote on zoning changes involving major commercial, industrial or residential developments. It would also protect workers' constitutional rights, the rights of the Spokane River and the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer to exist and flourish and the rights of Spokanites to sustainably access, use, consume and preserve the water. To give the law teeth, the rights enumerated in the Community Bill of Rights are raised above corporations’ “rights” and privileges. 

Both Spokane and Bellingham are dealing with a democracy crisis. The terminal is showing us that our rights to democratically decide what happens in our communities are currently inferior to corporations’ rights as “people” and the state government’s power to tell us what we can (make a comment) and cannot (assert our rights) do.

This terminal is showing us that our democracy is in crisis. Thankfully the public comment period on that issue never ends.  



Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors