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YES! Magazine

Spokane Considers Community Bill of Rights

Thousands of people voted to protect 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.

Mari Margil

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

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.

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.


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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

  • 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.

(This article originally appeared in YES! Magazine on Nov. 4th.)

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