Sunday, April 21, 2013

Corporate versus Community Rights

 The Fidalgo Democrats gathered at the Anacortes Public Library for their April monthly meeting to discuss how Communities could regain sovereignty over their environment.  The meeting featured three speakers on this subject: Stoney Bird, retired corporate attorney,  Ron Harris, retired businessman and Bill Bowman.

  Commercial development that threatens the livability of many communities has been in the news.  In the North Sound our environment is threatened by coal trains  and a water bottling factory in Anacortes.   Communities in the Mid West are polluted by  aging pipelines transporting crude oil and worse - oil from tar sands.  Residents of Pennsylvania, New York and Quebec are worried that fracking to retrieve natural gas will contaminate and deplete their ground water.    Through their interpretation of the Interstate Commerce clause and rulings like "Citzen United" ,  the conservative US Supreme Court has given corporations the power to strike down various federal and state laws designed to protect public welfare. Businessman Ron Harris reported that there has been some local support for a 28th Amendment to  the Constitution a.k.a  The People's Rights Amendment. introduced into the US House by Congressman Jim McGovern.  Many believe that the amendment would level the playing field between coporate and community rights and allow communities to take the offense in their struggle against coporations.

Both Bill Bowman and Stoney Bird referenced the findings of The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund  (CELDF).    CELDF claims that after decades of work, billions of dollars, the work of thousands of communities, and the involvement of the largest environmental groups,  things are worse now than they've ever been.   They argue that communities need to go on the offense and stop playing defense.  "What we've had is groups and people resisting one hog factory farm at a time, one toxic waste incinerator at a time, one road project at a time, one asphalt plant at a time."    CELDF  aims its  focus on governance that has eroded community sovereignty.   As with former slaves,  the natural environment in our current legal structures is treated as property to be exploited.  Our  environmental regulations only regulate how that property is used.   The Interstate Commerce Clause in the US Constitution has been successfully used by Corporations to override local restrictions on their activities.

The Fidalgo Democrats Chairwoman -Corinne Salcedo (left) - hosts guest speaker Stoney Byrd 

To take the offense against environmental destruction in the Pacific Northwest ,   Stoney Bird outlined efforts made by  Bellingham and Spokane.   Residents of these cities have tried to pass a "Community Bill of Rights" e.g.  One group proposing the idea is called Envision Spokane. Founded by the CEDLF,  Envision Spokane is made up of more than two dozen unions, community organizations and groups with ties to national organizations. Envision Spokane wants  “big developers, corporations and the city government” to respect the natural environment.  Envision Seattle has an agenda similar  in spirit embodied in Initiative 103 .    Coal-free-Bellingham has also proposed a Community Bill of Rights to be adopted by citizen's initiative.

 Section 6 of Envision Seattle's Initiative 103  seemed almost as aggressive as the 1776 Declaration of Independence i.e:

By the adoption of this ordinance by this municipality, the people call for changes to state and federal law that would result in the recognition of a fundamental and inalienable right to community self- government throughout this State and the United States. The people also declare their support for changes to state and federal law that would eliminate certain corporate constitutional rights and powers that currently interfere with, and prevent, the exercise of local self- governance. Those rights and powers include corporate authority to preempt community lawmaking, corporate “rights” as “persons” under the State and federal constitutions, and corporate “rights” under other sections of the State and federal constitutions. 

These Community Rights initiatives have already  faced  court challenges based on conflicts with State and Federal Law.   However,  Fidalgo Democratic Chairwomen - Corinne Salcedo - challenged my pessimism  with the following email response: "I would differ with your statement that these initiatives have already faced court challenges.  Out of some 150 community rights initiatives, only THREE have faced challenges.  So I'd say the community rights movement is making headway."

To many beleaguered communities,   large corporations have replaced the top down power of King George III.    Their power is based on money to finance elections and the promise of jobs.  Nevertheless,  the damage done by the massive explosion of the  West Texas fertilizer plant  this week has been an object lesson.   Even though there are State and Federal regulations for the use of chemicals,  citizens cannot depend on those governments to effectively administer those regulations.

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