FEB. 3, 2015 – “Do the People of Spokane, Washington, Have the Right to Cast a Vote on a Community Bill of Rights?” (Part One of Two)

Paul Cienfuegos’ February 3rd, 2015 Commentary on KBOO Evening News

(His weekly commentaries are broadcast every Tuesday evening. You can view or listen to them all at PaulCienfuegos.com, CommunityRightsPDX.org, or subscribe via ITunes.)

Greetings! You are listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos.

In the Fall of 2009, a very unusual ballot initiative was voted on by the people of Spokane, Washington. It was a locally-enforceable Community Bill of Rights that if approved would have given the local residents, for the first time in the history of the city, a prohibition on various kinds of corporate developments that a specific neighborhood was opposed to, a whole variety of new legal protections for working people, and newly defined rights of nature for the Spokane River and aquifer. And to top it all off, the initiative stated that if a corporate constitutional so- called “right” clashed with any of these newly enshrined rights for people and nature, that that corporate “right” would be nullified within the boundaries of the city.

Nothing like this had ever been put on a ballot before, anywhere in the United States, so the campaign didn’t exactly expect to win the vote. Their goal was indeed much bolder – to begin to change the conversation among Spokane residents about who we are as citizens, and what is our proper relationship with the corporate institutions that have come to wield so much political, social, economic, and, most importantly, legal power over We The People. In November of 2009, the initiative garnered about 24% of the vote, which the campaign chose to see as a victory, because the initiative started a whole new kind of public conversation.

Fast forward two years, and the campaign put a similar ballot initiative forward on the November 2011 ballot, and this time, although they were massively outspent by their mostly corporate opponents, they garnered more than 49% of the vote, which was way more votes than the campaign itself had expected. Again, they called this a win, because their larger goal was not a single ballot initiative but the larger and more complex work of culture shift, to help the citizens of Spokane to stand up together and insist that corporations must be subordinate to We The People if we are to honestly claim that we live in a democratic republic.

As you can well imagine, the campaign decided to run the ballot initiative again, in November of 2013. But this time, the opposition had been scared enough to mobilize, not just with money, but with a preemptive lawsuit intended to block the initiative from even being placed on the ballot for voters to decide. The campaign was sued by a large number of business associations and corporations, as well as by a number of Spokane’s elected leaders – a veritable Who’s Who of the small elite group of people who really run the city and who certainly do not appreciate anyone who would dare challenge the political and legal power that they wield behind-the- scenes.

The judge who heard the case pulled the initiative off the ballot, and in response, the campaign counter-sued, claiming that the rights of the voters had been violated. Finally, this past Friday, January 29th, the State Appellate Court reversed the lower court’s decision, which means the initiative will now appear on either the April or November ballot, unless the Spokane City government appeals the court’s decision.

The court’s 21-page ruling was multi-faceted, and I don’t have the time here to properly review it, other than to share with you a brief excerpt, where the court shares text from another case in 2005, called Coppernoll v Reed, and I quote,

Pre-election review of initiative measures is highly disfavored. The fundamental reason is that ‘the right of initiative is nearly as old as our constitution itself, deeply ingrained in our state’s history, and widely revered as a powerful check and balance on the other branches of government.’ Given the preeminence of the initiative right, pre-election challenges to the substantive validity of initiatives are particularly disallowed. Such review, if engaged in, would involve the court in rendering advisory opinions, would violate ripeness requirements, would undermine the policy of avoiding unnecessary constitutional questions, and would constitute unwarranted judicial meddling with the legislative process. … Further, substantive pre-election review could unduly infringe on the citizens’ right to freely express their views to their elected representatives.

…That the law enacted by an initiative might be unconstitutional does not mean that it is beyond the power of the State to enact. Therefore, a claim that an initiative would be unconstitutional if enacted is not subject to pre-election review.

It is truly wonderful that the courts ruled on the side of We The People in this specific case, but that is unfortunately quite rare, as many listeners already know. Our larger work, as the citizenry of these United States, is to re-imagine our society, as one where We the People don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars and endless hours every time the powers-that-be wish to challenge our authority to govern ourselves. This would require paying attention to the actual structures of law, the scaffolding itself, that makes self-governance so difficult to achieve.

Next week, instead of my usual commentary, I will share more details about our big win in court, and will be interviewing the attorney who argued in favor of the right of the people to vote on this nationally groundbreaking Spokane Community Bill of Rights. Don’t miss it! And for more info about the Spokane story, go to EnvisionSpokane.org.

You’ve been listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos. You can hear future commentaries every Tuesday on the KBOO Evening News, and a growing number of other radio stations. I welcome your feedback.

You can subscribe to my weekly podcast via I-Tunes or at CommunityRightsPDX.org. You can follow me on twitter at CienfuegosPaul. You can sign up for my newsletter at PaulCienfuegos.com. THANKS FOR LISTENING! And remember: WE are the people we’ve been WAITING for!

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