Power to the People

Will Spokane step up and grab its own future?

At first glance, Mora County, New Mexico, may seem to bear little similarity to Spokane. The county is one of the poorest in the nation and very conservative. It’s also in the middle of nowhere — a two-hour drive from the nearest city, Santa Fe.

But on April 29, the county commissioners voted to become the first county in the U.S to adopt a local bill of rights that bans all oil and gas drilling within the county. With its vote, Mora County joins more than 150 municipalities across the country — including the city of Pittsburgh — in adopting a bill of rights that places the rights of the community to decide its future above “rights” claimed by corporations.

Those local laws do three things: They establish a local bill of rights that recognizes enforceable rights to clean air, clean water and sustainable futures; they ban corporate activities that run afoul of those rights; and they elevate the right of the community to adopt their bill of rights over the rights and powers claimed by corporations to overturn them.

In that way, Mora County and Spokane are not so different. Since 2009, a group of Spokane residents — recognizing that people within Spokane have little control over unwanted development, water pollution and their own employers — have worked to qualify and pass a local bill of rights. In its first year on the ballot, under a hailstorm of out-of-town money donated to opposition campaigns — and interference by the City Council — it received just over 25 percent of the vote. In 2011, after requalifying a shortened initiative, it came within a 500-vote swing of becoming law within the City, garnering more than 49 percent support.

In Mora County, adoption of the local bill of rights took three years — requiring the ousting of an incumbent pro-gas-drilling commissioner, the firing of the county manager, and the election of a new commissioner supported by the group campaigning for the local bill of rights. Along the way were threats of lawsuits, accompanied by contentions that the initiative was illegal, unconstitutional and anti-business.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. State constitutions and the federal constitution are ostensibly anchored on our right to local self-government. Somewhere along the way, however, corporate decision-makers have been able to harness government so that it does exactly the opposite.

That has to change, but the institutions that got us to this place won’t. And that’s why — just like prior people’s movements — such a change has to be forced by people declaring that they won’t to obey bad laws anymore.

Continuing to obey laws that give corporations more rights than our own communities simply gives the law the illusion of being right. But the law is dead wrong, and the only way to change it is from the bottom.

So while a small New Mexican county and the city of Spokane may on their face look like completely different places, they’re not. As it turns out, the people of Mora County and the people of Spokane actually have a lot more in common than one would think. 

Thomas Alan Linzey is an attorney and the executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. 

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