The Right to Self-Govern

by: Posted on: March 29, 2012

Photo: “Spokane Falls” by Tracy Hunter

By Kai Huschke, Washington organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and Campaign Director for Envision Spokane – working to pass a Community Bill of Rights that recognizes the rights of neighborhoods, the environment, and workers as superior to corporate rights in the City of Spokane.

Editor’s Note: This piece by Kai Huschke speaks for itself and gets at the root of our reality.


It’s election night 2011, 8:45 in the evening in a small neighborhood situated along the Spokane River near downtown Spokane. An excited roar erupts from around the kitchen table. Fifteen seconds later an even larger explosion of cheers booms from the basement. Delayed as it was (the difference between website and television election results), what each group saw was that local Proposition 1 – A Community Bill of Rights was deadlocked at 50:50 against corporate rights. Quite stunning, considering at that same time in that same house on virtually the same date two years earlier many of those same people watched a similar measure to elevate community rights over corporate rights being torched by the influence of corporate powerbrokers 3 to 1.

The citizen-lead coalition that is Envision Spokane has been in a seven-year battle. That effort continues today with the very narrow defeat of Proposition 1 in 2011. You see, for the last 100 years in Spokane corporate developers have had more rights than neighborhood residents, corporate polluters have had more rights than the Spokane River, and corporate employers have had more rights than workers. The sum total of that reality is that corporations have more rights than the City of Spokane and its residents. And guess what, Spokane is not alone, step into any community and you will see this same scenario playing out.

So what’s at the crux of why the residents of Spokane are being trumped by corporate interests? It is because our system of government legally disempowers local communities from making the decisions that affect them the most. Attorney General of Pennsylvania Tom Corbett (now Governor) stated it this way in January 2008, “There is no inalienable right to local self-government.” His words were part of the state’s legal response to small, rural communities who had exercised their right of self-government by passing local laws against the expansive, localized harms of corporate factory farming.

Outraged? Shocked? Stunned? Pissed? Confused? You should be, because his comment shatters what we have been lead to believe our democracy is about, whether you live in Pennsylvania, Washington state, or any other state.

You see, we have a system of government today, both through constitutional structure and legal doctrines adopted over time, that favors commerce and property over community health, safety, and welfare. This means our communities, Spokane included, are prohibited from deciding what is best for our communities when it comes to the things that matter the most. We don’t have the ability to exercise local self-government, no matter if we are talking about the environment, neighborhoods, or the workplace.

Plainly speaking, the state preempts the local, and in fact the relationship of the state to the local is one of a parent to a child. This means what the state says the local must follow, and that any powers the state gives to the local it can take away. This is why Attorney General Corbet was able to say what he did.

Now let us bring in the world of environmental regulations. When it comes to the environment, regulations are a system in which the state (based on powers granted by the federal government) decides what is a legal activity (i.e. factory farms, land application of sewage sludge, oil drilling, etc.) and then issues a permit. Within that permit are rules and regulations (most often written by the corporations seeking to conduct the activity in question), which contains language on how much they can pollute.

What this process of state control achieves is a couple of things. One is that it validates a corporate activity as being “safe” because it makes polluting a legal practice, and secondly it restricts or in many cases prohibits local communities from adopting more stringent environmental protections. You see, the state is more interested, in fact makes it a priority, to advocate for the corporate pursuits over the protection of the environment and community health.

How many of you would welcome with open arms a 15,000-head hog factory farm into your town, toxic waste being applied to your farm fields, or trains bringing thousands of tons of coal through your town on a daily basis? Guess what, like it or not, that is exactly where Spokane and other communities are situated today, in that they are unable to exercise their right to local self-government – whether they want to say no to a corporate harm or advocate for greater sustainability.

Highlighting Spokane and the Spokane River specifically, what happens today is that the state allows corporations (i.e. they issue a permit) to pollute the Spokane River. The state also negotiates with a single corporate entity – Avista; Spokane’s main utility company – every 50 years on their operation of dams along the Spokane River. We the people can make comments during the permitting process, but don’t worry, we have no power to advocate on behalf of the river.  Keep in mind that it wasn’t all that long ago that year after year millions of salmon used to spawn beneath Spokane Falls.

So, what have been the results of this practice of placing commerce over the existence of the river? The Spokane River is one of the most endangered rivers in the country. A legacy of mining pollution, continued pollution through state issued permits, restriction of flow, decimation and toxic trespass of fish populations/species, and excessive water withdrawal are choking off an ecosystem that is already on life support.

Envision Spokane’s effort to adopt a Community Bill of Rights in Spokane represents a fundamental shift in how government should operate. It is about democratizing the key values of the community and making sure residents decide on whether they want significant developments in their neighborhoods, that residents can protect the health of the Spokane River and aquifer, and that workers rights are not trampled upon.

It is about elevating community rights over corporate rights. It is about corporations working for the good of the community and the environment not the other way around.

It is up to residents to push for the adoption of local self-government laws in places like Spokane, Bellingham, Seattle, Yakima, Ellensburg, Pullman, Olympia, Kettle Falls, and small and big towns in between, as the first major strides towards establishing something that many say has never existed in this country before – a true democracy.


P.S. from the Editor:

Click here to read the proposed Spokane Community Bill of Rights (Proposition 1)

Check out this link for updates on where the movement is spreading today.

3 Responses to “The Right to Self-Govern”

  • There is an editorial piece in the New York Times, dated 3/30/12, that sheds light on the politics of power and how the corporate interests justify their actions.
    by: abe Cohenon: Friday 30th of March 2012
  • Let’s say that a mining company wants to start digging in an American community but the community doesn’t want a mine in its town. The community has the right to tell the mine “no thanks”, right? According to the U.S. Constitution, communities do not have this right. Mines impact interstate commerce and because the “Commerce Clause” says that issues impacting interstate commerce can only be decided by the Federal Government, when a local community refuses to let a mine come into town they are technically defying the constitution. But just as the suffragists didn’t believe women couldn’t vote because it was illegal, so too the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund knows that communities’ rights to self-governance are inalienable, and superior to corporations interests within such a community. Mind you this does not imply that a community can evoke its right to self govern to abolish the Civil Rights Act, for example. Rather the only implication here is that this right to self govern is superior to corporate rights. There’s a thought.
    by: Simon Davis-Cohenon: Friday 13th of April 2012
  • We must work together, communities, government, and corporations.
    by: Jahsonon: Friday 11th of May 2012

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