Spokane residents would have a legal right to housing and health care, its neighborhoods would have a final say over developments in their midst, and the local environment would have a “right to exist and flourish” under a proposal that could be coming to the municipal ballot as soon as November.
Those potential changes to the City Charter are contained in the most recent version of an 11-point “Spokane Bill of Rights” under discussion by Envision Spokane, an organization that has been working with community and labor groups and representatives of some neighborhood councils.
Kai Huschke, project director for Envision Spokane, told a gathering at the Cliff-Cannon Neighborhood Council meeting last week that one goal of the charter change was to give neighborhoods a way to say no to new developments they feel are out of character with the surroundings.
“They’d have a greater voice than they now do,” Huschke said.
But City Council President Joe Shogan said the provisions that give more control to neighborhoods could lead to the “Balkanization” of Spokane.
“The neighborhood councils were designed to provide input to the City Council, not to enact legislation,” said Shogan, who was active in the Northwest Neighborhood before running for City Council.
As currently written, the proposal would give city residents the right to preventive health care, housing and a healthy environment. Neighborhoods would have the right to “determine their own futures” and have costs of growth covered by new development. Workers would have the right to a living wage, employer neutrality when unionizing and to work as apprentices on construction projects.
The natural environment would have “the right to exist and flourish.”
The current draft calls for all 11 to pass or fail as a single ballot measure in November.
Some supporters see it as a shot at Spokane’s status quo or a payback for what they feel is a betrayal of work the neighborhoods did in the 1990s as the city was reworking its Comprehensive Plan. But critics say Envision Spokane is overstating its support in the neighborhoods and offering up a wish list of things that sound nice, but are impractical or impossible.
In an interview last month, Mayor Mary Verner said if changes are needed to better represent citizens, it would be better to work within the existing government structure, which includes “a vibrant neighborhood council” system.
“I wasn’t hearing an out-roar from the community that we needed this change, and then we had some folks who came to town and started promoting the idea of a bill of rights and charter change and having met with them and listened to them, I’m still not really seeing the need for what they’re suggesting.”
City Councilman Steve Corker said the concept is “fiscally irresponsible,” particularly provisions to guarantee health care and housing.
“Their proposal could bankrupt the city of Spokane,” Corker said.
Even some potential allies wonder if the plan reaches too far by combining a series of progressive initiatives into a single package to put before voters.
“There’s some New Age-y stuff that I don’t think is going to fly in Spokane,” said Rusty Nelson, a longtime social and political activist who heads the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane.
In reviewing the list of amendments last Thursday, one Cliff-Cannon resident described the proposal giving the environment the right to flourish as “lofty,” but wondered what it meant.
Huschke said it could be a way to stop pollution in the Spokane River or the aquifer because residents would have a legal right to good water quality.
“You could say, ‘We live here, we want a clean river,’ ” he said. “We’d have legal standing, if something happened upstream to the aquifer, to sue.”
Shogan said in a later interview that the river is already governed by a series of state and federal laws, and the city already can take legal action against polluters. That process has led to extensive cleanup of the river, he said.
That may be true, countered Huschke, but the river is still polluted. Other communities have enacted such provisions, and if Spokane residents want stricter standards than the state or federal government set, they would have the right to enact and enforce them.
“It really comes down to ‘We live here,’ ” he said.
One of the 11 amendments in the Envision Spokane proposal calls for some businesses in Spokane to pay their workers a “living wage.”
PJALS has been working on a separate living wage amendment to the charter. It failed to gather enough signatures in 2007 for a ballot initiative that would have required some large employers to pay between 130 percent and 135 percent of state minimum wage, and is currently working on a version that would set the living wage at 125 percent of minimum wage, or $10.70 an hour.
Envision Spokane’s proposed charter change calls for any business within the city with 15 or more employees to pay 165 percent of the minimum wage, or $14.10 an hour.
Last week, when a Cliff-Cannon resident asked if the Envision Spokane proposal was too high, particularly in view of the slumping economy, Huschke said that’s being discussed as the group holds town hall meetings.
The final version might have a lower percentage increase or a higher threshold for employees, he said. Everything that’s in the proposed charter change is tentative until the town hall meetings are complete and any suggestions that are submitted and discussed get considered.
The draft was created by bringing together different groups, and changes can happen the same way, he said: “The collective actually has created the voice.”
Some groups credit Envision Spokane with starting conversations among disparate groups. Beth Thew, secretary-treasurer of the Spokane Regional Labor Council, said the process helped get members of labor unions talking with community groups such as the Sierra Club, discussing principles that each hold dear, and perhaps dispelling some myths such as all union members are thugs or all environmentalists are extremists.
“It does create synergy,” Thew said. But whether the Labor Council or some of the community’s larger unions will line up in support of the charter amendment will depend on the final product, she added.
That final document will have to be ready by the end of March, if Envision Spokane can meet its timetable of circulating petitions and gathering signatures that must be turned in by early July. That’s the deadline to get the signatures checked and, if they meet the threshold, get the proposed bill of rights on the November ballot.
Patrick Davidson of the Latah-Hangman Creek Neighborhood Council said that neighborhood group voted to be involved in the process last spring and still has members involved in refining the proposals. But whether the council will endorse the charter amendment also depends on the final language.
“There’s a general support – with reservations, depending on the individual and the individual amendments,” Davidson said.
But not all neighborhood councils are happy with the process. Both West Central and East Central councils have objected to being listed as members of the Envision Spokane board of directors in the group’s latest literature.
Joy Hart, the East Central council president, said the group sent a representative to the discussions but does not support the charter changes. “We’re working on trying to get taken off their literature,” she said.
Huschke said groups that sent representatives automatically became members of the Envision Spokane directors board, but being listed as a board member in the brochure does not signify support of the bill of rights proposal. Future literature will remove East Central, West Central and Community-Minded Enterprises, which has also asked to be dropped, he said.
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