October 11, 2009 in City

Prop 4 supporters, opponents make cases

Point by point arguments on proposed community bill of rights
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Multimedia

Click here to hear Kai Huschke and Kate McCaslin debate the proposed community bill of rights, amendment by amendment.

Proposition 4 is the most debated and argued, hated and loved, vilified and oversimplified question on November’s ballot.

Supporters say the Community Bill of Rights – Proposition 4 on ballots that will be mailed later this week to voters in the city of Spokane – is an attempt to empower citizens to improve the environment, ensure housing and basic preventive health care, give neighborhoods a say in development projects and create an economy that has good jobs.

Opponents say the proposed amendments to the City Charter were written in a way to ensure constant lawsuits that will more likely halt progress on the goals listed in the proposition and will drive businesses and jobs from the city of Spokane to Spokane Valley or elsewhere.

Below is the wording from each of the nine rights in the Community Bill of Rights and statements from a debate at The Spokesman-Review this week:

Kai Huschke, the campaign manager for Envision Spokane, the group that successfully placed the proposal on the ballot.

Kate McCaslin, a former Spokane County commissioner, representing Jobs & Opportunities Benefiting Spokane, a group formed to oppose the measure.

Right 1

Residents have the right to a locally based economy to ensure local job creation and enhance local business opportunities. The right shall include the right to have local monies reinvested locally by lending institutions, and the right to equal access to capital, credit, contracts, incentives, and services for businesses owned by Spokane residents.

Supporters

The first amendment is about keeping money earned in Spokane in Spokane, Huschke said. That means requiring banks to use money from residents and businesses within city limits only on investments within the city of Spokane.

“If we are going to have a vibrant economy, we have to enhance our local economy,” Huschke said. “In order to do that, we have to make sure that we are treating our local businesses as best we can.”

Opponents

McCaslin said working for a locally based economy is positive, but not through a banking regulation that would create vast accounting headaches and likely lawsuits for lending institutions.

“This basically says people could sue the bank if they felt like those moneys were going outside Spokane,” McCaslin said, adding that banks might simply move outside city limits. “That will cost us jobs.”

Right 2

Residents have the right to affordable preventive health care. For residents otherwise unable to access such care, the City shall guarantee such access by coordinating with area health care providers to create affordable fee-for-service programs within 18 months following adoption of this Charter provision.

Supporters

Huschke said the city’s only duty under this provision is to convene a group of health care providers and to make a good-faith attempt to create the program.

“There is no cost to the city, plain and simple,” he said.

That’s because any administrative costs that might be created if health care providers successfully create a fee-for-service plan would be paid for by the fees, he said. Because most people who are uninsured have a source of income, fees could be charged to cover costs, he said.

“It was very, very critical to the people who formulated this that we didn’t build it such that there would be a cost to taxpayers,” Huschke said.

Opponents

McCaslin argues that the provision could easily be interpreted to mean that the city’s on the hook to provide preventive health care – whether or not the group of health care providers successfully creates the program.

And if a program is created, she said, there’s too much ambiguity about what’s required.

“Maybe what’s affordable to me is way different than what’s affordable to my neighbor, which is way different than is affordable to the neighbor down the street.”

She questioned who would pay for fees charged to patients who couldn’t afford them.

Right 3

Residents have the right to affordable housing, the right to a safely maintained dwelling, and the right to be free from housing discrimination. The City shall ensure the availability of low-income housing stock sufficient to meet the needs of the low-income housing community. People and families may only be denied renting or buying of a dwelling for non-discriminatory reasons and may only be evicted from their residence for non-discriminatory causes.

Supporters

Huschke said the provision could be met by the creation of regulations or incentives so that future housing developments include a certain percentage of low-income housing.

“It’s not about building houses; it’s about making sure that the stock of development is sufficient for the low-income community,” he said.

Opponents

McCaslin said if regulations or incentives fail to create enough low-income housing, the city could be forced into financing construction because it says the city “shall ensure the availability” of housing.

“These words are very specific,” she said. “The city could be on the hook for a lot of money.”

Right 4

Residents have the right to access affordable and renewable energy sources.

Supporters

“This would give residents the ability to actually generate their own energy if need be as well as to make sure that energy access stays affordable and renewable for the citizens of Spokane,” Huschke said. “If we’re going to play our part on a community level we need to have the ability to access renewable energy sources.”

Opponents

McCaslin said the rule likely would result in endless lawsuits.

“I just think that this is so open to interpretation that we are going to spend years and years and years trying to figure out what it means at great cost,” McCaslin said.

Right 5

Ecosystems, including but not limited to, all groundwater systems, surface water systems and aquifers, have the right to exist and flourish. River systems have the right to flow and have water quality necessary to provide habitat for native plants and animals, and to provide clean drinking water. Aquifers have the right to sustainable recharge, flow and water quality.

Supporters

Huschke said current environmental laws are “not giving us the level of protections we need.”

He noted studies that indicate that summertime flow of the Spokane River has fallen significantly in the past century – a development that puts strain on fish populations.

“This ups greater protections both from the pollution standpoint and from the flow standpoint,” he said.

As current law stands, a person concerned about an environmental problem often needs to have a financial interest in order to file a lawsuit, Huschke said.

This provision would do away with that requirement and make it possible for anyone to bring a suit.

Opponents

McCaslin said great improvements to the river and environment have occurred with current regulations and by “people working together.”

“We will all admit there are major issues that we need to address with our river and keep moving forward, but this is not the way to do and, in fact, could bring all of those efforts to a standstill,” McCaslin said.

McCaslin questioned the ability, as defined in the Ninth Amendment, allowing “anyone” to file a challenge.

“It really opens up the potential for vast amounts of litigation because you really don’t have to prove any standing, you just have to be a human to bring a lawsuit.”

Right 6

Residents have the right, through their neighborhood councils, to determine the future of their neighborhoods, which shall include the right to adopt enforceable neighborhood plans, and the right to have growth-related public infrastructure costs funded by new development as provided by an impact fees Ordinance. The City of Spokane shall provide sufficient funding to neighborhood councils for the creation, adoption and enforcement of neighborhood plans. Such plans shall respect and promote the rights delineated by this Charter. Residents may also determine the future of their neighborhoods by rejecting proposed land development projects, in accordance with the provisions of this Charter.

Those provisions include:

A neighborhood council may veto a land development project if requested to veto that project by a number of neighborhood registered voters equal to or greater than 15 percent of the total number of votes cast at the last preceding general municipal election within that neighborhood.  … A neighborhood council shall veto a land development project if requested to veto that project by a number of neighborhood registered voters greater than 50 percent of the total number of votes cast at the last preceding general municipal election within that neighborhood.  …

Supporters

Huschke noted that the city already has funded creation of some neighborhood plans, which become part of the city’s comprehensive plan – the city’s long-term growth guide. Continuing those efforts simply puts the city on a path of following through on promises officials made several years ago to craft development plans based on neighborhood input, supporters say.

Some neighborhood leaders have argued that developers’ vast resources and campaign contributions to City Council members unfairly tilt the process in their favor even if rules and zoning don’t favor their proposals. In development controversies in Spokane County, opponents have noted that even when neighbors successfully sued Spokane County for inappropriately approving development, the contested projects were vested under state law and were allowed to move forward even when deemed to have been illegally approved.

“Right now we don’t have the ability to actually uphold our plans on a neighborhood level. This is actually about empowering the residents to be able to do so,” Huschke said. “Until we as residents have the ability to actually call that into question through a legal manner we won’t have the ability to protect the integrity of our neighborhoods as we should.”

Opponents

McCaslin said if a law is approved requiring neighborhood planning, the cost to provide those services will pull from some other city priorities.

Most of the city’s funding for neighborhood plans thus far was paid for with surpluses experienced by the city before the recent recession.

“The point is that in a year like this, it could mean a decision between funding a police officer or a planning staff member,” McCaslin said.

McCaslin said provisions empowering neighborhood councils to veto a development project take away authority from leaders chosen by secret ballot in certified elections.

“We depend upon people who are formally elected through a process that we can trust,” McCaslin said. “It’s not just who shows up at a meeting one night and happens to get elected.”

She noted that the proposal is based on the number of voters who participated in the most recent city election. If turnout was closer to 30 percent, it would only take about 200 signatures in a neighborhood with 4,000 registered voters to give the neighborhood council veto power.

Opponents note that once a neighborhood council would veto a project it’s dead because there’s no provision to reverse course even if a majority of residents in the neighborhood sign a petition in support of the development.

Right 7

Workers have the right to be paid the prevailing wage on all private construction projects exceeding $2 million in construction costs (as annually adjusted for inflation), and all public and publicly subsidized construction projects, within the City of Spokane. Workers have the right to work as apprentices on all private construction projects exceeding $2 million in construction costs (as annually adjusted for inflation), and all public and publicly subsidized construction projects, through programs approved under the Washington State Apprenticeship Training Program, and each contractor and subcontractor building those projects shall be required to use apprentices for a minimum of 15 percent of the total hours worked on each project.

Supporters

Huschke said the rules are about “pay equity” and giving people opportunities to learn skills. They also would result in a better work force, one that is “more loyal, one that has less injuries,” he said.

“If you don’t give them opportunities to actually access jobs … in an apprentice program, you’re actually losing jobs because you don’t have the skill sets we need,” Huschke said.

Opponents

McCaslin said the rules will raise the cost of private construction, perhaps by 20 percent or more. That means, she said, jobs will be lost because some projects won’t move forward, at least not in the city of Spokane.

“I’ll tell you where they’re going to go and it’s not going to be in the city. Jobs will be lost. Property taxes in the future will be lost, and it will end up to be a great detriment to the city.”

Right 8

Workers have the right to employer neutrality when unionizing, and the right to be free from captive audience meetings, or other mandatory, non-work-related meetings, in the workplace.

Supporters

Union leaders have argued that federal law is slanted against unionization because of intimidation from employers, sometimes at “captive-audience” meetings where managers dissuade creation of a labor group.

Huschke said this rule would create an equal playing field.

“It doesn’t mean that employers can’t give their opinion, but they can’t block people from discussing the possibility of unionizing,” he said.

He added that employers could still hold meetings as long as employees aren’t punished for not attending.

“This is about having a freedom of choice,” he said.

Opponents

McCaslin argues that workers’ unionizing rights already are protected under federal law. Envision Spokane’s proposal, she said, would strip employer rights from the process.

“Employers would no longer have that option of talking about why their employees may not want to consider a union, and that is just unfair,” she said. “This alone will cost hundreds, if not thousands of jobs, in the city of Spokane as employers say, ‘You know what? I put everything at risk to have my small business. I do not think it is fair that I should not be able to talk to my employees about these issues,’ and they will simply leave.”

Right 9

All rights recognized by the Community Bill of Rights are fundamental, inalienable and self-executing. The City of Spokane, or any person, neighborhood, or neighborhood council aggrieved by a violation of their rights, or any person seeking to enforce the rights of ecosystems, may enforce these rights. Enforcement actions shall be filed as civil actions in a court of competent jurisdiction, against any person, government or entity violating these rights, and sufficient legal and equitable relief shall be awarded to remedy the violation, including restoration of a damaged ecosystem. In any action to enforce any Charter right, the court may allow the prevailing plaintiff a reasonable attorney’s fee and expert fees. Corporations and other business entities shall not be deemed to possess any legal rights, privileges, powers or protections which would enable those entities to avoid the enforcement of these rights, or which would enable them to nullify these rights.  …

Supporters

Huschke said, in part, the amendment aims to prevent corporations from overpowering the rights of citizens through power and wealth.

He agreed that rights could mean some businesses would leave the city, but those likely would be big-box stores that pay low wages, he said. Locally owned establishments would replace what leaves.

“If you want to continue to bring outside businesses to settle in here, yeah, those jobs are going to be gone, but they’re going to be replaced by a lot better jobs,” he said.

Opponents

McCaslin said it’s easy to vilify big corporations, but small businesses make up the bulk of the local economy and they too would be challenged by the rules and be just as likely to flee Spokane.

“If a community has a regulation that strips you of your rights, why would you ever be here?” she said. “It really undermines our business climate here, our ability to recruit business and frankly our ability to keep businesses here.”

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