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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Scaled-back Bill of Rights still packs in issues

Envision Spokane’s effort addresses development, river health and more

Much is different and much is the same in Envision Spokane’s second attempt to get voters to approve a version of its Community Bill of Rights.

Its proposal on the November ballot is significantly scaled down. Instead of the nine rights the group floated in its failed 2009 citizen initiative, this list only includes four.

Those remaining rights are based on parts of the original proposal, which was defeated with only 24 percent support. The new proposal would:

• Force developers to seek voter signatures to win approval for certain kinds of development.

• Make lawsuits aimed at stopping pollution in the Spokane River more likely to succeed by giving the river the legal right to “exist and flourish.”

• Boost or maintain union rights.

• Challenge the rights of corporations.

Also similar is the nearly united opposition to the proposal from city leaders and much of the business community. Late last month, the campaign against it attracted a $40,000 contribution from the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors. The Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review, is one of five organizations that has donated $2,500 to the opposition campaign.

Gone this time are requirements that the city guarantee residents affordable preventive health care, affordable housing, and affordable and renewable energy. Also removed is a rule that would have made it more difficult for banks within city limits to loan money outside the city.

Just as in 2009, Envision Spokane’s list of supporters includes no elected city leader – current or former – and no candidate on the November ballot.

Mayor Mary Verner, for instance, has been extremely critical of placing a provision in the City Charter that directly contradicts U.S. Supreme Court rulings on corporations. Councilman Richard Rush has questioned the vagueness of the rule giving the Spokane River the “inalienable right to exist and flourish.” Others argue it would create incentives for businesses to set up outside Spokane.

Supporters say they aren’t aiming for the support of people in power. Envision Spokane campaign director Kai Huschke pointed to the Occupy Wall Street protests that have sprung up throughout the country, including Spokane.

“People are getting a little more tuned in that we need change,” he said. “It has come about because we have a system of law today that favors decision making for a few and the powerful over the rest of us.”

Envision isn’t, however, without prominent backers. Those include the Spokane Regional Labor Council, the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County, the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane and the Spokane chapter of the Audubon Society. While no current state legislator has endorsed it, former Spokane Valley Democratic state Rep. George Orr has.

Part 1: Development

This part of the proposal would require developers seeking rezoning to gather neighbors’ support. Specifically, they’d need the signatures of a majority of the neighborhood’s registered voters before rezoning could be approved for an industrial or commercial building of 10,000 square feet or greater or an apartment building with at least 20 units.

Apartments that obtain government subsidies for low-income housing would be excluded from the requirement. Huschke said the rules would use the existing boundaries for the city’s 27 neighborhood councils to determine which set of signatures a developer would need to gather.

Ron Wells, a developer and architect, is probably the most prominent businessperson to endorse the Community Bill of Rights. 

He said the development rule would make the process fairer for neighborhoods rather than “have political shenanigans change land-use policies or the direction of the neighborhood.”

But Steve Salvatori, who owns the Spokane Entrepreneurial Center and is a Spokane City Council candidate, called the proposal “just short of ridiculous.” It’s hard to imagine any business owner who would expand in Spokane or move to town if they had to go door to door collecting signatures on top of normal planning, zoning and hearing-examiner development process, he said. (Salvatori’s opponent in the November election, Joy Jones, also has opposed the proposition.)

Part 2: Spokane River, Latah Creek and the aquifer

The Community Bill of Rights declares that the Spokane River, its tributaries and the aquifer “possess inalienable rights to exist and flourish” and the city or any person could sue any entity that violates that right.

Opponents say the rule is too vague. They ask, for instance, if the city could be sued even after it completes a half-billion dollars worth of projects aimed at fostering a cleaner river, since there still will be at least trace amounts of pollution that will escape filtration.

Salvatori said the Spokane River is much cleaner than it was 20 years ago.

Huschke said that the proposal won’t foster lawsuits for minor problems and that the river continues to carry significant pollution.

“We’re not talking about someone washing their car. We’re talking about something that significantly affects the ecosystem,” Huschke said at a League of Women Voters debate.

Part 3: Labor

The provision on unions has been shaped in large part by current events outside Washington state.

One provision says unionized workplaces would have the right to collective bargaining.

Huschkie said it was written in response to efforts in Wisconsin and other states to end collective bargaining for government workers. If such a law passed in Washington, this provision would protect the right for workers in Spokane, he said.

The rule also declares that employees will possess constitutional protections in the workplace. 

This would give workers ground to challenge employers when they believe their bosses violate their constitutional rights. Examples, he said, could include an employer demanding a drug test without cause. He added, however, that there could be limitations. A court may determine, for instance, that it wouldn’t be unreasonable for people who drive for a living to submit to periodic drug tests.

But Paul Warfield, of Jobs and Opportunities Benefiting Spokane, said giving employees constitutional rights in the workplace would be akin to preventing a parent from searching their child’s room because of the Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable searches and seizures. Jobs and Opportunities Benefiting Spokane is the political action committee opposing the Community Bill of Rights.

“If you think an employee is trying to download pornography on their work computer using a work Internet connection, it gives the employer no rights to look at the computer station that the worker is working on,” Warfield said at the League of Women Voters debate. “It prohibits the employer from having due recourse.”

Part 4: Corporate rights

The final rule in the proposal would stipulate that corporations would “not be deemed as ‘persons’ ” and could not interfere with the enforcement of the Community Bill of Rights.

Envision Spokane leaders have pointed to Supreme Court rulings that have granted corporations constitutional rights, including a 2008 decision that said corporations and unions could not be limited from crafting independent messages that favor certain candidates. 

“Community rights should override corporate rights,” Huschke said. “We shouldn’t be controlled by corporations. We should be controlling them.”

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