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Shawn Vestal: People, not city, should vote on workers’ bill of rights

Are we confused, electorate?

I know I am. On one hand, the city of Spokane has, in essence, sued its citizens on behalf of corporations, trying to prevent voters from getting even a peek at an initiative that would enshrine the kinds of workers’ rights that give the business community the night terrors. On the same day, the city sued a corporation on behalf of a river – perhaps as Sierra Clubby a move as we can ever expect from the administration of David Condon.

In the first case, the city has again thrown up a roadblock against Envision Spokane, a group that has repeatedly tried to put liberal, community-oriented policies on the ballot. Envision Spokane has taken several runs at putting all manner of apparently wild-eyed ideas before voters – from affordable housing to a living wage – and each time it has drawn the full opposition of the city’s business and political hierarchies.

There have indeed been legal flaws and legitimate concerns with every one of the group’s efforts. Yet the patronizing, paternalistic efforts to smother them – not to win the debate, but to prevent it – offer the most stirring reasons to argue for the quaint notion of letting the people have a say.

Proposition 2 – the Workers Bill of Rights – would require a “living wage” for most workers, equal pay, protection against termination, and the elevation of individual rights over those of corporations. When Envision Spokane submitted its initiative for review, the matter of corporate rights was the sticking point. A hearing examiner concluded that the fourth provision would illegally deny corporations access to the courts. The examiner suggested the initiative be revised, which Envision Spokane did not do, and so Condon’s administration sued.

“The City has a well-grounded fear that placing an invalid initiative on the ballot will waste valuable resources and confuse the electorate,” the suit says.

Heavens. Our initiative process often seems roughly as pure as yellow snow. Witness all the paid-for hawkers out there at the grocery stores and malls, on the payroll of Tim Eyman’s (and Mike Fagan’s) continual petition machine, with their clipboards strapped back-to-back for easy flipping. Witness the semantic chicanery used by those gathering signatures for the failed petition to reverse the city’s policy on immigration enforcement – putting incendiary, questionable characterizations alongside neutral ballot language.

Envision Spokane and its efforts seem to have moved from fringy – in nature and in numbers – to nearly mainstream. Its Community Bill of Rights drew an astounding 49 percent of the vote in 2011.

It was a much stronger level of support than anyone predicted, and it’s probably no coincidence that the group’s efforts have since met with even more intense hamstringing. Someone’s afraid they’re going to win.

A coalition of business groups sued to keep Envision Spokane’s last measure off the ballot in 2013. They won in Superior Court, but an appeals court later overturned that ruling, saying that a “pre-election challenge to a local initiative by private citizens can be brought only in very narrow circumstances.”

Makes sense as a general principle. Why not just let people vote?

The city argues that it has adopted rules governing the initiative process – it’s not some Wild West crapshoot – and that it’s a waste of everyone’s time and resources to put up issues that are DOA. But I’m not sure that the confusion Condon seeks to protect us from would be so dire, and the view of one hearing examiner is not exactly a Supreme Court precedent. It might be interesting and even useful to find out what voters think on this measure, even if it meant that we discover the law doesn’t allow what the voters want.

One of the issues Envision Spokane pushed in the past was a kind of personhood for the river – a granting of legal status so people could sue polluters on its behalf. It’s noteworthy that on the same day that Envision Spokane was sued by the city, the city sued Monsanto over … pollution in the Spokane River.

That suit is focused on recouping costs the city is incurring to clean up PCBs. PCBs are devilish little compounds. They’ve been associated with human cancers and widespread other illnesses, as well as devastating effects on wildlife. For decades before they were banned in 1979, they were used in industrial applications, and made their way into all aspects of life: in paints and lacquers, in flame-proofing for Christmas trees, in highway marking and printing inks, in floor waxes and rugs, in bookbinding glues and swimming pools, in dental castings and jewelry. They move easily from one place to another – from a caulk into the surrounding wood, for example – and people can take them in by breathing them or brushing up against them.

Spokane expects to pay more than $300 million to clean up and prevent PCBs from entering the river. The city’s lawsuit lays out a damning history of the company’s awareness that PCBs were toxic – starting in 1937 – despite its denials to the government and its continued production of millions of pounds of PCBs every year.

And it makes an argument that sounds at times like it could have come straight from the playbook of Envision Spokane: “Monsanto’s conduct and the presence of PCBs affects equally the rights of an entire community.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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