Amendment Would Put Local Rights In Local Hands

Organizers with the Oregon Community Rights Network (OCRN) have launched a campaign to put a constitutional amendment on the Oregon ballot in November 2016 that will affirm the right to local self-government and potentially reframe how environmental debates play out.

The amendment would protect the right of local governments to pass ordinances — even if they conflict with the interests of corporations — and ensure that these ordinances are legally binding.

Under this rights-based framework, communities and even natural environments are granted legal rights, which can be violated.

The amendment could help grant authority to the local communities that are directly affected by environmental issues — whether it is by GMO farming, fracking, mining or constructing an LNG terminal.

Ann Kneeland, a Eugene-based attorney with Support Local Food Rights, singled out the Parvin Butte gravel mine in Dexter — which went forward despite local opposition — as a case in which local people were disempowered. “That’s an example of how our current system operates,” she says.

A local-rights amendment, Kneeland says, could change how such issues are decided. “It creates the right of local people to use local government to enact laws,” she says. “It’s about people talking with each other and recognizing that we have rights that are being squashed.”

She adds, “It is not new. It is all founded on the Declaration of Independence.”

The initiative is part of a growing local-rights movement, says Mary Geddry, a representative with OCRN. Geddry points out that more than 200 communities across the U.S. have passed ordinances that protect local rights. “Only nine have been challenged in court,” she adds.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, an organization based in Pennsylvania, helped pioneer this rights-based approach to environmental problems and assisted in drafting the amendment, according to Kai Huschke of CELDF.

The amendment would challenge so-called “pre-emptive laws,” Geddry says, such as the law that the Oregon Senate passed in 2013 that opponents labeled “The Monsanto Protection Act,” which prohibited local governments from regulating agricultural seed and the products of that seed.

Kneeland explains that pre-emptive laws are tools corporations often use because, when state and local laws conflict under the current system, the state law legally prevails.

OCRN filed the paperwork with the state’s election division in late February, and the group Oregonians for Community Rights is beginning to collect signatures. In this initial round, 1,000 signatures are needed. In the second round, approximately 150,000 signatures are required before the measure can appear on the ballot.

According to Kneeland, the amendment has a good chance of making it on the ballot. “I think this will resonate with a lot of people,” she says. “It’s not a partisan issue.”

Organizers in Colorado are working on a similar statewide initiative, she adds.