Making Democracy Illegal

The increasing attacks on citizen initiative power

By Kai Huschke and Michelle Holman

Change doesn’t come easy or fast, especially when there is big money at stake. For over 10 years, Community Rights Lane County (CRLC), an all-volunteer activist group, has been working to protect Lane County residents by putting an end to the deadly practice of aerial herbicide spraying in our forests. 

For decades, corporations, with the backing of the government, have been dousing people and ecosystems with toxic chemicals. And in the past decade, CRLC has been exercising our democratic right to ban the spraying through the initiative process. Well, attempting to — because at every turn, corporate interests sanctioned by the government have been creating obstacles and infringing on our rights.

All three branches of government — from the county commissioners to the county clerk’s office to the Oregon judiciary — have done nothing but deny the rights and will of Lane County residents by blocking our initiatives from appearing on the ballot.

In spring 2022, the Oregon Supreme Court refused to hear cases regarding our duly qualified measures that had been denied ballot access — one addressing the proposed aerial toxic spray ban and the other asserting Lane County residents’ right to local self-determination.

The Oregon Supreme Court did not protect the political rights of the people, but instead sided with big corporate interests. They issued a one-sentence response: “The court has considered the petitions for review and orders that they be denied.” Even though all the rules were followed, a corporate lawsuit asserted that the initiatives didn’t pass an obscure administrative legal test for legislation — one that had never been applied to a local initiative before. And with that decision, the Supreme Court essentially erased six years of Lane County citizens’ efforts to utilize a right that the Oregon Constitution purports to protect — the people’s ability to write and adopt laws in their best interest.

What community rights advocates and others who have worked to buck a rotten system have proven over and over is that democracy does not actually exist in the places where we live. It’s well past time to give real democracy a chance, and let the people decide.

Kai Huschke is the executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and board president of the Oregon Community Rights Network. Michelle Holman is a steering committee member and organizer for Community Rights Lane County. CRLC educates, empowers and mobilizes citizens to protect our local communities from destructive corporate practices, by challenging corporate “rights” and privileges.

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