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Meddling with the People's Rights

Local government and industry want to keep the people at bay

The Lane County Commission is considering a proposed ordinance that would give five elected officials a stranglehold over the people’s local initiative power.

Let’s be clear: The initiative and referendum power belongs to the people free from government interference, as recognized by the Oregon Constitution. The people’s right to circulate petitions is core political speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

The commissioners’ proposed meddling with the people’s initiative rights is patently unconstitutional.

Why, then, has the Lane County Commission taken a sudden interest in interfering with the people’s law-making powers?

Because Lane County residents have secured permission to circulate three initiatives to protect Lane County residents’ health, safety and welfare by banning industrial harms and recognizing our legal authority to make these decisions in our own community. With enough qualifying signatures, these initiatives will appear on county ballots next year for the people’s votes. 

Two of the initiatives ban corporations from engaging in industrial activities that harm local residents and the environment. One bans the aerial spraying of herbicides, and the other bans the use of GMOs in agriculture while recognizing residents’ rights to be free from these corporate harms. 

The third initiative recognizes the people’s broader authority to write and pass local laws that would recognize residents’ rights to health, safety and welfare, ban industrial harms and prevent corporations from throwing out the people’s laws. In a failed effort to stop this initiative, a farm and forest industry group recently lost a legal challenge in the Lane County Circuit Court (Case No. 16CV28768) that asked the court to find that the initiative was not “of county concern.” 

The court ruled that the question of whether or not an initiative addresses a “matter of county concern” cannot be decided pre-election, only post-enactment. This same rule applies to the Lane County Commission.

But did the commissioners take note of this? No. Undeterred, the County Commission has directed County Counsel, paid by the taxpayers, to revise a proposed ordinance submitted to the commissioners by a forest industry executive.

Jay Bozievich continues to profess concerns about county funds wasted to advance initiatives that are not “of county concern.” This is a transparent pandering to a rational concern of voters about fiscal responsibility. The additional cost of adding an initiative to an existing ballot cycle is marginal. But adding another level of legal review — an appeal that initiative proponents could file to challenge a commission’s decision about whether an initiative is “of county concern” — could be costly to taxpayers. Either way, the value of the people’s constitutional rights at stake — recognized and protected by the Oregon and U.S. constitutions — is far greater than any false promise of cost-savings.

In addition, Bozievich’s concern about initiatives he believes are not “of county concern” or “clearly” unconstitutional ignores Oregon’s established history of challenging existing laws. Oregon has passed legislation legalizing death with dignity, which is illegal at the federal level. Oregon has legalized medical marijuana, which is illegal at the federal level. Oregon denied marriage equality to residents, which has since been found to have been unconstitutional. 

As Oregon voters, we may or may not agree with each of these laws, but we cannot deny that they are the seeds of social change and government reform. And this is the beauty, power and obligation of our country’s core democratic ideals. 

Therefore, take note, when We the People of Lane County claim our inherent authority to protect our rights above harmful corporate practices and profits, our own local government is willing to take aggressive action to limit the people’s law-making rights at the behest of corporate interests. 

Behold: This is an in-your-face reminder that corporate power and money operates at all levels of government. 

Brace yourself — We the People must be vigilant to protect these constitutional rights from our local government’s efforts to erode them.

Take action and support local efforts to protect and engage our local initiative process. Check out CommunityRightsLaneCounty.org and join the monthly Community Rights Action meetings on the third Monday of each month from 6 to 8 pm at the First United Methodist Church, 1376 Olive Street.

And join me at City Club on Friday, July 29, to discuss this pressing community issue.