As the good people of Bellingham, Washington grapple over the Gateway Pacific Terminal and the prospect of being turned into a coal town, some in the community are embracing a new model for asserting their voice, and their rights.
Local 'community rights' group Coal Free Bellingham has succeeded in getting enough signatures to place an initiative on the November ballot that would actually outlaw the transport of coal by train within city limits. That bold ordinance would likely be enacted, given the overwhelming public sentiment against coal, but it would immediately be challenged in court by the railroad and the possibly the port operator.
Now, acting on advice from the city attorney, the Bellingham City Council has voted unanimously to intervene and issue the legal challenge themselves. Council members reason that it's better to counter the measure now in order to deem whether it's a worthy initiative, and possibly stave off the inevitable suit from 'Big Coal.'
The anti coal trains measure is largely symbolic, as it is likely to be struck down in court, but if it has enough community support, shouldn't it be allowed on the ballot? Anticipating the predictable law suit, Coal Free Bellingham already indicated they would help defend it themselves. So why the argument from the city attorney?
First, municipal codes can't override federal laws governing interstate commerce. But if the initiative passes and is then beaten down in court, that would send a clear message that the federal and 'corporate will' trumps the wishes of a community to govern itself and protect its own well being.
And then there's the potential loss of income from a city ordinance that blocks the transport of coal, probably in the millions, and the city would have to defend that, pitting the council between a rock and hard chunk of coal on this one.
If Bellingham was the only city to brave the test, then not many outsiders would take notice and the attempt to enact a kind of "Community Bill Of Rights" would quickly fade from public consciousness. But imagine if a number of jurisdictions like Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, etc., were to adopt similar measures and then be challenged and defeated in court. That would draw national and congressional attention, representing a measure of victory.
How ironic that the B'ham Council has yet to pass any resolution on the Gateway Pacific Terminal, but is contemplating a resolution in opposition to the Supreme Court ruling on "Citizens United" and now sends this message to the citizens united against the corporate coal enterprise.
My appreciation for councilwoman Cathy Lehman's recent and candid concession, "Sometimes I feel like punching myself in the face would be more productive than serving on city council."