Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Easton City Council, Citizens Agree on Intent--But Not Wording--of Proposed Bill of Rights

By Christina Georgiou

In a nearly four-hour public discussion of a proposed Community Bill of Rights for the City of Easton, city council and citizens more or less agreed on the intent of the law, but not its scope or wording Monday evening.

Debate became heated at times, with no final agreement ultimately reached, though the matter is expected to be revisited Wednesday evening at the council's regular meeting, after citizens have had a chance to re-meet and discuss whether they would be willing to reword the proposed law or will attempt to submit it in its current form before voters for referendum.

If the matter were to be put before Easton voters, it's unclear whether the Community Bill of Rights might be voted on by citizen electors in November's election, or next year in May.

Having been submitted to the city for consideration, elected officials have 60 days to review the matter, but if the governing body takes the full allowed length of time and the citizens committee were to wait that long, the deadline for initiative and referendum issues to be placed on the fall ballot would be past.

If the resident group refuses to compromise on the wording of the bill and clarify its limits and scope, city council has made it clear it will likely vote it down.

In that case, the group's only alternative is to collect enough signatures by petition to have the initiative placed on the ballot for voters to decide its fate. But that would take time, and the bill must be on the ballot for referendum 60 days in advance of the election, a deadline that is fast approaching.

Introduced by Councilwoman Elinor Warner, the bill is the product of some Easton citizens attending Democracy School sponsored by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CEDLF), said Esther Guzman, director of the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership (WWNP).

While a number of other cities and communities in Pennsylvania have enacted similar legislation, most notably Pittsburgh, the majority have focused on fracking methods of extracting natural gas, but the proposed law in Easton is more encompassing, specifically stating that, “Corporations are not natural persons and corporate powers shall be subordinate to people’s rights. Corporations and other business entities which violate the rights secured by this Ordinance and by other laws shall not enjoy the constitutional protections afforded to 'persons'...”

Additional provisions state that the bill may in some cases supersede state and federal laws regarding corporate interests, with neighborhoods having the right to dictate their own affairs without interference from larger entities.

The expanded nature of the bill is due to the fact that Easton also has other considerations in addition to the issues that surround natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania, though this is more than a little unlikely to occur in the city, since it does not lie on the Marcellus shale rich in those natural resources, said Guzman. She said the open-ended nature of the bill's wording is more in response to specific concerns she sees, such as “slumlords,” especially in her home in the West Ward section of the city, which is also the focus of the WWNP's efforts.

But city officials said that the city's legal counsel has warned that some of the wording in the proposed Bill of Rights is too vague and could be in violation of state and federal mandates.

Additionally, others worried that the wording might override city council's authority, give people authority over their neighbors in ways the proposed legislation doesn't intend, and/or discourage wanted revitalization and economic development interests in the City.

Members of city council repeatedly said they agreed with the intent of the proposed ordinance, but worried that the specific language in the bill was overly vague and might overstep what is currently legal for them to legislate.

“I really do think it has some positives to it,” said Vice Mayor Ken Brown. “I just don't want to rush it.”

Brown added that he worried too about some provisions of the proposed law that he felt might usurp the powers of city government, saying that residents have opportunity at every turn for input, particularly when it comes to city finances at budget season but often don't exercise that right.

“Any more than that, we're giving away our positions as city officials,” Brown said.

The most critical comments came from Councilman Mike Fleck, who wanted at first to know why the bill wasn't being discussed at a regular city council meeting, as is usually the case, and said the proposed legislation would potentially cause many unintended problems for the city, likely doing more harm than good, despite its call for more citizen involvement.

“We don't live in a democracy. We live in a representational republic,” Fleck said. “A lot of things here, I agree with. But where they should come from, I'm not sure I agree with...You've got a big, big overreach here on what city council can do either by their home rule charter or the third-class city code.”

Fleck added the law as written would force even small, well-meaning corporations to sue the city to get things done if someone doesn't like them or their plans.

Warner said she felt the bill had a lot of positives and that the other council members might be perceiving a threat to their authority where none was intended.

“I think a lot of members of council are taking this like it takes away from council, when it's really about the state and federal government,” she said. “I think when you talk about corporations, if they want to pollute or do things that hurt people, then let them go to Bethlehem or Allentown.”

Stephen White, a West Ward resident and owner of Delaware River Books in the city's Downtown, as well as a committee member for the WWNP, said he doesn't feel the bill pits residents against city council authority.

“What I think it is doing is giving you additional leverage,” he told council members. “I would like to see (the power over what corporations can and cannot do) be more local.”

Mayor Sal Panto said while he supports most of the proposed legislation's aims, he is uncomfortable with the wording and its potential ramifications for the city, especially its relationship with the state. He particularly worried that if passed, it could jeopardize future grant opportunities and other state revenue sources for the city, such as liquid fuel reimbursements, which the city heavily relies on.

“If you want total local control, make the West Ward a historic district and make everyone go through a historic district commission before they can do anything,” Panto said. “I've been calling for more local autonomy, but there's a process to it, and I don't think this is it.”

“I'm suggesting another avenue...If the people of Easton don't like this, they don't have to accept it,” White said. “Corporations are not the enemy any more than government is the enemy...but it's not unreasonable to ask that...the people that have to live with these things have some say in it.”

Resident Dennis Lieb was more confrontational, saying of Fleck, “He's not my representative in the West Ward.”

Lieb said a recent city decision to change the zoning ordinances to allow some areas for billboards to be erected, though not in residential neighborhoods in response to a lawsuit from Adams Outdoor Advertising, along with PennDOT control of some local roadways and the state's allowance for timber harvesting are all examples of corporate or larger interests superseding local interests and laws.

“The truth is, the People don't govern anything any more,” Lieb said. “Isn't it time Easton takes a stand?...When government doesn't represent us? Should we change, or should we change the government?”

“I see this (law) as adding a lot of cost to the city if we want to defend this,” Panto said, adding that he feels the current wording would eliminate $800,000 worth of street surveillance cameras meant to assist police in catching drug dealers and violent criminals, as well as prevent mentally ill people from being treated when threatening to commit suicide.

“At least in this case, if we get sued for something the citizens want then that's something worth being sued for,” Lieb said, adding that he planned to have the bill notarized and sent by affidavit to the city on Tuesday morning.

“This defines who real people are, that's all it does,” Lieb continued. “A hundred and fifty years ago, people took oaths to uphold the runaway slave act. Was that the right thing to do? I think it was the wrong thing to do.”

Brown, who represents the city's Southside neighborhood, said he particularly wants to make sure all the citizens want the law before he makes a final decision about it.

“My question would be, we're not reaching the rest of the city,” he said. “That's where I'm troubled at. I want to make sure if I go with this law, that I'm representing the people that elected me. It should go by the people.”

Community director for the CEDLF Ben Price said that fracking laws enacted by the state are a good example of how corporations' rights are superseding those of local people in Pennsylvania, and the bill of rights is one response and defense to such actions.

“I really sympathize with local officials because you're really between a rock and a hard place,” Price said. “You faithfully swear to execute the obligations of your office...and that's to look out for the health, safety and welfare of your citizens...The problem is when you ask for legal advice, you're going to be told what state law is, that corporations are persons and that you must allow for every legalized use of land...Where there's a disconnect between you and the law department is that they're hired to protect the corporation of Easton, not the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Easton. That's not their job.”

“Once I don't follow the lawyers' opinion, I'm now personally liable,” Panto said. “Are you going to cover my legal expenses?”

“What we do offer is legal services, not funds,” Price said of the CEDLF's mission. “It doesn't cover costs, but it includes services. We're working for the citizens. If you want to talk about (our services), we can do that.”

Price said that similar Bills of Rights have been enacted in about 140 municipalities nationally, and only five have been challenged in court. Of those, he added, “We've never had a judgment against the wording.”

“I'm agreeing with what you're saying,” Panto said. “What I don't agree with is the vagueness.”

“It's a statement of a right. It's not a statement of policy,” Price said, adding that policy would come later, “fleshed out through engagement.”

“If fear is the deciding factor, nothing ever changes,” he added, also saying that the needed coalition to change state law or the constitution in Harrisburg could be started with the city, eventually joining forces with other like-minded municipalities.

“My problem is, is it a violation of my oath? I don't want to give up my house for the cause,” Panto said. “The fact that I can't use radar on our city streets to keep the speed down is ridiculous. They think I'm trying to use it to make money. I'm not going to use it to make money—I want to use it to save lives.”

West Ward resident and Neighbors of Easton blogger Noel Jones, who also serves on a WWNP committee, said she very much supports the bill's passage.

“We're asking for your help to empower you,” she said. “We're trying to help you protect the citizens of Easton.”

While she said she'd like to take more time for the bill to be more thoroughly discussed, Jones said the legislation needs to be passed quickly.

“It's true, no one is going to come to Easton to drill for natural gas,” Jones said. “But (they can drill injection wells), and if the state says they can do it, they will.”

Downtown resident Matt Munsey said a bad interpretation of the state constitution is allowing for corporations to gain more rights than real people have, and the bill would protect Easton from that.

“The way this happens is because we have accepted this interpretation,” Munsey said. “Maybe we need to stand up for these rights. We have a local system that mostly works.

“People know what goes on in their neighborhoods," he said. "The important point is, there's a process (in the proposed legislation) for neighborhood involvement, though that hasn't been defined yet.”

Munsey added that he feels if the city council doesn't vote on the matter, they shouldn't make negative comments about the proposal, or say the voters should decide the issue.

But Brown said the council has a duty to inform residents of their reasons for doing what they do.

“If there's a citizen's group going door to door for it, then there should be an opposing group educating them,” Fleck said. “Because they have a right to know what it's going to cost them.”

Only one resident spoke against the bill's passage.

“I am not against this. I'm against how it's written,” said College Hill resident John Freeman. “I don't like lawyers getting rich. And I don't like it when they do it on my dime.

“If you've fired up a barbecue grill, you've poisoned someone,” Freeman added, turning to the bill's provision to people's rights in regard to their bodies. “I think the board of Dow should be tried for murder, and if they go to India, they would...This as written is a bomb that will go off in our faces...I think Tom Corbett's a jerk. (But) this isn't the tool. This won't get us there.”

Panto agreed.

“If you were to change this tonight to fracking only, I'd enact it tonight. But when it's this broad, you're exposing the city,” he said.

Whether the proposed Community Bill of Rights will be reworded and resubmitted to city council is still up in the air.

Warner suggested that council members, either as a group or individually at the option of the citizens' committee, sit down  together and discuss what mutually agreeable changes to the proposed law might be made.

“We'll get together, and we'll get back to you,” said Jones.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Christina. So Mike Fleck, "We don't live in a democracy"? Maybe not according to your world view...