(Editor’s Note: Viewpoint submissions on this and other topics are always welcome as part of our goal to encourage community discussion and exchange of perspectives.)
Nov. 23, 2019 — Citizens turn to the initiative system when their elected officials refuse to act on issues important to them. Americans are empowered through direct democracy — the citizen initiative system — to change law when they feel it no longer protects their rights and interests.
We aren’t the first people to face unresponsive elected officials captured by the bidding of big business. The citizen initiative process itself comes from a time when the people were being ignored by government in favor of big business.That’s why, in 1902, Oregonians adopted the initiative process as a tool of direct democracy, in what has become known nationally as the “Oregon System.”
Oregonians recognized that they needed a pathway for making law, a process that should operate for citizens as it does for elected officials.
For example, in 2015, concerned citizens from Lane County launched Freedom from Aerial Herbicide Alliance (FAHA). They crafted a citizen initiative, the “Lane County Freedom from Aerial Spraying of Herbicides Bill of Rights,” to ban the timber industry’s practice of spraying toxic chemicals on logged lands.
Why? Because government has been ignoring citizens in favor of big business. FAHA’s sister organization, Our Community Our Rights (OCOR), wrote the attending initiative, the “Right of Local Community Self-government,” which legally authorizes residents the right to write and pass laws that protect their health, safety and welfare, such as the spray ban law.
Again, this was done because government has been ignoring the people in favor of big business.
For two years, both organizations worked diligently to gather 15,000 signatures (30,000 total) to duly qualify each initiative for the ballot so that residents of Lane County can exercise their power to make law.
And despite citizens insisting that these issues should be voted upon, neither initiative has yet to appear on the ballot.
Why? Because big timber interests have sued for their claimed rights to increase profits — at the expense of the rights of the Oregonians, not to mention the health of the environment. At this very moment, the two citizen-led initiatives are languishing in the Oregon State Court of Appeals instead of being rightfully debated by the people of Lane County.
So, while the big timber-incited legal battles have been playing out, FAHA and OCOR turned back to the Lane County Commissioners and asked them to act on behalf of the people.
Numerous community members attended many meetings urging the commissioners, who serve as the county’s public health stewards, to protect the public health.
At those meetings, testimonies from citizens about serious ill-effects on their families’ health fell short in getting commissioners to act in the public interest. When residents made explicit asks of the commissioners to ban the sprays, commissioners refused.
When concerned citizens asked commissioners to refer the spray ban and self-government initiatives to the ballot — a power they hold — commissioners refused that option as well, citing a fear of punishment by state preemption law as a bigger concern than undermining the people’s democratic right to vote.
Going even further to help commissioners assist county residents, FAHA and OCOR reworked the initiatives to address preemption concerns, adding a clause stating that the portions of the laws pertaining to the claim of preemption would sustain a “hold” until state preemption is lifted.
Still no action from commissioners.
Over these past two years, the community has been repeatedly put off by its elected county officials. When push comes to shove, Lane County Commissioners appear to lack the courage to stand with the people who elected them, choosing to hide behind unjust law that serves corporate interests.
As an added insult to the work of those from over 100 years ago who fought for the right of the people to directly make law through the initiative process, the courts have also subverted democracy by ruling in favor of corporate interests over the people’s right to the ballot box.
We are not asking commissioners to support the initiatives. We are demanding that the democratic principles that protect the peoples’ right to the Oregon System be upheld.
Once the measures reach the ballot box, anyone is entitled to vote their values/conscience.
Regardless of what happens with these two initiatives, Lane County citizens will continue working to overturn the laws that reward corporate greed over the needs of the environment and all inhabitants.
We have a moral responsibility to protect the places in which we live, especially when our elected officials will not.