Welcome to the Coal-Free Bellingham Community Bill of Rights campaign

MEDIA RELEASE: July 27, 2012


BNSF Railway Company is requesting that it be allowed to partner with the City of Bellingham in the legal challenge to keep the duly qualified citizens’ initiative – known as the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights or Proposition 2 – off the November ballot. The request to intervene was filed with the Whatcom County court, and a decision is expected on Tuesday, July 31st. Other motions related to the case, including whether to accept or deny the city’s legal challenge, will have their first hearing on Friday, August 3rd. Both hearings will take place in Judge Snyder’s court room in the Whatcom County Court House, 311 Grand Ave. in downtown Bellingham. The initiative is asking voters to secure residents rights to clean air and water, along with prohibiting coal trains from passing through Bellingham.

Coal-Free Bellingham, sponsors of the citizens’ initiative, submitted approximately 10,000 signatures to the city for validation on June 18th, more than double the amount needed. On the very same day, the Bellingham City Council voted 6-0 to move on a pre-election challenge. Since that time, the county elections office has certified that Coal Free Bellingham gathered the needed signatures to qualify for the ballot, and the city council followed by voting to place the initiative on the ballot at the same time they are suing to keep it off the ballot. Coal-Free Bellingham has filed an anti-SLAPP suit (strategic lawsuit against public participation) against the city along with a legal brief in opposition to the intervention of BNSF to the city’s legal challenge. These are the motions that will be heard on August 3rd.

“It’s common knowledge that coal is a bad idea, except for the multi-national corporations driving the death wish of coal exports”, says Stoney Bird, campaign director for Coal-Free Bellingham. “The Bellingham Community Bill of Rights is about standing up to coal, these corporate interests, and all the impacts it will have on people and the environment… locally, regionally, and globally. It’s about giving the City the tool that it needs to protect residents from these and other corporate threats.” Bird goes on to say, “I find it quite disturbing that while the people of Bellingham are standing up for their rights, nature’s rights, and combating climate change, the city, along with BNSF, are spending time, energy, and money on wanting to shut the people down.”

Passing the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights in November, would establish a local Bill of Rights, recognizing the fundamental right to clean air and water, to local self-government, the rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish, and it would prohibit the transportation of coal within the City of Bellingham, among other provisions.

Rick Dubrow, Chair
NO COAL! Political Action Committee

Over the past 30 years, the rights of a community to determine its future have been stripped away in order to make it easier for us to be exploited. Communities around the nation are forced into mortgaging their future by outside interests. And more often than not, this leaves communities with a ruined environment, poor quality of life, and a failing economy.

Bellingham is facing such a threat of exploitation in the form of the Gateway Pacific Terminal. The 48 million tons of coal that will run on massive and noisy trains thru historic Fairhaven and downtown will destroy our air and poison our water. They will eat up our tax dollars and repay us by eviscerating our quality of life.

Fortunately, there is another way. We, as a community, can stand united and come together to determine Bellingham’s future. The Bellingham Community Bill of Rights will establish legal protections that assure Bellingham is protected from the damage of coal trains and will subsequently cement those protections by elevating the rights of our Community above those who would do us harm.

Paul Cienfuegos delivered this sermon to the congregation of the
Bellingham (Washington) Unitarian Fellowship on Sunday, July 15,
2012, titled “Awakening to Our Power as We The People”

Click here to hear Paul’s sermon.

Good morning! I am delighted to be here with you this morning!

The topic of my sermon today is…. “Awakening to Our Power as We The People”.
I am a self-trained grassroots community organizer and teacher. This has been the main work I do – my entire adult life – 32 years and counting. People frequently refer to me as an “activist” when they introduce me to an audience, and I have to tell you….I HATE the word “activist”! I am NOT an activist. In my opinion, the world doesn’t need activists. It needs ACTIVE CITIZENS working together with consciousness and boldness. Not just the occasional active citizen. Not just a FEW in every neighborhood. Not just a few DOZEN in every town. What the world needs today more than ever is HUNDREDS of active citizens in every town…. THOUSANDS of active citizens in every city.
I define an activist as someone who is so concerned about a particular issue that they’ve basically put their life on hold for months or even years to work on that issue. And they end up doing the work that should have been done by 20 or 30 or 40 active citizens. That’s not how a democratic society should operate. People shouldn’t have to put their lives on hold like that, while the rest of us live our private lives, NOT acting like citizens, NOT participating. You’re probably thinking.,…but Paul, Bellingham is a very active community. We’ve got dozens of civic organizations, each with lots of active members. The city is FULL of people who care deeply about Bellingham. My question to you is this: Are they active in lots and lots of single issue groups, underfunded, understaffed, with very little coordination between them, or are they mobilizing the majority of the population to help people here to see themselves as We The People of this special place? In other
words, given that we live in a majority rule society, how many people living here in Bellingham have any idea what the majority of local residents actually WANTS? And even if we knew what a majority wants, how many of us have any idea how to organize ourselves to achieve those goals? We’re used to voting for the candidates that OTHER people choose for us. We’re used to voting Yes or No on ballot initiatives that other people we’ve never heard of have worked hard to put on the ballot. When we think about who the DECISION-MAKERS are in our community and in our society, how many of us
think of OURSELVES as the decision-makers? Noam Chomsky says that,
“A society is democratic to the extent that people in it have meaningful opportunities to take part in the formation of public policy.”

When is the last time that YOU were offered a meaningful opportunity to take part in making public policy? For most of us, the answer is…. NEVER.
There is a new citizens’ movement growing rapidly in this country that calls itself the Community Rights movement. In 150 communities in seven states, local laws have been passed that put decision-making authority directly in the hands of a majority of the local residents. Almost all of the 150 communities are in the east – Pennsylvania, New York, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, and New Hampshire. New Mexico joined this list just last month.

The Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship has its own Living Democracy Team that actively supports the work of your local Community Rights group. Marian Beddill leads the team. Thank you, Marian!

Are there other people here today who are active with the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights campaign? Thank you! The campaign needs many more of you to get involved. It is attempting something really big here. It is going up against structures of law which are by their very design oppressive to local communities. Structures of law that ensure that local communities do not have any legal mechanisms to protect their own health and welfare. Structures of law that are more than a century old that no one challenges anymore…. UNTIL the Community Rights movement came into being about ten years ago.
There’s good reason to be really proud that your community is one of the first communities on the west coast to join this movement.

150 communities in seven states – all experimenting with local self-governing authority. And why not?!

Read Paul’s entire speech here.

Response to Bellingham City Council member Michael Lilliquist

This letter is Coal-Free Bellingham’s response to Bellingham City Councilmember Michael Lilliquist’s recent email to Coal-Free Bellingham’s Office Manager Michelle Magee (copied below). Michael felt compelled to explain why he and the Council have chosen to file a lawsuit to try to stop the duly qualified Community Bill of Rights from appearing on the November ballot. (Since this in response to Michael’s letter, we suggest you read it first – hence its inclusion below.)

It’s our turn to answer this question: why would our own City Council try to prohibit a citizen-bred initiative which successfully gathered more than enough valid signatures from the very people who helped elect them. How can this be? Why would our leaders challenge the people’s attempt to protect ourselves from the known harms of coal trafficking? And whatever happened to the Washington State Constitution’s declaration that “all political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights?”

Our answer is not a simple one, so please bear with us…

Ultimately, there are profound reasons why we shouldn’t expect our own City Councilmembers to directly challenge the corporations whose proposed coal terminal – and the shipping of coal through our community – threatens the very soul of our community. Given these reasons and the framework of law within which they operate, our Council has, indeed, taken an action that is logical… from their perspective!! Therefore, we need to understand these reasons and this framework. They will reveal why the Council did what they did, while simultaneously revealing why this city needs a bill of rights so that we, the people, can protect ourselves. And why, in the end, the people of Bellingham govern less in the City of Bellingham than they would like to believe.

Given the system of government within which our City Councilmembers have taken their oath to uphold, we believe that they are the last ones we should expect to use the municipal corporation to directly challenge the likes of BNSF, SSA Marine, or Goldman Sachs. As we’ve seen time and time again, once someone is elected, they see themselves as the caretaker of the municipal corporation itself, and they become a steward of all processes of lawmaking within the municipal entity. Boiled down to the nub of it, they take ownership of the municipal corporation itself. They see the ‘City of Bellingham’ municipal corporation as their own – with their primary job being the protection of the City’s finances.

Surely this makes sense; we do want our leaders to pay attention to how they use our dough. This is a good thing! It’s why when private people get elected to office, they are literally sent immediately to school in Olympia to learn what their duties must be, and one of those duties is to serve as a trustee of the city’s finances. It’s no wonder that city lawyers measure their success in terms of how long they’ve avoided liability on behalf of the municipality. Because of that, the municipal corporation isn’t looking for a fight. In fact, the opposite is true – it’s is looking to do everything possible to avoid one. Simply put, a municipal corporation was never intended to confront the private corporations that have been empowered by the system. There’s really no need here to emphasize the power and control that profit-driven corporations have had in the design and construction of a system that favors commerce over the very people affected by that commerce. In essence, that system places the rights of those corporations over the people of Bellingham by restricting what the municipal corporation can, and can’t do; and by making the municipality liable to private corporations who have a different future vision for our community.

Response continues here

City Council Rejects Appeal to Withdraw Lawsuit


At the City Council meeting Monday night, the Bellingham City Council rejected appeals from an overflow crowd to withdraw its lawsuit aimed at keeping Initiative 2012-2 from the ballot. On June 26, the Whatcom County Elections office had certified that Coal-Free-Bellingham, sponsors of the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights ordinance, submitted enough signatures to qualify for the November 2012 ballot. The group gathered 10,000 signatures, which was more than double what was needed to qualify. The citizen-driven initiative is asking voters to secure residents rights to clean air and water, along with prohibiting coal trains from passing through Bellingham.

“This is exactly what we expected from a City Council that opposed what the people want and need by bringing this lawsuit in the first place,” said Stoney Bird, a member of the Steering Committee of Coal-Free Bellingham, and a former corporate lawyer. “In the meantime, we are organizing what we believe will be a strong legal defense, and expect that we will ultimately succeed in keeping the initiative on the ballot and in getting it

A recent poll shows that over 80% of Bellingham residents oppose the coal trains. The corporate plan, hatched by SSA Marine, Goldman-Sachs, Peabody Coal, and BNSF, is to have upwards of twenty, mile and half long coal trains passing through Bellingham daily. The coal would be offloaded (projected to be 140 million tons annually) at a Cherry Point shipping terminal in Birch Bay to then be shipped via freighters to Asia (primarily China) to be burned for electricity production. China is the world’s number one contributor of green
house gas emissions.

Many who spoke at the City Council meeting expressed sympathy for the Council, who feel compelled by the corporate-dominated legal system to act against the interests of those who elected them. Others pointed out that the cost to the City of allowing the trains to pass through will likely exceed any cost of defending the ordinance. “With the railroad company saying that local jurisdictions will have to pick up 95% of the cost of overpasses and other ‘improvements,’ ” said Bird, “the economic cost to our community is likely to be
extreme. In addition, our residents will have to breathe diesel particulates and coal dust, lose investment and job opportunities on the City waterfront, suffer the risk of derailments, and have their emergency services and traffic in general disrupted.”

Passing the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights in November, would establish a local Bill of Rights, recognizing the fundamental right to clean air and water, to local self-government, the rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish, and it would prohibit the transportation of coal within City of Bellingham, among other provisions “This is about putting the rights of people, communities, and our fragile ecosystems over the rights
of remote, money-centered corporations,” said Bird. “It’s about community rights, not corporate rights. It’s about our right to decide.”

Bellingham Community Bill of Rights Qualifies for 2012 Ballot
Wednesday June 27, 2012 3:07 PM

The Whatcom County Auditor’s office has just verified that Coal-Free Bellingham, sponsor of the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights, submitted a sufficient number of valid signatures, more than enough to qualify for inclusion on the November, 2012 ballot.

Upon hearing that close to 10,000 signatures had been submitted for validation early last week, the City Council met with their attorneys, weighed their options and decided to challenge the legality of the initiative via judicial review. There was another option before them: allow the voters to decide whether they want to stand up to possible legal challenges from corporations that will profit greatly from coal trafficking through Bellingham. The Council rejected the choice to allow the voters to make this crucial decision and chose instead to legally challenge the validity of the initiative.

Council President Terry Bornemann stated, “When there are serious questions about the validity of an initiative, it is the Council’s duty to both uphold and enforce the law and represent the people of their community.”

“Mr. Bornemann claimed that the Council acted to represent the people of our community, but, in reality, the council is acting in opposition to the will of the 10,000 people who petitioned to have this initiative placed before the voters. This action denies the people their right to decide,” responded Naomi Bunis, a steering committee member of Coal-Free Bellingham.

Council member Michael Lilliquist was quoted on the City’s website as saying, “While the Council wants to protect our families and our community, in all likelihood the proposed initiative is not legal….I share people’s deep concern with the proposed coal terminal and increased cargo train traffic through the middle of Bellingham, but in good conscience I cannot expose the City to expensive and futile lawsuits.”

“The Council members are between a rock and a hard place,” said Cindy Franklin, another steering committee member of Coal-Free Bellingham. “The main purpose of the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights is to challenge the existing laws that favor the profit-making ventures of major corporations over the interests of our community. By this action, our City Council seems resigned to uphold these unjust laws and are taking away from the voters of Bellingham the right to decide on this crucial issue.”

Coal-Free Bellingham believes that the people, in whom power is clearly vested within our state and federal constitution, should decide whether or not we should protect ourselves from this looming corporate abuse.

“Allowing this vote to occur is our government’s ultimate duty. Coal-Free Bellingham is asking the Council to remove this challenge and listen to the people,” declared Rick Dubrow, another steering committee member of Coal-Free Bellingham.

And, ten thousand citizens agree.

Coal-Free Bellingham has issued a Call to Action for the supporters of the Community Bill of Rights, who have submitted numerous letters and emails asking our City Council members to rescind their vote to legally challenge the initiative and to consider the other option before them: allow the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights to be placed on the November ballot and let the voters decide.

Coal-Free Bellingham wishes to thank all those who helped gather signatures and also those who signed the petition and voiced their support for declaring that we, the citizens of Bellingham, assert that it is our right to decide whether or not coal should be transported through our city.

Rick Dubrow, Chair

NO COAL! Political Action Committee


Almost 10,000 Bellingham citizens have stood up to say “Enough is enough! We will not let outside corporate interests decide what happens to our city!”

Please take 2 minutes to protect your rights! In an affront to the rights of citizens to directly make law through the initiative process, the Bellingham City Council wants to deny local citizens the right to vote on protecting the community from coal trafficking. This is a right approved by Washington State voters over 100 years ago to ensure that the people had the ability to make necessary laws precisely at times that their elected officials were unwilling to do so.

Please take just a minute to email or call the Council and let them know you want your voice heard and your right to vote protected !!!

Here’s how to contact our City Council: Via email:


or by phone by calling (360) 778-8200

The Coal-Free Bellingham and Morgan McCartor handing in the petitions to the City Finance Director

The Coal-Free Bellingham and Morgan McCartor handing in the petitions to the City Finance Director

Immediately upon receiving word that Coal-Free Bellingham had turned in 10,000 signatures in support of the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights prohibiting the transport of coal through our city, the City Council voted 6-0 to file a lawsuit to legally challenge our initiative.

“Bellingham council seeks court challenge on no-coal-train initiative” -
Bellingham Herald 06/19/12

BELLINGHAM – After Coal-Free Bellingham initiative backers turned in about 10,000 signatures for a ballot proposal that would outlaw coal trains in the city, the City Council voted to challenge the validity of the measure in court. (Read entire article)

Coal-Free Bellingham responds:

Bellingham City Council Wants to Deny Residents the Right to Vote on Protecting the Community from Coal Trains
MEDIA RELEASE: June 20, 2012


On Monday evening the Bellingham City Council voted 6-0 to move on a pre-election challenge against citizen initiative 2012-2. The initiative, known as the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights, is asking voters to secure our community’s rights to clean air and water, along with prohibiting coal trains from passing through Bellingham.

The Council’s decision seeking to deny voters the right to pass or reject this measure in November was made on the grounds that the initiative is legally invalid because it addresses an administrative, rather than legislative, function of the city, and is therefore beyond the scope of the initiative power.

Coal-Free Bellingham, the sponsors of the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights, has followed every step of the citizen initiative process, including gathering enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, and believes the city is wrong in its claim.

“The council’s action is an affront to the rights of citizens to directly make law through the initiative process,“ says Rick Dubrow of Coal-Free Bellingham. “This is a right approved by Washington State voters over 100 years ago to ensure the people had the ability to make necessary laws precisely at times that their elected officials were unwilling to do so.”

The group submitted the signatures of over 10,000 citizens to the city on June 18th, 2012, more than double the required amount. The Whatcom County Elections office is currently in the process of validating the signatures.

Passing the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights in November would establish a local Bill of Rights, recognizing the fundamental right to clean air and water, to local self-government, and it would, among other provisions, prohibit the transportation of coal within the City of Bellingham.

Rick Dubrow, Chair
NO COAL! Political Action Committee

More people are becoming aware that the promise of an American democratic republic is not being met. Instead of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, we have government “of corporations, by corporations and for corporations”.

When communities try to prevent corporations from engaging in activities they don’t want, they often find they don’t have the legal power to say “NO!”  Why? Because our current legal structure too often protects the “rights” of corporations over the rights of actual human beings.

Why should Burlington Northern, SSA Marine and Goldman Sachs, a major corporate investor in the proposed coal terminal project,  have more say about what happens here in Bellingham than the residents of Bellingham?

Simply put, if we are to elevate our rights and the rights of our communities above those of a corporate few, we need to transform the way laws work.

It is time for the City of Bellingham to join other communities which are proclaiming their inalienable right to local, self-governance. We do this by introducing our ordinance, the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights, which can be read here.  The No Coal! Political Action Committee (PAC) has prepared this local ordinance for the people of Bellingham to adopt through the initiative process.  We seek to:

  • Protect Bellingham and surrounding communities from the negative health and economic impacts from coal trains,
  • Prevent destruction of local and regional natural resources from the known ecological risks from coal transportation, and
  • Confront the underlying structures of law that currently prevent communities from protecting themselves from corporate threats.

Because of coal’s implications for causing global climate change, adopting a local ordinance in this way will also mean that we are preventing our own territory from being used to cause ecological harm worldwide. (Read more)

By passing local ordinances that ban harmful corporate practices communities can protect themselves and their local ecosystems.  Other communities have been successful in turning away projects that threaten them even when the projects have been ‘permitted’ under state or federal law.  

As of January, 2012 the number of communities with such ordinances is about 150.  Perhaps the best known law protects the people of Pittsburgh and its local ecosystems from natural gas fracking.  Other communities have confronted threats such as industrial hog farming, spreading sewage sludge, cell phone towers, waste disposal and bottling local water sources.  (Read about other communities’ rights-based ordinances)

Beyond protecting communities from immediate corporate threat these ordinances are also addressing and challenging the structure of laws that has arisen to give corporations superior rights to the communities in which their projects are being carried out.  (Read more)

This website seeks to explain in more detail why our group believes that such an ordinance is the best option for our community to protect itself against the permitting threat and the structure of laws under which such permits are currently granted.  Link to ordinance here.

We hope you will join us!

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. . . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
- Frederick Douglass