BELLINGHAM - One of the leaders of the anti-coal train initiative campaign says his group will go to court to battle a city lawsuit aimed at keeping the measure off the November ballot.
Stoney Bird, the former corporate attorney named as one of the defendants in the city's lawsuit, said he is undaunted by the seemingly overwhelming legal barriers to the initiative. As he sees it, the initiative signed by close to 10,000 people that would establish a "Community Bill of Rights" is a valid way for Bellingham citizens to determine their own environmental destiny.
"I think the point is that without the bill of rights, the city does not have tools to protect the health and safety of the citizens," Bird said. "This is an attempt to give them the tools so they can act to provide for the health and safety and welfare of the population."
In fact the city does have a wide range of environmental, land use and safety regulations, such as the plastic shopping bag ban that takes effect Aug. 1. But city attorneys argue that the initiative to ban transport of coal through the city is hopelessly at odds with state and federal laws, as well as the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. That puts it outside the scope of the city ordinance that initiative backers want to create at the ballot box.
Bird doesn't see it that way. He contends that the city's legal arguments do not provide valid grounds for a Whatcom County Superior Court judge to order that the matter be kept off the ballot, after backers gathered the legally required minimum number of signatures. Bird said citizens in more than 100 U.S. cities have used initiatives to establish new environmental regulations, and very few have been subject to court challenge.
Asked if any of those initiatives attempted to regulate rail traffic, Bird acknowledged that they did not.
"The ultimate test is what serves the interests of people in general," Bird said.
The "No Coal!" group, organized by Bird and Rick Dubrow, expects to hire a local attorney who will be assisted by Thomas Linzey, co-founder and chief legal counsel of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. That group played a role in drafting the legal language of the group's initiative.
The City Council authorized the lawsuit's filing June 18. The city's legal staff had advised them that if the initiative were passed into law by city voters, the city would then be obliged to defend it in court, even though city attorneys believe it won't survive judicial scrutiny.
The initiative was launched in response to widespread concern about the increase in coal train traffic that could result if SSA Marine of Seattle succeeds in getting regulatory approval for the Gateway Pacific Terminal to export coal and other cargoes at Cherry Point.
After backers of the initiative submitted about 10,000 signatures to the city on June 18, the Whatcom County Auditor verified that at least 4,990 of those signatures were valid, which meets the legal requirement for a place on the ballot. At that point, the city stepped in with the lawsuit.
City Attorney Peter Ruffato said no hearing date has been set on the matter.