Olympia City Council Repeals Nuclear Free Zone Ordinance
Olympia's Councilmember Rhenda Strub declared, "we live in a republic, not a democracy" a few weeks ago. Well, she got the republic part wrong but there was little that reflected a representative democracy tonight (9/9/08)at Olympia's City Council meeting, which quickly voted to repeal Olympia's Nuclear Free Zone Ordinance.
Citizens were there in force. But something was out of whack. The first signal that something was off was when the staff only let fifty people into the chamber, even though it can hold twice that number. The rest either waited outside or went home. The second signal was that they initially limited the number of speakers to only twelve. However, faced with so many people, the Council consented to a request by Councilmember Joel Hyer that people should at least be heard before the Council voted on this issue.
The Ordinance was first proposed in January 2004. Over the next year, we witnessed the wonder of deliberative democracy. Citizens and the elected officials debated and discussed the proposed ordinance. Several community forums were held and the City Council deliberated for several weeks before finally passing it in 2005.
There was no deliberative process this time around. A committee of three met on August 26, 2008. The city staff told them that the Ordinance was not a burden and took maybe half an hour per year to handle any correspondence. It had virtually no impact on business being done by the City. The City's attorney said there were no liability issues. The staff also verified that since the Ordinance was first proposed, of the people who contacted the office about the Ordinance, 216 favored it and 38 opposed it. There did not appear to be any rational reason to repeal it.
But the committee members had their own agenda. One said that he spoke to "hundreds of people" who agreed that it should be repealed. Another said, "all vets oppose the Ordinance." Not to challenge the veracity of these statements, but really, this is not exactly an objective poll and the chances that "all" people agree on any policy issue is a statistical improbability.
Working from their own agenda, they put the repeal on the Consent Calendar for September 9th. According to the City, "The "Consent Calendar" is intended to expedite the City Council's business. The items listed on the "Consent Calendar" portion of the agenda have either been previously discussed by the City Council or are considered routine in nature so that passage is likely." Clearly, they knew they had the votes, so no deliberation was needed.
Yes, they did let everyone inside the chamber speak. Of the many people who spoke about the Ordinance, only two spoke against it. What were their objections? Well, one said that "many" people would not come to Olympia because of the Ordinance so it was bad for business. The other said to repeal it because it "has no teeth." That was it.
The many people who spoke in support of the Nuclear Free Ordinance were passionate and elegant. It said something about who were as a City and as a people. It was a statement about who we are in the world. It was a humanistic expression against the horrors of nuclear weapons. It was a way to stand with the hundreds of cities and countries who have said no to nuclear weapons. One speaker presented the Council with a graphic representation of the power of nuclear bombs as compared to a regular bomb. Another presented the Council with 4,000 signatures written on a scroll that covered the length of floor in front of the dais where they sat.
One person asked the council members for data showing that there really was a majority who wanted it repealed. Several wanted to know the reasons for repealing it. Laura Ware, a former City Councilmember, challenged them on their undemocratic process in repealing the Ordinance. Still others suggested they form a committee and engage in a deliberative process with citizens to come up with something that works better.
But were they listening? When former City Councilmember TJ Johnson spoke, Councilmember Strub was busy playing on her laptop, the blue screen glinting off her glasses. At another point, Mayor Mah and Councilmember Kingsbury engaged in an extended sidebar conversation while another citizen spoke.
Did they maintain an open mind? It did not look like it. Did they deliberate? No. They quickly voted to repeal it, in a 5 to 2 vote. A few made a statement but there was no discussion.
Councilmember "this is not a democracy" Strub, chastised the citizens. They just did not understand the difference between an ordinance and a resolution. She also told them that she did not need anyone to tell her about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the importance of peace. After all, she worked on Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. She rejected that a poll was needed. People voted for her because she pledged to repeal the Ordinance and she won; that is sufficient, in her view. Lastly, she assured the citizens that the nuclear weapons were in safe hands because they were controlled by civilians; the military would only use them if a civilian gave them an order.That's peace, in her view.
Councilmember Kingsbury couched his opposition to the Ordinance in terms of it being an Ordinance rather than a Resolution--as if the people who oppose the Ordinance are concerned about the finer legal points and not the political statement that the Ordinance makes. The Mayor pointed out that he opposed it in 2005 and still opposed it. He urged the supporters of the Ordinance to work at the federal and international level.
Joel Hyer supported the Ordinance in 2005 and remained its champion. The Ordinance was a way to make a principled stand against nuclear weapons; the horrors of nuclear weapons call out to our humanity, he said. He is a humanist. While he chooses his battles carefully, sometimes, he said, the needs of humanity were more important than pragmatic politics. It was right thing to do in 2005 and it is still the right thing to do—it is, he said, a moral imperative to stop nuclear weapons. Climate change may affect us in 50 years but nuclear weapons can affect us tomorrow.
Newcomer to the council, Joan Machlis, was persuaded by the passion and commitment of the citizens. The process that put the Ordinance in place also persuaded her. The Ordinance may be flawed, she said, but the process was right. It should not be so easily overturned. She voted against repealing the ordinance.
True, this is a vote on the first reading. A vote on the second reading makes it official. But it is hard to believe that anyone will change his or her vote.
Many people had great things to say. I was able to get a electronic copy of TJ Johnson' speech, which frames up the issues and included it below.
You can watch the video of the 9/9/08 meething: http://olympia.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=2
Statement: TJ Johnson, former Olympia City Council Member
September 9, 2008
The previous speakers have illustrated the magnitude of the problem and some of the reasons why ignoring the issue will not make it go away. I would like to identify why it is important for cities to lead the way, review past actions, and offer a proposal that can bring the community together in dialogue.
Some argue that local governments have no business addressing national or international issues. But it is naïve to believe we can draw a line around the City of Olympia and ignore what happens on the other side, and cynical to think that our local actions are meaningless. Such thinking underestimates our potential as a community.
There are many reasons for local governments to take actions towards nuclear abolition, and for you to retain the Olympia Nuclear Free Zone ordinance. Let me suggest a few.
First, local governments must to act due to the failure of national and international institutions to address the problem. Its time for local leaders to step forward and lead the way.
Second, cities have the most to lose. As centers of culture, commerce and population, cities are the most likely targets of nuclear weapons. As both a state Capitol and Port city Olympia is especially vulnerable. Our hard working first responders should never be put in the position of having to respond to the detonation of a nuclear weapon.
Third, the money wasted on nuclear weapons rob cities of resources they need. The US now spends nearly $60 billion per year on nuclear weapons. There is a connection between this spending and the lack of resources available for local needs. With the City facing a huge budget shortfall, potential staff layoffs, and diminishing federal funding for important infrastructure projects, this argument alone should be reason enough to act.
Fourth, Olympia has made a commitment to sustainability. Nothing is more threatening to the long-term sustainability of our community than the continued existence of nuclear weapons. We are a recognized pioneer in sustainability. Yet what good are our local actions if we are always 15 minutes away from the end of civilization as we know it?
Fifth, the primary role of local governments is to be responsive to the community it serves. If something is important to the community, it is a legitimate concern of local government. The official record on this issue over the past few years is clear and unequivocal : Olympians support this ordinance. As such it is a legitimate issue for city action, and should be retained. This is the essence of representative democracy.
These and other arguments led your predecessors in 2005 to adopt a resolution calling for the elimination of nuclear weapon. The resolution was an important symbol. However, it did nothing to achieve the vision of a nuclear free world. To agree with a vision of the future without taking actions to achieve that vision is the worst form of political trickery. Its like members of Congress who continue to insist that they oppose the occupation of Iraq, then continue voting to extend it.
This community understands that local action is essential to achieving the goal of the resolution, and it overwhelmingly supported the adoption of the NFZ ordinance. Olympians know that joining thousands of cities, counties, regions and nations who have declared themselves Nuclear Free Zones is the ultimate expression of the cherished concept of "thinking globally and acting locally".
So where do we go from here? I have heard most of the members of the Council express support for the vision of a nuclear free world. That being the case, shouldn't the question before us be "How can we as a City best further that vision" rather than "should we repeal the ordinance"?
Many of us agree that the current ordinance may not be achieving the intended results. So why not create a task force or committee composed of Councilmembers and people on all sides of the issue who can review the ordinance, answer relevant questions, look at what other communities have done, and offer recommendations on the best ways to realize our shared vision? Many people in this community would be willing to participate, and Beyond Hiroshima is prepared to contribute funding to support the process.
Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Please take this opportunity to use your positions of leadership to bring the community together in conversation about the most appropriate role for the City of Olympia in realizing our shared goal of a nuclear free world.
contribute to this article
contribute to this article
add comment to discussion
view discussion from this article