Amend charter to adopt bill of rights
by Brian O’Malley
Cape Cod Times – Feb. 13, 2016
Front-page coverage has been given to a proposal to reform the structure of Barnstable County government through a proposed amendment to our home rule charter, introduced on Feb. 3 by delegate Patrick Princi of the town of Barnstable.
Two weeks earlier, I also introduced a proposed charter amendment, the Barnstable County Bill of Rights, which addresses some of the meaningful purposes of our county. It has not been given coverage. Perhaps consideration of function should come before form, a concept clear to architects.
Intended to protect our fragile sustaining Cape environment, this declaration of certain rights in our home rule charter would give us the legal standing to defend those rights from challenges.
Specifically, we would legally assert our rights to clean drinking water, a sustainable local food system and development, on a town-by-town basis, of sustainable energy resources. We would also, as the human community, give voice to the rights of our interdependent natural communities, to “provide an unpolluted, clean, nontoxic and sustainable environment and economy.”
As a rights-based definitional ordinance, and not in any sense a regulation, this legislation would impose no costs on the county. It would, however, help to define the role of our county government. The preamble to the Barnstable County Charter declares as the role of county government to “gain for ourselves” certain rights. But those rights were never defined in the original charter, nor in any of its subsequent amendments. My amendment seeks to address this important lack of definition of purpose.
This document was the work of a diverse group of Cape Codders who worked together for six months after a weekendlong Democracy School intensive taught by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. The final product, the basis for my proposed charter amendment, was adopted by consensus of the entire team, which used clear group process consistently in its development. It builds upon those rights already protected federally and in Massachusetts law. It purposefully restricts none.
We know the long history of the ignored petitions passed by each of our 15 Cape towns to demand that our electric utility, NStar/Eversource, desist from applying known carcinogenic toxins to their “rights” of way in our backyards to control vegetation. The commonwealth simply invokes its higher authority to regulate, and pre-empts every town’s say in the decision, citing the towns’ individual lack of legal standing in a regulatory matter. This issue alone is ample reason for including the Barnstable County Bill of Rights in our home rule charter. Our own community rights should prevail over, in this case, state-sanctioned corporate chemical trespass.
The drafters’ understanding is that the language in this home rule charter would give Barnstable County the legal standing to back up our towns as they struggle to protect their residents when planning, growth-management and zoning regulations are determined to be inadequate. This model rights-based, home-rule ordinance has been passed by many, many counties all across the nation (though we hear nothing about it). They have successfully resisted factory feedlots, hydrofracking, water extraction, waste dumping and other environmental assaults.
If adopted by the Assembly of Delegates, this legislation would be placed on the ballot next November for residents’ approval. We are asking the Assembly to pass this amendment and allow the residents of Barnstable County to consider and vote on this self-protective charter change.
The Assembly of Delegates public hearing may be as soon as Feb. 17. Our town delegates value residents’ perspectives. I urge residents to contact their delegate to ask that the entire community have a voice on this very important effort to help protect our Cape Cod future. As residents of this county and as voters, we must be allowed to help set our course.
— Brian O’Malley is the Provincetown representative to the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates.