Lafayette’s Climate Change Bill of Rights: A small town grapples with a big idea

The absence of three of its seven members Tuesday evening prompted the Lafayette City Council to postpone its vote on a controversial proposed Climate Bill of Rights and Protections. Still, the crowd that packed the council chambers was a clear sign that the proposal is striking a nerve with Coloradans across the Front Range.

More than 100 residents, activists and industry representatives showed up to the meeting to make their voices heard. Most had to wait outside a set of glass doors because the small room simply couldn’t hold them all.

The Climate Bill of Rights was introduced by Council two weeks ago, and would codify the right to a healthy climate and environment into Lafayette’s Constitution. It would also legalize civil disobedience when residents feel that right is under threat. The rights to free speech and assembly are constitutionally protected, but various forms of nonviolent direct action can lead to charges such as trespassing, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace. The proposed measure would protect protesters from such charges.

After the Colorado Supreme Court ruled last May that cities do not have the right to regulate or ban fracking, many environmentally-minded Coloradans feel that civil disobedience is their last remaining option to push back against the oil and gas industry. If the measure passes, Lafayette will become only the third local government in the nation to legalize nonviolent direct action. Two small Pennsylvania townships recently passed similar measures when faced with proposed wastewater injection wells.

Opponents of the measure, including a few Lafayette residents and representatives from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Farm Bureau, called the proposal “overly broad,” “unconstitutional” and “plainly illegal.” Some expressed fears that the measure’s vague writing could lead to neighbors protesting neighbors for activities such as barbecuing and driving cars.

A COGA community liaison asked the council to address community concerns over fracking through “existing mechanisms,” not new ordinances. Mark Matthews, who provides outside legal counsel to the industry group, said the measure “clearly conflicts with state law.”

Longtime environmental activist Phil Doe disagreed, arguing that the Colorado Constitution grants all Coloradans the right to self-govern, and that this sovereignty cannot be overruled by city or even state law. The majority of supporters chose not to refute the notion that the Climate Bill of Rights would go against the state Constitution, instead focusing on the need for such a measure. Many recalled the words and teachings of activists like Martin Luther King Jr., who said that citizens have a “moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Big-picture concepts like these — morality, justice, responsibility and the rule of law — underscored the testimonies of residents not only of Lafayette, but also Erie, Broomfield, Centennial, Boulder and Denver, who traveled to weigh in on the issue.

When one opponent said that the passage of such an ordinance could lead to war and called its supporters “radicals,” Cliff Willmeng took offense. A longtime Lafayette resident and active member of his nursing union, Willmeng noted that such words long have been used to discredit union workers fighting for fair wages and reasonable working conditions. Several speakers noted that some states still had laws prohibiting women’s suffrage, gay and interracial marriage and other civil rights until surprisingly recently.

During his own statement, Willmeng motioned to those in the audience who had spoken on behalf of the oil and gas industry. “They’re paid to say those things,” he said. Then he paused, raised his index finger in the air, and swiveled to face them. “We’re not afraid of you!” he shouted.

At the end of the public comment period, the glass doors were opened and a small group led many others in song. It was a rendition of an old union number: “Which side are you on?”

The proposal’s vote will be rescheduled for a time when at least six council members can attend. The exact date has not yet been set.