“Revolutions always start small—we know that. The Abolitionists started with 12 kids in the 1840s. This one has started small as well with a handful of communities intent on turning the existing system upside down. Hopefully, if we move forward it will make it OK for others to follow in the path. And we must make that path by actually walking it.”
— Andrew Feldman, sponsor of “Las Vegas Community Water Rights and Self-Government Ordinance”
April 2, 2012
CONTACT: Ben Price, (717) 254-3233
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(Monday, April 2, 2012- Las Vegas, NM) In front of a standing-room only crowd of residents, by a vote of 3-1, the City Council, Las Vegas, New Mexico enacted the Las Vegas Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance, drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which places into law a local Bill of Rights, including the right of all residents, natural communities and ecosystems to water from natural sources, the right of residents to unpolluted water for use in agriculture, the rights of natural ecosystems to exist and flourish, and of residents to protect their environment by enforcing these rights. Also enumerated is the right to a sustainable energy future, and the right to local self-government.
To protect these rights, the ordinance makes it unlawful “for any corporation to engage in the extraction of oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons within the City of Las Vegas and its watersheds, for any corporation to engage in the extraction of water from any surface or subsurface source within the City of Las Vegas and its watersheds for use in the extraction of subsurface oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons, to import water or any other substance…used in the extraction of oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons, into the City of Las Vegas or its watersheds for use in the extraction of subsurface oil, natural gas or other hydrocarbons within the City of Las Vegas and its watersheds.”
It is now also unlawful “for any corporation…to deposit, store, transport or process waste water, produced water, frack water, brine or other materials, chemicals or by-products used in the extraction of oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons, into the land, air or waters within the City of Las Vegas,” or to “use a corporation to construct or maintain infrastructure related to the extraction of oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons within the City of Las Vegas or its watershed.”
The process for adoption of this local law was punctuated by drama. On February 15th Council member Andrew Feldman introduced the bill and the Council voted unanimously to advertise the ordinance and to place it on the agenda for a final hearing and vote on passage at the regularly scheduled March 21st Council meeting. Mr. Feldman stated:
“Along with the City of Pittsburgh, this is how we change federal law, folks. It starts at the bottom. We do this, and other cities do it. It starts a ball rolling that hopefully will not stop. We change our laws in this great country that protect us instead of protecting corporations.”
At the hearing, no one spoke in opposition to the proposed law, but numerous voices rose in support. From the 115 community members in attendance, some spoke eloquently of the revolutionary nature of this bill. Local proponent for the ordinance Miguel Pacheco commented “This is a time we have to take a stand. This is not going to be easy, but it is the right thing to do. Our congress is holding us back. Our federal government makes the wrong choices for us in many instances. That’s why this ordinance gives rights to nature, to us human beings. It elevates life. It puts corporations down where they should be. This ordinance is protecting innocents, all those who can’t speak for themselves. Profit is not what human beings are about. We need to care for one another, to take care of our environment, future generations and all living life forms.”
Lee Einer of Las Vegas stated that “Our minds have been colonized, just as our land has been colonized. We live within a legal framework that considers corporations to be persons, and Mother Nature to be property. I think that’s strange! I think we have it backwards! I think Mother Nature is a person! I think corporations are property! I think it’s time to construct our laws differently.”
Mayor Alfonso Ortiz waxed eloquently in favor of the proposed law, saying: “Be serious about what is going on here. We are challenging the establishment, federal laws. If people are looking for profit–money isn’t going to mean anything if we have no drinking water. It’s not just important to vote for this ordinance, but to follow through and make sure other communities do as well. If we pass this, we will set a model for the county to pass it easily, for Mora County to pass it easily–and hopefully other counties–we need to emphasize this to the New Mexico Association of Counties and the Municipal League.”
However, at the meeting on March 21st, Council and community members were dismayed to learn that the mayor and Alfonso Ortiz and the City attorney, David Romero, decided to omit the question from the agenda, so that a vote could not take place. Residents were told there would be a second hearing and a motion for a second advertisement only.
At that meeting, the mayor, who stands for re-election on April 17th, stated “I feel very comfortable with the ordinance. I just want you to understand it…we’re not against it. We’re in favor of it. You’re dealing with friends. It’s a given we want to do the right thing. I’m already convinced. The ultimate goal is that the ordinance passes.”
Mr. Romero had this to say: “I’m in full favor of working with you to strengthen this ordinance. The administration is not against this ordinance.”
None-the-less, a vote was prevented. There was further discussion and testimony from community members and against the protests of the mayor and city attorney, a unanimous vote by Council scheduled a special meeting for the vote on adoption within two weeks, prior to the upcoming election. And again, the agenda was manipulated and the special meeting scheduled for three weeks out, rather than the two weeks voted upon by Council. Supporters of the ordinance discovered the change and notified the bill’s sponsor, Council Member Andrew Feldman, and the meeting date was corrected to April 2nd.
At the April 2nd meeting, with more than 100 residents in attendance, as well as Karin Forster, attorney and executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, the mayor and city attorney exposed their opposition to the ordinance publicly.
Mr. Romero stated that the ordinance “is preempted by state law and it has language which implies if this law is challenged, the city could consider seceding from the union or acting as a sovereign nation. That type of language in any ordinance is inappropriate. I would like to note that does not mean that from what I’ve heard that the average person is against the ordinance… And there is a 2nd part: the Community Bill of Rights… that section is just out of bounds with the laws as we know it…I feel so strongly about this that if it is passed by the council, under my oath as city attorney, I may have to challenge the issue myself as part of my duties to…”
At this point the attorney’s comments became inaudible as the residents shouted “Resign, Resign!”
Mayor Ortiz stated, “I’m concerned about this ordinance because of the significance…If we were to look at this ordinance and look at elements of it, and maybe include some things, exclude some things…I think that the majority of the people are in favor of it, but there’s little flaws, little clues in there that can be read in different ways…”
When the vote came, Councilor Tonita Gurule Giron voted yes, Councilor Vince Howell no, Councilor David Romero voted yes, and Councilor Andrew Feldman voted yes.
After the vote the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association’s Karin Forster told the city attorney the oil companies would be filing suit against the City of Las Vegas.
As a final “protest” against adoption of the ordinance, the mayor has so far refused to sign it, although he has no legal authority to halt or veto the law.
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, located in Mercersburg, has been working with people in Pennsylvania since 1995 to assert their fundamental rights to democratic local self-governance, and to enact laws which end destructive and rights-denying corporate action aided and abetted by state and federal governments.