Spokane Council Decision Raises Legal & Constitutional Questions

The Spokane City Council recently voted to include a new policy initiative on November ballots that would fine railroad companies for running trains carrying crude oil and coal through the city. The measure immediately incited responses from local trade groups, labor leaders and agricultural interests while raising legitimate legal questions, including concerns from the city’s own policy advisor.

Prior to the July 26 public hearing, Keep Washington Competitive called attention to the importance of the area’s rail industry and encouraged a strong turnout to voice opposition. Matthew Lebsack, chairman of the SMART/UTU (Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation Division/United Transport Union, Local 105), was one of the region’s labor leaders who questioned the council’s policy proposal.

“The livelihoods of so many of our members in western Washington are directly connected to rail and the substantial investments rail makes to ensure the safe transport of all commodities,” Lebsack said. “This is a shortsighted measure being pushed largely by out-of-state special interest groups who don’t understand the role of rail in Spokane or Washington state’s economy.”

Media outlets, including The Spokesman Review, the Lens, and Shift WA published articles questioning the proposal. The Shift WA piece argued that tampering with the rail and oil firm’s attempts to conduct business across state lines was in violation of a very fundamental aspect of the United States Constitution.

“Last week the Spokane City Council decided to ignore reality – and the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause – and voted to put on the November ballot an initiative that would fine railroad companies for shipping oil and uncovered coal through Spokane.”

The Spokesman Review editorial board was equally quick to point out the shortcomings of the ordinance and particularly its potential waste of taxpayer dollars to cover fees generated from legal challenges.

“It becomes a game of Whack-An-Oil-Train that Spokane loses, throwing away money for attorneys in the process […] Money spent on attorneys would be far better spent on providing them the best possible gear and training.”

Additionally, the Lens noted a 10-page opinion provided to the Council by its own attorney and policy adviser, Brian McClatchey, confirming the measure has little chance of surviving legal probes.

“There is likely a very small chance that this proposed ordinance would survive a legal challenge based on the preemption provision of the FRSA. The Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 also likely preempts the proposed ballot measure.”

The rail industry is an integral part of the Spokane area. Not only do the railroads play a tremendous role in the community, they enable countless peripheral industries to thrive. These industrial trades have for years created the kind of family-wage jobs that support the community, and the Council’s efforts to eliminate them are detrimental only to the hardworking people that support Spokane County.

It’s time to make our voices heard. Visit this letter-desk to send a message to the Spokane City Council and support the lifeblood of Spokane County. Every letter makes a difference.

Visit the letter-desk here.