Thursday, March 31, 2011

Turning Points

Sometimes it's hard to see how the Center for Justice makes a difference. Sometimes it's not.

When he came to the microphone on March 17th, Center for Justice attorney Rick Eichstaedt was fighting the lingering effects of a bad cold and gamely deflecting the awkwardness of having his last name mangled by the chairman of the Spokane County Planning Commission. And then he started speaking.

What soon became clear is that he had the planning commissioners attention before he'd even said hello. Eichstaedt was there to elaborate on a letter he'd sent a few days earlier, about why Spokane County's "emergency" move to locate a jail on rural land west of Spokane was unlawful.

The ten-page letter had done much of his talking for him. As the commission's vice chair, Pete Rayner would later tell a reporter for The Inlander, "We [the Planning Commission] all had questions, and those questions needed to be answered. The questions that came up just in the dialogue there, issues raised by the Center for Justice: Is what we're doing legal?...Everybody read [Eichstaedt's] letter and said, "we need to know answers to these things."

To say Eichstaedt's letter packed a punch is too subtle. Less than two weeks later, on March 29th, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and the county's three commissioners lined up beneath a rain-sheltering tent and, in a cascade of short speeches, removed the "emergency" jail from public consideration for the remainder of 2011. Referring to the threat of a possible legal action, they said they would not be bringing a $200 million or so bond issue to a vote this year.

A few observations about this:

1) As Rick explained in his letter, the purported jail "emergency" was baseless. The county had violated its own rules by not even bothering to document the emergency condition. Notwithstanding recent press about jail overcrowding, the prisoner population in Spokane County has actually declined in recent years, corresponding with nationwide trends. Moreover, as a consultant emphasized in a 2008 report to the county: "There is no relationship between crime and jail size. The size of a jail is determined, to a large extent, by the policy choices made [by] the system and the availability of alternatives." [italics in original.]

2) The campaign to build the new jail has involved a formidable sales push from the sheriff and the commissioners, including a sizable contract for former KHQ-TV reporter, Tobby Hatley, to help pitch the new jail scheme to voters.

3) Much of the land-use case law that Eichstaedt used to make his case about the illegality of building a new jail outside the county's urban growth area comes from his own case files. Especially in recent years, Spokane County has been a notorious violator of the letter and spirit of the state's Growth Management Act. Land use planning is about the most tedious thing government does. But it's a high stakes matter in Spokane where the "Near Nature, Near Perfect" landscape is constantly under assault by developers (aided by pro-development County Commissioners) who see profits in unmitigated urban sprawl. Working with groups like Futurewise and the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County, Eichstaedt and the Center for Justice have been quietly effective in fighting back against illegal development. It's not just a matter of protecting wetlands, streams and aesthetic green belts--unchallenged urban sprawl also comes at a high cost for taxpayers because of the demands it places on public infrastructure.
On the Center’s website we have a modest inventory of stories that exemplify the sort of cases we handle day in and day out to help ordinary people, without means, solve problems. The difference we can make in their lives is about as tangible as it gets. At the other end of the spectrum, Eichstaedt and the Center's timely intervention in the jail controversy illustrates what it means for us to be, as Breean Beggs once described it, "the community's law firm."

Ironically, it was Planning Commissioner Pete Rayner who connected the dots between the jail controversy and earlier debacles that have shaken public confidence in local government in recent years. "I don't want to be a part of a Bigelow Gulch or a River Park Square," Rayner told the Inlander. Perhaps it goes without saying that the Center and its lawyers were deeply involved in both controversies, fighting on behalf of the public interest in open government and due process.

As a former client, I've witnessed the importance of the Center’s presence in a very direct way. But it's more than that. I'm old enough to have been a progressive activist in Spokane/Eastern Washington in the days before the Center existed. This week's victory in the jail controversy just reaffirms what I've seen in the years since the Center for Justice opened its doors, which is that the law firm has fundamentally changed the way Spokane works. If you agree, I invite to go here and make a donation to support our work.

--Tim Connor

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