By Paula Garcia
The people of Mora County care deeply about protecting our way of life and have taken a strong stand in defense of our land and water.
I share the values of many of the supporters of the recently enacted Mora County Community Rights Ordinance. We have the same concerns that existing state and federal laws are not enough to protect our precious water from contamination from oil and drilling. We probably would agree that counties targeted for fracking are being left to fend for themselves in dealing with the disproportionate economic and political power of the oil and gas industry.
What can we do as a county to protect our health and safety? Counties can either ban or regulate oil and gas drilling. Most counties enact regulatory ordinances. Santa Fe County has enacted one of the strongest in the country. At least one ban in the U.S. is having some success in the courts. An ordinance that bans fracking was recently upheld by an appeals court in New York. This test case could eventually create some favorable case law for other bans with similar language around the U.S. By contrast, an ordinance similar to the Mora County Community Rights Ordinance was stuck down by a United States District Court in Pennsylvania.
The Mora County Commission should have taken more time to study our options, to consider pros and cons of the different approaches, and to come to a reasoned decision.
The Mora County Community Rights Ordinance is part of an experiment in its very early stages. The Community and Environmental Legal Defense Fund provided a template ordinance that not only bans oil and gas extraction but also contains several other challenges to the constitution.
This experimental ordinance states that people are sovereign, that federal and state law cannot preempt county law, that corporations are not persons, and that nature has rights.
These challenges to the constitution are very well intentioned but the language raises questions. On the preemption issue, the ordinance states that if the state or federal government attempt to preempt local law, Mora County will consider separating, i.e. seceding from those other levels of government. I doubt there is broad agreement among the people of Mora County on the matter of separation or secession. We should also consider whether certain changes to the law should be done through the legislative process rather than forcing the issue through the courts using a county ordinance as the vehicle.
This is where I and many of my constituents have questions. Can we persuade the courts to overturn decades or centuries of case law? As elected officials making decisions that could result in protracted litigation, I believe we should get clear answers on the likelihood of whether we can prevail in court.
Most attorneys agree that the provisions of the Community Rights Ordinance are not likely to be upheld. What is our backup plan in case the ordinance is struck down? If the courts do not rule in favor of Mora County, we should be prepared to enact effective, long-term protections for our land and water that have a fighting chance of being upheld.
Meanwhile, Mora County government would endure the stress and financial strain that comes with major litigation. We already struggle to provide basic services such as the Mora County Ambulance and Emergency Medical Services. While CELDF waives their legal fees, other costs such as court fees and expert witness costs are not covered. I suppose Mora County will need to solicit donations for its legal defense.
Being involved in this issue has revealed to me the importance of fundamental reform of our laws and the changes that are urgently needed at the state and federal level. I hope that some of the energy to enact local ordinances will also be directed toward campaigns to change state and federal laws. Expecting all of these sweeping changes to be shouldered by Mora County through a test case is a bit much. I am open to initiating a legal battle when I fully understand whether we have a fighting chance of winning. I also understand that there are times to pursue legal battles on principle even if you expect to lose in court. I would have appreciated the opportunity to have an open and honest debate about this.
I respect the convictions of the supporters of the Community Rights Ordinance and I share the concerns about the harmful effects polluting industries. Yes, we must protect our communities and the land and water that sustain us. The people are right to expect their county commissioners to do everything in our power to protect the land and water. But I did not vote in favor of the Community Right Ordinance because of unanswered questions about the legal strategy and because we should have taken the time to fully consider all of our options.
At this point, I will be supportive of Mora County’s legal battles that are looming. The ordinance is going to gain a lot of attention for Mora but, ultimately, the courts will decide if it can be enforced. I remain deeply committed to protecting our precious land and water. I hope our community can remain strong in our beliefs as we take up the cause of defending our way of life.
I believe we share the same goals even when we disagree about how to reach them.
Ultimately, we all want Mora County to be a healthy, safe and vibrant place to raise our families.
Paula Garcia is a Mora County commissioner and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org