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Environmental Justice Principles Fall Victim to Semantic Attack

It was all about the words at the recent Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) meeting. Commissioners appearing litigiously gun-shy, were particularly picky about the language in the four environmental justice principles brought before them for adoption.

While the principles seemed straightforward enough, (see sidebar) the discussion concerning them bounced all over the room before a half-measure was finally settled on--the first two principles (as originally worded) were adopted and the commissioners gave themselves four more months to consider the last two.

Proposed Principles from the Minority Citizens Advisory Committee
1. Create an open and transparent public participation process that empowers low-income communities and communities of color to participate in decision making that affects them
2. Collect accurate and current data essential to defining and understanding the presence and extent of inequities, if any, in transportation funding based on race and income
3. MTC should change its discretionary investment decisions and action to mitigate identified inequities.
4. Ensure that adverse or potentially adverse disproportionate project impacts on low-income and/or minority communities are addressed and mitigated by project sponsors prior to MTC project or funding approval.

“We don’t want to draw a line in the sand,” said Anne W. Halsted, of the San Francisco Conservation and Development Commission, who left before the vote. “But if it takes a couple of months to come up with the right language so we won’t be litigious, we should do it.”

The lengthy debate seemed a bit odd given the amount of time the MCAC had been working on the principles and the number of times it had already gone before the MTC. The March 22 meeting was at least the fifth time commissioners were presented with the four environmental justice principles which were hammered out over a two-year period by the Minority Citizens Advisory Committee (MCAC) of the MTC.

Working with MTC staff members, MCAC developed a clearly-worded proposal to present to the MTC for approval. But, even after a laborious and careful process the wording apparently wasn’t right for the commissioners or their legal counsel.

Asked by the Legislation Committee to review the principles and provide a legal analysis, MTC General Counsel Francis Chin instead got out his red pen and made a number of revisions and changes to the document. By the time he was finished key words had been struck out and the principles themselves had been gutted, according to members of the MCAC and of the Transportation Justice Working Group (TJWG).

“He took the heart right out them,” said Frank Gallo, a former chairperson of the MCAC. Current MCAC chair Carlos Valenzuela called the General Counsel’s version “environmental jello.”

The result of Chin’s efforts was a second set of principles. Chin’s version took out the words “transparent” and “empowerment” from principle 1 and rewrote principles 3 and 4 in decidedly passive language that appeared to excuse the MTC from having to take in any real corrective action.

Both the MCAC and Chin’s versions were presented along with Chins’ recommendation that if the commissioners decided to stick with the original principles as developed by MCAC that they be “received” rather than adopted.

“Receiving the principles will result in them just being put on a back shelf somewhere and never being acted on,” said Gallo.

The MCAC principles would lay the basic foundation for developing environmental justice policies and procedures as well as guide the MTC’s approach to its funding allocations, helping to ensure that transit dollars, of which the MTC distributes billions, are spread out more equitably. Lila Hussain, a transportation justice advocate from Urban Habitat and a member of the Transportation Justice Working Group explained that contrary to the liability concerns expressed by the Commissioners, the principles would provide the broad framework for ensuring full legal compliance with the executive and federal orders on environmental justice.

She said, “It’s surprising the Commission couldn’t express such a simple commitment.”

Currently, the MTC is facing a discrimination lawsuit brought by bus riders. In December a district court judge ruled that the class action suit filed against the agency April 19, 2005 can go forward.

The suit, brought by people of color, asserts that MTC discriminates against poor riders by maintaining a “separate and unequal” transit system. The action points to funding for a state-of-the-art rail system, CalTrain and BART which are used by a disproportionate number of affluent whites versus a shrinking bus system used by low-income people. Further the suit shows that riders of the systems serving the higher income populations receive subsidies in some cases nearly four times that of bus passengers.

The apparition of the pending suit hung in the air as the commissioners discussed the environmental justice principles at the meeting. However, not all of the MTC members confused the lawsuit with the adoption of the EJ principles, a process assigned by them to their own advisory committee. After the protracted debate, Tom Ammiano, City and County of San Francisco, Irma L. Anderson, Cities of Contra Costa County, Mark DeSaulnier, Contra Costa County, Steve Kinsey, Marin County and Cities, and Pamela Torliatt, Association of Bay Area Governments, broke ranks and voted to support a motion that would have adopted all four principals as originally worded. (See sidebar for voting list.)

“We are looking at social justice here,” said Ammiano. “It’s bigger than just the law. When it comes right down to it we owe people more than what we’re doing.”

But their five votes weren’t enough and the first motion, to adopt Principles 1 and 2 and wait four months to decide on 3 and 4, was unanimously passed. During the grace period MTC has instructed staff to gather pertinent data to determine if the “inequities” addressed in principles 3 and 4 truly do exist and if there is need for corrective action.

Stepping up to the microphone after the vote was taken, Nancy Cross, a supporter of the MCAC principles, asked the Commission to go the extra mile in their search for information.

“In the light of the outcome, MTC should have a special public forum to reveal inequities in the transit system,” she said.

Transportation advocate Hussain went further, “If the MTC commissioners, including their chair Jon Rubin, can’t support basic equity, we need to go back to our Mayors and our city councils to get some commissioners appointed who can.”