The City Council on Tuesday approved the Sustainability Bill of Rights, a document that calls on city officials to recognize the rights of natural organisms and communities to 'exist, regenerate and flourish' and gives individuals the ability to sue to protect those rights. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITY HALL — A dual measure before the City Council Tuesday to support legal protections for the environment and end corporate personhood got a split response from elected officials who enthusiastically supported a healthy environment but watered down the call to restrict rights to living beings.

Council members unanimously passed a resolution backing a bill of rights for the environment, which would give legal standing to city officials to protect the environment within Santa Monica’s borders if passed as a law in the future.

Four of the six present — Councilmember Pam O’Connor was absent — couldn’t get behind the second piece, which asked the council to throw its support behind the Move to Amend campaign, a national movement to “clearly establish” that corporations do not have the same rights as individuals.

People from across California flocked to the meeting to support the two resolutions, which they felt bolstered one another by codifying the rights of the environment and restricting the organizations that they felt hurt it and democracy.

Almost 40 speakers took to the podium in favor, including students from Santa Monica High School, members of City Hall’s Task Force on the Environment and the Los Angeles affiliate of Move to Amend.

Many gathered ahead of the meeting to hold a demonstration on the steps of City Hall.

Jenna Perelman, a senior at Santa Monica High School and co-president of the Solar Alliance, told council members that responsibility to protect the environment against corporate interests belongs to everyone.

“During the demonstration, I spoke about the spiritual, ‘He has the Whole World in His Hands,’” Perelman said. “But ‘he’ can change.”

Despite the feeling of the assembled that the two resolutions went hand in hand, the City Council chose to consider each separately.

The Sustainability Bill of Rights, which guarantees the right for residents to enjoy a healthy environment, passed unanimously and with enthusiasm.

Although the resolution does not obligate City Hall to anything at this point, it was an important step, said Cris Gutierrez, of Santa Monica Neighbors Unite!.

It pairs the Sustainability Bill of Rights with Santa Monica’s Sustainable City Plan, which will be updated this year, and means that part of that update will incorporate specific commitments to the environment and putting those commitments in the form of policies and statutes.

That will take the Sustainable City Plan from a well-intentioned, but voluntary, effort to one with teeth and consequences.

“This is a big paradigm shift,” Gutierrez said. “It’s an important one, and now we lay the groundwork and get people to understand.”

Activists and task force members modified their request to make it more likely that the bill of rights would become law in Santa Monica.

The task force initially planned to present a fully-formed ordinance to the City Council, said Mark Gold, chair of the task force and outgoing Heal the Bay president.

“After further consultation with the city attorney, we chose a slower approach. We’ll take this a couple of steps at a time,” Gold said.

That was done to ensure success of the ordinance when it comes back before the council, perhaps when the Sustainable City Plan returns to the council for an update this year.

Corporations are people, too

The Move to Amend resolution didn’t gain as much traction with the City Council.

The movement targets the rights of corporations, which share almost all of the same protections as individuals under the U.S. Constitution. It aims to alter the Constitution to provide rights only to living creatures and establish that money does not equal free speech.

Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis feared that denying corporations “personhood” under the law would have unintended consequences.

Small businesses organized as corporations for legal purposes could find themselves open to search and seizure, or corporate cell phones could be tapped as they would not have a right to privacy, Davis said.

David Delk, coordinator for Move to Amend in Portland, Ore., said that many of the protections given under the Constitution would still exist on the state level.

“Mom-and-pop stores are covered by their state charters. The rights they get from that are still in place,” Delk said.

Even so, council members seemed nervous to take on something as large as a constitutional amendment without further public process.

“This may be symbolic, or it may be more than symbolic,” said Mayor Richard Bloom. “Imagine taking that step in this city that believes in transparency, and open and full debate.”

Council members Kevin McKeown and Terry O’Day stood against their colleagues.

The resolution did not require that all rights be taken from corporations, just that they don’t get all the rights of people, O’Day said.

“Tonight, we simply lend our voice to the vision that it describes,” he said.

A substitute motion, supported by Councilmember Bob Holbrook, Bobby Shriver, Bloom and Davis instead called for overturning the 2010 Supreme Court Decision Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission.

That decision was the impetus for both resolutions before the council Tuesday.

It stated that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts could not be limited under the First Amendment protecting free speech.

The decision opened the floodgates for corporate money into politics and earned the ire of activists who felt their speech being drowned out in a barrage of private dollars.

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