Tomah residents talk to a community-rights expert about how to protect their environment

By Tim Wohlers

Concerned citizens attended a workshop in Tomah last month, to learn about the community-rights movement and ways that they might be able to get involved.
Leading the workshop was environmental activist Paul Cienfuegos. 
“The community-rights movement is basically a movement of people who are sick and tired of waiting for our government to protect our health and welfare,” Cienfuegos said.   “We have and can exercise our authority to govern ourselves.” 
Cienfuegos has visited various communities in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota over the last four years – educating residents about the way to secure their right to a safe and healthy environment. 
He brought his expertise to Tomah after the city’s residents expressed interest in his workshop. 
To start the seminar, the community-rights educator explained how the movement began nearly two decades ago in a rural farming community called Wells Township, PA. 
“It’s a mostly republican farm community with about 500 farmers,” Cienfuegos said.  “And they were sick and tired of trying to figure out how to stop this 15,000-head factory farm of hogs from moving into their town.” 
He recounted the town’s early efforts to stop the factory farm from coming to their community, including a visit to the capitol so residents could speak with someone in the Dept. of Agriculture.
They asked the assistant director of the department to deny the factory farm’s permit application. 
The state employee explained that his job was not to prohibit corporate activity, but to regulate it.  He said that was the sole purpose of a regulatory agency such as his. 
So the residents of Wells Township sought help from a public interest, environmental law firm called the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF).  They asked the firm to draft an ordinance that would ban corporate farming in their community, even if it were illegal. 
The township supervisors passed the ordinance unanimously. 
“The local community did something which is illegal,” Cienfuegos said.  “It was a direct challenge to corporate right, state preemption and Dillon’s Rule.  But the company still left.” 
Word spread quickly about what Wells Township had done, and other communities began to pass the ordinance as well.  Within three or four years, 20 conservative farming communities had enacted it into law. 
“It just took off from there,” Cienfuegos said.  “Within a few more years, 80 communities in rural Pennsylvania had banned corporations from dumping sewage sludge on their farmland.” 
Cienfuegos then cited two recent cases involving community-rights ordinances. 
He handed out copies of both ordinances, so that participants could see what the laws look like.  The group spent the remainder of their time going over one of the proposals, which would ban frac sand mining in Winneshiek County, IA. 
“We go over one of them in the last hour of the workshop,” Cienfuegos said, “so that they have a sense of how a community-rights ordinance is structured.” 
The community-rights educator ended the workshop by inviting everyone to a future gathering. 
There, they would learn how to draft their own ordinance that could be presented to local leaders in an attempt secure rights for the communities in which they live.