Spurred by a wave of intolerance in the national political discourse, local leaders last week signed up Mountain View as a "human rights city," pledging to protect life and liberty. By doing so, Mountain View joins cities such as San Francisco, Seattle and Eugene, Oregon in adopting the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a framework for guiding future local policies.
What this means for local government may be more symbol than substance, given that many of the same human rights are already enshrined in the U.S. constitution. But city leaders said it felt appropriate to reassert basic principles of dignity and tolerance given the circumstances surrounding the presidential election.
"We are facing a time when the kinds of speech have now become commonplace that, for 20 years, were not said publicly," said Mayor Pat Showalter. "At this time, we need to stand up and say that human rights are very important."
The Mountain View City Council approved becoming a human rights city in a 5-2 vote, with John Inks and John McAlister opposed at the Dec. 13 meeting.
The human rights proposal generated a fair amount of controversy when it was first floated. Many council members were lukewarm to the idea when it was proposed last year. They pointed out it was a symbolic gesture to reaffirm the city's principles, but they worried that signing the city onto international human rights rules could somehow leave Mountain View vulnerable to legal liability in the future.
Other took that concern a step further, hinting that the action could gradually surrender local governance to a foreign set of rules. City staff described the human rights framework as mostly aspirational, but Councilman John Inks warned the doctrine's language could result in real social-welfare costs for the city.
"This is a manifesto for socialism," he said."This is only a starting point; this is a springboard for a U.N. system of governance and economic policy."
Supporters described it very differently. Professor Francisco Rivera, director of Santa Clara University's International Human Rights Clinic, assured city officials they wouldn't face any extra legal or economic responsibility by adopting the U.N. human rights framework.
"This would send a much-needed message to our community at a much-needed time," he said. "It would force a discussion about the positive and negative impacts of the policies and priorities that you choose."
The action could prompt Mountain View to more closely investigate the human impact of certain projects, ssaid Councilman Ken Rosenberg. For example, if the council was considering redeveloping an apartment complex, staff could provide more details about any tenants being displaced.
City Manager Dan Rich warned that staff didn't have enough manpower to automatically include this analysis as part of every report to the council. He recommended council members designate which projects deserve extra attention in the coming months as part of their annual goal-setting meeting.
Councilman John McAlister opposed the proposal, saying he believed Mountain View leaders already strongly weigh the human rights value of any project. Approving a new framework seemed unnecessary, he said.