A Man for All Reasons

Mike Chappell finds himself in the right place at the right time to help Gonzaga convene a new environmental law clinic devoted to the Spokane River and other regional waterways.

Sometimes the best answer to a question is just another question.

“Why does everybody ask me that?” Mike Chappell, says, between bursts of laughter. “Like it’s some big shock.”

Well, it must be a reasonable question if so many ask it:

How the heck did Chappell wind up in Spokane?

The short answer to the question implicates the Chappell’s babysitter, though it’sMike Chappell much too short an answer to tell the whole story.

One place to start is to report that Michael J. Chappell is a still young lawyer, a 2002 graduate of Golden Gate University School of Law, with eight years of direct experience working on water issues. Last month, just a few days after the Center for Justice learned that it had been approved by the international Waterkeeper Alliance to head up a Spokane Riverkeeper project, Mike Chappell learned that he’d been hired by the Gonzaga University Law School to head up a new environmental law clinic. The specific purpose of the clinic is to work with the Spokane Riverkeeper and other Waterkeeper organizations in the region.

It’s no coincidence that Chappell’s arrival in Spokane was followed in short order by the Center’s successful application to head up a Waterkeeper project, and then by GU’s decision to host an environmental law clinic on water issues. But neither was it even close to being a foregone conclusion. Rather, the convergence of people and purposes is as uncanny as it is timely. And it’s pretty good news for fish and river users.

Chappell and his wife Cynthia knew they were headed for Spokane before Mike knew what, exactly, he’d be doing. They’d lived for several years in the San Francisco Bay Area where Mike, after being stationed at the Presidio while he was in the Army, had gone to law school and then to work for Lawyers for Clean Water, a small law firm with offices in San Francisco and Santa Monica. Lawyers for Clean Water was formed primarily to offer legal assistance to the state’s Waterkeeper organizations, all of whom are members of the Waterkeeper Alliance. The work provided what, for Chappell, is an ideal situation for how he likes to practice law.

But, two years ago, with two young sons about to enter school, the couple began looking for a more affordable community, with good public schools, and other family-friendly amenities. And that’s where the babysitter comes in because she was from Spokane, and was studying at an arts school in San Francisco. She told them her hometown seemed to have what they were looking for.

There were other factors. Though he grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Chappell was born in Montana and still has family ties to the inland Northwest. So while the Seattle area was also on his radar, Spokane was actually closer to home.

The Chappells had already planned their visit to Spokane in October 2007 when an email got forwarded to him at work. It was from Mike Petersen, the Lands Council executive director in Spokane who’d sent a note to Lawyers for Clean Water seeking information on one of the finalists in the running to get the contract for Spokane County’s new sewage treatment plant.

He replied to Petersen that while he’d be glad to talk on the phone, he’d be in Spokane in three days. So why not meet in person? Petersen asked the Center’s two water lawyers, Rick Eichstaedt and Bonne Beavers if they could sit in on the meeting, which was held over breakfast at a new restaurant in the Saranac Building where the Lands Council has its offices.

“It was just amazing,” Chappell recalls. “That meeting set the precedent for how it’s gone. We started talking and one of the things I said was that I’d done some research and saw there wasn’t a Waterkeeper program in Spokane and that I’d really like to see one. Rick said ‘oh, we’re seriously thinking about it.’ How flukey is that?”

“My first impression of Mike,” Eichstaedt recalls, “is that he was a very smart guy and I was very impressed that he’d worked with so many Waterkeeper projects in California. When he mentioned during the meeting that he was considering moving to Spokane I was very excited because it came at a time when we were going back and forth about how the Center could be the catalyst for a Spokane Riverkeeper project. We hadn’t made a firm commitment then, but we were thinking about it.”

On their last night in Spokane before returning to San Francisco, Mike and Cynthia had dinner at Clinkerdagger’s overlooking the Spokane falls.

“We hadn’t necessarily given each other opinions, we weren’t trying to talk the other person into it,” he said. “And so we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘well, what do you think?’ It turned out that both of us were very concerned that the other person would say ‘no, I can’t see how this will work. I can’t see us moving here.’ We both said ‘I’d move here tomorrow.’”

“It’s just unbelievable how kind and nice the people were,” he added. “That was a big selling point for us. We love the area, and we think it’s gorgeous. We love the river and we like the fact that the river is the focal point in Spokane.”

Shortly after the Chappell’s and their two young sons moved to Spokane this winter, a funny thing happened at a gathering in CFJ founder Jim Sheehan’s Peaceful Valley home. Having worked very hard to bring together a diverse group of Spokane-area people to brief them and get their feedback on a Spokane Riverkeeper project, Eichstaedt suddenly found himself without his star guest speaker.

Steve Fleischli, the man who recently succeeded Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., as president of the international Waterkeeper Alliance had been unable to make his flight into Spokane that evening.

Eichstaedt didn’t have to look far for someone who could step into Fleischli’s shoes for the evening because standing just a few feet away from him was Mike Chappell. Chappell simply put down his plate and gave the talk. No notes on hand, but none required either.

Among those on hand to hear him was Gonzaga University Law Professor Gerry Hess, who teaches environmental law and advises the law students’ environmental caucus at the school. Hess had been pulled to the meeting by Angela McIntire, one of the students he advises. McIntire is also an intern at the Center for Justice.

In short, Hess was so impressed by Chappell’s talk that he approached him afterward, handed him a card, and asked if he would consider talking to his environmental law class.

“I asked him,” Chappell recalls, “‘oh, by the way, do you have an environmental law clinic?’ He said we don’t but that we could talk about that too.”

Chappell gave his talk to Hess’s class in March and, says Hess, he not only displayed his knowledge for the law but spoke succinctly, on topic, and left lots of times for questions from students.

“The whole interaction,” Hess said, “went very, very well.”

And that led, in short order, to Hess handing Chappell off to Professor Larry A. Weiser, the director of the school’s Clinical Law Program.

“Mike was very clear,” says Hess, “that he would do it [get involved in legal issues affecting the river], no matter what. He said he was happy to do it with a law clinic, or privately, or through the Center for Justice.”

McIntire, for one, was thrilled to hear of the law school’s decision to bring Chappell to start the clinic. For whatever reason, she said, there’s recently been an increased interest in environmental law among new students at the school and the clinic offers what classwork can’t–real world experience in working actual cases.

“Honestly, for me,” she said, “I’ve been lucky enough to intern at the Center for Justice and gotten hands on experience that way. But I was pretty excited to learn that other students will now get to try their hands at it.”

Hess was equally pleased. Although the law school has had periodic law clinics on environmental issues, this one will be the first geared toward water law issues and cases.

“The other thing,” Hess said, “is that the law school itself is right on the Spokane River. What a great fit, that we’re here and the river is right there, flowing right on by.”

“Having Gonzaga involved in this is a big deal,” says Eichstaedt. “It signals to the community and to everyone else that protecting the Spokane River is not just a priority for the Center. It shows that these issues are important enough that Gonzaga created a law clinic to focus on the Spokane River and other waterways in the region.”

For his part, Chappell expects to be busy this summer in helping select students for the fall clinic and trying to structure a learning curve that will allow them to get involved in case work as soon as possible. As for the Spokane River and its watershed, he says he knows a long and challenging task awaits, especially given the toxic metals in the river’s upper watershed, including the contaminated sediment in Lake Coeur d’Alene, where the river starts.

Nevertheless, he says he’s thrilled to have the new opportunity that the clinic affords.

“Cynthia and I were talking about it the other night,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how everything has fallen in place here.”

–CFJ