PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire County's largest city may become the next Massachusetts municipality to support a growing movement to limit corporate campaign spending, following a unanimous endorsement from the City Council subcommittee on Ordinances & Rules on Monday.
Councilors heard commentary for and against the proposed resolution, during a public hearing on the issue prompted by a petition brought forth by a number Pittsfield residents last month. The resolution calls on Congress to "to pass and send to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court decision in Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission and restoring constitutional rights and fair elections to the people."
The decision, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, found that putting limits on campaign spending of corporations and unions was a violation of the First Amendment.
"Citizens United is the culmination of a corporate rights movement that began in the 1970s," said Paul Schack, one of the co-presenters of the petition. "Corporations and their lobbyists have been promoting this idea of corporate rights in an attempt to invalidate environmental and consumer protection laws democratically enacted by Congress and the states.
"We have a constitutional and democratic duty to prevent corporations from exercising undue influence over our local and national elections," he said.
"I think it's a badly needed action to support our state Legislature," said Mark Miller, who offered his perspective as a candidate for state representative in two recent elections. In 2011, Miller nearly became the first Green-Rainbow Party candidate elected to the Legislature, losing the race for 3rd Berkshire District by 92 votes in October's special election.
"People out there are just totally disgusted with the political process," said Miller. "That's largely to be blamed on money just overflowing into the political system and corrupting everything."
Proponents of the petition, which now has around 300 Pittsfield signatures, say that although the state has already passed a resolution, local action is still relevant and helpful to what would be a massive challenge in getting the U.S. Constitution amended.
"This movement is in its infancy," said Frank Farkas, who helped spearhead the petition. "It will be at least several years before the Legislature gets to vote on an actual amendment. Meanwhile, it will be important to keep Beacon Hill mindful of our support and resolute regarding the amendment."
"The movement to amend the Constitution is not anti-corporations; corporations are useful things, they encourage economic growth by allowing people to start and engage in businesses, without exposing themselves to the personal liability," said Schack. "Although corporations contribute to our society, they are not actually members of our society. They cannot vote or run for office, and because they may be managed controlled by non-residents, their interests conflict in fundamental respects with those of eligible voters."
However, a distinct note of general anti-corporate sentiment throughout a video used by the petitioners to help explain the concept of the amendment movement drew criticism from some.
"It talks about corporations and paints them like evil empires, that they're against creating jobs, against health care, and it paints all corporations that way," said City Councilor Barry Clairmont. "Personally I find that kind of offensive."
Two other Pittsfield residents present Monday adamantly opposed the suggested resolution.
Richard Nadolny expressed great skepticism with the proposal, calling it a "chipping away" of our country's constitutional law akin to early Nazi Germany.
"What's going on here with the proposed amendment is nothing more than a blatant attack on the First Amendment, hoping to eviscerate it and leave control in the hands of those running government at any particular time," said Nadolny.
Nadolny said the proposed amendment would have far-reaching effects not only on large corporations but on unions, nonprofits, church groups and other incorporated structures.
"Who's going to make the rule on who can speak, and who can organize, and who can get together?"
Alexander Blumin, a frequent attendee and speaker at city meetings, expressed even stronger displeasure with the proposal, asking that the item be removed from the committee's agenda. Blumin asserted the belief that all discussion of such a resolution by the city government was prohibited by law, because of its political nature.
"You have no right to consider any political view, any political questions," said Blumin. "What you are trying to do is absolutely illegal."
Massachusetts General Law forbids the use of city resources for "political campaign" purposes, which it defines as "promoting or opposing a candidate's nomination or election to public office or a political party office such as a state, ward, town or city party committee; promoting or opposing a vote on a ballot question; or aiding, promoting or antagonizing the interests of a political party."
It does not, however, preclude discussion of issues of national politics nor the passing of non-binding resolutions such as the one called for in the current petition. City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan maintained that consideration of the petition did not appear to violate any legal restrictions.
"I think we've done something like this before, prior councilors have done something like this before," said Degnan. "I don't see an ethics violation."
A check of City Council records shows that in February 2003, the council voted 6-5 to pass a resolution against the impending invasion of Iraq.
The four city councilors present at the subcommittee meeting ultimately expressed favor with the petition, recommending approval when it goes before the full council next week.
Councilor Jonathan Lothrop pointed out that much of our current constitutional government is the result of amendments, and sees the need for one to limit the current climate of record corporate spending, and sees these kind of resolutions as "the start of the conversation."
"I recognize that this is an uphill battle," said Lothrop. Amending the constitution is not an easy thing, and it will take many years, and many conversations."
"I feel comfortable throwing my support behind this," said committee Chairwoman Melissa Mazzeo. "Supporting what I see out in the community, and what my legislators in the commonwealth have said."
A February 2012 survey by WHDH and Suffolk University of Massachusetts voters conducted revealed that 83 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of independents oppose the Supreme Court's decision.
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