Move to Amend Advances

December 19, 2012
Ryan Whisner and Chris Welch

A referendum on the concept of "corporate personhood" and generally curbing election spending by special interest groups will appear on the April 2 election ballots in the cities of Fort Atkinson and Whitewater.

Councils in both communities either formally granted or took no action Tuesday to advance the measure brought forward by the Rock River Affiliate of Move To Amend to the April 2, 2013, ballot.

In summary, the two-page resolution seeks to rescind the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that granted Constitutional status to corporations, and by doing so, rolled back previous legal spending limits on political campaigns.

The exact wording of the proposed referendum in both communities reads: "Resolved, that 'We the People' of the City of Fort Atkinson (Whitewater), Wisconsin, seek to reclaim democracy from the expansion of corporate personhood rights and the corrupting influence of unregulated political contributions and spending. We stand with the Move to Amend campaign and communities across the country to support passage of an amendment to the United States Constitution stating: 1. Only human beings - not corporations, limited liability companies, unions, nonprofit organizations or similar associations and corporate entities - are endowed with constitutional rights, and, 2. Money is not speech, and therefore, regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech. Be it further resolved, that we hereby instruct our state and federal representatives to enact resolutions and legislation to advance this effort."

Organizers argue that point No. 1 of the resolution above abolishes the concept of corporate personhood, which seemingly was approved in the Citizens United decision.

Further, they say the concept that money is not speech in point No. 2 is necessary for effective campaign finance reform in order to prevent wealthy individuals or other nonprofit, non-corporate groups or unions from continuing to bankroll elections.

The Rock River Affiliate of Move to Amend started in June with a meeting organized by affiliate leader Daniel Fary of the Town of Oakland. About 70 people from throughout the Jefferson County area, including Fort Atkinson and Whitewater, attended that first session.

Following that session, there were about a half-dozen meetings in subsequent weeks to discuss whether there was enough interest and motivation to move forward with petition drives. Fort Atkinson and Whitewater came to the forefront as areas where there were large numbers of supporters willing to participate in petition gathering.

Having successfully advanced the referendum to the ballot in Fort Atkinson and Whitewater, Fary said, the group now will be moving forward with efforts in the cities of Jefferson and Watertown.

Another Move to Amend affiliate reportedly is being formed in the City of Lake Mills.

"We are going to try and support the state and national Move to Amend to engage in petition campaigns in towns throughout Wisconsin," Fary said, noting that they would be pursuing signatures in the towns of Jefferson, Hebron, Watertown, Lake Mills and others.

On Nov. 6, more than 160 communities throughout the United States put this to a vote on the ballot and every one of them passed. Voters in Colorado and Montana overwhelmingly stated their disapproval of the campaign finance climate that emerged in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling by voting for resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling and end so-called corporate personhood.

Pushed by a coalition of reform groups, voters in both states passed resolutions with more than 70-percent approval, and with support from both sides of the aisle.

Overall, 11 states have passed some kind of resolution announcing support for overturning the Citizens United decision. California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont all passed resolutions through their legislatures, and majorities of legislators in Connecticut and Maryland sent letters to Congress calling for a constitutional amendment opposing the ruling.

While such measures are nonbinding, organizers point out that the goal is to demonstrate that there is mobilized grassroots support for an amendment from the states that will push Congress ultimately to act.

At least 15 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election were required. A total of 4,417 votes were cast in the Nov. 2, 2010, election in Fort Atkinson; thus, the Move to Amend group needed 663 signatures. In Whitewater, petitioners needed 612 signatures.

Fort Atkinson City Clerk Matt Trebatoski reported 776 signatures were found to be valid out of the 801 submitted.

In Whitewater, 812 signatures were submitted in November and Whitewater City Clerk Michele Smith reported Tuesday that there were 800 valid signatures certified.

The signature collection began on Oct. 18. By law, the group had 60 days to collect the requisite number of signatures to support any direct legislation. Petitioners in both communities collected the requisite number of signatures in nearly half the time, submitting them to the respective clerks on Wednesday, Nov. 21.

In Fort Atkinson, Craig Ficenec led the petition drive with assistance from Fary, while in Whitewater, James Hartwick headed up the signature collection, with assistance from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student organized Peace, Education and Activism through Community Engagement (PEACE).

The petitions asked their respective city's council to place the matter on the ballot and give resident electors of each community - Fort Atkinson and Whitewater - a chance to vote on the issue themselves.

"Over 400 cities and towns, and 11 states have called for this amendment to the U.S. Constitution," Hartwick said. "This is a nonpartisan effort; over 80 percent of both Democrats and Republicans support this movement, according to national polling.

"We would like the electors of Whitewater to have their voice heard on this matter," Hartwick added.

Taking no formal action on the petition Tuesday, the Whitewater Common Council automatically placed the referendum on the April ballot.

In Fort Atkinson, the council voted unanimously Tuesday to place the measure on the April 2 ballot.

There was some debate related to the wording of the referendum.

Fort Atkinson Council President Davin Lescohier expressed some concern about wording such as "corrupting influence" being more editorializing and wanting to ensure that the council made an effort to ensure the question was as neutral as possible.

Councilperson John Mielke questioned whether approval of the advisory referendum would mean adoption of the resolution.

Per city attorney Chris Rogers, the resolution would be considered approved if the referendum passed.

"I think the circulators of this have indicated that they would like to see it on the ballot to give the citizens of the city of Fort Atkinson a chance to speak themselves," council member Dick Schultz said. "I think they are right on that. They have certainly amassed a lot of signatures really fast. I think this is something the citizens of the City of Fort Atkinson should have a chance to vote on."

Mielke agreed.

"I'm going to support the motion because I think it should appear on the ballot by virtue of getting 800 signatures," he said. "I personally have issues with the question, but I guess that's for me to vote on when I cast my ballot. I do think its appropriate that it appear based on the process and the collection of the signatures."

Lescohier reiterated his concern about the word "corrupting" being utilized in the question.

However, Mielke pointed out the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court addresses whether or not it has a corrupting influence or the perception of a corrupting influence on the process. He said the use of "corrupting influence" was central to the decision.

Schultz agreed that the use of the word "corrupting" really went to the heart of the question.

"If somebody doesn't think its corrupting, then vote against it; that's what this is," he said.

Council member Bill Camplin said he was fine with the word "corrupting" remaining.

"The argument about it being corrupting needs to take place leading up to the vote," he said.

Ultimately, both Rogers and Whitewater city attorney Wally McDonnell said, their respective councils had one of two choices: It could pass the resolution itself, or it could place the issue on the April ballot.

McDonnell cited Wisconsin Statute §9.20(4), which says that in situations like this, the city council will "without alteration either pass the resolution or submit it to the electors at the next spring or general election".

"This was petition for direct legislation, and it is in order," he said.

The Whitewater Common Council took no formal action and the Fort Atkinson City Council voted in favor of advancing the measure to the ballot.

Following the Whitewater meeting, Hartwick pointed out some of the next steps.

"First of all, we are delighted that this important measure will be on the ballot on April 2," he said. "The next step is to educate people. Currently, people understand the issue; we have very strong support, very strong bi-partisan support, but the problem is that sometimes (people) do not know enough about the issue."

Hartwick said the Move to Amend effort is calling for the end of corporate-personhood rights, and that money is not speech and therefore can be regulated in elections.

"The deep concern about all of this money floating around in elections is that the average person's voice is drowned out, on the one hand, and on the other hand, it leads to the perception of what we call 'legal bribery,' where politicians are beholden to big donors and therefore do their bidding," he concluded.


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