On July 9, Salem City Council voted “no” on a motion to allow Salem voters to express their opinion about corporate constitutional rights (“corporate personhood”) and unlimited spending in elections (“money as speech,”) an issue that has come to the forefront of a national debate.
The motion, put forth by Ward 2 Councilor Laura Tesler, would have, allow each Salem voter to say whether they endorsed the idea of “corporate personhood.” Had the Council done as Tesler asked, they would have joined councils in Coos Bay, Corvallis, Eugene and Portland who have already granted their citizens this opportunity.
Tesler made her motion because her Ward 2 constituents, many of them members of the nonpartisan Move To Amend (MTA,) had requested that she do so.
When the motion failed, three Councilors (all female) were in support; Tesler from Ward 2; Ward 5’s Diana Dickey and from Ward 6, Sheryl A. Thomas. The four opposed were Ward 1’s Chuck Bennett; Ward 3’s Brad Nanke; Rich Clausen of Ward 4 and Sheronne Blasi of Ward 7.
Response from MTA, who had campaigned all spring to encourage a “yes” Council decision, was swift and bitter. The feelings of those who opposed the motion were equally impassioned. The vote revealed divides within the City Council and between some Councilors and community residents.
The following highlight points of disagreement:
Is “Corporate Personhood” a Local Issue?
Of the Councilors, Bennett seemed most in opposition. His primary objection was that “corporate personhood” was a national issue, and Salem City Council was a local body already overwhelmed with City work.
“Salem city residents… have a substantial agenda facing them and I believe our job is to deal with those, not spend time debating things well beyond our control,” Bennett added. “We will be deciding the future of our public safety services, social services, library… water systems, streets, sidewalks and overall land use and economic development over the next few years.”
Rachel Ozretich, co-founder of Corvallis MTA, disagrees with Bennett. “Every definition of ‘person’ in our city, county, and state ordinances and codes includes artificial legal entities of many kinds,” she says. “More importantly, corporate “personhood” and “money as speech” can and do affect all citizens, small businesses, towns, and cities.”
MTA member Bill Wolf doesn’t understand why the Salem Council didn’t have the same vision as Ozretich. He says packages given all Salem Councilors in June included information from Common Cause relating to the legalities of placing an advisory question on the ballot.
Clearly, Councilor Tesler herself believed there was a “local connection.” She’s had constituents request other motions in the past, but has not followed through because she didn’t find the topics sufficiently local. In this case, giving her constituents the opportunity to vote in November was “a very important issue” to the people of Ward 2, and she was determined to represent their wishes.
Guidelines for the City of Salem, which would hopefully clarify the question, are ambiguous. The City Charter defines Councilors as people who “represent their Ward.” But it also says that the responsibility of the City Council is to “develop the policies that will direct the operation of the city.”
It can be argued that those who petitioned the City Council did not do sufficient work to clarify how the issue might affect the City’s actual operation.
Was The Council Asked to Voice its Own Opinion of Corporate Personhood?
Many Council members appeared to believe this and found the idea inconsistent with their duties. However, in their presentations, MTA members stated that the Council was only being asked to put language on the November ballot – not to express its position. In her talk Kerry Topel told the Council, “We ask that the City of Salem give us the people the opportunity to vote in November and assert that natural persons only are considered persons.” Kirk Leonard added, “This vote is not about an Amendment [to the Constitution]. It’s not about whether you think there should be an Amendment. It’s simply about allowing citizens a right to have a voice and express themselves.”
Nonetheless, several Councilors felt that the body itself was being asked to comment. Among them, Dickey, who said, “I’m not crazy about amending the Constitution.” Bennett added, “City government has no voice in the constitutional amendment process. It is initiated by Congress or Constitutional Convention and then referred to the state legislatures for ratification.”
Topel finds these concerns frustrating. “We provided all of the councilors, the mayor, the city manager and lawyer, at least twice, packets (purposely concise) with specific… clarified language. Their misunderstanding reflects, to me, that they did not give the matter due process.”
This might have been the case. It’s also possible that the issue was not of
misunderstanding, or even of not having read materials, but that the Council was simply concerned about how their vote would be viewed by others. As Clausen expressed it, “If we approve to put this on the ballot, the perception will be that we support it.”
Would Approval of the Motion Have Set a Precedent?
City Attorney Randall Tosh, present that night, remarked that nothing resembling the motion had occurred in decades, since the issue of fluoridation was raised more than forty years before.
This bothered Bennett, who was worried that passing Tesler’s motion “would create a precedent for placing all kinds of measures up for a vote in the future absolutely unrelated to the real work of city government… Once you open the city ballot up for non-city issues, where do you stop?”
Bill Dalton, speaking in support, was asked about the subject. He agreed that a precedent might be set but maintained that it would be a positive, democratic practice. “I can’t think of anything I would be prouder of than… the City giving its citizens the opportunity to express themselves through the very precious process we have in the electoral process.” Another councilor remarked that any motion would have to go through a councilor, such as Tesler, meaning that a “thinning” process was already in place.
Who Should Councilors Represent?
Supporters of the motion relate months of frustration as they phoned, emailed and tried to meet with Councilors. Leonard relates, “the Mayor, Nanke, Clem, Blasi and Thomas – never responded to either emails or calls…. Apart from Thomas, there appeared to be an effort NOT to meet with us.”
The City of Salem states, “The registered voters in each Ward elect a Councilor, who resides in the Ward, to represent them on the Council.” Some MTA supporters were not a resident of any Salem Ward, and most could not possibly be, in fact, residents of any particular Councilor’s area.
Mayor Peterson also suggested that the numbers supporting the issue were not high enough. “We are elected to be leaders,” she remarked, “not elected to be swayed by push and pull of few people who may send us emails or may telephone us…. I have 160,000 constituents but I haven’t heard from 160,000, or even 80,000.”
However, Tesler felt the community members she’d spoken with were sufficient for her to make the motion. “I will not stop representing my constituents with laser-like focus,” she said that night. “That is what I was elected to do – indeed that is what we were all elected to do. When citizens stop having a voice we no longer have a democracy.”
The divisions between the parties appear deep, and possibly difficult to reconcile. What’s clear is that Salem citizens won’t be voting their thoughts on ‘corporate personhood’ on November 6th.