The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to loosen up campaign-finance restrictions for corporations won't win any popularity contests in Palo Alto, but city officials aren't rushing to join a grassroots movement aiming to amend the U.S. Constitution to specify that "corporations aren't people" and that "money isn't speech."
Instead, the City Council on Monday voted 7-1, with Sid Espinosa dissenting and Greg Schmid absent, to submit a letter to elected leaders in Washington, D.C., urging them to adopt an appropriate amendment that would, in effect, overturn the controversial Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling. The Supreme Court had concluded by a 5-4 vote that a corporation's right to spend on independent campaigns is protected by the First Amendment.
While the council agreed that the Supreme Court decision was misguided, members opposed a recommendation from the city's Human Relations Commission and dozens of residents in attendance to join the effort by the national group "Move to Amend" to add a 28th Amendment to the Constitution. Other California cities, including Mountain View, Los Altos Hills, Campbell and San Francisco, had passed resolutions in support of the proposed amendment.
The 2010 court decision has prompted widespread concern in Palo Alto and elsewhere about the undue and occasionally nefarious influence of money in politics. More than 200 city residents had signed a petition asking the council to pass a resolution in support of the amendment. About two dozen attended the Monday meeting, with many of them publicly calling on the council to support the grassroots drive.
Debbie Mytels, a Palo Alto resident who is part of the drive for an amendment, said the Citizens United decision has forced opponents of the ruling to push for a change in the Constitution because there are no other options. She urged the council to back the "Move to Amend" drive and, in doing so, signal to Washington lawmakers that it would back their efforts to combat the decision.
"This change will not happen at the national level unless we have strong local support," Mytels said.
The proposed amendment reads:
"Only human beings, not corporations, are endowed with rights that are protected by the Constitution."
"Money is not speech, and therefore the expenditure of money to influence the electoral process is not a form of constitutionally protected speech and may be regulated."
Claude Ezran, who chairs the Human Relations Commission, spoke passionately about the need to oppose Citizens United and argued that the decision will have a major negative impact on both the nation and, specifically, on Palo Alto. He cited the ongoing nationwide debates about climate change and Obamacare and argued that the Citizens United decision gives powerful special interests outsized influence, which could lead to devastating consequences.
Palo Alto, for example, is very much concerned about climate change, he said. But its efforts could be drowned out by corporations with unlimited spending powers, he argued.
"Nationwide, we're faced by powerful oil and coal interests who employ a huge megaphone that blasts messages stating that climate change is a hoax and that therefore inaction is the best course of action."
With Citizens United, Ezran said, "we are further eroding democracy and we're putting our nation on a path of gradual decline."
The council did not disagree. But members decided that there are better ways to signal their displeasure with Citizens United than supporting an amendment that some felt is too vague and others warned of unintended consequences. Councilman Larry Klein, an attorney, argued that a Constitutional amendment is an extremely rare occurrence and should be weighed with much more care. Like all of his colleagues, he argued that Citizens United is a misguided decision. But like the rest of the council, he stopped short of pushing for a resolution in support of a Constitutional amendment.
The proposed resolution included a list of clauses specifying, among other things, that "corporations are artificial entities separate from human beings" and that corporations "have unduly influenced and unfairly interfered with democratic processes by pressuring our legislators and dominating election campaigns with virtually unlimited contributions." Klein said that given attitude about the Constitution, he couldn't support the language proposed.
"I think the process is very flawed," Klein said. "I don't think it's appropriate for us to get into a debate about what any of these clauses mean. But I think there should be such a debate."
Klein proposed submitting a letter to legislators instead. His colleagues agreed.
Espinosa also criticized the recent court decision and stressed the need to have a "broader national conversation" about the issue. But he also said he opposes having the council officially endorse the "Move to Amend" drive.
"I'm ready to do what I can on a personal level ... but I will not be supporting the council moving forward on this (resolution)," Espinosa said.
Mayor Yiaway Yeh lauded Klein's proposal to appeal to the federal legislators, who he said "have a key role in moving forward with any Constitutional amendment."
"It's not how other cities approach it," Yeh said. "Palo Alto often doesn't approach issues and solutions the way other cities do. But I think it's reflective of the sentiment that does exist."