Needham Town Meeting will to share its views on the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, but the five-member Board of Selectmen was split this week on whether to support the measure, with some members saying the issue was too broad for a local Town Meeting.
Selectmen voted 3-2 in favor of supporting the article on the May 7 Annual Town Meeting warrant, with selectmen Dan Matthews and Matt Borrelli on the opposing side.
The article, which was placed on the warrant by a citizen’s petition, calls for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would essentially reverse the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling by clarifying that the First Amendment is not meant to protect the freedom of speech of for-profit corporations.
While none of the five selectmen said they supported the Citizens United decision, some felt the topic was not appropriate to discuss at Town Meeting.
Borrelli said the article would set a “bad precedent” for the local body, encouraging future citizen's petitions that ask Town Meeting to vote on federal issues such as health care and immigration.
“There are a lot of controversial decisions before the Supreme Court that I would not like to see Town Meeting get bogged down with,” Borrelli said.
He also felt the article itself was too broad and was not clear enough on how exactly the constitutional amendment would work.
Matthews, too, said that while he didn’t think the Citizens United decision was a good one, he also did not think it was a local issue.
“Town Meeting works best when it concentrates on the business that is specific to our community,” Matthews said. “Some of it may seem tedious […] but, if we focus on our own work, we can get better results here.”
Matthews said the measure already had strong support in the legislature and that Needham residents had the chance to voice their opinions in whom they chose to represent them in Washington.
Matthews also was concerned that the citizen’s petition article “flatly recommends” a constitutional amendment.
“I think, one, there are other remedies for the problems caused by the Citizens United case, other than a constitutional amendment, including statutory remedies or even a better judicial decision,” Matthews said.
Other selectmen argued that the issue was as local as it gets and would definitely impact the town of Needham.
Selectman Moe Handel said the Citizens United issue “gets to the very core of our democracy.”
“In my view, Town Meeting is the grassroots example of our democracy and where the structure of our entire government sprang from, ultimately,” Handel said. “I think this is the most appropriate issue Town Meeting could ever discuss.”
Selectman John Bulian said he was not sure a constitutional amendment was the answer but that something needed to be done to overturn Citizens United.
“I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a constitutional scholar, but as a resident, as a citizen, as a selectmen and as a Town Meeting member, I am disgusted by the discussion that was made by the Supreme Court in this regard,” Bulian said. “All we need to do is look at the Republican primary season and see the unbelievable amount of money that was spent by super PACs […] with no accountability, no identifying who the donors were and no honesty with respect to what those advertisements put forth. And that is just plain wrong.”
Selectman Jerry Wasserman the article did not set a precedent because Town Meeting had already acted on resolutions related to national issues in the past.
He pointed to support Town Meeting had given more than a century earlier to the overturn of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required northern states to return escaped black slaves to their owners in the south.
Of the Citizens United issue, Wasserman said it was possible that corporations could seek to have influence in local elections just as they did in federal races—a liquor store wanting to move into town, for example, could attempt to influence voters as they headed to the ballot to decide whether to allow such sales in Needham—another issue this May.
In addition, he said, Needham could be affected in other ways, such as if legislators who were elected through corporate pressure sought to reduce local aid to the town.
“We can have an influence on a very important issue that affects all of us very personally,” Wasserman said of the Town Meeting article.
Additional information about the citizen’s petition article and the local movement to overturn the Citizens United decision can be found online at wethepeopleneedham.wordpress.com.