Winston-Salem council postpones vote on Citizens United resolution

Citizens seeking to curb corporate influence over electoral politics leave Winston-Salem council chambers on Tuesday.

The Winston-Salem City Council decided tonight to direct its general government committee to consider a resolution in support of overturning the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, setting up a contest between clashing schools of thoughts on council – one holding that intervening in such a manner is an overreach of local government’s mandate and the other that corporate money poses a threat to representative democracy at all levels.

Members of Occupy Winston-Salem, who have led the effort to get the resolution passed, had hoped for a vote tonight, but one of the council members sympathetic to their cause was unable to get the item placed on the agenda.

Councilman James Taylor Jr., who represents the Southeast Ward, attempted to add the resolution to the agenda through a suspension of the rules. The legislative maneuver needs unanimous support, and Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, who represents the Northwest Ward, said she wanted more time to review the item before taking a vote. Supporters requested the resolution on Dec. 17 and members of Occupy Winston-Salem have been lobbying council on the matter since last summer.

Taylor said after the meeting that whether corporations are people or not is subject to debate, but the danger of vested corporate interests buying seats on city councils is real.

“Now these are people who may not care one way or another about the people, about the government; all they care about is the bottom line,” he said. “And I think anytime you run the risk of putting people there who only care about corporations’ bottom line you are tearing up the social fabric of what our forefathers and what our ancestors have built.”

The proposed resolution will be considered by the general government committee, which is chaired by Southwest Ward Councilman Dan Besse, on Feb. 12. Besse predicted from the dais that the committee will approve the resolution for consideration by the full council. East Ward Councilman Derwin Montgomery told supporters to expect full council to vote on the measure on Feb. 18.

Besse has stated that he opposes a resolution in opposition to Citizens United, but his is only one of four votes on the general government committee, along with Taylor, South Ward Councilwoman Molly Leight and North Ward Councilwoman Denise D. Adams.

“It will be my recommendation to the committee to send forward a resolution back to the council in whatever shape it’s in at the end of our meeting,” Besse said. “The committee may or may not approve that recommendation, but I suspect it may because my colleagues on the committee are those that say they favor the motion.”

Besse has previously that city councils should limit their actions to matters directly relevant to their mandated responsibilities of running city government.

James Taylor Jr.
“This particular resolution is germane to city business,” Taylor said. “There are at least 12 cities in North Carolina who also think it’s germane to city business and who also passed resolutions. The website that we invite our citizens to take a look at, it tells us that the city council is responsible for adopting and providing for all ordinances, rules and regulations as necessary for the general welfare of our city. Regulations are defined as principles that govern our behavior. I would argue that this type of behavior would be corporate behavior, and it deals with our ability to have fair elections and the general welfare of our city.”

Leight echoed Taylor’s sentiments and expressed public disagreement with Besse.

“Something that affects our voting process – yes, it’s a national issue, yes it’s a court issue, but it’s also a Winston-Salem issue,” she said, prompting applause from dozens of resolution supporters in the audience.

Montgomery, who does not serve on the general committee, also indicated he supports the resolution.

Among several concerns, Besse has argued that passing a resolution would have no practical effect, and that a Constitutional amendment eliminating corporate personhood – one of the primary objectives of resolution supporters – could have unintended consequences.

“The concept we are being asked to endorse on behalf of the city of Winston-Salem is a US constitutional amendment to make a broad-ranging change in the legal status of all corporations,” Besse wrote in an e-mail to fellow council members, City Manager Lee Garrity and City Attorney Angela Carmon earlier this month. “That change involves key legal implications that go far beyond the campaign finance issues addressed in the Citizens United case.”

Among other legalistic arguments, Besse cited a January 2012 editorial by Jeff Greenfield arguing that depriving corporations of rights of personhood could potentially hurt people who band together through non-profit corporations to make their voices heard.

Following the meeting, Besse and Carmon huddled with Leight and West Ward Councilman Robert Clark, discussing the legal implications of the resolution.

Afterwards, Leight said she doesn’t necessarily support the resolution in the language proposed by Occupy Winston-Salem.

“The heart of the matter I am in agreement with,” she said. “I think we have to find a way to state it without depriving corporations of their rights. But we don’t want them to be able to buy elections.”

If Leight ends up reversing herself, it would not be the first time she has taken a more cautious position after consulting with Carmon. Leight and Adams expressed support last summer for intervening with the federal courts on behalf of Kalvin Michael Smith, who was convicted of severely beating Jill Marker through a shoddy investigation by the Winston-Salem Police Department. Later, on Carmon’s legal advice, they voted in closed session to take no action.

Tony Ndege of Occupy Winston-Salem said there’s room for give and take on the final language of the resolution, to an extent.

“Two things we’re not going to compromise on is overturning Citizens United and the movement to amend corporate personhood,” he said.

Dozens of supporters attended the meeting, including Democracy North Carolina organizer and Forsyth County Board of Elections Chairwoman Linda Sutton. Kim Porter of Occupy Winston-Salem said organizers have collected 1,150 signatures in support of the resolution, including 900 from Winston-Salem. Among the signatories are NC Sen. Earline Parmon, Forsyth County Commissioner Everette Witherspoon and the Rev. Willard Bass.

Dan Besse
“It seems to me like there’s this ocean, this wave, this tide of greed that has every potential to destroy our entire civilization – the planetary civilization," Greg Gunter, a Richmond, Va. resident who is visiting his family in Winston-Salem, told council.."Our agriculture system is unsustainable. Because it’s cheap to be unsustainable. A lot of these massive corporations are so blind they don’t realize that climbing the corporate ladder only leads to a hole in the ground.”

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