BAR HARBOR, Maine — By a surprising 7-0 vote, the local Town Council on Tuesday adopted a resolution that calls for limiting corporate influence on governmental elections.
Supporters of the resolution and similar efforts in other states have said that the 2010 “Citizens United” decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which removed limits on how much money corporations can spend on candidate elections, gives corporations too much influence over the democratic process.
Supporters of the Supreme Court decision have said that government restrictions on how much corporations could spend on advocacy campaigns that target elections violated the First Amendment.
In Bar Harbor, more than 200 registered voters signed a petition in support of overturning the decision, according to resolution supporters. The resolution calls for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would make it clear that corporations are not entitled to the same rights as American citizens and that restricting financial contributions to campaigns is not the same thing as restricting free speech.
Prior to Tuesday’s Town Council meeting, about 30 people met outside the municipal building to show support for the resolution, according to organizer Gary Friedmann. Among the group was former state Rep. Jim Schatz of Blue Hill, who during his 2010 campaign for the Maine Senate was attacked in negative advertisements financed by a Virginia-based political action committee.
Friedmann said Wednesday that there should be more limits, not fewer, on the amount of money that corporations can spend to try to influence the outcomes of elections. Money is not speech, he said, and corporations are not people.
“The big money that is polluting our political environment is actually affecting elections in Hancock County,” Friedmann said. “It’s important to take our democracy back.”
According to people who attended the council meeting, there was some discussion among council members about whether it was appropriate for the municipal board to weigh in on a federal law. The council did not delve into the argument of whether the Citizens United decision had merit or whether corporations should have the same rights as American citizens, they said. A few minutes into the discussion, after it was clarified that Bar Harbor’s town charter permits the council to adopt or reject such resolutions, the measure was passed unanimously.
“I did not expect it to be a unanimous vote, but I was very pleased,” Town Councilor Enoch Albert, who had the proposal placed on the council’s meeting agenda, said Wednesday. “The amount of money going into elections — most of it going toward negative campaigning funded by super PACs — is obscene.”
With the vote, Bar Harbor becomes at least the third municipality in Maine where elected officials have adopted a resolution that calls for greater restrictions on the amount of money that corporations can spend on or contribute to political campaigns.
Albert read aloud at the council meeting the names of two dozen municipalities in Maine, most of which are in Hancock County, that he said also have taken positions in support of similar resolutions. Officials with several of those towns said Thursday, however, that their individual towns have not passed resolutions on the topic and have not been asked to do so. Albert said he had found the list on an Internet website, the name of which he could not remember.
Two of the Maine municipalities Albert mentioned are Bangor and Portland, each of which has had similar resolutions adopted by their elected city councils. Unlike the unanimous council vote in Bar Harbor, the council votes both in Bangor and Portland were split decisions.
Other municipalities and state legislatures outside of Maine have adopted similar resolutions, including New York City, Los Angeles and the legislative bodies of Hawaii, New Mexico and Vermont.
Friedmann said it is logical to begin efforts to get the Citizens United decision repealed at the grassroots level because of the influence that corporations and lobbyists have in the nation’s capital. He said he does not hold out hope that the Supreme Court will revisit and overturn its own decision.
“Given the composition of the court, that’s not going to happen anytime soon,” he said.
Friedmann said that unless there is strong and clearly demonstrated support throughout the country for overturning the decision, elected officials in Washington will be too timid to tackle the issue. If enough municipalities in Maine adopt resolutions in support of the same idea, he said, it will put pressure on the Legislature to do the same. If enough state legislatures adopt such resolutions, he said, then the pressure will be on Congress to act.
“It is important that we send a message to our state Legislature and to our congressional delegation,” Friedmann said.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.