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Town Meeting to debate initiative to limit campaign spending

A national issue will come to Sharon Town Meeting Monday night when local voters debate a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court decision that opened the gates to unlimited election spending by corporations, labor unions, and other organizations.

The proposed amendment to overturn the court’s 2010 decision on the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission  case has garnered wide support in Massachusetts, as voters in 170 communities statewide backed it at the polls last month and more than 70 towns and cities have approved local resolutions supporting .

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In Sharon, where it takes 100 signatures by registered voters to place an article by petition before Town Meeting, resident Paul Lauenstein rounded up 150 signatures in a single day after town selectmen set the Dec. 3 date for Town Meeting — despite some officials saying that local government is not the place to debate national issues.

“The main thrust is that artificial entities such as corporations and unions and political organizations are not people and are not entitled to the same privileges,” Lauenstein said about the amendment initiative. “The second point is that money is not equal to speech.”

Amendment backers say the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision two years ago to overturn federal campaign finance laws restricting election spending by corporations, unions, and political action groups opened the gates to a flood of negative and misleading campaign ads.

The ruling concluded that all election expenditures were protected “free speech.” It also expanded previous judicial precedents on the constitutional rights of corporations, saying that corporations possess essentially the same rights that American citizens do.

Lauenstein said some Sharon voters have told him they would not support the resolution because they didn’t think Town Meeting should spend time on national issues. “You could say, ‘It’s bad enough to talk about town issues, why would you clutter up the town meeting with all this fluff?’ ”

‘A debate like this is healthy every once in a while.’

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By tradition and precedent, town moderators have wide discretion over what’s discussed by town meetings.

Sharon’s Town Meeting moderator, David Yas, said he doesn’t see any reason not to allow the resolution to be discussed.

“I think a debate like this is healthy every once in a while,” Yas said. “Somewhere down the line it could make a difference, even if it’s a just a single town’s voice.”

But it’s a debate that won’t take place in Plymouth’s Town Meeting, said that town’s moderator, F. Steven Triffletti, last week.

“Unless it’s something where we have an authority to take some action, I’m not going to do it,” said Triffletti, who has served as elected town moderator for more than 20 years. “I’ve been doing this for a long, long time and I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve seen what can happen when you don’t run a tight ship.”

Triffletti said the expense of running Town Meeting, including the time of town managers, a school superintendent, department heads, and paid duty officers, argues that meetings should stick to town business.

“We cannot ignore the fact that there are costs in running Town Meeting,” Triffletti said. “Why spend money to deliberate on things over which we do not have authority?”

Quincy City Councilor Brian McNamee, who abstained — with three colleagues — when the Quincy City Council voted 4-0 in June in favor of a resolution backing the amendment, also said the issue has no place on the city’s agenda.

“The subject matter of the amendment has merit,” McNamee said last week. But local government bodies have no role in amending the Constitution, he said.

To overturn the high court ruling, both houses of Congress would have to pass a constitutional amendment by two-thirds majorities. Then 38 out of 50 states would have to approve it also.

“However, the local politicians don’t have the courage to say ‘no, not in my forum,’ ” McNamee said. “They waste precious political time in public policy forums to address issues that have no place in City Council.”

But backers of the amendment contend local voters and bodies do have a role to play in building a movement to change a ruling that added hundreds of millions of dollars ($1.3 billion according to Common Cause) in campaign spending to the last election cycle.

The answer to those who say his resolution is a waste of time, Lauenstein said, is that “all politics are local.”

“The more consciousness you raise, the better,” he said.

Pam Wilmot, director of Common Cause Massachusetts,  a nonpartisan “good government” advocacy group, agreed.

“This is a huge grass-roots effort because [money] affects everything else,” she said.

“It’s about how does policy get done when you have to be beholden to huge special interests that are spending on your behalf.”

According to Common Cause, 79 percent of state voters in communities where a question backing the amendment was on the ballot voted yes, with votes coming from both “ruby red towns and deep blue cities supporting our proposed amendment.”

Looking toward Monday night’s meeting in Sharon, Yas said the benefit of a public discussion of the amendment can be balanced against the need to stick to business.

“If it were to distract from other items, I might have a concern," he said. “I will make certain it’s not a runaway train.”

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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