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Vermont Town Meetings Model People-Driven Democracy

Town resolutions and small 'd' democracy challenge Citizens United and 'Corporate Personhood'

- Common Dreams staff

Update: (Wednesday, March 7 - 6:03 AM EST) Vermont Public Radio reports:

Vermonters rally at their state capitol on January 20 to protest Citizens United and support Sen. Lyons' call for an amendment to overturn it. Over 70 Vermont Towns Want Corporate Personhood Amendment

Voters in at least three dozen towns want Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to make clear that corporations aren't people.

They adopted a nonbinding resolution on Town Meeting Day asking that the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision be overturned.

That's the 2010 ruling that recognized the rights of corporations to participate in campaigns.

Kevin Rushing in the town of Chittenden says the ruling has distorted campaigns, and he wants Vermont's congressional delegation to act.

(Rushing) "I hope Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy and Peter Welch get involved in this and push it and keep the super PACs from controlling the presidency."

Senator Sanders has been a strong backer of the resolutions.

Earlier:

Voters in ten states take to the polls today for a 'Super Tuesday' focused mostly on the Republican race for the presidential nomination. As they do so, the national media busies itself cataloging the now requisite speculative horse race play-by-play while giving audience to uninvited strategic advice from political operatives and paid partisans. Quietly, however, in the thinly populated New England state of Vermont, a wonderfully quaint and seemingly-forgotten practice is taking place: democracy.

Tuesday, March 6th is Town Meeting Day for most Vermont cities and towns. Meeting day often doubles as election day for local officials, but they also offer a chance to discuss issues of public importance, help to set municipal budgets, and allow towns to make collective stands on policy or social issues of state, national, or even global, importance.  This year, in addition to the various local issues, at least 52 towns in Vermont will be voting on town resolutions calling attention to the woeful influence that corporate money has come to exert over all levels of US government.

The Associated Press reports:

States and communities from Maine to Hawaii and Florida to Alaska have considered similar calls, but tiny Vermont — with its penchant for using its annual testament to participatory democracy to offer the world opinions on issues way beyond the town budget — is making the most concerted effort.

The goal is to get rid of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations, unions and wealthy people to raise and spend unlimited campaign funds via political action committees known as "super PACs" as long as they don't work directly with a candidate.

At the heart of the debate is "corporate personhood," the U.S. legal concept that gives corporations rights like those of an individual. Critics say that it poisons the electoral process and that the only way to trash the practice is by amending the U.S. Constitution.

"People are starting to put the pieces together; they're all doing it all at the same time, all across the country," said Bill Butler, of Jericho, who helped write the proposal being considered by many Vermont towns.

"You start putting these together, I think you have the beginning of the most dynamic political movement in this country. It's because people are realizing they have to do it and they have to do it now."

A sample ballot:

For critics who say that small village meetings are not the place to address national issues, members of the 'end corporate personhood' have a ready response.

"You've got to start somewhere," said Montpelier attorney Anthony Iarrapino, who helped get the issue on his city's Town Meeting Day ballot. "A process of amending the Constitution has to start somewhere and like the Constitution itself, the process of amendment should start with the people and there is no better forum for voicing the will of the people than Town Meeting."

John Nichols, writing at The Nation, adds:

The "Vermonters Say Corporations Are Not People" campaign is part of a [much larger] movement. National groups that are backing the amendment strategy -- including Public Citizen, Common Cause, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Move to Amend -- are helping the town-meeting push, as are the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the Peace and Justice Center of Vermont and Occupy Vermont.

According to a new poll by the Castleton Polling Institute, 76 percent of Vermonters favor amending the Constitutional to limit spending on political campaigns. Notably 57 percent of Vermonters who identify as Republicans support such an amendment.

Jessica Pieklo, writing at Care2, describes the various town efforts in Vermont and a singular state resolution:In this Jan. 20, 2012 photo, people hold signs during a gathering on the anniversary of the Citizens United decision in Montpelier, Vt. First, it was the Vermont senator with socialist leanings. Then it was Jerry of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame. Now there are about 50 Vermont communities ready to chime in on a proposal to pass a Constitutional amendment to clarify that corporations do not have the same rights as human beings. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

The initiatives call on the Vermont Legislature and congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment that clarifies that money is not speech and corporations are not people. If passed such an amendment would make it possible for Congress to limit election-related expenditures by for-profit corporations, nonprofits, unions and individuals.

“Vermonters are taking a lead in the growing movement for a constitutional amendment to limit the influence of big money and corporations in our democracy,” said Aquene Freechild, senior organizer with Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign. Public Citizen – along with Move to Amend/Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Vermont Peace and Justice Center, VPIRG, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Rural Vermont, Common Cause Vermont, Occupy Burlington, Vermonters Say Corporations Are Not People, Vermont Action for Peace, Vermont Workers Center, and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) – has worked with Vermont activists to collect signatures and get the resolutions on town meeting agendas.

The towns with ballot measures challenging corporate personhood include Albany, Barnet, Brattleboro, Bristol, Burlington, Calais, Charlotte, Chester, Chittenden, Craftsbury, East Montpelier, Fayston, Fletcher, Greensboro, Hardwick, Hinesburg, Jericho, Lincoln, Marlboro, Marshfield, Monkton, Montgomery, Montpelier, Moretown, Mount Holly, Norwich, Plainfield, Putney, Richmond, Ripton, Roxbury, Rutland City, Rutland Town, Sharon, Shrewsbury, South Burlington, Starksboro, Sudbury, Thetford, Tunbridge, Waitsfield, Walden, Warren, Waltham, Williamstown, Williston, Winooski, Windsor, Woodbury, Woodstock and Worcester. The list is also available at www.citizen.org/Towns.

A state resolution – introduced by state Sen. Virginia “Ginny” Lyons and currently in the Senate Government Operations Committee – calls on the Vermont delegation to support an amendment clarifying that corporations are not people under the U.S. Constitution. Lyons was also a leader in starting the town meeting effort, working with diverse groups to put forth sample language.

Lyons' resolution, JRS 11, is a “joint resolution urging the United States Congress to propose an amendment to the United States Constitution for the states’ consideration which provides that corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States or any of its jurisdictional subdivisions.” The resolution continues:

“Whereas, free and fair elections are essential to American democracy and effective self-governance, and

Whereas, individual persons are rightfully recognized as the human beings who actually vote in elections, and

Whereas, corporations are legal entities that governments create and can exist in perpetuity and simultaneously in many nations, and

Whereas, they do not vote in elections and should not be categorized as persons for purposes related to elections for public office, and

Whereas, corporations are not mentioned in the United States Constitution as adopted, nor have Congress and the states recognized corporations as legal persons in any subsequent federal constitutional amendment…

Whereas, the Court in Citizens United has created a new and unequal playing field between human beings and corporations with respect to campaign financing, negating over a century of precedent prohibiting corporate contributions to federal election campaigns dating to the Tillman Act of 1907, and

Whereas, the Citizens United decision has forced candidates for political office to divert attention from the interests and needs of their human constituents in order to raise sufficient campaign funds for election, and

Whereas, corporations are not and have never been human beings and therefore are rightfully subservient to human beings and the governments that are their creators, and

Whereas, the profits and institutional survival of large corporations are often in direct conflict with the essential needs and rights of human beings, and

Whereas, large corporations have used their so-called rights to successfully seek the judicial reversal of democratically enacted laws passed at the municipal, state, and federal levels aimed at curbing corporate abuse, and

Whereas, these judicial decisions have rendered democratically elected governments ineffective in protecting their citizens against corporate harm to the environment, health, workers, independent business, and local and regional economies, and

Whereas, large corporations own most of America’s mass media and employ those media to loudly express the corporate political agenda and to convince Americans that the primary role of human beings is that of consumers rather than sovereign citizens with democratic rights and responsibilities, and

Whereas, the only way to reverse this intolerable societal reality is to amend the United States Constitution to define persons as human beings and not corporations, now therefore be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives that the General Assembly urges Congress to propose an amendment to the United States Constitution for the states’ consideration which provides that corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States or any of its jurisdictional subdivisions…”

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