Needham selectmen will consider Tuesday whether to support an unusual Town Meeting warrant article with national implications. A citizens’ petition asks the town to support efforts challenging a 2010 Supreme Court decision that gave corporations, unions and nonprofits the right to spend unlimited money in political campaigns.
That decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, led to the growth of Super Political Action Committees, or Super PACs, which have poured vast amounts of money into the presidential campaign this year.
“I’m concerned about corruption. I’m concerned about our representative’s interests being controlled by the moneyed interests in the country,” said Town Meeting member Robert Smart, who will present the article to Town Meeting in May. “I think something needs to be done about it.”
It asks Town Meeting members to vote to call on the state congressional delegation to support an amendment to the US Constitution that would overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.
Smart acknowledges that it’s an unusual article for a Town Meeting warrant, which usually deals with local matters, but said that sometimes, big changes start small.
“If you look at the history of amendments to the Constitution,” said Smart, “quite a number of them have come because people have not been happy with the state of the law. A lot of times that gets led by the local level. It’s people at the local level telling people higher up the chain, ‘This is what we want.’”
Needham is not the only local government weighing in on Citizens United. Sixteen other cities and towns in the state have passed similar resolutions, according to advocacy group People for the American Way, which keeps a running tally of local, state and federal resolution efforts to overturn Citizens United.
Last year, state Senator James Eldridge introduced a bill to the state legislature criticizing Citizens United and calling for a constitutional amendment to restore “the First Amendment and fair elections to the people.”
The proponents of Needham’s Citizens United article say that its inclusion in Town Meeting is part of a strong tradition of New England Town Meetings standing up to larger powers.
“Town Meeting is an important institution in the development of American democracy and of our democratic freedom,” said James Hugh Powers, Needham’s longest-serving Town Meeting member, who said he would support the article.
Powers was a Town Meeting member from 1951 to 2011.
“Town Meetings have a lot of power,” he said. “They’ve occasionally used it with historic consequences.”
Powers pointed to the Bay State’s rebellious role in the Revolutionary War as an example of the town meeting’s power. The dissent of the people of Massachusetts was so vociferous leading up to the war that it inspired, among other things, the Massachusetts Government Act of 1774, which gave the British government control over town meetings in the state. It was designed to silence the towns of Massachusetts.
Of course, it didn’t work.
“The Town Meetings of New England were where the American Revolution was born,” said Powers. “When the moderator brings his gavel down and calls the Town Meeting to order, he’s also reconvening the American Revolution.”
Town Meeting, he said, has a duty to stand up for the rights of the people.
“I feel like the Ole Man Mose. You have to be the fellow who speaks out from the cave, and says, ‘This is your tradition, live up to it.’”
Though the Board has not yet voted on whether to back the article, it has drawn support from individual selectmen.
Board of Selectman Chair Jerry Wasserman said that, personally, he supports the Citizens United article.
“My personal view is that I would like to see this passed,” he said. “I do think there is a real problem with the decision that the courts made in terms of how it affects elections, including right down to the local elections.”
Selectman Moe Handel said that the Citizens United decision is not just a national issue.
“This is fundamental to democracy in my view,” said Handel. “There’s no evidence that it affects us directly right now as a town, but it can, and in my view will, because it makes the political process increasingly hostage to a very moneyed corporate interest.”
Selectman John Bulian said he is fully behind the article.
“I think the Supreme Court decision was a terrible decision,” he said. “It’s just so wrong. Basically, anybody can spend what they want to spend, tell untruths about a candidate, not be held accountable, and not have to tell who they are. It seems so wrong and so unfair.”
Asked whether he feels that the Needham Town Meeting is the best place to address the Supreme Court, Bulian said it was a place to start.
Not all the selectmen are on board.
Board of Selectmen newcomer Matthew Borrelli said that he is still considering both the article and its place in Needham’s Town Meeting.
“I just don’t want to go down the type of slippery slope where a lot of time is spent at Town Meeting discussing national issues that don’t directly impact Needham,” he said.
Borrelli said that he is keeping an open mind, and will read the Citizens United decision again before Tuesday’s meeting.
Needham’s Town Meeting will begin on Monday, May 7. Regardless of whether the selectmen vote to support it, the article will be on the warrant. Wasserman said that the plan right now is to vote on Tuesday, there is always the possibility that the vote could be delayed.