JEFFERSON — Jefferson County elected officials weighed in Tuesday on an issue that has been gaining momentum in the area, passing a resolution to support a constitutional amendment stating that money is not speech and only human beings — not corporations — are endowed with constitutional rights.
The hypothetical amendment would be a direct response to the 2010 Citizens United case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that political expenditures by corporations, associations or labor unions are protected by the same First Amendment rights as individual citizens.
The ruling effectively rolled back all previous spending limits on political campaigns, opening the floodgates to cash from wealthy donors spilling in to the election system.
The local resolution was proposed by Jefferson County Supervisor Jim Schroeder at the board’s June meeting, and sent to the board’s Administration and Rules committee for review, where it was decided to move the measure back to the full board for a debate and vote.
Schroeder’s proposition came in response to two similar successful municipal referenda on the April 2012 ballot supporting an amendment in the cities of Fort Atkinson and Whitewater. Those questions were brought to the polls by an organized group known as Move to Amend, which works to pass resolutions and referenda in support of the amendment around the country in hope of effecting action by the national legislature.
Many members of the organization’s Rock River chapter were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, with 12 of them speaking in favor of a county resolution.
Dan Fary, founder of the Rock River Affiliate of Move to Amend, was first to step to the podium, outlining the movements goals and position.
“I want to make it clear that we support corporations and expect that they should have definite privileges to conduct their business and execute contracts,” he said. “We just don’t feel they should be viewed as natural persons under the law.”
He said state and federal politicians have fallen into a trap because they need corporate money to win elections, and afterward potentially are expected to pass favorable legislation to pay back their donors.
“Some of you have told me how you have been very aware of the effects of this money, as our elected officials pass favorable legislation, dismantling of regulations, contract considerations, job appointments and other political favors for their large donors,” he said, noting this movement sought to dismantle that influence in the political system.
Other members added their support at the podium, with many simply thanking the board for taking up the issue, although others had more to add.
“I think it’s important that each of us consider that we have a vote — one vote in each election,” said Jeff Johnson. “And if things continue the way they’re going, our votes are not going to matter a whole lot.”
Elaine Johnson said the political reality of the moment did not reflect the dream her ancestors traveled to the country seeking.
“My grandparents came here from Sweden in 1910 with great hope for a new life in a democracy, and with every day that goes by with Citizens United dominating our elections, I’ve become increasingly pessimistic,” she said. “So please, let’s turn this around and let’s bring back democracy to our political process.”
Craig Ficenc cited the swell of support in local municipalities as a reason for county officials to vote for the resolution.
“Back in November, I delivered a stack of signed petitions to my city councilman in Fort Atkinson to put forth the referendum we had in April and passed by 77 percent,” he recalled. “I would just say that I expected support, but I was still surprised by how much support and how little dissent I heard. I think it’s just instinctive and common sense to people what the fathers of our Constitution were thinking when they wrote ‘We the People.’ Thank you for considering this.”
After citizens had spoken and the issue moved to the board, supervisors actually faced two questions regarding support for a constitutional amendment. Though the original proposal brought forth requested only a resolution of support from the county board, which would then be forwarded to the state’s Congressional delegation, an additional agenda item was created at the Administration and Rules Committee meeting. At that session, Supervisor Jim Mode moved to send the resolution to the board, but also wanted the option to take the issue directly to county residents via an advisory referendum.
However, executing a countywide referendum comes at a cost, apparently dampening many supervisors’ support for the measure. An estimate stated that having the resolution as the only item on the February 2014 ballot could cost the county around $30,000, while the municipalities would incur additional costs of about $20,000. Putting the issue on the April 2014 ballot would cost up to $5,000 in county funds, at no additional cost to municipalities.
“At this point, rather than adding the expense, I would like to not pass (the referendum) and then pass the resolution,” said Supervisor Steven Nass, echoing the sentiment of many. “The April election is a county supervisor election anyway, and if people had a problem with the county board passing this, your elections would be their referendum, and your citizens could express that to you at that time as part of you running for office. So rather than putting an extra $5,000 expense on it, I’d rather just let our elections be the referendum.”
Supervisor Mode clarified that he and others on the committee had wanted to seek input from all county residents before acting on the question.
“The reason the Administration and Rules Committee did this, and the reason I wanted to do this, is it makes it possible for all county residents to state their opinion and it isn’t just the opinion of 30 people,” he said.
Supervisor Glen Borland agreed, and said many of the board members did not know how their constituents felt about the issue.
“I do support what we are trying to do here with the amendment to the constitution; I was one of the 77 percent in Fort Atkinson that voted for it. But I do think that we’re stretching the bounds of county government just a little bit,” he said. “I know I can speak for Fort Atkinson, because we’ve had ours, but I don’t know if all board members can say that.”
However, Supervisor Dick Schultz said that spending money on the resolution does not make sense when they are elected to represent the people.
“The Move to Amend people have not requested that we invest money in this; they’ve asked that we do have a resolution,” he said. “I want to point out that virtually everything we do is just the 30 people and then we have to answer to the people that vote for us. So let’s do that, let’s not invest the money on a referendum next spring.”
Though the board could support both the referendum and the resolution, most supervisors appeared to feel that passing both measures would be redundant. A motion was made and passed to table the question of issuing a referendum until after the board had voted on whether to issue a supporting resolution.
A quick, but rousing, debate brought national political issues to the courthouse floor as the board discussed whether to support a potential constitutional amendment.
Supervisor Gregory Torres was one of the first to stand and voice his opposition to the resolution, citing a belief that the amendment would overstep traditional political boundaries.
“Corporations, unions, political action committees, organizations like the ACLU and the NRA are made up of associations of people. People who in most cases freely assemble. Because these people have a right to free speech, and a right to use their resources, such as money, toward that speech, so do the organizations made up of those people,” he said. “I just don’t see how you can say that speech is something that’s limited only to citizens only when they’re not in a group. That concerns me.”
But Schultz produced a speech in favor of the resolution, saying the measure was not an attack on corporations, but, rather, the recent injection of money into political elections — an experience to which he said all can relate.
“Since Citizens United, we saw what happened in the campaigns. And is there anybody here that can say that it helped any campaign?” he asked. “Is there anybody in this room who can say that you truly believe that the founding fathers intended that the more money you had, the more speech you had?”
After the debate closed, the resolution passed on a vote of 23-5, with Supervisors Augie Tietz, Dwayne Morris, Torres, George Jaeckel and Mode voting against it.
After acting on the resolution of support, the board turned to again address the measure calling for an advisory referendum. Supervisor Schroeder made a motion to postpone the issue indefinitely; the motion carried.
Also at the meeting, several county employees who retired during the past quarter were recognized for their years of service.
Dennis Miller, a lead custodian at the Human Services Department, retired after five years with the county, and Victor Munro, a maintenance worker for the Parks Department, left after nearly seven years.
Katherine Bogdanoff, a mediator and placement evaluator, retired after nearly 20 years with the Family Court Department, while Sgt. Michael Weber retired from the Sheriff’s Office after over 24 years as a patrol officer. Equipment operator Peter Endl was recognized for his 39 years of service to the Highway Department, beginning in 1974.
In other business, the county board:
• Approved several rezoning petitions.
• Heard the first reading of an ordinance requiring county board members who cannot attend a board meeting to report their absence in advance to the county administrator and board chair. Action on the proposed change will be taken at the August board meeting.
• Amended a county board ordinance to allow a vice chair to act in order to break a tie or create a quorum, in lieu of the chairperson.
• Changed the number of members appointed to the Mid-Wisconsin Federated Library System Board from six to five.
• Passed a resolution supporting the Madison Region Economic Partnership’s application for and proposed designation of a six-county Madison region economic development district.
• Authorized a contract to sell a tax delinquent property at 1117 S. Main St., Lake Mills, to the City of Lake Mills to demolish the fire-damaged structure located there.
• Approved a contract for a county network security assessment by Experis Financial in Madison at a cost of $31,500.
• Awarded a contract for replacement boilers at the Health and Human Services building to the J.F. Ahern Company in Madison at a cost of $62,180.
• Approved the county administrator’s appointment of Donna Hinzman as the medical representative to the Traffic Safety Commission and Ron Kutz as the commission’s at-large representative, both for an indeterminate term.
• Approved the Human Services Board’s appointment of Connie Stengel, Darlene Schaefer and Sue Strese to the Aging and Disability Resource Center Advisory Committee, all for three-year terms. Janet Gerbig also was an appointment for an indeterminate term.