Citizens Petition Dominates Discussion at Town’s Deliberative Session

February 14, 2014
by Barbara O’Brien

While Windham’s 2014 town operating budget, totaling $12,580,680, did not elicit one single question during this past weekend’s deliberative session, well over an hour was devoted to a non-binding citizens petition aimed at altering the United States Constitution.

Fifty-four Windham residents signed the citizens petition that appears as Article 28 on this year’s town warrant.  The petition is based on a national grass roots effort to overturn the Citizens United Decision; a United States Supreme Court ruling, reached in 2010, stating that the First Amendment prohibits government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, labor unions, associations, including non-profit agencies, for the purpose of broadcasting political advertisements.  These types of advertising have come to be known as “attack ads.”

Under this ruling, the Supreme Court determined, for the very first time, that corporations are allowed the same free speech rights as “real people” in influencing the election process.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, allowing such expenditures based on freedom of speech, a petition was launched calling for overturning the decision.  The petition contends that the 2010 ruling is responsible for allowing an unprecedented influx of anonymous corporate money into local and national politics and, therefore, clouds public transparency and unduly affects the decision-making process.

Attempts to amend the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights have been made some 11,500 times throughout history.  Only 27 of those attempts have ultimately been successful.  There are two ways in which the Constitution could be amended; one is to call a Constitutional Convention, which has not been done since the original convention convened in Philadelphia; and secondly, for 38 states to ratify a proposed amendment and two-thirds of Congress to, subsequently, concur.

The petitioned article listed on Windham’s town warrant reads, “To see if the town will vote to urge that the New Hampshire State Legislature join nearly 500 local municipalities and 16 other states (plus the District of Columbia) in calling upon Congress to move forward a Constitutional Amendment that 1) guarantees the right of our elected representatives and of the American people to safeguard fair elections through the authority to regulate political spending and 2) clarifies that Constitutional rights were established for people, not corporations.”

Of the 16 states that have moved forward with such a petition, two of them, Colorado and Montana also put the question to voters during a referendum in 2012.  In both states, voters approved the petition by approximately 75 percent.

The Windham citizens petition also asks that the New Hampshire Congressional Delegation support such a constitutional amendment and that the New Hampshire State Legislature support such an amendment, should it be approved by Congress and, subsequently, sent to New Hampshire for ratification.  Furthermore, the petition states that the record of the vote approving this warrant article shall be transmitted by written notice to the Town of Windham’s congressional delegation and to the Town of Windham’s state legislators, and to the President of the United States, informing them of their constituents’ instructions.  This transmission is to be made by the Windham Board of Selectmen within 30 days of the vote, which is scheduled for March 11.

Neelima Gogumalla, one of the petitioners, described Citizens United as an outside group that is becoming “a dollarocracy.”  Citizens United comes in and dumps money in the State of New Hampshire and runs horrible ads with little or no fact, she stated, adding that there are no regulations in place to control these “attack ads.”  Windham resident Anthony DiFruscia, an attorney, said he supports the citizens petition.  “Corporations are not individuals.  They are not a person,” he said.  “It’s ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the People and the Corporations’,” DiFruscia said, referring to the free speech issue.

Resident Eileen Mashimo said she “totally, totally objects” to the citizens petition, adding that she believes it would impede free speech and grass root efforts in New Hampshire.  “A corporation is a group of people,” Mashimo said.  “Their free speech shouldn’t be limited,” she added.

Resident David Bates offered an amendment to the citizens petition, eliminating the requirement to send a copy of the warrant article to the President of the United States.  Bates’ reason for the change is that the president has no legal say in the process of amending the Constitution.  Bates also suggested several other proposed language changes in the petition; changes he claimed would not alter the intent of the warrant article.  “It’s not as simple as get big money out of elections,” Bates said.  “The Supreme Court has ruled,” Bates said.  “The decision is legally correct.”  The specific objective of the petitioned warrant article is to diminish the rights of labor unions and corporations, so they will have no impact on elections, Bates said.

Resident and School District Moderator Betty Dunn said she was against Bates’ amendment.  “The intent of the petitioned article is clear,” Dunn said.  “We know it is non-binding, but it is important to be able to express our views,” she said.  “Through this petition we are making a statement of how we want things to be … to let people know locally, state-wise and nationally that we are unhappy with the status quo,” Dunn continued.  “This warrant article is not binding anyone to anything,” she added.

Gogumalla said she feels that the language in the petition is already clear and should not be changed.  She also thanked residents for all the input on the issue.  Bates’ proposed amendments to the petition failed by a vote of 21 to 11.

A second proposed amendment was made by resident Karl Dubay, who suggested that the word “approved” be stricken from the portion of the citizens petition indicating under what circumstances the results of the vote should be sent to various delegations.  “The results should be sent to Congress if approved or not,” Dubay said, adding that it was a more transparent way of dealing with the subject.  Dubay’s proposed amendment passed by a vote of 30 to 5.

Selectman Al Letizio, Jr. said he appreciates all the input from the public, noting that town meetings demonstrate “American democracy at its finest.”  “This wouldn’t be happening over in Sochi, Russia,” Letizio said.  “I fully support the right to put forth a citizens petition, he added.

Warrant article 28 will appear on the Windham ballot as amended.  The polls will be open to registered voters on Tuesday, March 11 from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. at Windham High School.