opinion by Scott Shackelford
Shackelford is a former editorial page editor for a Northwest Arkansas newspaper. He lives in Fayetteville.
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This past June 5 saw the Fayetteville City Council take action on a resolution supporting the “Move to Amend” coalition that is campaigning for passage of a constitutional amendment to displace the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
The landmark 2010 decision made room for unprecedented amounts of campaign spending via corporations and unions apparently deserving of far more free speech protections than previously thought.
But how exactly do free speech laws, campaign finance reform and notions of corporate “personhood” connect to a local governing body on a sleepy Tuesday night?
“We’re joining a movement,” is how Ward 2 Alderman Matthew Petty (who, along with Alderman Mark Kinion, brought this matter to the council) framed the issue. Because there is little to stop businesses from influencing elections at all levels of government, Petty believes Citizens United stands to make a direct impact on cities like Fayetteville and states like Arkansas.
Said Petty: “Some people think that resolutions like this are futile, and it’s true that it is symbolic, but I take issue with the idea that it’s futile. ... I think the best way to solve a problem is through action. And when a problem like this presents itself, one that is so big that it takes a constitutional amendment to fix, the only way to solve it is through civic actions like these.”
A minor sampling of residents voiced agreeable opinions, though far more were likely tuned in to the NBA Finals and totally unaware of the rare debate unfolding on the second floor of City Hall. At one point City Attorney Kit Williams chimed in, and did not hesitate to underline his opinion that businesses should stay out of the electoral realm.
Said Williams: “Throughout history the political system has occasionally had to confront corporate power. Andrew Jackson did it. Teddy Roosevelt did that. This particular case, which equated money with speech and with corporations as people, and then basically allowed them to do things privately in unlimited amounts, is very dangerous for our democracy and it’s very dangerous for every elected official, because any elected official that’s willing to stand up against corporate power becomes a potential target of corporate power. ... I think that this is a very worthwhile attempt.”
Mayor Lionel Jordan closed the discussion by making his thoughts crystal clear.
“It doesn’t matter if you try and you fail, but we’ve got to try something and it needs to start with us,” he said at one point. “If I have to vote I will support the resolution.”
Sustained applause followed, though the mayor’s efforts were unnecessary after all, as the six present council members eagerly voiced their approval.
Not surprisingly, criticism wasn’t far behind. Observers were fast to wonder what in the world the Fayetteville City Council was doing discussing a hot-potato issue borrowed from the nation’s political scene when there are so many area issues requiring the same sharp-tongued sophistry.
A critic of the council’s decision to take a firm stand against Citizens United could now legitimately worry that council members like Petty and Kinion will someday find reason to debate a whole variety of controversial social topics on city time, and if only because they happen to be elected officials with access to a public forum.
Critics seem to be saying city council members ought to just shut up when topics beyond their immediate control appear on the horizon.
That’s silly. Democracy in its truest form is meant to be messy.
A handful of alderman in a single southern municipality cannot hope to singlehandedly reshape the direction of such a weighty and much-talked about issue as campaign finance reform. But if the elected leaders of this community feel as strongly on the subject as their June 5 comments suggest, then they have every reason — and, in fact, owe it to the people who put them in office — to speak with the courage of their convictions.
By turn, Fayetteville residents have every right to boot said public officials right out of office during the next election if those strongly held convictions fail to jive with the beliefs of a majority of voters, which is as it should be. But the idea that any elected official should keep quiet about an issue they believe is eating away at the very principles this nation is founded on — even if, admittedly, those changes come in waves that may not be strikingly obvious — is laughable.
I am not sure the actions taken this month by the Fayetteville City Council will amount to anything. Considering that just 17 amendments have become law since the Bill of Rights was ratified on Dec. 15, 1791 very likely means the answer is no.
But so what? I’m pleased to live in a town where council members are willing to light a candle in the darkness. A lot better to do so, I think, than the long list of entirely possible alternatives.