Sunday, March 11, 2012

Should the Takoma Park City Council Take Up Non-City Issues?

Takoma Park resident and activist Thomas Nephew, in A city's 'city issue' issue, has taken me to task for a city-council vote that reflected my disinclination to back council action on non-municipal matters. I (and Council Member Tim Male) voted against a Takoma Park City Council resolution calling for overturn of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows unrestricted political expenditures by corporations and unions. Granola Park blogger Gilbert captured my view succinctly and accurately --

"He didn't see [a call for overturn of the Citizens United decision] as a city issue, either, and said constituent concerns should be brought up with elected officials in the appropriate jurisdiction."

The council took up Citizens United, at its February 6, 2012 meeting, under the heading, Legislative Update and Related Resolution. The staff-prepared background material explained,

Senator Jamie Raskin (District 20 of Takoma Park) is circulating a letter in the Maryland General Assembly to be sent to the United States Congress urging a Constitutional Amendment be initiated to overturn the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

That letter is appropriate. States, in our system, charter the corporations who have achieved campaign-donation personhood through the CU decision.

Now, if Senator Raskin (my neighbor and constituent, whom I've enthusiastically supported from the day he announced his state-senate run, which isn't true of all council incumbents) had asked the council's support, I would have voted for a resolution. He did not, and the resolution before the council did not reference Senator Raskin's initiative. That is, it failed to make the case that the Citizens United decision is a direct city-government concern.

I'm not an absolutist, however, and I recognize that I was elected to represent my constituents. Constituents views are important to me, which is why I blogged and I wrote to Ward 1 residents, via neighborhood e-mail lists, to ask their opinions on, as Thomas put it, this city's "'city issue' issue." I wrote, "I have misgivings... The Citizens United decision is bad news -- corporations are not people, and heavy corporate spending in electoral campaigns is pernicious -- but Citizens United isn't a city issue. Should the city devote time and resources to this question? Again, please share your thoughts."

Responses were split 5-2-6 -- No-Tentative-Yes. Here they are. (I've taken key sentences from a number of longer comments).

No
"Having read the resolution and its genesis, I agree that a city council resolution will have little impact and is not a good way for the council to use its time or resources."
"Stay out of the Citizens United issue. Takoma Park doesn't have a dog in that fight and we shouldn't waste city resources on it. Thanks, (& wife agrees) your constituent"
"I am generally opposed to the city involving itself in purely symbolic issues. Unless city action can have a tangible effect on the Citizens United situation, I would prefer that the council spend its time on issues that are local in nature."
"[My husband] and I both agree with you re: the city council's spending time discussing the Citizens United issue. It should be left in the capable hands of Senator Raskin and others who might possibly have some impact on the policy."
"Not, in my opinion, a good use of council's time. I never understand the temptation to get involved in federal issues."
Tentative
"Does Jamiue Raskin think it would be of any use to have the City on record on this? If he does, given his leadership and knowledge on the issue, my hope is that the council will act to do so."
"If Senator Raskin thinks that TP taking a position on this will somehow support his cause, THEN maybe it is worth the time. If not, then I think we as individuals can support Sen. Raskin's worthy effort."
Yes
"To those who think the Citizens United decision is not a city issue, I say that it's an issue affecting every one of us. And cities around the country, including Greenbelt and Mt. Ranier, are in the process of passing condemning resolutions. As a 37-year resident, I firmly believe Takoma Park should continue its proud history as a progressive community and at least match the efforts of those other cities."
"I just saw the resolution and I support it."
"The point of such a resolution in Takoma Park is not merely to influence state senators, but to make known our City's opposition to the Citizens United decision, and support for changing it."
"Let's speak out!"
"The citizens united decision is so egregious we need every voice to be heard in every forum. It certainly has a much bigger impact than a wind farm (as good as that may be)."
"This was a horrible decision! Very important to raise our voice in solidarity with others in opposition for many reasons."
"I wouldn't forego any critical local issues for this discussion, but communities don't end at the borders of municipalities. The more of the latter that can tell state and national governments what they think of this Supreme Court ruling -- which affects us all, at every level of self government -- the better."
The tally

One could count the Tentatives as Nos given that Senator Raskin did not ask for a city resolution. Adding a Yes vote from Thomas, the tally is 7 No, 7 Yes, with over 2,000 Ward 1 residents not voicing an opinion, including at least 243 of the 256 Ward 1 voters who cast a 2011 ballot.

I've buried the lede, down at the end of this blog article. Should the Takoma Park City Council involve itself in other than city-government matters? Residents who are engaged enough in this issue to weigh in are split. But most have not weighed in as is typical, which I read as trust in my ability to make a sound decision. I appreciate that trust and will do my best to justify it, and I'm quite happy to be held accountable.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the reply, Seth. I now see the "misgivings" email you sent to PEN on 2/5/11, the day before the City Council hearing, titled "City-council topics, February 6 2012." I missed it at the time because (I confess) I don't read every email on PEN. The short notice, an understandably plain title and the lack of response combined to bury an important topic in what looked like a routine email.

    I don't mean to suggest a single February council decision made in good faith requires some sort of 'accountability moment,' even though I disagree with that decision. I'd much rather find some common ground about this issue with you.

    I get that you, Councilmember Male, and the whole Council are elected to focus on and want to focus on -- allow me to reformulate -- community-related issues. I'd suggest that the impeachment resolution you supported in 2007 was in fact "community-related" even though it clearly wasn't a "city issue." It was community-related because those of us working for it proved, by signature gathering, by speaking at council sessions, and other means that there was a lot of community support for the resolution.

    I think you and the Council are or would be right to require some kind of demonstration that a non-city-issue resolution you're asked to consider has community relevance, community backing, or both, and I applaud your instinct to set some kind of ground rules. In your view, that didn't happen to an adequate extent with the Citizens United resolution; I respect that judgment though I disagree with it. Going forward, though, I'd like to suggest that you might set the bar a little differently than you have so far, by adopting 'community-related' yardstick instead of a 'city issue' one. That way the community can expect that its non-city issue preferences might, from time to time and with work, be acknowledged and reflected by Council resolutions.

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  2. Well said, Seth and Thomas. Especially the not absolutist and finding common ground parts. I think the city should weigh in occasionally on such issues that garner broad support, possibly in a targeted way such as signing on to a letter aimed at more appropriate representatives. (and my vote is in favor that this particular issue did warrant a city resolution, though hopefully not having to take the time of a "full debate"). Note the opposition in this case didn't necessarily oppose overturning citizen's united, but opposed that the city take time to address it. So by the new yardstick some of those NOs, might be a YES if the city resolution could be voted on or targeted efficiently.

    Further of note:
    I don't like some of the perfunctory resolutions the city passes that are clearly "city issues", especially when it takes 10-15 min for everyone to comment about it. I applaud any councilmember who takes a backseat to simply repeating sentiments of others. Maybe the council should ask for one member to write the "supporting opinion" (and maybe another for a dissenting one, though that doesn't happen much) like the Supreme Court does. Bet you could save the time of a full council meeting or two each year, by trimming that repetition out.

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