Missoula City Council Puts Corporate Rights Measure on Ballot

August 23, 2011
Keila Szpaller

The U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing from Missoula.

At its regular meeting, the Missoula City Council voted to place a referendum on the 2011 ballot that urges federal and state lawmakers to amend the U.S. Constitution "to clearly state that corporations are not human beings and do not have the same rights as citizens."

The council voted 9-1 with one abstention to move forward on the resolution presented by Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken. Councilwoman Renee Mitchell abstained; Councilman Dick Haines voted no and tried to shush the mayor from voicing his support.

Wolken brought the resolution forward to push back against the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. The judgment gave corporations the right to pay for political ads based on the First Amendment, and Wolken fears, sells elections to the highest bidders.

Many members of the public agreed with her Monday night, although some said they worried it would harm businesses.

University of Montana professor Vicki Watson thanked the council for bringing the referendum forward and said she wanted the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an official message it erred. She said extending civil rights to corporations "makes a mockery of our sacred human rights."

"Corporations do not bleed or feel pain. They can't die in an unsafe workplace," Watson said.

Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, said she pitched a similar piece of legislation in Helena, and she heard support from Democrats and Republicans all across the state. Hill noted Montana history is laced with stories of big money, such as the Copper Kings, buying influence.

"This is a question of whether American democracy itself can beat back a corporate takeover," Hill said.

Mary Stranahan, who doesn't live in Missoula but enjoys many of its amenities, said putting power back into the hands of the people is a huge matter.

"I think this is one of the most important issues we as a country face in trying to preserve what democracy we have," Stranahan said.

John Tesdal, though, said the "feel-good activism" has no place in Missoula. He feared it would hurt local business that are corporations, such as the Good Food Store, Portico Real Estate and the Kettlehouse Brewing Co., one of his favorites.

"The proposed referendum in my opinion is really anti-business," Tesdal said.

Before members of the public spoke, Councilman Haines voiced his strong opposition and had a spat with Mayor John Engen.

"This has got to be one of the dumbest things I've seen us do in a long time," said Haines, who noted most media outlets are corporately owned.

Mayor Engen disagreed: "I'll suggest this is probably one of the smartest things you all have done in a long time."

Haines then tried to shush the mayor, who reminded the councilman he is a member of the body.

"I have every right to speak here. You are out of order, and you'll remain out of order," Engen said.

"So are you," retorted Haines.

"Duly noted."

In other business, the council also unanimously agreed to buy a recycling machine that takes in asphalt chunks and grinds and melts them for pothole fill. Engen thanked the council for the $188,829 purchase: "Having a machine that fills potholes and actually has the filling stay in the potholes? Big deal."