City Council battles over corporate 'personhood'

After a heated debate, an Ashland City Council majority rejected backing a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would eliminate "personhood" status for corporations and unions.

Instead, in a compromise vote, a council majority voted to direct city staff to craft a resolution stating the council's support for a constitutional amendment affirming that Congress and the states have the right to regulate campaign contributions.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a 5-4 decision that corporations and unions have the right to make unlimited indirect political contributions because they have the same rights as individual people. The court viewed contributions as constitutionally protected free speech.

During an argument on Tuesday night, several councilors said they agreed that the amount of money spent on elections has reached obscene levels, especially at the national level.

Councilman Greg Lemhouse said the council should be tending to local business, not debating resolutions with no teeth about national political issues. He said Ashland residents want the council to focus on local matters.

"They want us to get to work. Instead, the last few council meetings, we've spent time on political theater," Lemhouse said.

In a vote over whether to pass a resolution supporting a constitutional amendment against corporate and union personhood, Councilors Carol Voisin, Dennis Slattery and Russ Silbiger voted in favor.

Councilors Lemhouse, David Champan and Mike Morris voted against it, with Mayor John Stromberg casting the tie-breaking vote to defeat the resolution.

A compromise motion to support an amendment affirming the power of Congress and the states to regulate campaign contributions was supported by Voisin, Slattery, Silbiger, Chapman and Morris, with Lemhouse voting against it.

Silbiger said there should be regulations limiting campaign contributions from individuals as well as corporations. He noted that very wealthy individuals with billions of dollars could pour cash into elections.

Slattery said trying to take away rights to make campaign contributions from corporations would also hurt organizations such as unions and nonprofit groups.

"There are some very good corporations out there and some very bad people," Slattery said.

Ashland residents who came to speak on the controversial issue generally kept their cool, although one person threatened to make it his personal mission to oust any councilor who didn't vote to fight against corporate personhood status.

Speaking calmly, Ashland resident and octogenarian Herbert Long said he had lived through the Depression and World War II, and now feels America's democracy is under threat. He said people of average means have minimal access to the political process.

"That access is available to those who have money," Long said.

A national movement called Move to Amend formed recently after the Supreme Court's 2010 personhood decision. There is a local branch in Ashland.

Residents pointed to a partial list of more than a dozen cities that have taken a stand on the issue.

Resident John Limb said local elected bodies should take a stance against unlimited campaign contributions.

"This campaign will succeed by winning city by city, state by state," Limb said.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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