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Measure T Backers Look To Curb Corporate Election Influence

Rebecca Bender, Eureka Reporter
February 22, 2006

Get Involved Today!Should corporations outside Humboldt County be allowed to participate in county elections?

Measure T, the Ordinance to Protect Our Right to Fair Elections and Local Democracy, gives voters the chance to answer that question at the ballot box on June 6. But while supporters praise the measure's protection of local democratic integrity, some legal experts question the constitutionality of the measure - and consequently, the potential for costly lawsuits, if it is passed.

"The issue is, can you make a law to restrict free speech?" Arcata attorney Greg Allen said. "The First Amendment says that 'Congress shall make no law (abridging the freedom of speech).' No law, period."

The Humboldt Coalition for Community Rights, a citizens' group which introduced the ordinance, asserts that out-of-town corporate involvement in elections undermines the process.

HCCR campaign manager Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap said that while Measure T focuses on preventing the negative influence of outside corporate involvement in elections, the issue of corporate personhood is central to that effort.

"Corporations are not 'persons,' so we are not going to let that mistaken notion interfere with our community's right to assert local control of our elections," she said.

Measure T was introduced by HCCR last year and approved in early February by the Board of Supervisors for inclusion on June's ballot. HCCR members gathered signatures from more than 7,500 registered voters to qualify the petition for a vote. Only 4,500 were needed.

Citing political and self-governance rights guaranteed in the California and U.S. constitutions, the ordinance prohibits non-local corporations from contributing any form of money, property or services to promoting or opposing local candidates, initiatives, referenda and recall efforts.

Local corporations are defined as those in which all employees live in the county, all stock shares are owned within the county and both corporate headquarters and the primary place of business are in the county.

Local labor and nonprofit organizations are also exempt under the measure. Only one union member is required to live in the county for it to qualify as local; nonprofit board members must all reside in the county.

Allen looked askance at those residency requirements.

"It creates a privileged class of organization - and that's labor unions," he said. "So on the face of it, that's unconstitutional, because it creates an unfair privilege, and the privilege we're talking about is the right of free speech."

He also criticized the differential treatment of corporations within and outside the county.

"There's a lot of case law that says that you can't do that," he said. "The precedent is pretty strongly against these folks."

McKinleyville attorney Sara Senger has also been an outspoken critic of the measure. "I think it's an unreasonable measure, I think it's a head-in-the-sand measure, I think it's an unconstitutional measure," she said. "It implies that all corporations are corrupt, and you can't make that blanket assumption."

Though she agreed that financial influences in elections are a legitimate cause for concern - "I've always had a problem with money being called free speech," she said - she, too, questioned Measure T's unequal treatment of corporations and labor unions. "Corporations aren't, strictly speaking, people, but neither are unions," she said.

She'd prefer to see an approach that sets a specific dollar amount limit on all campaign contributions.

Sopoci-Belknap defended the group's decision to define local labor unions the way it did because of the nature of those organizations.

"Corporations exist to make a profit for their shareholders, while unions exist for workers' rights," she said. "They're really apples and oranges in terms of what their purpose is."

Humboldt County's rural profile also means that union membership is often widely dispersed, she said.

Measure supporters often refer to a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case, First National Bank of Boston et al. v. Bellotti, attorney general of Massachusetts, in which a law prohibiting corporations' campaign contributions was struck down, but with the recognized exception of cases in which compelling state interest justifies restriction.

Peter Gabel, a professor of law at the New College of California School of Law, has expressed support for the measure and quoted the ruling in its defense.

"In the case of Measure T, a compelling state interest is shown," he said. "When you have a relatively small democratic unit like Humboldt County being swamped by out-of-state corporate campaign contributions that simply cannot be matched by the local ordinary citizens, you have exactly the situation that the Supreme Court was seeking to draw an exception for."

Sopoci-Belknap suggested that, despite the multitude of "what if" situations posed by opponents, the ordinance probably wouldn't affect many businesses. It would, however, avoid situations like the 2004 district attorney recall effort, in which Texas-based MAXXAM Corporation poured over $250,000 into the campaign to oust Humboldt County DA Paul Gallegos.

"Though the recall was defeated, the potential chilling effect on other public officials is a grave concern," Sopoci-Belknap said.

If the ordinance passes, any non-local corporation found to have made direct or indirect contributions in an election will be fined 10 times the amount it spent. Contributions of more than $25,000 could trigger revocation of the corporation's charter or Certificate of Authority to do business in California.

Sopoci-Belknap pointed to the overwhelming public support demonstrated by the petition signatures as well as a 2004 telephone poll which found that 78 percent of registered voters believe that corporate financial involvement increases the likelihood of political corruption.

"I think we've written a law as well as we possibly could to reflect that and to withstand a legal challenge," she said.

The ordinance has so far been endorsed by the Democratic Party of Humboldt County, the Central Labor Council of Humboldt and Del Norte counties, local chapters of Veterans for Peace, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Democracy Unlimited, Operating Engineers Union Local No. 3 and the Redwood Chapter Sierra Club. Eureka Mayor Peter La Vallee, Gallegos and a number of current and former Eureka and Arcata council members have also offered formal endorsement of Measure T.

The Arcata Greens first endorsed, then withdrew support for the measure, following a series of disagreements within its ranks. Allen, chair of the Green Party of Humboldt County, said that the discussion both within that group and throughout the county is positive.

"The best this ordinance can do is foster debate," he said. "I see that as healthy."

More information, including the full text of the ordinance, is available at .

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Humboldt County Leaders Endorse Measure T!

Democratic Party of Humboldt County

Green Party of Humboldt County

Central Labor Council of Humboldt and Del Norte Counties

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local #1684

Building and Construction Trades of Humboldt and Del Norte Counties

Carpenters Union Local #751

Operating Engineers Union Local #3 AFL-CIO

Paul Gallegos, Humboldt County District Attorney

Peter LaVallee, Eureka Mayor

Chris Kerrigan, Eureka City Council

Dave Meserve, Arcata City Council

Harmony Groves, Arcata City Council

Paul Pitino, Arcata City Council

Bob Ornelas, Former Arcata Mayor

Connie Stewart, Former Arcata Mayor

Elizabeth Conner, Former Arcata City Council

Julie Fulkerson, Former Humboldt County Board of Supervisors

... and hundreds of other individuals and local businesses! Join us today!

View the full list of public endorsements!


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Pros and Cons of Measure T

Learn more about Measure T in a Pros and Cons Video, produced by Eileen McGee (51 mins)


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Chris Kerrigan, Eureka City Counsel, and Kate Christensen, owner of The Garden Gate, support Measure T! (1 min)


Paul Gallegos, Humboldt County District Attorney, and Nezzie Wade, community member, support Measure T! (1 min)


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