Friday, May 7, 2004
Town Meeting PATRIOT Act resolution stirs spirited but civil debate
The last item on the Warrant at Town Meeting generated over an hour of debate. More than twenty citizens rose from their seats to ask questions, provide information, give opinions, propose changes, and even correct grammar and typographical errors in Article 24, entitled, "A Resolution to Protect the Civil Liberties of Carlisle Citizens." Susan Stamps, chair of the Carlisle Civil Liberties Committee (CCLC), summarized how and why the resolution came before Town Meeting.
The CCLC is a citizen group formed to bring before the town their concern that specific portions of the USA PATRIOT Act are as Stamps said, an "assault" on certain of the civil liberties guaranteed in our state and national Constitutions. The group sponsored an educational forum about the Act and made a vigorous grassroots effort inform the townspeople. (See April 9 and April 23 issues at www.carlislemosquito.org.)
Early in the evening's debate Priscilla Stevens proposed that the resolution be amended to eliminate language requesting that the Town Administrator disclose at Town Meeting "the names and whereabouts of any Town resident(s) detained pursuant to the Act." The amendment attempted to avoid "branding people who should be considered innocent until proven guilty." CCLC member Nancy Garden argued that this phrase is meant to inform friends and neighbors of a citizen's detention "so we can come to their aid." The amendment was easily defeated in a voice vote.
Opponents: Not the right forum
Selectman Doug Stevenson read a prepared statement declaring that, "Town Meeting should not become a forum for individual agendas that have no bearing" on changes to be made in town. He wondered if all citizens would be truly represented by this vote, and affirmed that "protection of our civil laws is also part of our civil codeCivil liberties do not trump all."
Several others concurred with Stevenson's point of view. Ray Wilkes had "difficulty with such a small plurality deciding these issues" and suggested putting this resolution on the town ballot. He added that all who do support the resolution "should send a letter to their representatives" stating their views, so that it would be clear that supporters represent a group in the town, but not the whole town. Peter Chelton contended that the resolution should be on the town ballot, asking, "Is it wise for any of us who have not read the PATRIOT Act to judge its contents?" He asserted that because our system works, "if the Act is unconstitutional, it will be found so, and this resolution is therefore unnecessary."
Proponents: civil liberties "assaulted"
Proponents of the resolution countered these opinions in a variety of ways. Alan Lehotsky and CCLC member Midge Eliassen both asserted that there is precedent for discussing and voting on issues "outside [our] backyards" dating from 1774 and including, in 1982, a resolution urging the government to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Mark Levitan affirmed that this issue does have local application in our libraries, schools, and other town departments, and that "we have a responsibility to be vigilant about our civil liberties." Wayne Davis declared, "We at Town Meeting are the legislative body of Carlisle," and that because the resolution urges legislators to "monitor the implementation of the Actand to actively work for the repeal of those portions which violate civil liberties" Town Meeting "can take back democracy by sending this message: let's take a closer look." CCLC member Sally Coulter reminded citizens that Town Meeting's "small plurality" had just voted on several millions of dollars' worth of budget distributions, allotments, and overrides for Carlisle, and therefore that Town Meeting is an appropriate venue for this issue as well. CCLC member Charles Schweppe pointed out that if the resolution appeared only on the town ballot, there would be no opportunity to discuss it as there is in Town Meeting.
Civility despite differences
The Resolution to Protect the Civil Liberties of Carlisle Citizens engaged the largest amount of time in the 24-article Warrant, but despite sharp differences over the proper forum for dealing with this resolution, about the PATRIOT Act itself, about how much information townspeople have and should require to make a voting decision and other issues, Carlisle citizens maintained a civil discourse. When Town Moderator Tom Raftery called for the vote by a show of hands, the resolution won by a strong majority.
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