Narkewicz vetoes surveillance camera ban; proposes alternative

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 12/18/2017 10:17:52 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Mayor David Narkewicz has followed through on his promise to veto an ordinance that would heavily restrict surveillance cameras downtown, while suggesting revisions that would allow him to support the measure.

The council is now faced with the decision of overriding his veto, or passing a revised ordinance.

The debate over police surveillance began at a public meeting in September, when Police Chief Jody Kasper floated the idea of installing additional municipal security cameras downtown. The proposal sparked a backlash, including a resolution from the City Council condemning public surveillance and an ordinance that sought to prohibit the introduction of new permanent municipally operated surveillance technology downtown.

The ordinance underwent a number of revisions in the committee process, some of which were enacted in response to concerns expressed by Kasper. It passed the City Council on first reading 7-1 and on second reading 7-2. It was also characterized as a restriction, not a ban, by City Council Vice President Ryan O’Donnell, one of its chief authors and advocates, in the debate over passage.

The ordinance prohibits fixed surveillance technology that is in place for more than one day in the central business district on land that is owned or controlled by the city, although it does contain exceptions for technology that monitors parking areas, cameras on the police station on Center Street, time-limited criminal investigations and emergencies.

The ordinance covers any fixed surveillance equipment such as cameras, license plate readers and facial recognition devices, among other technologies.

Even before it passed the council on first reading, Narkewicz said he would veto the ordinance, and he followed through with his promise on Monday.

The veto power is rarely used by Northampton mayors. Indeed, Narkewicz’s veto will mark only the third time in his tenure as mayor that he has utilized it.

All vetoes are required to have a letter attached to them explaining the mayor’s reasoning. In his letter, Narkewicz said the ordinance was unnecessary, because the council already has the authority over whether to approve or disapprove capital improvement projects like municipal surveillance cameras. He cited the processes that the council has gone through in approving cameras at Northampton public schools.

He also objected to the ordinance being classified as a restriction, noting the word “prohibition” appears in the text, not restriction, and that those words have different meanings.

Finally, he objected to the ordinance’s scope only applying to downtown, noting that its sister resolution had been universal in its condemnation of public surveillance. He also noted that downtown is a very small part of the city.

Accompanying this critique, however, was a revision of the ordinance. In this revision, the mayor said that it was clear to him that the council desired an additional safeguard against executive power when it comes to surveillance.

The mayor’s revisions expand the ordinance to the entire city. They also use the word “restriction” over “prohibition,” and expand the exceptions to the restrictions to all cameras that monitor municipal buildings.

The mayor’s revisions also propose that requests for the installation of surveillance technology be subjected to a public hearing process, with notice in at least one newspaper. 

He also noted that the public hearing requirement for surveillance technology in his ordinance is stricter than what is in the law currently.

Narkewicz said Monday he tried to be respectful of the existing ordinance in his revisions, while expanding it and building a public hearing aspect into it.

“I wanted it to be constructive,” he said.

As for process, he said the council could choose to not override his veto and pass the new ordinance.

He also said he had shown his revisions to Kasper, and she hadn’t raised any objections.

The future of the ordinance and the mayor’s proposed revisions is not certain. The City Council has the ability to override a veto with a two-thirds vote. However, Narkewicz’s proposed revisions may have created a change in the dynamic of the camera debate.

O’Donnell said Monday that he needed to take some time to study the mayor’s comments, and would do so over the next few days.

“I really appreciate the mayor’s thoughtfulness,” he said.

The council will have to take up the question of the veto next year, due to statutory time restrictions.

Should the council favor Narkewicz’s recommendations, O’Donnell said he believed that it would simply have to pass the revised ordinance, and not go through the whole ordinance process again. However, he said he would have to consult with the city’s solicitor to confirm this.

“It’s new territory,” said council President William Dwight, who wasn’t sure about  the exact details of how the council will be able to approach the revision question.

Dwight said he would need to talk to the resolution’s other two co-sponsors, O’Donnell and Ward 7 Councilor Alisa Klein, before deciding what course of action to take on the mayor’s revisions. But he did note that he did not have a knee-jerk aversion to the mayor’s changes.

Dwight also said that he wished the mayor had weighed in with his thoughts on the ordinance sooner.

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