Northampton council takes stand against cameras downtown

  • A resolution on whether to take a stand against surveillance cameras in downtown Northampton drew a packed house at Thursday’s City Council meeting. Everyone who spoke during public comment supported the resolution, which passed by a 7-2 vote. GAZETTE STAFF/BERA DUNAU

Published: 10/20/2017 12:22:15 AM

Northampton — The City Council passed a resolution opposing the installation of new, permanent, municipally operated surveillance technology downtown at its Thursday meeting, but only after a contentious debate.

The resolution passed by a vote of 7-2, with councilors at large William H. Dwight and Ryan O’Donnell, Ward 1 Councilor Maureen T. Carney, Ward 3 Councilor James Nash, Ward 4 Gina-Louise Sciarra, Ward 6 Councilor Marianne L. LaBarge and Ward 7 Councilor Alisa Klein voting for it. Ward 2 Councilor Dennis Bidwell and Ward 5 Councilor David A. Murphy voted against the resolution.

The vote was met with applause from the audience.

The prospect of new municipally operated security cameras downtown was initially raised by Police Chief Jody Kasper. This produced significant public opposition, in addition to a council resolution and ordinance against such a move.

When the council last took up the resolution in September, as well as an ordinance on the issue, it voted 5-4 to refer it to its Committee on Legislative Matters and its Committee on City Services. Those committees subsequently voted 4-0 to send it back to the full council without a recommendation and 3-1 in favor of it respectively.

Resolutions are not legally binding, but express the feelings of the council. An ordinance on the subject of additional municipally operated surveillance cameras and surveillance efforts downtown, which would have legal powers, has yet to be voted on by the Committee on Legislative Matters the Committee on City Services.

The resolution drew significant support during public comment before the council debated the issue. Unlike September’s discussion, no opponents of the resolution spoke.

Amy Bookbinder noted that the vast majority of the people who have spoken at public meetings were against the cameras.

“I’m asking you, as the voice of the people … to respect those voices,” said Bookbinder. “I am looking forward to a unanimous vote approving the resolution.”

“Electronic surveillance is a threat to our privacy,” said Bill Newman, director of the western Massachusetts legal office of the ACLU.

“As a society we’ve drifted too far to the authoritarian edge of the spectrum,” said Chris Kitzmiller.

Much of the early debate centered on an amendment to the resolution by Bidwell, who has been a steadfast opponent of both the ordinance and the resolution.

Bidwell’s amendment changed the resolution’s objection to the widespread installation of permanent municipally operated cameras, rather than the additional installation of surveillance technology.

Bidwell stated that he found this amendment made the resolution more balanced. For the sponsors of the resolution, however, the amendment threatened to make their own resolution unpalatable.

“I would rather you vote it down,” said O’Donnell, one of the resolution’s sponsors, on the prospect of voting for his resolution if it was amended.

“The amendment’s an equivocation,” said Dwight, another sponsor.

The normally placid Dwight’s voice cracked with emotion as he argued passionately against government surveillance.

“This is a bad thing. It does not have a place in free democratic society,” he said.

In the end the amendment was voted down 6-3, with Nash, Bidwell and Murphy voting in favor of it.

Over the course of the debate of both the resolution and the amendment, a number of councilors expressed satisfaction that the resolution had gone to the committees, and that the public had had the chance to have more input on it.

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