On the evening of February 13, the Town Council of Cheverly voted not to consider passing any resolutions on national or international issues. It did so in response to requests from citizens that it pass resolutions opposing the PATRIOT Act and the proposed war on Iraq, something that dozens of other localities have done.
Not only will the Town Council of Cheverly not take a position one way or another on either of those matters, but it has now barred itself from ever considering taking a position on any other matter that it chooses to define as national or international.
Last year, Baltimore City Council was looking seriously at the possibility of passing an ordinance restricting predatory lending (abusive mortgage practices that strip homeowners of equity and often of their homes). The state of Maryland passed a law banning all local laws on lending. On the same day that Cheverly voted to take no positions on national issues, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would ban all state and local laws on predatory lending.
Already, prior to that bill’s introduction, six major cities passed, and many others introduced, resolutions opposing it.
Whatever powers the federal government might seize from Cheverly in the future, Cheverly will not be able to so much as express an opinion on the matter, if it defines it as a national issue — though presumably Cheverly will still be able to fight state preemption of local powers tooth and nail.
Of course, what counts as a national issue is not entirely clear. Is the No Child Left Behind Act a national issue despite its impact on how local schools must be run? Is the PATRIOT Act a national issue despite its impact on the behavior of local police? Is a war a national or international issue despite the effect its cost could have on local budgets? Who knows.
But even assuming that we can clearly distinguish national and international issues, why should our town government not be able to consider taking a position on them?
Imagine the worst possible national policies. Imagine outrageous developments worlds away from our current society. Imagine the federal government legalizes outright slavery or institutes concentration camps for the murder of racial or religious groups. My argument is not that such a nightmare is about to happen, but that if it ever did Cheverly Town Council would not consider the matter any of its business.
Congress hardly considered the PATRIOT Act its business either, and passed the bill with hardly any discussion. For that matter, Senator Daschle refused to oppose John Ashcroft’s nomination as Attorney General, arguing that it wasn’t really the Senate’s place to question the President.
It’s very easy to avoid responsibility. But I’ve come to expect that of Congress, not of local government. That’s what I find so disappointing about Cheverly Town Council’s action. This Town Council is elected. It’s truly a democratic body. Almost every seat in Congress belongs to the candidate who spent the most money. Congress is more puchased than elected. I expect better of a local government. I would like a local government, as the most democratic body representing me, to take a position on the most important matters of the day.
If Cheverly residents object to this shirking of responsibility, they can vote the shirkers out come the May elections. The four Council Members who voted against addressing national and international issues were Leon Schachter, Geoffrey Cullen, Julia Mosley, and Sharon Glivens. All but Schachter had voted the other way two weeks previous. The two Council Members who voted to consider the possibility of taking positions on national and international issues were Norman Oslik and Vincent Ford.
Council Member Oslik in particular spoke quite movingly about the healthy democratic function of public debate and the importance of addressing rare national issues of a particularly serious nature. He even attempted unsuccessfully to pass a motion explicitly allowing public discussion of such issues at town meetings even though the Council would not take a position as a result.
Let’s elect a few more Council Members with Mr. Oslik’s integrity and respect for the democratic process. Let’s relieve a few others of what is apparently too much responsibility for them.