Mayor Narkewicz’s “Disapproval” of the Anti-Surveillance Ordinance Doesn’t Make Sense

To make the ordinance less “inaccurate,” his bizarre revisions are contradictory.

WILL MEYER

On Monday, December 18th, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz issued a letter to the City Council stating his reasons for vetoing the ordinance prohibiting downtown police surveillance cameras. Instead of objecting the ordinance outright, he instead used his letter to describe revisions that would make it, in his view, better.

His revisions have come after a three month long public process where the people of Northampton have had an opportunity to influence the outcome of the ordinance. The Mayor, however, held his cards close to his chest, and wouldn’t divulge his views on the issue until he released his “disapproval” letter after a resolution had passed and then an ordinance (both with two readings). He didn’t come to public meetings (except a brief cameo appearance to talk about an unrelated “Stop for the School Bus” campaign); he didn’t offer any comments on record. Instead, during many of the meetings (which I attended), he sat in the lobby outside the Council Chamber futsing with his iPad.

But to be fair to Narkewicz, his job isn’t to draft or propose public policy, so it’s understandable that his attempt at doing so was lacking.

What is strange about Narkewicz’s letter is that the revisions make the the original ordinance significantly weaker and stronger at the same time. While it’s nice to expand the the scope of the ordinance, the exception for municipal buildings make the ordinance significantly worse.

The first reason the Mayor gives for disapproving the ordinance is that the Police Chief, Jody Kasper, doesn’t support it. This is a moot point because it isn’t the Chief’s job to draft or propose policy, either; that responsibility falls on the Council. (Imagine for a moment if cops, rather than lawmakers, should bear the burden of making laws. I can only think that our society would be less kind, and more fearful and punitive towards the most vulnerable among us.)

The second reason is that the City Council has the authority to approve or deny funding for cameras because they create and approve the city budget. This, historically, has been true as the Mayor shows in his letter citing cameras the Council has approved funding for at various schools. But federal funding for expanding police surveillance isn’t hypothetical either. In the article “Federal Grants Bring Surveillance Cameras to Small Towns,” the Washington Post shines light on the policy that got legs during the Bush years, describing one town in Vermont that has eight police officers and sixteen surveillance cameras.

And the third reason is a minor semantic issue. The original ordinance, which Narkewicz is opposing, uses different language in its title as compared with the text of the law. The title says that it is “establishing restrictions” on downtown surveillance cameras, whereas the text says it’s “prohibiting” them. The law makes it clear that they are opposing permanent surveillance equipment in the downtown business district (including cameras, facial recognition software, and license plate readers) — and had this been an issue for Nakewicz he could have expressed it during the three-month process. He is right: the ordinance isn’t a ban since there are cameras in the parking garages and on the police station, and it is in fact establishing restrictions. But vetoing over this?

Furthermore, the Mayor is right to point out in his letter that surveillance cameras have the potential to undermine Northampton’s sanctuary city status because it would be easy for footage to get into the hands of federal authorities. So he proposes expanding the ordinance beyond downtown to include the entire city. He also affirms the necessity of the need for a public process to prevent a “rogue” future mayor or police chief from installing cameras.

But then his proposed ordinance revisions fall apart when it comes to exceptions that ultimately are inconsistent with the essence of the law. It gets murky when he modifies the exception of the “at the police station on Center Street” and changes it to “security cameras that monitor municipal buildings, including but not limited to police and fire rescue stations, schools, and critical public water supply facilities” (emphasis mine). The language “cameras that monitor” isn’t defined at all. Does he mean only the inside of the buildings? The next exception is explicitly about the police station’s parking structure where they park their cruisers. It says that cameras can record the parking deck “so long as such cameras do not monitor public places outside of the parking structure.”

But in spite of these carve outs the reality of downtown cameras is not represented accurately. There are already cameras mounted on the police station that monitor Center Street (that are at odds with the spirit of the ordinance). Are these “cameras that monitor” a municipal building? I called the Mayor’s office to ask. The Mayor’s chief of staff said she would get back me and hasn’t at the time of writing.

Because of the vagueness regarding the exception for municipal buildings it’s unclear if they could affix a camera to City Hall and monitor Main Street that way. Depending on how the law is applied it would either require the cameras that monitor Center Street from atop the police station to come down or it would allow full on surveillance from cameras affixed to any municipal building. This is very unclear — especially from someone who made such a big deal of semantics in the bill.

And, for what it’s worth, both The Gazette and Mass Live didn’t mention the municipal building revision in their articles about the Mayor’s veto.

What is strange about Narkewicz’s letter is that the revisions make the the original ordinance significantly weaker and stronger at the same time. In other words, the revisions ultimately contradict each other. While it’s nice to expand the the scope of the ordinance, the exception for municipal buildings make the ordinance significantly worse.

Why the Mayor made these revisions in the form of a veto doesn’t make much sense. Maybe he is trying to please both the business community (who wanted the cameras initially) and also the cohort of anti-surveillance activists that have been vocal throughout the public process at the same time. Maybe he wants to keep to his word and veto the ordinance — thus demonstrating his power as an executive of the city.

We might never know why he is proposing these changes, but we do know he avoided the public process where he had the chance to tell us.


Will Meyer is an editor of The Shoestring. He is a columnist for The Valley Advocate and has written in many publications such as The Media, Jacobin, and The Baffler. If you like this article, please donate to The Shoestring on Patreon.