Spurred on by a township civil rights group, West Windsor Council recently approved a resolution opposing the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism), stating that the federal legislation infringes on civil rights.##M:[more]##
“Congress ought to hold full and fair hearings regarding the PATRIOT Act, its provisions, and its enforcement, and amend the act as necessary to eliminate any chilling effect on constitutional liberties and implement effective programs targeted at actual threats without compromising the values that are fundamental to America,” states the resolution.
The measure was approved on December 6 by a 3-0-1 vote, with Council President Franc Gambatese, Jackie Alberts, and Alison Miller voting in favor, and Kristin Appelget abstaining. Councilman Charles Morgan was absent.
Council originally considered the resolution during a work session in November attended by a large contingent of residents, many of whom were members of West Windsor Citizens for Civil Liberties (WWCCL). Council opted to move forward with the measure but re-draft a shorter and more concise version of a resolution submitted by WWCCL.
“The PATRIOT Act has been a bone of contention for many people who believe in civil liberties and it contradicts the tenets of the U.S. Constitution,” says Hassan Syed, chairman of the West Windsor Human Relations Council and a member of the WWCCL. “We wanted the council to send a message that the Patriot Act should be reviewed. This is a 342-page document that was rushed through during the heat of the moment (after the September 11 terrorist attacks) without real debate in less than a week.”
“We (council) all agreed that in some manner the PATRIOT Act offended us all,” says Gambatese. “I, personally, disagree with the entire document, others only some of it. But we realized that a significant segment of the community we represent could really be threatened by the act.”
Following the November council meeting, Morgan said that he would support a resolution “that asks congress to hold hearings and narrow the scope of the law where it seems constitutionally suspect.”
“We are faced with a new paradigm,” Morgan says. “When you cannot distinguish a terrorist from your neighbor, it calls for a shift in the way you have traditionally addressed issues like this.
“The hard job is to address the real issue, and it may be that the PATRIOT Act may have gone too far — but it is my belief the pendulum needs to swing too far sometimes in one direction to generate the type of lively public debate that leads to a solution. What we’re experiencing is a process that is ugly — kind of like watching sausage being made.”
Appelget says she abstained on the resolution because she is uncomfortable taking on an issue she believes is far outside the realm of local government.
“Our council has not generally taken stands on national or international issues,” Appelget says. “I don’t think I was elected because of my opinions on civil liberties, abortion, or other larger issues. That’s what congressmen, and to some extent state legislators are concerned with. I wasn’t put on council because I feel passionate one way or another about the PATRIOT Act.”
Not everyone in attendance at the council meeting supported the resolution. Jack Flood, a former township mayor and commander of VFW Post 925, said he believes the resolution was a partisan action by the Democrats on council.
Although West Windsor has a non-partisan form of government, individual members are not precluded from registering with a political party. On the current council, Alberts, Gambatese, and Miller are registered Democrats, and Appelget and Morgan are Republicans.
“Council cited Democratic Party-dominated Ewing, Lawrence, Mercer County, and the ‘Peoples Republic of’ Princeton (Borough) as other entities which had adopted similar resolutions,” said Flood in a letter to the News (see page 3). “Then they had the gall to deny that this was not partisan politics.”
“I accused Council of pandering to a small, articulate, ad-hoc civil liberties’ group which pressured them to adopt the resolution,” said Flood. “Every time a noisy group confronts this Council, they acquiesce, roll over, and say ‘scratch my tummy.’”
“We are supposed to have a non-partisan form of government. I suggest that Council represent the 22,"000 residents of our town, not just a small, vocal, partisan political group with which they are ideologically bound,” said Flood.
In agreement with Flood were Princeton Junction residents Robert and Jane Cox, who also sent a letter to the News (see page 3).
“Miller and Alberts, who voted for the resolution, admitted they never read the act,” the Coxes said in their letter. “The council president said that he only read 60 pages, but didn’t like any of it.”
Morgan responds to those arguments in a recent letter to the media. “I think all of us see our personal safety and personal freedoms as intensely local issues.”
“This has nothing to do with partisan politics,” says Morgan. “It has to do with fundamental American values, regardless of political stripe. The resolution is all about protecting our constitutional rights and our safety. I dare say that this will resonate in an intensely personal way for any West Windsor resident upon due reflection.”
The members of WWCCL believe that because of the high level of cultural diversity in the community, the issue was one of great importance for West Windsor to address.
“There have been cases in West Windsor where the FBI has visited people’s homes,” says Syed, pointing out that West Windsor is a diverse community where many of the homeowners are first-generation immigrants. “The PATRIOT Act creates a situation of fear like we are living in a police state. It’s the opposite of you are innocent unless proven guilty.”
Syed explains that a number of residents in town became concerned about the impacts of the PATRIOT Act after the Human Relations Council held a public forum on the topic last June.
“There were some people present at the forum who had not known the details about the act,”says Syed. “They got concerned and upset and decided to form the WWCCL. The group had several meetings and decided to present a resolution to the council. Ultimately, the resolution the council approved was not exactly what we presented to them, but it is in line with what we wanted.”
“We recognize that we have to prevent against further acts of terrorism, but a balance has to be struck,” says Syed. “There is a misconception in the general populace that (the act) only affects people who are new immigrants, or are brown in color. They think, ‘I’m white, my hair is blonde, it doesn’t affect me.’”
Syed says the PATRIOT Act has created an ironic situation. “We are trying to create a democracy in the Middle East, but on the other hand we are doing the type of things done by Saddam Hussein. After the 9-11 attacks, America said, ‘You can attack us, but you cannot change our lives.’ But the PATRIOT Act changes our lives.”
Now that the WWCCL has achieved its goal of getting council to approve a PATRIOT Act resolution, the group will keep its eyes open for other civil liberties concerns affecting West Windsor. “We’re going to be a watchdog in case there are any other community-based issues that come up,” says Syed.