City not likely to vote on Patriot Act
Instead, council may send congressmen a letter of concern over civil liberties.
By Nicole Radzievich
Of The Morning Call
After finding no precedent for such an action in Bethlehem, City Council President Michael Schweder said council has reached a consensus not to vote tonight on a resolution opposing the controversial USA Patriot Act.
While local activists hoped the city would become the first in the Lehigh Valley to pass such a resolution, council's solicitor has been asked to draft a letter raising concerns about the act that expands the federal government's power to investigate and prosecute suspected terrorists at the expense, critics argue, of civil liberties.
Council members and other city officials can then decide whether to sign the letter to U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum and U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey of Allentown.
''Everyone seems to have an opinion on this very serious matter, but I'm not sure memorializing it in a resolution is going to solve anything,'' Schweder said after talking to council members individually. ''A letter will let our federal elected officials know where we stand.''
The letter, which Schweder said he would sign, comes months after activists began to turn out in force at City Council meetings and argue that the act tramples the Bill of Rights. Such draconian provisions, they say, include putting noncitizens in jail indefinitely without proof or conducting secret surveillance without probable cause.
Supporters of the act counter that the government has needed more latitude to combat terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In addition, they argue, the government could get personal information ? such as the book titles someone checks out from a library ? without the Patriot Act through a grand jury subpoena.
Councilwoman Magdalena Szabo, who opposes the Patriot Act, declined to comment as to whether a letter from council was the better method.
But she opposed the way the decision came about. She had wanted a committee meeting of the whole council so city officials and residents could debate the merits for and against passing a resolution.
''I have gotten a lot of messages and letters about this over the past week,'' Szabo said. ''I think we should talk about it.''
Peter Crownfield, a member of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee of the Lehigh Valley, called the decision not to consider a resolution ''chilling'' because it could stifle public discourse.
He said he has heard from dozens of residents who say they will turn out anyway tonight to voice their concerns. The trouble is, Crownfield said, they may have to wait until the end of the meeting to do so.
The city typically allots time at the end of the meeting for people to talk about matters not on the agenda. The resolution was not listed on the agenda as of late Monday afternoon.
Crownfield said he had hoped the resolution would contain language to prohibit city employees from cooperating with federal authorities who use the act ''to violate civil rights'' of city residents.
''Every additional resolution passed has an effect,'' Crownfield said. ''It shows a growing consensus that it is bad for this country.''
The Bill of Rights Defense Committee lists 326 cities and counties ? including Berks County, Reading, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh ? and four states that have passed resolutions against the Patriot Act.
Perkasie, a borough of 8,828, had talked about passing a resolution in August but decided it had no jurisdiction in determining the constitutionality of federal legislation.
While Bethlehem had been the first city in the Lehigh Valley to broach the issue, other local institutions have publicly denounced the act. The faculties of Muhlenberg College and Lehigh University have passed similar resolutions.