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Does Northampton have its priorities straight?

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Was it appropriate for the Northampton City Council to take up the issue of drones last month, unanimously supporting a resolution calling on the U.S. government to stop using robots to kill alleged enemies and to reject Obama administration efforts to rewrite rules on domestic airspace?

It wasn’t the first time Northampton has made national news by passing legislation related to matters well beyond the immediate purview of municipal government. In 2002, for example, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution against the U.S.A. Patriot Act. And, of course, Northampton lawmakers aren’t alone in occasionally taking up issues over which municipal officials have little or no direct authority. On the drone issue, for example, Charlotte, N.C. passed a resolution similar to Noho’s.

Not that I support the Obama administration’s position on drones, but Northampton’s resolution bugged me. Do I believe that local governments shouldn’t get involved in state, national or international affairs? Not at all. In this case, the Northampton resolution addresses property rights issues that could directly impact local property owners. But even if the resolution were entirely symbolic, I’d still support the Council in challenging policies being made at higher levels of the government.

My ire is about the timing of the vote, which came on the heels of a divisive Proposition 2 1/2 override that, with heavy support from a majority of councilors, passed last month 6,056 to 4,641. In making the case for the $2.5 million override, supporters, in particular the group Yes!Northampton, insisted that while progressive federal and state tax reform was their ultimate goal, “in the face of continued state aid losses, Northampton faces a very clear and stark choice.”

That choice: vote for the override or “suffer extreme budget cuts,” compromising education and public safety.”

I don’t think the choice was as clear or as stark as supporters say it was. I agree with Lois Ahrens, a city resident and bona fide progressive, who feels override supporters “created a false dichotomy between people who are financially able to support the override, who they cast as virtuous and positive, as opposed to those of us who cannot afford to support the override... characterized as not forward-thinking, stingy—the reactionary ‘No Northampton’ people.”

I think Northampton officials could have done more to solve the city’s financial problems than hike property taxes, a move that is far from progressive. But rather than work harder to find solutions that don’t hurt the city’s poorest property owners, city councilors chose to spend time and energy on the drone issue, appearing to engage in partisan dabbling rather than acting as concerned civic leaders.•

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