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City Council takes stand against taking a stand on national issues.

Byline: CITY BEAT / EUGENE by Joe Mosley The Register-Guard

THE LINE BETWEEN political leadership and governmental jurisdiction can be both narrow and elusive, as Eugene city councilors have been reminded on a couple of occasions this month.

Twice, they've been asked to intervene on behalf of Eugene citizens by sending official - or at least authoritative - messages to Congress.

Twice, councilors have taken the course of least formality, agreeing to forward missives in the form of letters signed by individual city councilors rather than resolutions reflecting the city's official stance.

As acting City Manager Jim Carlson explained Nov. 6 when a council subcommittee was asked to formulate a resolution opposing the USA Patriot Act, the City Council in recent years has consciously avoided overstepping its authority. Since the early 1990s, councilors have declined to take official positions on national policy issues - sticking instead to matters closer at hand.

"I think that is an appropriate thing for the council to do," Mayor Jim Torrey says. "I don't think any of us on the council - mayor included - ran for the council based on our expertise in international affairs."

The resolution issue came up again at last Monday's council meeting, when at least a couple dozen people showed up en masse and asked the council to adopt a resolution opposing any move toward attacks on Iraq and urging Congress to de-escalate the Bush Administration's war rhetoric.

"Frankly," the mayor says, pointing out that only those on one side of the issue were represented at the meeting, "I would be concerned about people making a decision without some dialogue and debate."

Anti-war talk

It's not as if the plea for peace was dismissed by a mostly sympathetic City Council. The arguments in favor were articulate and impassioned, presented during the meeting's public comment session by a variety of University of Oregon professors, veterans of the Vietnam-era peace movement and even an Oregon National Guardsman who also is a member of the UO's Students for Peace organization.

The testimony caused Councilor Scott Meisner, for one, to reflect on his own past - serving two years as a conscientious objector after being drafted during the late 1960s.

But it was also Meisner who proposed a letter to Oregon's congressional delegation that could be signed by individual councilors, rather than a resolution that would have to be enacted by the council. Such a letter would carry at least as much weight as a resolution, according to Meisner, and offer councilors the option of "doing something immediate" rather than following a weeks-long process of drafting, debating and acting upon an ordinance.

The letter already has been written by the city staff, and is now being circulated among councilors for review and comment.

"I'm still waiting to hear from everybody, so I'm not sure what's going to be the outcome of that," says Mary Walston, the city's government affairs manager.

The councilors' unanimous support for drafting a letter prompted a smattering of applause - normally frowned upon at council meetings - from those who had come to City Hall looking for a resolution.

Even the mayor has no quarrel with the concept.

"Depending on what the letter says, I may or may not sign it," Torrey says. "It is going to reflect the positions of those people signing it."

But Will Doolittle, who helped organize last week's anti-war showing, says the individual backing of councilors just doesn't have the same ring as a duly enacted resolution.

"A letter would be expressing their personal opinions, but what we're looking for is the council to go officially on record opposing this push toward war," Doolittle says. "We're looking for them to really step up and speak out against this."

Patriot Act

The letter-versus-resolution debate is likely to come up again later this month, when opponents of the USA Patriot Act are expected to sidestep the bureaucratic process and bring their call to action directly to the council.

An organization calling itself the Lane County Bill of Rights Defense Committee presented petitions signed by more than 1,000 Eugene residents to the city's Human Rights Commission earlier this fall. Members of the commission voted to recommend a resolution opposing the Patriot Act, and the matter was passed along to the city's Intergovernmental Affairs Committee - which discussed it earlier this month, sent it back to the staff for more review and is scheduled to consider next month whether to forward to the full City Council a letter opposing the act.

The letter would then be signed by those councilors who oppose the 342-page measure that was authorized by Congress last year to facilitate a crackdown on terrorism.

But Walston says she has been notified that local opponents of the act will show up in force at the council's Nov. 25 meeting and ask for action on the matter.

Various groups consider the act to be a threat to constitutional safeguards that protect citizens from overbearing government. For instance, the Patriot Act permits the arrest and indefinite detention of Americans suspected of terrorism, allows "sneak and peak" searches of suspects' homes without subsequent notification of the searches, and authorizes government agencies to collect information such as individuals' Web surfing habits.

All three councilors who serve on the Intergovernmental Relations Committee - Meisner, Gary Rayor and Pat Farr - expressed concerns with the act, but agreed that a letter would be preferable to a resolution.

Expect a heated debate over any move to force a more official city stance on national issues.

"I'm going to do the best I can to not have the Eugene City Council become a resolution-producing body," Torrey says. "It's endless, the things this council could spend its time dealing with."

Reporter Joe Mosley can be reached at 338-2384 or by e-mail at jmosley@guardnet.com
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 17, 2002
Words:959
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