The Town Board last week reiterated its stance that it is sticking to local issues. And the state’s recently passed Reproductive Rights Act is not one of them.
The board had been asked—during the public comment period of its April 4 work session—by a group of Westchester and Putnam residents to take an official stand against the measure they claimed “aggressively” expands abortion rights.
The law took effect in January and allows the procedure before the end of, or up to, 24 weeks of pregnancy if the woman’s life or health is in jeopardy or if the fetus could not survive outside the womb. It also eliminates criminal charges for harming a fetus and expands the type of health care providers who can perform abortion.
At its April 11 meeting, Supervisor Rick Morrissey read a statement in which he thanked “concerned citizens” for bringing the RHA matter to the board’s attention.
However, he emphasized, “it’s apparent that this is really a legislative matter” and does “not fall under the purview of local government in New York.”
But it appears that some folks didn’t quite get the message.
At the board’s May 2 work session, three women dressed in red cloaks and white bonnets sat silently in the first row. Their attire was apparently based on Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a story set in a totalitarian society where women are forced to bear children for rich infertile couples. The iconic outfit has been adopted as a symbol of protest against the oppression of women.
They didn’t identify themselves, or sign up to for public comment. They left without speaking and town officials didn’t know what group they may have represented.
When opening the public comment period, Morrissey announced that speakers would be limited to two or three minutes and that Somers residents would be given priority.
Flo Brodley, a founder of the Somers Energy Environment Committee, who said she was speaking on behalf of herself and 10 friends, thanked Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature for passing a law she said “safeguards women’s health.”
She also thanked the board for “its rightful decision not to be bullied.”
Morrissey then asked the board what its “pleasure” was regarding public comment. And Councilman Anthony Cirieco replied: “Close public comment.”
Looking at the list, Garrity asked if there was a Dwight Arthur present. A man in the second row raised his hand. Garrity asked if he was a Somers resident. No, he answered, Mahopac.
Morrissey deferred to the town’s attorney Roland Baroni Jr., who advised the board that state law says public comment is “a privilege, it’s not a right” at municipal meetings. And “although Somers has public comment periods, they are subject to the rules of the supervisor,” Baroni said.
Roland said that as he understood it, and “supported by the Town Board,” the rule will be that, “going forward” only Somers residents could speak during the public comment period.
It was his opinion that It’s a “legal position to take,” Baroni said.
Morrissey responded “Well, this is a work session and we have a full agenda to get through. That’s why we’re limiting it to hearing from Somers residents.”
A woman, who didn’t identify herself, pointed out that the board had allowed non-Somers residents to speak at the April work session.
“Many of us came to speak based on that precedent,” she said.
“Ma’am. That was a work session a month ago, after which I read a statement regarding the Town Board’s decision not to get involved in state matters,” Morrissey said. So, it’s unfortunate that you had to make the trip here. But it was publicized in the newspaper, on social media, and also on Tapinto.net Somers and Mahopac.”
“I just came to thank you tonight,” the woman responded.
“I appreciate that. But we still have a full agenda,” the supervisor said.
Morrissey then thanked everyone for their interest.
“You know, this is a very emotional topic. We understand there’s two sides to it … (still) we do not feel this is the venue to have this debate,” he said before asking Councilman Rich Clinchy if he’d like to add anything.
Clinchy told the woman she could give her written statement to the town clerk for the board’s perusal. However, “this should not be construed, one way or the other, as taking a position on the state law.”
The board is tasked with dealing with town issues and “to go beyond that, we think, would be misusing our position,” the councilman said.
Regardless of how any individual town official might feel personally, he or she hasn’t been elected to espouse their own views on moral issues, Clinchy elaborated.
Of course, he noted, private citizens have a right, or a duty, to speak out on issues that may be controversial, whether it’s climate change, poverty, or war.
The board does its “best work” when it limits itself to things over which it has control.
This is nothing new as there never has been a shortage of emotional issues, Clinchy said. “Believe me, there are enough controversies here to keep us busy.”
“That’s been our stand in the past, and that’s our stand now, and that will be our stand in the future, at least while we are sitting in these seats,” he concluded.
The board then voted unanimously to close public comment.
Putnam County legislators recently passed a resolution calling on Albany to repeal the RHA, which became law in January on the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision supporting abortion rights.
The Carmel Town Board also passed a resolution calling on the state to repeal the new measure last month.
Foes of the act told the board April that they would like Somers to do the same.
Such resolutions have no direct impact on the law and are simply vehicles for local governments letting state lawmakers know where they stand.