Takoma Park grants waiver to ‘nuclear-free zone’ ordinance

June 19, 2012

The computers at the Takoma Park library were old and slow, so when five new ones arrived in April, the librarians thought their problem was solved.

Not quite. The computers were made by Hewlett-Packard, the Silicon Valley computer manufacturer that has worked on nuclear weapons programs for the U.S. government. That meant the machines were taboo in countercultural Takoma Park, a “nuclear-free zone” since 1983, meaning the city won’t do business with companies that make nuclear weapons.

The librarians kept the computers in their boxes, stashed away in a locked storage closet. The boxes were hidden for two months until Tuesday morning, when they were banned no more. On Monday night, the Takoma Park City Council unanimously voted to grant a rare waiver to its ordinance.

The vote angered some city activists, who said they hoped this was just a one-time exception. But others wondered about the soul of their city and if the vote signified a fundamental shift in its values.

Is something changing in the community that refuses to buy bottled water, has its own corn silo for alternative energy and has been called the People’s Republic of Takoma Park?

City officials have approved waivers in the past. But Monday’s vote was the first time that the council approved a waiver that was opposed by the Nuclear-Free Takoma Park Committee, which advises city officials, according to Jay Levy, the committee chair.

“We’re really compromised,” said Julie Boddy, who has been on the committee for about a decade. “What kind of reputation do we have if we fall down in that way?”

The city did not give her group enough of a chance to voice its concerns, she said. And she said that the vote disrespects the spirit of the nuclear-free law.

But Mayor Bruce Williams (D) said it would have taken too much time and money to find an alternative to the computer system, and he denied that the vote violated the spirit of the law or what Takoma Park stands for.

“We’re lean and mean, and we wouldn’t have had the time,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

City officials are considering drafting significant changes to their “nuclear-free zone” in light of the computer debate. The law has become difficult to enforce, they said, because post-Sept. 11 security concerns mean that it can be difficult to figure out which companies are working on nuclear-weapons projects. Even though the council is supposed to update its list of companies that work on nuclear weapons annually, it hasn’t done so in about a decade.

Williams said the city council may take up an amendment to change laws requiring city contractors to volunteer the information, but he added that more research needs to be done and that it would be “many months” before the city would draft such changes.

“We’re going to have to look into it,” Williams said. “We’re going to have to have a different way of” implementing the law.

Librarians said they wanted the Hewlett-Packard computers because of their special software and the customer service provided by the manufacturer. The computers were inexpensive, they said — less than $30,000 for a three-year contract. And they can serve 24 users at once.

But members of the Nuclear-Free Takoma Park committee opposed the waiver, Levy said, because they believe city officials could have found an alternative to the Hewlett-Packard computers.

In the first debate over a waiver, shortly after the law was approved, city officials wanted to purchase police radio equipment from companies that were banned at the time.

But after the committee and other local activists protested, city officials rejected the waiver and found an alternative a few months later.

Ian Barclay, a 59-year-old Takoma Park native who was visiting the library Tuesday afternoon, said that one of the things he likes about his home town is its pacifist bent. Approving the waiver was a mistake, he said.

“It’s just a slippery slope,” he said. “When you start letting things slide, then where are you going to end up?”

Levy said, however, that he was confident that the city has not sold out.

“This waiver was passed basically with the provision that this a one-time-purchase-only waiver, and the city will encourage the library to work with the provider so that in the future [this won’t happen],” he said. “It’s a compromise.”

But he added: “We’re disappointed with the result.”

After learning that the boxes contained Hewlett-Packard computers, Ellen A. Robbins, the library’s director, immediately contacted the committee and city staff and told library workers not to open the boxes. City staff members eventually sided with Robbins and urged the city council to approve the waiver.

For now, city workers are happy with their new computers. Rebecca Brown, a library coordinator, came in early Tuesday morning to open the computer packages and check for missing parts. City staff members said they will install the computers soon.

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