St. Louis — Members of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri and the Mid-Missouri ACLU chapter packed tightly into the central St. Louis office for the annual membership meeting Saturday.
Despite their common passion for civil liberties and individual rights, tension thickened as Mondi Ghasedi, president of the ACLU Board of Trustees, announced the discussion and subsequent vote on bylaw amendments proposing the dissolution of the Mid-Missouri Chapter into the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. Members voted in favor of the amendments, yet debated hotly for an hour before ballots were counted.
"And as they often said in the days of the Roman Empire, 'Let the games begin,'" Ghadesi said at the beginning of the meeting.
Under the bylaw revisions, the Mid-Missouri Chapter representing Columbia and surrounding areas will lose its independence. Operating under the authority of the ACLU-EM, the chapter will no longer have its own executive committee or set of bylaws and will work under the supervision of the ACLU-EM.
Also under the revisions, chapter members would no longer vote directly on bylaws concerning the ACLU-EM but would instead elect representatives to vote for them.
Proponents of the revisions argued that future chapters functioning under the same bylaws would not only streamline the process of civil liberties cases being examined by ACLU-EM board members but would also simplify the process of creating an entirely new chapter.
"Someone here mentioned something shouldn't be fixed unless it's broken," ACLU-EM board member Matthew Hall said. "Well, four decades have passed by without the formation of a single new chapter. This is broken."
Yet opponents of the revisions, including ACLU member David Rosman of Columbia, said stripping the Mid-Missouri Chapter of its independence would remove the middleman, thus providing Missouri citizens with less access to resources.
"A couple years ago, I had a student that was having a problem and felt that the police weren't handling her case properly and that she was being (improperly accused)," Rosman said. "She was able to call (a Mid-Missouri representative in Columbia)." Under the new resolution, she would have had to contact a representative in St. Louis.
Rosman said such indirect access to resources would lead to a lack of personable interaction.
"Mid-Missouri residents don't want to go to a big city, and they don't trust big city people," Rosman said.
Creating such distance only causes difficulty when people wish to express concern, Rosman said.
"When you make it harder for people to ask about their rights, they stop asking," he said.
Despite the divide in opinion, ACLU program director John Chasnoff remained optimistic about the changes.
"The Mid-Missouri Chapter will lose a certain amount of independence, but there will be more coordination with the strategic vision set for the ACLU-EM."