A TRAP Tantrum in Manassas

By: Michelle Kinsey Bruns, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Foundation Board Member

Click for Facebook event and RSVP!In the last year, Virginia’s number of abortion clinics has dropped from 20 to 18, due to new regulations designed to be too tough to meet. In Manassas, one City Council member has spent the last six years leading a big-government crusade for these burdensome clinic regulations. Winning the restrictions he wanted at the state level last year hasn’t slowed Marc Aveni’s zeal for still more restrictions at the local level.

Next Monday, March 10, the Council will hold a re-vote that Aveni has forced on a question he lost by a 5-1 vote over a month ago: should Manassas single out clinics for fast-tracked zoning reclassification and special regulations requiring public hearings and a city council vote as a condition of operation?

Having failed to get his way, Aveni packed the last city council meeting with 100 clinic protesters to insist that the council re-do the vote, simply because he didn’t like its original outcome. We pro-choice people of conscience, from Manassas or elsewhere, need to be seen and heard in that council room on Monday night (RSVP on Facebook!), because the outrageous unfairness of a stunt-mob reversal of a finished vote doesn’t mean it can’t happen. There must be taxpayers who would like this council to accomplish something other than regulating pregnant people’s bodies, but those aren’t the people Aveni packed the chamber with last week.

Let’s back up. Aveni was first elected to Manassas City Council in 2006. Within the year, he proposed a resolution suggesting that the city amend its code to regulate its one abortion clinic, despite its lack of standing or technical expertise to do so. After the council was informed that medical regulation is a state function, Manassas’ fringey anti-choice Delegate Robert Marshall then suggested Board of Health regulation to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s office as a way around State Senate rebuffs of repeated House of Delegates attempts to restrict abortion access. In 2010, Cooch responded with, essentially, “that’s a fabulous idea!” And then there, again, was Marc Aveni, with a resolution of the City of Manassas’ support for greater state abortion regulations, over the objections of fellow City Council Republican Mark Wolfe. Wolfe called city involvement in the matter “inappropriate,” but his no vote was the only one.

Three years later, in June 2013, Cooch had reconfigured and threatened the state Board of Health into giving him the draconian regulations he wanted; the new rules went into effect; and the first clinic to fall to the new regulations closed its doors.

Game over, right? Anti-choice got its Virginia TRAP law. But they’re weren’t done. They’re never done.

A month later, the lone clinic in the city of Fairfax attempted to relocate to a new space more suited to the new state regulations. The Fairfax City Council not only denied the Fairfax clinic a permit because of concerns about the amount of parking at the site (…really). They also created, on a day’s notice, a new Special Use Permit designation for medical facilities, with broad exemptions that seemed to apply to everything except abortion clinics. The permit would cost $4800 and require public hearings and a City Council vote as a condition of operation.

Instead of relocating, the Fairfax clinic closed.

Fifteen miles away in Manassas, anti-choice crusaders took note.

On October 28, two longtime Manassas clinic protesters stood to speak against women’s access to reproductive healthcare during the public comment period at a City Council meeting. They’d done so dozens of times before, but this time, they went farther. They asked the Council to consider copying Fairfax’s new municipal clinic regulations. Zoning reclassification, special use permit, public hearings, council approval. In short: arbitrary, big-government, partisan and ideological roadblocks, not to just abortion but also a broad range of other safe, legal, and necessary reproductive health and related care.

Immediately, Councilman Aveni offered a motion to do what the protesters had suggested. The vote was unanimous. And most of the council meetings of 2014 so far have had from a few minutes to several hours devoted to this issue—which, remember, should have been rendered moot last year when Aveni got the onerous clinic regulations he wanted from the state.

It’s worth noting that the two clinic protesters and Aveni are all members of All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas. For bonus points, so is Delegate “Sideshow Bob” Marshall. The protesters have both been “leadership team” members of the Manassas outpost of the national 40 Days For Life clinic harassment project. Manassas 40DFL, in turn, has close ties to the “AAA Women for Choice” (…really) anti-choice crisis pregnancy center beside the Manassas abortion clinic, which is a personal favorite of Ken Cuccinelli’s, and where staff told a NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Foundation undercover investigator in 2012 that contraceptive pills would give her breast cancer (spoiler alert: no). One of AAA’s “counselors” is something of a city council regular, as well. I got a taste of how far outside the mainstream this crew is at a January Land Use Committee meeting: as the committee met in closed session, the pair from 40DFL and the AAA “counselor” spent a full thirty minutes explaining to me in the hallway that my marriage is invalid because I don’t plan to have children, and having babies is my “fulfillment as a woman” (…really).

These extreme anti-women activists are not everyday citizens concerned with women’s health. In fact, they seem pretty tight with Aveni, based on a huddle I saw them all in during a break at one council meeting. With this cast of recurring characters, the nonstop legislative harassment of the city’s present and future abortion providers looks a lot like an extracurricular church project. That’s great idea for a parish potluck, but a really terrible idea for legislative policy or for public health misinformation.

The debate appears headed for a political and fiscal quagmire, despite signs that much of the Manassas council would prefer to move past Aveni’s abortion fixation, and get on with the work of the city. At the January 23 land use meeting, the committee voted to recommend not a singling-out of abortion providers, but a long-needed comprehensive zoning overhaul. And at the February 3 full council meeting, the vote was 5-1 to accept community development staff’s recommendation for the comprehensive overhaul. Council members Way and Randolph wanted staff’s assurance that the part of the comprehensive overhaul that would answer the medical use definition question around clinics could be finished by the end of the calendar year, but they got what they needed, leaving Aveni standing alone.

Aveni, though, was visibly unhappy to lose the vote. And it seems that’s when he went into another activist huddle. A call went out among 40 Days For Life protesters to pack the public comment period of the next meeting, to insist that clinics get stricter regulations right now. A hundred anti-choice clinic protesters lined up on February 24 to speak for hours, in a sneak attack of half-truths and muddled comprehension of the issue at hand. Then Aveni attempted to call a vote on their demands: a unilateral do-over of the February 3 vote! Council member Randolph moved instead ­that the council have two weeks to mull it over. That brings us to next Monday’s council meeting—where it is crucial that pro-small-government, pro-fiscal-conservatism, pro-women, and pro-choice Virginians show up to tell them not to be intimidated by Aveni’s gang of latecomers.

Vice Mayor Harrover writes on his personal blog, “I’ve no love of abortion but this process was already in place.  It’s what the Council voted on last time around. … This [February 24] motion would appear to pre-judge the outcome of staff and legal work.  That’s got potential to cause some remarkable legal headaches.” And: “Amazing we can find money in the budget for this but not parks & rec, redevelopment or economic development.  We’re the only locality in NoVa that has none of these things.  Yay Us!” Plus, as political blogger Ben Tribbett points out, there’s very real potential for Fairfax’s hasty zoning changes targeting clinics to take that city’s whole political process hostage. This is what Aveni wants for Manassas. That, and to have the personal power to overrule the autonomous decision-making of pregnant people with the same kind of arrogant bully tantrum that he pulled in insisting that City Council re-do a vote until the results suit him.

One in three American women will have an abortion in her life: that’s 1.4 million women in Virginia alone. With just 18 clinics left in the state, many of those women have gone to, or will go to, the Manassas clinic for their abortion care.

There is no guarantee that the comprehensive zoning overhaul that we want will avoid a bad outcome for the Manassas clinic or any future Manassas clinic. But we know Aveni’s rush-job, piecemeal attack will be bad. A Special Use Permit puts any clinic one city council vote away from a shutdown. And if Aveni can airlift a crowd into a council meeting to demand a revote on a zoning proposal, what’s to stop him from doing the same with a clinic closing proposal­­?

Aveni doesn’t get to keep on making up the process as he goes along. Join me on Monday night in Manassas to say that six years of legislative harassment is enough.

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