UPDATED 5/8/2013 10:45PM : To reflect a correction. An earlier version of this post attributed to John Lysak an effort to move the Boston Road bonding to committee, which was incorrect and attributed to a misunderstanding; for clarity and grammar; and to add new details on an agenda item.
SPRINGFIELD—Facing a heavy agenda and even heavier politics, the Springfield City Council careened head-on with the casino agreement and other personal causes. Suffice it to say, it was not one of the Council’s most stellar moments and came with a hefty dose of nest-feathering.
Many agenda items had piled up since the Council‘s last meeting in April. The Council confirmed the mayor’s nominees to the Mobile Home Rent Control Board without dissent. Transfers within the police and code enforcement departments were also approved. Another transfer within Public Work paid for snow and ice removal, previously slated for deficit spending, which proved unnecessary in the end.
Utility reports and a number of property transactions were also approved. The properties were those in tax foreclosure and were given over to new owners for redevelopment and/or because they abutted existing properties. The Council also accepted grants for the Library, Elder Affairs, and Housing departments. The Council accepted several general laws, including an increase in retiree/survivors base from which COLA’s are calculated, increasing elderly tax abatements, establishing a fund for certain liabilities. Another item accepted allows city employees who serve as union heads to take leaves of absences for which the union reimburses the city.
A larger ticket item was a $4.5 million bond for reconstructing Boston Road near Eastfield. The project has priority so it does not cause long-term disruptions to the shops along the corridor. An attempt to send the item to committee never got off the ground. Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak, whose ward includes the shopping district, noted that several dangerous intersections along the route need attention. City Engineer Chris Cignoli assured him that those intersections’ safety was a part of the project.
After learning the City Ethics Commission lacked its City Council appointee, at-large Councilor and Council President Jimmy Ferrera called for nominations. The only name in contention was that of former mayoral communications director Thomas Walsh.
But none of those items appeared to capture attention the way that the vote, or lack thereof, on the casino host agreement did. Barely five minutes into the delayed open of the City Council meeting, Ferrera dropped a press release announcing (in past tense) that he had invoked Rule 20, the Council’s procedural move that halts debate pending a report from the City Comptroller, Pat Burns.
As the news was not embargoed, it hit the Twitterverse and then got around to Councilors before the casino item even came up. Councilors left the chamber to talk to city officials and casino counsel to explain the situation to them before it actually unfolded. When the Council reached the item, Ferrera ceded the podium to the Council Vice-President, at-large Councilor Bud Williams, in order to debate and invoke Rule 20.
Ferrera, who attempted to argue for a slower review last week, said that the determination to move swiftly limited the Council‘s oversight. In his release, he announced that he would delegate the various parts of the agreement to the Council’s committees.
After he did so, Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea attempted to argue that Rule 20 did not apply because the agreement did not actually involve expenditure of funds. However, the rule has been liberally interpreted by the Council to mean any financial impact on city finances, which undoubtedly the casino agreement will have. Williams more or less shut down debate because that is what is called for under the Council rules.
Before the end of the meeting all twelve of Ferrera’s colleagues signed a letter penciling in a special meeting for Friday May 10 at 5pm, when the Comptrollers report will likely be be presented. With the light-speed setting of a special meeting, Ferrera’s colleagues essentially preempted his plan to delegate the agreement to committees.
On the surface, Ferrera’s concerns are not invalid. The speed for approval demanded by the Mayor’s Office, less than a week after the pact’s unveiling, is too fast. Arguments that a July vote would allow for consolidation of regional support are specious at best. Moreover, Sarno had already burned some bridges by refusing Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s invitation to a regional casino conference.
And yet, if it was not already immediately apparent that Ferrera was doing this for political gain, any question was dispelled by the time the Council moved on to its next item. The record reflects that Ferrera was absent for three votes, albeit routine deed executions, while he spoke to CBS 3 Springfield, WWLP, The Republican and WMassP&I. Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton rose and called out Ferrera for invoking Rule 20 and then scurrying to the press immediately after.
Ferrera had been attempting to give the Council more control over the casino process since the formation of his casino site committee. However, two factors worked against him. The law does not envision much of a pre-agreement role for city councilors. Also, Ferrera’s committee had been seen, even by supporters of his effort, as poorly executed or even downright Mickey Moused. Its meetings were even called “a joke” on occasion.
Certainly Mayor Sarno has not made sharing power with the Council a hallmark of his administration despite protestations to the contrary. Nevertheless, Ferrera made no public appeal to the mayor to bring in the council more. In this case, the mayor might have had just cause for not doing so since it was Ferrera who blabbed about MGM last summer.
Many observers doubt Ferrera will actually offer any additional insight to the agreement because the small window the Council has allowed him. It leaves this as a rather naked attempt to polish his store-bought halo ahead of what could be another tough election. Ferrera is and remains the politically weakest of the five at-large councilors. Were he really diligent, Ferrera might have tried to woo councilors like Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards or Fenton, which given Ferrera and Fenton’s public rivalry, would have given the former an imprimatur of sincerity.
Piling on, casinowhispers.com, which recently emerged from a slumber, showered Ferrera with praise in a naïve, lunch-losing, context-light love letter. The language was so emetically strong that Maureen Turner speculated, half-jokingly, that Casino Whisper’s identity had to be Ferrera’s mother. The site’s claim that Ferrera may have saved the city millions of dollars is grossly overstated and, ultimately wrong since the agreement will almost certainly be approved without any change Friday.
The other hot-button item on the Council’s agenda was a home rule petition to the legislature to extend the Council’s term to four years. Originally introduced by at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs two years ago, the measure would establish four year council terms starting in 2016, concurrent with the mayor and subject to voter referendum. As a home rule petition, it needs approval by the legislature and governor.
Two suspect reasons were given for the change. Twiggs argued that without the mayor on the ticket the turnout would be very low. “Very few people vote, we should enhance the number of people who vote by allowing all of us to be on the same schedule.”
After two years of inequity between the mayor and council, Walsh said of the idea, “It’s time has come.” She also said other cities did it, but none were specifically cited. No city in Massachusetts has four year council terms and all of the councils of the commonwealths largest cities and those in Greater Springfield are two year terms.
Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen opposed the measure saying that he understood the reasoning, but that he likes “being available for elections.” Ward 6’s Shea, a former School Committee member said a four year term relieves some of the pressure of constantly running for reelection. “Hard decisions are not always easy to make,” he said.
Allen noted that the proposal as written would not save the city any money because the School Committee remained on differently staggered four year term. The Committee would continue to stand for election the year following a US presidential election while the mayor and Council would stand in the year before a presidential election year. This same defect condemned the measure to death in committee before.
Assistant City Solicitor Anthony Wilson, who serves as the Council’s legal adviser, said that the Law Department would need to research that issue of the staggered timing before making changes. At that point, Fenton, who had cosponsored the measure, suggested that the Council wait to fix the problems first. Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion agreed and made a motion to send it to committee. Twiggs and Walsh demurred demanding that the Council vote now. The move to committee failed 8-5, Ferrera, Allen, Concepcion, Fenton and Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna were in dissent.
Laughably, Walsh suggested that the situation could be rectified if, assuming voters did not reject the measure, Committee members would simply stand aside after two years and then elections would be held. Of course laws do not work that way and Ward 8’s Lysak suggested instead the committee’s term be extended to six years and then ratcheted back to four. That, too, would require Legislative approval.
The measure ultimately passed and went on to the mayor on another 8-5 vote. Allen, Concepcion, Fenton, Luna and at-large Councilor Tim Rooke were in dissent. Notably, Luna, like Fenton, was also listed as a cosponsor. Sarno must sign the home rule petition to advance it to the legislature errors and all.
Shea told WMassP&I that things do not get “efficiently done” because of the politicization of issues. He did cite, as an “extreme example” the trash fee. He said the School Committee was able to avoid that same political implications, but when Shea served on the School Committee, half the Committee was up every two years. Therefore, at least half the Committee was subject to the same political pressure at any given point in time the Council currently faces. Shea did not have a response to this.
Supporters also claimed that measure would go on the November ballot, but in fact as passed, the language puts the question on the September preliminary.
The meeting wrapped up by sending a home rule petition amending the city’s finance laws to committee. Increases for fees for tobacco merchants and tag sales were given First step approval, as was a measure to amend the city’s residency ordinance. Presented by the Special Residency Committee Chair, Ward 2’s Fenton, the changes would require Council notice of any attempt by the mayor to issue a waiver for a city employee. Department heads would be ineligible for waivers. The measure passed First step.
The final item was a revision of provoked strong responses from councilors. At-large Councilor Tom Ashe brought forward a revision to the city’s pawn shops ordinance. The change would broaden the stores subject to the ordinance. Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards expressed skepticism about its impact given other concerns about stolen property, but he appeared willing to accept the changes, but that the city needed to have a broader conversation on the subject of stolen property.
Ferrera took the opportunity to wail on the police offers present to discuss the issue in light of a 60 Minutes report on crime in the North End. He suggested that the police had better things to do than consider this. A visibly agitated Ashe replied that the fate of stolen property is an issue for the City Council to consider and that many constituents are affected. A motion to send the item back to committee succeeded with Ashe joining Allen, Fenton, Shea and Twiggs in dissent.
The meeting ran over three hours, a rare long meeting for the Council despite the fact that some of the most controversial items took relatively little time to resolve (or block). If it was Ferrera’s intention to make it his night, there is little doubt that he succeeded. Ferrera ceded the podium to Williams no less than three times to discuss items, a testament to the one virtue of Ferrera’s presidency: his inability to debate measures while presiding. It remains to be seen when Ferrera’s relevance offensive will pay off at the ballot box, but while candidates are positioning themselves, the city electorate is hardly tuned in for the election quite yet.