Take My Council, Please: With Great(ish) Power, Comes Great Responsibility…
SPRINGFIELD—Breaking its summer fast, the City Council returned for its sole scheduled regular meeting in July and August. The agenda ranged from reports and grants to more consequential votes for bond authorizations, action on historic preservation, and ratification of labor agreements.
But there was also an air about the nature of power and its exercise in the city. Questions have arisen about the authority of city officials and the abdication of other powers that has left some key commissions in the city without appointees and thus inert.
Public speak-out before the meeting featured vehement community opposition to the proposed relocation of Sheriff Michael Ashe’s alcohol treatment center to the North End. Motorcyclists also protested the ban on their vehicles during the Stearns Square concert series.
The motorcycle ban has drawn attention because of its suddenness and thus far poorly explained need. It arose during the meeting on Council discussion Traffic Commission reports, which are part of changes to parking and other restrictions along unrelated streets.
At-large Councilor Bud Williams proposed sending them to committee to bring city traffic officials before the Council, but to discuss other changes such as along Main Street near State Street. Jersey barriers had been placed near the intersection harming business at establishments like McCaffrey’s Public House.
“This is very serious,” Williams said.
Council President Michael Fenton said Law Department opinion on the barriers said the city engineer is permitted to test changes in parking for up to 120 days without the Council’s consent. State law generally endows the Council with exclusive power to set the “Rules of the Road” for city streets.
The Council voted to request a legal opinion about the exclusion of motorcycles from Worthington Street and Stearns Square. That ban was taken without Council input or approval, too.
The rest of the agenda passed smoothly. The Council accepted the May finances report and the proposed 2016-2020 capital plan. At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh added a note of lament that repairs to Springfield’s venerable Campanile were not among the “Priority A” projects. The city Capital committee, on which Walsh serves as the Council’s representative, will meet to review the plan in more detail.
Utility reports were accepted, as were Health & Human Services grants. Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Timothy Plante, filling in for HHS head Helen Caulton-Harris, said the money financed anti-obesity programs, homeless health services and underage tobacco sales compliance checks.
The Council also approved grants and donations to the Library and Animal Control departments.
The Council approved polling places for the City Preliminary in September. The only change was the move of precinct 8H in Pine Point out of 335 Berkshire Avenue. The local neighborhood council had owned the Berkshire Avenue building, but recently sold it. The polling location will be located inside the former Pine Point library at 204 Boston Road instead, which already serves as a polling place.
The Council authorized bonds for a facility to store the Bright Nights lights and structures during the off-year. Parks, Recreation and Buildings Executive Director Patrick Sullivan told councilors the new facility’s primary purpose is to serve as a job training facility for residents.
The Council voted to transfer property from the city to Springfield Neighborhood Services and the city Conservation Commission. Neighborhood Services will use the property, mostly located along the path of the tornado near Six Corners, to build housing. A few other small lot sales to nearby homeowners under the city abutting lot program also gained approval.
Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen raised a resolve that hoped to revive the city’s Ethics Commission and related ordinance. Established in 2009, it consists of members are appointed by the mayor, Council and School Committee. Only the Council has ever appointed a member, former mayoral aide Thomas Walsh III in 2013.
Allen’s resolve, which passed on a voice vote, called on the mayor and Committee to appoint their members. If either Mayor Domenic Sarno or Committee made their appointments, the Commission would have a quorum to begin its work, which includes enforcing the new casino ethics ordinance.
The only other significant actions were approval of a collective bargaining contract with the city’s Public Health nurses and final approval of the new Willys-Overland historic district. The labor contract was unique in that the bargaining process had been exhausted. The pact, which only covers July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2014, includes a single 2% raise in second year. Among other particulars, it subjects the nurses to the city residency ordinance.
HR/Labor Relations Director Bill Mahoney told WMassP&I that the city’s decision to request the bargaining process be exhausted was “very rare.” However, as he told the Council, negotiations included 6 bargaining sessions, 2 mediations and a fact-finding process. The state Division of Labor Relations ruled the bargaining process completed in June. The Council approved the pact without dissent.
The Council took second and third step to erect a new historic district for the old Willys-Overland building in Downtown Springfield. In June, Historical Commissioner Bob McCarroll told councilors the building featured prominently in national automobile history. Despite sustaining exterior and window damage in the 2012 gas explosion, the building is structurally sound and worthy of preservation.
The owner sought demolition, but for the first time since its enactment, the Historical Commission used time allowed under the demolition-delay ordinance’s to seek the district to protect the building.
The Council voted Monday night 12-1 to create the district with only at-large Councilor Timothy Rooke in dissent, well more than the 2/3 votes required to create a historic district.
With that the Council returned to its summer vacation. Only a permits hearing is scheduled before September. The body’s committees are expected to be active, however.
Councilor Orlando Ramos, who chairs Economic Development, said his committee would review a proposed tax incremental financing agreement. Councilor Thomas Ashe’s Public Safety Committee met Tuesday on pedestrian safety and Thursday Councilor Melvin Edwards’s Maintenance & Development committee will review the street changes, the Main Street jersey barriers and the motorcycle ban.