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Analysis: CPA Battle Perhaps a Chapter of Holyoke Change…

The Holyoke City Council Chamber after a meeting last year. (WMassP&I)

The full Holyoke City Council ended the stalemate over the Community Preservation Act (CPA) ordinance last Tuesday by voting to override Mayor Alex Morse’s veto and enacting the bill. The ordinance, which establishes the city’s Community Preservation Committee (CPC), sailed through the Council early last month by an veto-proof majority only to sputter on March 21.

Barring an unlikely people’s veto, the ordinance and its controversial CPC composition will take effect. Appointing authorities can now selected their CPC members. Still, that the measure faced such controversy underscores some longstanding fissures in Holyoke. It adds to the picture of the city’s civic and political shifts, which transcend the mayor versus council drama that often takes center stage.

Last November, Holyoke was one of several communities that adopted the CPA, a state law that provides matching funds and a surcharge on property tax bills. The law calls for a CPC, which recommends projects in the areas of historic preservation, recreation, open space and housing. City Councils and town meetings have final say over which projects are approved.

State law requires CPCs to include at least one member from the community’s Planning Board, Historical Commission, Conservation Commission, Housing Authority and Parks Commission. Municipalities can add up to four more, appointed however they want. Holyoke opted to add the max, three appointed by the Council with the fourth being a sitting councilor.

Map of communities that have adopted the CPA in Massachusetts (via communitypreservation.org)

This sparked controversy among CPA supporters in Holyoke and Yes for a Better Holyoke (YBH) specifically. The group argued that adding a councilor diminished the opportunity to engage the community. Moreover, the bill included no mechanism to ensure the residents the Council appointed reflected the city’s socioeconomic and geographic diversity.

Another disliked component was a provision allowing appointing authorities to recall CPC appointees before their terms ended. However, this was watered down in the ordinance’s final draft. Instead of a simple majority, an appointing authority can only recall its CPC member or members with a 2/3 vote.

After 11-2 vote on March 7, the supermajority needed to override Morse’s veto evaporated. The override failed 8-6, two votes short.  Ward 2 Councilor Nelson Roman, a lead proponent of the ordinance, moved for reconsideration.

Ward 7 Councilor Todd McGee was a decisive 10th vote to override Morse’s veto and enact the CPA ordinance. (via holyoke.org)

This past Tuesday, April 4, the vote was 10-5. Ward 7 Councilor Todd McGee, who had changed his vote on March 21 to sustain the veto, voted to override. Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley, who missed the first override vote, put the override over the edge.

This fight shares some elements of Holyoke’s other recent political battles. However, it does not fit the script in other ways. While Morse did veto the ordinance, the push to tighten the Council’s grip on the CPC did not seem motivated out of standard issue anti-Morse hysteria. Indeed, one of YBH’s most vocal figure, former city councilor Jason Ferreira, has taken out papers to challenge Morse and supported Fran O’Connell in 2015.

This does fit characteristics of the divide in the city’s body politic. Since Morse’s election but really much earlier, a new coalition has risen in Holyoke. It goes well beyond the traditional, white, largely Catholic axis that ruled such industrial cities for decades. That has energized interest and enthusiasm in the process—and especially voting—on both sides of the city’s broad, if not quite always easily or accurately defined political divide.

If the last three city elections have proven anything it is that Morse is not easy to beat. Even if he loses or moves on, his coalition won’t be easily felled either.

Where is the power? (WMassP&I)

The Council has become the last bulwark of the old, often more conservative order. The city’s whiter, wealthier higher-turnout precinct weigh heavily on the at-large membership, which alone form a majority on the 15-member Council.

That doesn’t tell the whole story on CPA. Roman is hardly an establishment shill and McGee professed a strong desire to simply get the CPC in gear. Supporters of CPA but ordinance opponents credit both councilors’ sincerity on this matter.

Nevertheless, the episode fits a pattern of some councilors and the parts of Holyoke they disproportionately represent showing suspicion of changes in the city’s increasingly outspoken electorate. Councilors who flipped between March 7 and March 21 were responding to an outpouring of opposition from constituents.  Some councilors claimed not to have received such objections.

In any event, putting a councilor on the committee at least looks like the body wants to keep a close eye on the CPC and CPA funds.

The Springfield City Council. Still political, but less drama further down I-91 during passage of the CPA ordinance there. (WMassP&I)

This debate has been almost the inverse of Springfield’s. It passed uneventfully. That city’s Council—through its president—also appoints the CPC. But in Springfield, the president must consult neighborhood associations. Moreover, many saw the mere existence of CPA as a diffusion of power from Mayor Domenic Sarno—who opposed the November question, but whose administration has been cooperative since.

In Holyoke the Council—which is stronger than Springfield’s legislature—is the old guard’s last redoubt and an increasingly precarious one. Council President Kevin Jourdain, a key figure among the city more conservative powers that be, is retiring. (Tellingly, Jourdain apparently appointed himself as the Council’s member on the CPC). The removal of two at-large seats next year could undermine this crowd’s beachhead on the Council further.

Shaping the early CPC does seem one way for a fading subset of Holyoke to maintain influence. Yet, a future Council could easily amend the CPA ordinance. Alternatively, the CPC’s non-Council members, as experts in their fields, may prove more influential.

What is odd is how hard this bloc within Holyoke’s political class fought to shape the CPC as it did. While the old order is fading in Holyoke, it’s obituary has been written many times over the last ten years. A loss on the CPC would have no more guaranteed this group’s death than the victory here will ensure its longevity.