Take My Council, Please: Gotta Keep on (Food) Trucking…
SPRINGFIELD—Emotion and politics ran high at Monday night’s City Council meeting as a labor pact with district fire chiefs failed and the food truck ordinance returned to committee. Both items faced months or even years of anticipation.
The rejection of the labor pact with the city’s fire department supervisors ensures the legal and political drama over residency and the district chiefs will continue. The Council rejected a pact last year, arguing, as now, it let district chiefs off the hook. Yet, this action could ultimately haunt councilors seeking the holy grail of residency: compliance from the public safety unions.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs was absent from Monday’s meeting.
The rules for downtown food truck slots delayed that ordinance. Some councilors objected to the first-come, first-serve plan.
“As the ward councilor, I cannot support this,” Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez aid. “It is not fair.”
The item returned to committee instead.
Sounds Like Fury
Other matters like the $1.5 million Stearns Square renovation bond, raised more theatrical jeers.
At-large Councilor and State Rep Bud Williams claimed downtown was receiving attention while Springfield’s other neighborhoods were getting squat. It is true downtown has dominate City Hall’s attention for decades, but Williams’s point was overwrought.
Moving on to literature, he warned Springfield risked becoming “A Tale of Two Cities”—a phrase he has used before—“where downtown is doing great and the rest of the neighborhoods are struggling.”
— Matt Szafranski (@MSzafranski413) April 10, 2017
Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Timothy Plante politely, but firmly pushed back. Noting limited resources, Plante listed recent non-downtown projects including Balliet Park’s renovation, which is in Williams state rep district.
“I can break it out by neighborhood if that’s what you want and report back to the City Council,” Plante replied.
The bond passed 12-0.
Calms before the Storms
Elsewhere, the Council approved utility reports and fire department and traffic enforcement grants. Utilities received easements for new the South End Community Center.
Health and Human Services chief Helen Caulton-Harris spoke on $361,000 to battle opioid addiction. Responding to at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe, Caulton-Harris said the grant would not add beds.
“This city and this region really does need to advocate for additional beds,” she said.
The Council unanimously transferred three city-owned lots to abutting property owners. Following some banter, the Council approved $16 million in bonding for school windows and roofs. The Massachusetts School Building Authority will reimburse 80% of allowable costs. Capital projects head Peter Garvey said it may be slightly less after inevitable disallowances. The bond passed 11-0 with Councilor Melvin Edwards absent.
Councils accepted Springfield’s annual Chapter 90 road funds, but many panned the slated street repair list. Department of Public Works Director Christopher Cignoli replied, “Everybody thinks their street is bad until they see some of the one we’re working on.”
Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton introduced an ordinance to raise the fee for cars violating parking bans during and after snowstorms. Currently $15, Fenton proposed $100 to encourage compliance.
Even councilors worried how about the impact on the poor were supportive. “Realistically we need to get some of these cars out of the street,” Gomez said. At-large Councilor Justin Hurst, however, successfully moved for committee review of increase.
District Fire Chiefs on Ice
The district fire chiefs contract was more contentious. Technically four contracts covering July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2020, the pact includes raises and residency compliance, but shelters current Fire Department employees from the latter. City negotiators added a 1.5% pay bump to secure residency.
“What we are being asked to do is grandfather these six district chiefs so, essentially, they don’t have to follow a law that we created,” Hurst said, referencing chiefs who live outside Springfield. While pleased residency was included, Hurst lamented it was not retroactive.
At-large councilor Kateri Walsh, who witnessed residency rows some 25 years ago, said enforcement has always been problematic, “There has never been a fair even enforcement of the residency ordinance.”
Springfield has added residency compliance into recent labor pacts, but each such agreements the administration reached—and the Council subsequently ratified—were prospective on residency.
Another wrinkle is an ongoing 10 citizens suit to compel residency enforcement against the chiefs. Unlike other labor contracts, the district chiefs’ current pact has residency language, though it predates the current ordinance from 1995. However, enforcement only began years after the Control Board’s 2009 departure.
Though the city believes the ordinance applies to district chiefs, it and the union want to settle the matter at the bargaining table. Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney ruled against the city’s motion to dismiss in February, but she also refused, for now, to compel enforcement.
“The lawsuit is still open,” Councilor Bud Williams said. “Let’s vote this down. Let’s get direction from the court as to what they say ultimately.”
At-large councilor Timothy Rooke invoked the 2011 tornado and the department’s response—to limited effect—to drum up votes.
Council President Orlando Ramos also added his perspective. “I’ve never heard of a collective bargaining agreement bargaining over a law,” he said. “I don’t have to pay you to follow a law. That’s not how it works.”
However, on some level Massachusetts public employee labor law does work that way. Local employment ordinances—which residency is—are subject to bargaining. To Ramos’s point, though, the contract did include the residency language and was ignored by both parties.
Only Councilors Ashe, Rooke and Walsh voted for the contract. The other nine voted no, sending the chiefs and the city back to the bargaining table.
City labor negotiators have been hoping to negotiate residency into a contract with one of Springfield’s public safety bargaining units. That could affect how arbitration panels behave. Panels have often cited the lack of residency in public safety contracts when refusing to impose the issue on unions.
Should district chiefs seek arbitration, councilors may experience déjà vu. Arbitration panels, which have shown minimal sympathy for Springfield’s residency ordinance, can impose a contract on municipalities and public safety workers. The Council could still reject it, though.
Food (Truck) Fight
The food truck issue goes back years, but the current development of a rational policy began on the Ad Hoc Young Professional Committee.
Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams was the Council’s liaison to that committee and the ordinance’s lead sponsors. He therefore presented amendments the Council accepted which speed up the application process and make clear quarterly fees are not prorated.
Cignoli, whose DPW would oversee food trucks, said vendors would pay a $200 application fee and $75 per quarter. Food trucks could operate anywhere outside downtown provided they parked no less than 500 feet from residential areas. In downtown, food trucks could use six spots on Lyman and Kaynor and six near Riverfront Park at the foot of State Street.
Rooke moved to grandfather hot dog vendor John Verducci, whose battles with the city are legend, through December. Williams resisted.
“I believe it counteracts what we’re trying to do,” the Ward 5 councilor said.
Assistant city solicitor Tasheena Davis warned it could invite legal challenges, too
Rooke’s amendment failed 4-8 on a recorded vote. Ashe, Gomez, Rooke and Bud Williams backed it. Councilors Timothy Allen, Edwards Fenton, Hurst, Ramos, Ken Shea, Walsh and Marcus Williams voted no. A move to committee to discuss legal issues also failed.
As first step passage appeared likely, Councilor Gomez realized and objected that downtown slots would be available first-come, first-served.
Cignoli said all slots may not be used and noted the ordinance required review in one year. This did not satisfy Gomez. Hurst suggested the city underappreciated demand.
Fenton moved to create a lottery should more than six applicants materialize. But he withdrew the amendment when Councilor Shea noted this might leave early permit-pullers in the lurch.
As downtown’s ward rep, Gomez announced he could not support the bill. A new motion sent it to committee.
Councilor Marcus Williams, who appeared frustrated Monday night, acknowledged in an interview Thursday this was part of the process. Though, it was disappointing, especially “when you’re working on something for a year.”
On downtown’s slots he said, “We vetted this process pretty extensively.” Williams argued first-come, first-served might would encourage vendors to participate early. Still, he was hopeful the matter could advance by the Council’s April 24 meeting. “I believe we will be able to come to a consensus,” he said.
Williams’s optimism is not misplaced. Should Gomez’s concerns be addressed or not, the food truck ordinance’s future seems bright. The fate of the district fire chiefs’ contract is less clear.
Councilors who opposed it emphasized the law, but the politics were inescapable. Many vocal opponents of the contract do not yet have strong adversaries in the upcoming election. Whether things stay that way, like the fate of the contract, is not certain.
Watch the full Council meeting via Focus Springfield’s Livestream.