Take My Council, Please: The Omega for Two Alphas…
SPRINGFIELD—Since the introduction of ward representation, most exits from the City Council have come with a bit of ignominy. Except for Keith Wright’s resignation for family reasons, other Council departures came either after defeat for reelection or failure to win a different Springfield office. However, on Monday night they were wholly voluntary.
At-large councilors Timothy Rooke and Bud Williams, now also a state representative, did not seek another term this year. The councilors returning in January—and their colleagues to be—took the opportunity shower praise on Rooke and Williams. However, the meeting itself was not devoid of last-minute drama and inching toward the line of state law.
“Tonight we are going to be saying goodbye to two of our longest serving members of our council,” Council President Orlando Ramos said as the meeting wrapped.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs and Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams were absent Monday night.
The meeting opened with an appeal from students and public health advocates to raise the cigarette-buying age to 21. While the Public Health Council could increase the age, Springfield Health & Human Services boss Helen Caulton-Harris said it could not impose fines without a new ordinance.
The ordinance does not institute new fines, but it broadens the definition of tobacco products and updates the minimum purchase age to 21. First, second and third offenses face $100, $200 and $300 fines respectively. The city can pull a merchant’s tobacco license after further offenses.
Councilors asked if fines were high enough. Caulton-Harris said that was the body’s prerogative, but was cool to immediate increases.
“We made a commitment to the business community that we keep that level,” she said. However, “if there should be an increase or decrease,” Caulton-Harris added, “it happen at a later time.”
The Council approved first step. It will come up for a likely final vote next month.
Councilors accepted utility reports and grants for police, libraries, children’s mental health and emergency management. The $1.5 million police grant funds at-risk youth programs. The $286,341 in library funds are part of an annual state grant. The children’s mental health grant was $198,000.
The Council also approved an interagency agreement with UMass Medical School to process Medicaid claims for health services city schools provide students.
The meeting hit a rough patch when Board of Assessors Chair Richard Allen presented a special tax agreement for a solar farm in Indian Orchard. Roger Roberge, a developer (and elected Wilbraham Assessor), plans to purchase two empty lots formerly associated with Chapman Valve.
Allen explained that under a state law, the City Council must authorize personal property tax agreement negotiations with energy producers. However, the Springfield Assessor’s office and Roberge had finished the agreement already and were ready for a vote. Allen took responsibility for not submitting the authorizations (one for each plot of land) before now. Councilor Rooke moved to consider the contracts under suspension as they did not appear on the agenda.
That drew a warning from Tasheena Davis, the assistant city solicitor. While the authorizations to negotiate were on the agenda, the contracts were not. The Council can consider items under suspension, but Davis worried the contracts were too dissimilar from the authorization for permissibly consideration under state Open Meeting Law (OML).
Councilors seemed ready to act anyway. That drew a rebuke from Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards. While supportive of Roberge’s project, he was incredulous that the Council seemed set to act against the advice of its attorney.
“I believe Attorney Davis just said we can’t legally do this,” Edwards said. “We can pass what was on the agenda,” referring to the authorization.
After some back and forth between councilors and Allen, Rooke said the developer should not be penalized because the city failed to file the contracts within the OML’s 48-hour notice window.
Davis reiterated the OML implications. “The fact still stands that it wasn’t posted,” she said. “You have to have given notice.”
At that point, Martin Dunn, Roberge’s attorney, told the Council it should wait. While only hinted at during the meeting, were the Council to act and found to have violated the OML, the Attorney General could void the contract’s approval. That would force a new vote in the new year anyway. The authorizations to negotiate passed on unanimous recorded votes.
The Council also granted final approval to an ordinance harmonizing fines for noncompliance with parking bans. A $50 fine will now apply to ban scofflaws. Public Works Chief Chris Cignoli committed to an effort to educate residents as to the consequences of ignoring the ban on certain sides of the street during and after snowfall. It passed second and third step 10-1. Councilor Ramos dissented.
The Council tabled its remaining two items. They were an ordinance ordering the administration to notify the Council when negotiating tax incremental financing deals and a resolution calling for a four-year Council term. It also officially rolled over all pending business to the Council taking office on New Year’s Day.
With the business of government done attention turned to Rooke and Williams. Rooke, a 22-year incumbent declined reelection only hours before the deadline to pull papers in July. Though his departure had been rumored for a few years, it came with little notice.
Williams, on the other hand, had been expected to retire after succeeding Ben Swan in the Mason Square-anchored 10th Hampden House seat. Though he had danced around questions about his fate at 36 Court Street since last year’s primary, his exit came as no surprise. Williams had served on the Council since 1994, except a two-year absence after an unsuccessful mayoral bid in 2009.
“This is truly an end of an era,” at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe said.
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, the body’s only women, becomes the body’s dean now, having served since 2004, though she also served on from 1987 to 1993. She summed up her colleagues’ impact well. “Your support of businesses will definitely be missed,” she said to Rooke. Meanwhile, “Councilor Williams has a street sense that is so apparent on this floor.”
“To sit here is the greatest honor you can ever have,” Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez told his colleagues. He thanked both men for their support and guidance.
Before praising both outgoing councilors, Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen gently ribbed Rooke saying, “First, I’d like to invoke Rule 20.” This was a reference to the Council’s debate-halting rule. In recent years, Rooke had become a frequent practitioner of the rule, even after the Council weakened it.
“I just consider myself lucky. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary,” Rooke said. He thanked storied figures in Springfield politics from Athan Catjakis to US Rep Richard Neal, his family and his collagues. “Thank you very much for letting me serve with you.”
In a telling display of self-awareness Williams observed. “If I had known you guys felt that way about me I would have stayed,” he said. Ever succinct, he namechecked supporters and discussed coming up politically in the North End, where Williams grew up. “The greatest job is to serve,” he said. “It’s a great city and it’s bunch of great people.”
With that Rooke and Williams accepted their plaques from Ramos and stood for pictures.
The end of Rooke and Williams’s tenures does mark a transition for Springfield. Walsh aside, the two councilors were some of the last links to the city’s old political order. Yet, given Michael Albano’s imperial mayoralty, the Control Board and Ward representation, their time was never quite like their forebears.
But then time does not stand still. With councilors-elect Jesse Lederman and Tim Ryan on hand, the Council held its informal caucus to re-nominate Ramos as president and select Walsh as its Vice-President.
Formal votes for both will happen on inauguration day and all begins anew.
Watch the full Council meeting on Focus Springfield’s Livestream.