Take My Council, Please: The Show That Never Ends…
SPRINGFIELD—The City Council’s first February meeting, lasting about four hours, made up for the meager agenda at the last regular meeting. The stage was set for breaking the logjam on the district fire chiefs. A solar farm tax deal advanced. The body confirmed Auditor Yong Ju No for another term.
But Monday’s meeting also foreshadowed the coming year’s challenges. Council President Orlando Ramos opened a discussion of race by highlighting poor diversity among city department heads. Councilors received warnings about the cost of meeting the city’s capital project needs. Finally, the body, again, pushed to double its own term to four years.
Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams was absent due to illness.
The Monday meeting overflowed with items and controversy. It ended behind closed doors to allow discussions of pending litigation.
At-large Councilor Justin Hurst, now Public Safety Chair, described what he hoped would be monthly meetings with Police Commissioner John Barbieri.
Elsewhere, ad hoc Casino Oversight Committee Chair Michael Fenton, the Ward 2 Councilor, briefed the body on MGM. Fenton observed the city’s annual structural deficits shall not end with the commencement of MGM’s annual payments to Springfield.
The Money Train
Ward 2 Councilor Timothy Allen, who sits on the Capital Improvement committee, warned colleagues about the capital project backlog in Springfield.
Allen later spoke on a $1.5 million study for replacing DeBerry Elementary School. The Massachusetts School Rebuilding Authority could reimburse some of that if the city executes construction.
Allen supported the item, but he warned councilors MSBA reimbursements were not necessarily the 80% advertised. Rather, MSBA rules cap eligible construction costs and under prevailing Springfield costs, the effective reimbursement is 50%.
“We need to know how much they’re going to cost because we know the MGM money is not going to save the city financially,” Allen said. He added, “We should go forward with this, but we all have to have our eyes open on the costs.”
Chief Administrative & Financial Office Timothy Plante concurred with Allen. But he also claimed the city has been more careful about borrowing than in the past. The study bond passed unanimously.
Comptroller Pat Burns, presenting the monthly revenue and expenditure report, said some revenue was coming in lower than expected.
The Council sent a request from Mobilitie to install an antenna on a city streetlight to committee.
The Council accepted annual homeless healthcare moneys from the feds—which funds several public health positions—and grants for elder services. The parks department received funds to plant trees in McKnight and the Hill neighborhoods. Smaller grants for fire safety, the DPW, and literacy also received acceptance.
Amid plaudits, the Council unanimously confirmed Mayor Domenic Sarno’s renomination of Ju No, the Director of Internal Audit.
Councilors blessed tax incremental financing deals with realtor turned solar energy baron Roger Roberge. Because the sites—one is a part of the former Chapman Valve campus—are brownfields, environmental regulations limit uses.
The items were before the Council in December, but councilors were simultaneously asked to approve the order allowing the Board of Assessors to negotiate with Roberge. The Council opted to wait then, but approved the agreements without dissent Monday night.
Several transfers within the budget, including $644,078 to Springfield’s trust fund for future retiree healthcare, also gained approval.
At Fenton’s urging, Councilors sent a TIF for the former YMCA on Chestnut Street to committee. He argued the project did not meet the “but for” requirement TIFs should have. Fenton added the developers renovated Silverbrick, whose TIF had similar flaws.
Still Burning Controversy
Without dissent, the Council approved labor pacts for public health nurses and building inspectors. The contracts run through 2020 and 2021 respectively and include 2% annual raises.
Another contract did not move as easily, though it did advance. The district fire chiefs contract was back once again. William Mahoney, the city’s HR/Labor Relations Director, said it ran from 2012 through Jun 30, 2020. District chiefs appointed after February 1, 2018 must comply with the residency ordinance.
Yet, residency deep-sixed the contract before. Residency hawks have argued the existing language already requires the chiefs’ compliance. A pending 10-citizen lawsuit seeks to compel Springfield to enforce the ordinance against the half-dozen non-resident chiefs.
Councilor Hurst asked Mahoney what had changed from last time. Mahoney said the pact now included a social media policy, a first among unionized city workers. That came after some district chiefs groused about councilors, namely Hurst, in highly inappropriate terms.
Hurst and Mahoney jousted, as they had before, over the old residency contract language and why the city wasn’t enforcing the ordinance against the district chiefs.
After Hurst referenced a court transcript, City Solicitor Ed Pikula began discussing the 10-citizen suit. A motion for judgment is before Judge Constance Sweeney. Pikula said Sweeney almost certainly won’t order Springfield to fire nonresident district chiefs if they did not move to Springfield.
Hurst motion to send the contract to committee until Sweeney ruled.
Others councilors wanted to move on and follow prior practice of implementing residency prospectively. Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea said, “We have to have a policy of consistency if we’re going to go forward in which everybody is the same.”
Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez countered voters expected better. “If we don’t get it right this time, we’ll still be held accountable,” he said.
Fenton, also a residency crusader, quipped, “This is a pretty divisive issue, right?” He praised the Council and Mahoney’s putting residency into labor contracts, “It’s been something we’ve actively worked on for over 8 years now.” In that spirit, he was backing the contract.
Pikula assured at-large Councilor Timothy Ryan no injunction prohibits approval of labor pacts.
The committee motion failed 6-6. Councilors Gomez, Hurst, Ramos, Melvin Edwards, Jesse Lederman and E. Henry Twiggs supported it. Allen, Fenton, Shea, Ryan, Thomas Ashe and Kateri Walsh dissented.
Councilors objected to waiving a rule requiring two readings of finance items, but final passage may be inevitable. A preliminary vote passed 7-5 with Edwards, Gomez, Hurst, Lederman and Ramos in dissent.
More, More, More
The Council later took first step on family leave changes for city employees and a notification ordinance for TIF agreements.
The Council revived efforts to extend its own term to four years. Councilor Walsh slyly presented the item as mere “housekeeping,” pointing to a favorable non-binding 2015 plebiscite. However, that vote came after virtually no public debate and tricky wording. In contrast to ward representation, there has been no grassroots groundswell for four-year terms. It sprouted from councilors themselves.
After Sarno signs it, Beacon Hill must approve it. Then a binding ballot question would appear before voters in 2019. Its language states four-year terms would begin in 2021 coterminous with the mayor, though the next mayoral election is in 2019.
Supporters have argued the switch would improve turnout, but really that’s an argument for canceling elections because turnout is poor.
Ryan eviscerated these arguments. “We’re taking away an election,” he said. Cutting into another argument, he added, “The city spends $637 million a year. One hundred thousand dollars to hold an election is an infinitesimally small” cost.
The Council voted 8-4 to move the proposal. Gomez, Lederman, Ramos and Ryan were in dissent.
Walsh claimed to have spoken with legislators about filing the measure, but lawmakers have ignored it before. No Massachusetts cities go four years without any municipal election. Moreover, four-year local terms would only let municipal officials build up campaign war chests they could one day turn on sitting legislators.
E Pluribus, Urbs
Councilors then passed a resolution urging more School Department support for ECOS, a popular science program for public school students.
The Council also approved a resolution aimed at improving diversity among city department heads. It passed 10-1 plus one abstention after an impassioned call from Council President Ramos.
“I know it is an uncomfortable subject for some people. It is a difficult subject, but it is a necessary subject,” he said.
Masslive reported only a handful of department heads are not white. Sarno bristled at suggestions his appointments were insufficiently diverse. Whatever the mayor’s protestations, department leadership is largely white for a minority-majority city with a diverse workforce.
Ramos detailed how minority candidates were passed over in the recent Fire Commissioner selection. He also said the city must do a better job with professional development to ensure minority candidates have a pathway to top posts.
Councilor Ashe did not oppose Ramos’ intention or goal. Rather, he felt the resolution was inappropriate given Springfield’s strong-mayor system of government.
But Ashe was in a decided minority with many councilors speaking in favor.
“We have a lot of folks that work for us that are very, very unhappy,” Gomez said, apparently referencing city workers who feel their career prospects are limited.
“This is not a City Council versus mayor issue,” Lederman said. “This is a conversation about looking forward.”
Normally resolutions pass on voice votes, but someone requested a roll call. With Ashe abstaining, Walsh registered the sole no.
The Council then adjourned to executive session to discuss litigation behind a $917,567 transfer to the Law Department’s settlement account. City records show the transfer received approval in the session 10-0. Ashe and Twiggs were absent.
The length of the meeting reflects pressure certain matters place upon the Council and Springfield politics. Although this pressure is not exclusively manifesting in wards, it does appear a consequence of the shift in city political power.
As ward representation reaches maturity, the expectations of councilors to represent Springfield as broadly as possible will only grow. Whether they do so in a way that delivers is not yet known.