Take My Council, Please: Romancing the Stoned…
SPRINGFIELD—Compared to recent meetings, Monday’s City Council meeting was mellower than most. More throat-clearing than the advance of policy, it set the stage for a few issues like a plastic bag ban and tighter state health code standards. However, neither had the effect of law yet.
Closer to legislating was another round on marijuana. Whereas the prior efforts related to zoning, councilors now confront implementation and consumption rules when Mary Jane comes to town. It’s not clear when that will be. Still, mindful of the kidney stone passing the zoning ordinance had been, councilors want to get a head start.
Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams and Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea were absent Monday.
The meeting began with a resolution on streetlight infrastructure in the city at-large Councilor Jesse Lederman filed. He has urged a transition to more energy-efficient LED lighting for streetlamps, but had encountered resistance. His resolution takes a much wider assessment of street lighting, but would certainly leave the door open to greener lighting.
“It essentially assesses the age, infrastructure, technology, effectiveness…” of the streetlight system Lederman said. It could also assess the accuracy of the bill Eversource send the city for streetlights.
As it is only a resolve, there is no force of law behind it. However, the at-large councilor was confident the Finance Department could locate funds or write grants to fund the study. Lederman added, in response to at-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield, that there’s no reason to think it would affect cameras and the Shotspotter system mounted on lampposts.
The resolution passed on a voice vote.
Committee reports were mostly about items the Council would consider later that night including financial orders, the North End easement and the marijuana ordinance.
Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen added a few words about the Responsible Employer Ordinance (REO) Committee. Noting a recent MGM presentation about hitting its diversity targets among construction workers, Allen observed that strides had been made for the REO, too.
“The rubber is hitting the road on the ordinance,” he said.
Whitfield and Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards echoed Allen’s remarks, emphasizing the enforcement of agreements in city contracting to hire women, minorities and city residents.
The Council accepted the revenue and expenditure report as well as grants for the Elder Affairs and Police departments.
The Council finally granted the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) an easement for a pedestrian underpass. The underpass will go between Plainfield Street and Birnie Avenue under the Connecticut River rail line which MassDOT bought several years ago.
No crossing between where Plainfield Street itself crosses the line and Wason Avenue another mile north. Consequently, pedestrians, many of them children, had taken to crossing increasingly active tracks. The underpass will be near the Western Massachusetts Recycling Center on Birnie Avenue and the soccer field opposite Kenefick Park on the Plainfield Street side.
Deputy City Solicitor Kathy Breck said the vote on the easement had been held up in negotiations including over uninterrupted rail service and indemnity to the city for any rail-related issues. It passed Monday unanimously.
The Council also greenlit an easement at Dryden Memorial School for utilities to the new East Forest Park Library, which broke ground earlier on Monday.
Shortly behind it was authorization to enter into another long-term contract for the city’s MUNIS financial software. The Council unanimously allowed the city to bid for a five-year contract with a five-year extension. Breck noted that this was only for maintaining the software, not a new program.
Another Lederman proposal, a plastic bag ban, went to committee. Lederman noted plastic bags’ deleterious effect on the environment and tendency to spoil batches of recycling. At councilors’ request, the bill will go to Lederman’s Health & Human Services Committee for further review.
The Council also passed first step on a broader marijuana conduct ordinance. Unlike the zoning ordinance passed a few weeks ago, this would regulate things like where consumption was permitted and where consumers could store grass in their car.
Although short compared to some interminable Council debates, this ordinance consumed a lot of RAM. Councilors worried they were enacting criminal marijuana measures for noncompliance, despite the movement appeared to be getting away from gratuitous incarcerations. However, councilors were assured they lacked any power to impose criminal penalties on anybody.
What followed was the slow burn of amendments. They were almost all technical like how many days an overseeing committee must act to the size of said committee. The Council also sought to retain the right to make certain decisions rather than cede them to the health commissioner.
The ordinance passed first step on a voice vote with Council President Orlando Ramos noting himself as an abstention. As of posting time, Ramos had not returned a text inquiring about why he abstained.
The Council’s only other item was another resolve urging the state to update its sanitary code to require housing be free of mold. The Council agreed they should and backed the resolve.
In the pantheon of Council concerns, the marijuana regulations have been a drag. Unlike some issues, this one produced a higher risk for inaction. The result was an arduous process that ultimately led councilors to blaze a regulatory path forward together.
At the same time it seems the legislature dropped too much into communities’ laps. A lot of local regulatory discretion was left to municipalities, unlike alcohol which is fairly uniform statewide.
Ever since residents voted to break out the bongs in 2016, legislators have been anxious to the point of paranoia only to not pack the legislative bowl very well. Risking confusion and misinformation, the legislature left a lot to localities which lack readily accessible expertise.
Although Springfield councilors passed perhaps the tightest marijuana zoning ordinance yet, the rules are neither entirely onerous nor preposterous. Still, the legislature should be setting more of the rules or write local option language municipalities can accept. Perhaps then there could be fair, smart and generally dank pot laws across the commonwealth.