Take My Council, Please: Lifting Lamps and a Golden Door…
SPRINGFIELD—After nearly two hours of debate, City Councilors nudged Springfield closer toward new rules that would keep the city away from immigration enforcement. The Welcoming Communities Trust (WCT) Ordinance did not pass final step as expected after councilors raised some concerns. Despite the slowdown and a mayoral veto threat, passage still seems inevitable.
The WCT ordinance was among several bills that advanced during Monday’s three-hour plus meeting. Councilors passed a heavily amended marijuana use ordinance and finalized changes to a not-quite-resurrected Police Commission. The body took initial action to raise its pay by 50% alongside smaller hikes for the mayor and School Committee.
Despite Mayor Domenic Sarno’s condemning the WCT as an affront to all things good and holy—like himself?—the bill had been steadily moving forward. Activists had packed the Council Chamber again, hoping to again encourage—or prod—city lawmakers to back the bill.
The WCT would bar city employees from inquiring about immigration status when interacting with the public. The ordinance includes an explicit exception where state or federal law mandates such inquiries. However, police interaction, reporting code violations or attending parent-teacher meetings have no such requirements.
The ordinance aims provide piece of mind to undocumented Springfield residents left in limbo by congressional inaction. Supporters also say it would limit harassment legal residents stereotyped as illegal face.
Last week Sarno promised to veto the WCT ordinance. He has claimed, without evidence, that it would create legal conundrums for Springfield officials and damage public safety. He also said it would make Springfield a “sanctuary city,” a rhetorical term that has no legal or discrete meaning.
Much of the ordinance is already practice. But councilors want it to have the force of law. Nonetheless, Sarno’s veto threat prompted a wave of calls to councilors from residents either confused or otherwise triggered by the mayor’s nativism.
Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez read a fact check sheet the Pioneer Valley Project and the Resist Center put out Sunday.
For example, Sarno has claimed city employees would face liability under this ordinance. However, there is no general obligation to collect information like immigration status except in certain circumstances, which the ordinance explicitly allows.
Gomez also noted that courts have blocked effort by Donald Trump and his administration to withhold federal funds from communities that do not assist Immigration & Customs Enforcement.
Gomez did remove language that requires cops to let drivers without licenses find somebody to pick up them up. The section was intended to discourage interaction where immigration status could come up. After conversations with Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri, Gomez said he trusted Pearl Street to do this voluntarily. That removal won at-large Councilor Tim Ryan’s unambiguous support.
However, Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen, while expressing sympathy for the policy’s goals, relayed concerns from resident. Some he tried to resolve before Monday night. Many were regurgitations of the mayor’s bile, but others were not.
Among the fears were Allen reported was whether the ordinance would attract the undocumented and drive up costs for Springfield.
This is unlikely. Most undocumented immigrants live in more economically robust metropolitan areas regardless of the community’s welcome.
At-large councilor Tracye Whitfield countered that many undocumented residents are, in fact, paying into the city. She said she had dated an individual who was undocumented.
“When I asked him to vote for me was when I found out he was undocumented,” she said noting that nothing about his stuck out over the time they knew each other.
“He paid taxes,” Whitfield continued. “His daughter deserves the same services my daughter deserves.”
As debate continued, nearly all councilors spoke. At-large councilor Kateri Walsh and Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea appeared to share Allen’s hesitation. Shea lay the blame on Washington while suggesting passage of this ordinance would effectively be non-enforcement of the law.
The ordinance does not conflict with federal law and municipal officials cannot be forcibly commandeered for a federal purpose. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has also distanced state and local law enforcement from immigration.
Debate seesawed between hesitant and supportive councilors. Even some supporters appeared receptive to a committee referral to let Barbieri fully articulate his position, but that motion failed 7-6.
Allen tried to invoke Rule 20, the Council’s semi-filibuster. A procedural tactic, the rule halt debate on an item thought to have financial impact. Council President Orlando Ramos ruled the invocation inapplicable. Allen challenged his ruling, but only he and Walsh voted to overrule Ramos, well short of the two-thirds required.
Eventually, Gomez acknowledged WCT supporters could not force a final vote Monday. The bill technically needs a second and third reading to pass (the first was taken two weeks before). The Council often combines them, but can only do so with unanimous consent. Allen objected to the single vote.
Thus, the ordinance did advance but not yet to Sarno’s desk and his veto pen.
After a brief recess, the Council unanimously confirmed Derek Strahan to the Springfield Mobile Home Rent Control Board. It accepted grants for mental health programs, libraries and parks. The body also authorized easements for city buildings and a sale of surplus property.
Councilors also enacted an ordinance that aspires to jump start the Police Commission’s resurrection. Currently, a single Commissioner, Barbieri, oversees and manages police personnel and policy. In 2016, the Council voted to revive the old five-member mayor-appointed Police Commission over Sarno’s veto. It would appoint, promote and discipline officers and set policy. Daily operation would fall to a chief-like figure.
Because Barbieri’s contract ran through Spring 2019, councilors post-dated the 2016 ordinance until then. The new ordinance restores the Commission immediately. It also eliminates Council confirmation of Commission appointees, which Springfield’s charter forbids anyway.
Councilor Ryan, a lead sponsor, has brushed off concerns that the Commission’s immediate activation conflicts with Barbieri’s contract. Barbieri would likely retain his current powers until spring.
The final vote was 11-1 with Shea the lone dissent. Whitfield abstained because she felt she had insufficient information to render a fair decision.
Sarno vetoed the new Commission ordinance Wednesday claiming it infringed on his power under the charter. He has claimed a new commission conflicts with his power to appoint department heads, but in fact the new commission he appoints will function as a department head.
The Council passed a resolution at-large Councilor Jesse Lederman sponsored. It called for Sarno—and other appointing authorities—to fill empty seats on boards and commissions. A similar resolution passed a few years ago.
The resolution had support from Civic Groups including the League of Women Voters. In written testimony, Meredith Boone noted that much of the basic info on Springfield boards and commissions is not publicly available. She urged the creation of a directory of such bodies, their membership and the expiry of their seats.
“Democratic government depends upon informed and active participation in government and requires that government bodies protect the citizen’s right to know,” Boone’s testimony read, referring to a potential directory.
The remainder of the night reflected councilors’ hesitancy on—or exhaustion with—ordinances.
The Council took up amends at-large Councilor Justin Hurst offered to a proposed marijuana use ordinance. Hurst’s changes were mostly technical. One major change lets the Council rather than the health commissioner, set annual operating fees.
Councilors chose not to grant final approval passing only second step for the amended ordinance.
Councilor Lederman’s plastic bag ban went back to committee, too on a 7-6 vote. Councilors Allen, Ramos, Shea, Walsh, Whitfield, E. Henry Twiggs and Marcus Williams backed the motion.
The only other item to see action Monday was the pay increase for elected officials.
The bill would raise the mayor’s salary $25,000 to $160,000 and Springfield School Committee pay to $17,500 from $12,500. Council’s pay would leap $10,000 to $29,500. The Council President receives an additional $500.
Councilor Walsh amended the raises’ effective date from this January 1 to January 1, 2020. The Council can only vote raise the pay of councils yet to be elected. To effect a hike for this January would violate state ethics law as essentially a form of self-dealing.
Councilors also discussed but did not include language to mandate regular reviews of compensation.
The pay raise has percolated behind the scenes for several weeks. It splashed into the news last month when President Ramos appointed an advisory committee to consider potential increase. That panel recommended Council raises half the size now proposed.
Councilor Ryan said the raises, especially beyond the recommended amount and disproportionate to other electeds, was malodorous. “When it smells bad, sometimes it is bad.”
Supporters have argued councilors’ job demands justify the raise. In fact, there has been almost no public debate since the 2013 increases.
Amid several audible dissents, the bill passed first step.
The bill’s fate is uncertain. Efforts to lobby for Sarno’s support have apparently faltered. Tuesday morning, Sarno mocked the bill in a statement. Another release pointed to the cost. Neither explicitly promised a veto.
A spokesperson for Sarno did not return emails requesting clarification. Speaking to WWLP, the mayor somewhat more explicitly said he “could not support” the pay increase.
The Council’s increasingly substantive and confrontational legislative agenda seems like a positive side effect of ward representation. Some noted this during the WCT debate. But items like the pay increase seem like misjudgments amid cartoonish assertions of mayoral authority. Sarno could score points with that veto, undercutting the Council’s broader momentum and credibility.
Slow-walking some ordinances Monday also suggests legislative overload. Councilors will need to realize a growing legislative workload is a consequence of embracing their role as a co-equalish branch of Springfield government. They may need help to succeed—and not necessarily in the form of fatter paychecks.