Take My Council, Please: We Want More…

Monday was a night of stunning defeats and equally stunning chutzpah.  A dozen or so cops filled the council chamber ostensibly as a show of solidarity ahead of the civilian review vote.  Other measures up included the trash fee, a petition to extend council terms and other measures that were liberated from committee.

Lee Erdmann, the city’s Chief Administrative and Financial Officer briefed the council on finances first.  Essentially, the city projects, based on revenue estimates and expected state aid to have a $40 million deficit.  Erdmann told the council that he and others in the mayor’s administration had pared that down to about $16 million.  That reduction came through department reduction and changes to health and pensions.  It also assumed that there would be additional revenue from the trash fee.

As it stands now, the mayor’s office expects to request that roughly $13 million be used from stabilization funds to cover most of that gap.  Additional reductions and consolidations, thus far undetermined, unused overlay account money and would a 2% increase on the hotel tax would cover the rest.  The increase would put Springfield at the same rate as Cambridge and Worcester, but still under Boston’s rate.

Councilor Ferrera (Urban Compass)

Erdmann also indicated that the city would seek concessions from labor, but would do so primarily to avoid layoffs, which may become necessary absent concessions.  During the debate at-large councilor Jimmy Ferrera pressed Erdmann for the source of his projections.  Erdmann, apparently used to Ferrera’s theatrics, waved off his question, assuring him that he was using the best estimates available given the political and financial situation.

Erdmann also briefly discussed the city’s capital budget, which included replacing 20% of trash bins.  Ferrera also pressed the city on why it was spending money to buy new trash bins.  Allen Chwalek, the city’s Public Works head, anecdotally mentioned that his own trash bin wore out as all of them eventually will.  Chwalek also reminded Ferrera that the current bins were rolled out 12-13 years ago and have an expected life of about ten years.

Rendering of Holiday Inn as a La Quinta (WMassP&I)

From there the discussion switched to less controversial items.  Boilerplate votes were called on accepting grants for the library, fire, emergency management and elderly affairs departments.  A resolve was also passed to support more money from Beacon Hill for Shannon Grants and approval granted to other Shannon Grants, Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna sent to committee last time.  A report on the Biomass plant was also accepted by the council.  Blessings were also granted to a 5 year contract for school food service (after details as to the need were presented to a subcommittee) and to Community Block Development Grant loan guarantee for the renovation of the former Holiday Inn.

A report from the finance committee on the trash was given somewhat before the actual debate on the item itself.  Ward 2 City Councilor Mike Fenton, chairman of the finance committee explained how his amended ordinance would increase the discount for seniors, veterans and indigent homeowners to 33% from 25% (the base fee would remain $75).  Fenton noted that leaving an additional $3 million gap in the budget was unacceptable.

Councilor Fenton (Facebook)

The new fee ordinance also required trash pickup even if the bill went unpaid and instead place liens against the affected property. As a result tenants of two or three family homes would not lose trash pickup because of their landlord. Additionally, Fenton said, the ordinance included language that would mandate annual review, but rejected an immediate transition to any new system that would be “foreign to people.” Added at-large councilor Kateri Walsh, “People do not want bags.”

Debate on the trash fee was muted as at-large councilor Tim Rooke brought up discrepancies in a trash report  Before a vote could be taken on fee ordinance, Rooke invoked Rule 20, yes that rule 20, and stopped all debate pending a financial report.

Reports from the Public Health & Safety and Civil Rights committees came up next intended to codify Mayor Domenic Sarno’s police oversight board.  Presently per Police Commission William Fitchet’s contract, he is the civil service authority that may order discipline for cops.  The oversight board makes recommendations that Fitchet typically follows.

Because that power is in Fitchet’s contract, the city cannot break it by ordinance or otherwise.  While City Solicitor Ed Pikula has articulated the argument on constitutionality grounds (states and their subdivisions are barred from breaking contracts), the reality is that municipalities, like Springfield are essentially corporations under the law.  In other words, even though it has “law-making” power, were the city to arbitrarily change its laws to override a contract, it would also be breaching that contract.

Councilor Twiggs (Facebook)

The main proposal, created by a council president appointed study committee and mindful of Fitchet’s contract, would give Sarno’s oversight board subpoena power. The ordinance, pushed by Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs would also create neighborhood caucuses that would nominate board members that the mayor would formally appoint. Twiggs thanked clergy, civic associations, and councilors (though not all of them) for participating in the process.

Unfortunately, from the there, the whole process went downhill.  Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak noted that the Boston Road neighborhood in his ward lacks a civic association, and therefore may be unable to nominate appointees.  Rooke announced his opposition, noting the police in his family while suggesting that this proposal would cause police to second guess themselves.  In reality, however, many neighborhood residents, especially minorities do not cooperate because they feel the police are unaccountable to residents.
Councilor Rivera (Facebook)
Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, in a surprise of opposition, asserted that cops received proper training and should be trusted.  Largely, he echoed Rooke.  For  Concepcion, a Hispanic council member, this was truly odd, but it does go to show you that race and ethnicity are no guarantee of political sympathy.  Perhaps Concepcion was appealing to voters in 16 Acres, which occupies much of his ward.  Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera countered with his firsthand experience among the lower rungs of society. He added  that greater trust among the community would only empower the police when crime is “the only business hiring” (a quotable gem, huh?)

Jimmy Ferrera pandering again reiterated that full discipline powers should be returned to a civilian board immediately.  Ferrera, who is not a lawyer, rejected the legal analysis that city cannot legislate its way out of contracts and the civilian review board with it.

Jaws dropped (or at least they should have) when Jose Tosado, who appointed the study committee, announced his opposition to the ordinance.  While not being the same legal space shot as Ferrera with a demand for instantaneous change, Tosado announced his belief that the system should be changed back as soon as Fitchet’s contract ended.

Pres. Tosado (Facebook)
Twiggs made one final plea for passage noting that nothing in the ordinance curtails police activities.  Appealing to better police/community relations, he called for passage to ensure Springfield is a place “all of use can enjoy to live in…a city for all of us.”  But it was to no avail, the council voted it down 6-7.  Lysak, Concepcion, Rooke, Walsh, at-large councilor Tom Ashe, Ferrera and Tosado.  The others were in support. 

After some wrangling over parliamentary rules the council and clerk could not agree that immediate reconsideration could be called by a member that lost a vote), Twiggs’ called for a new vote at the next meeting.  An alternate proposal from Ashe was defeated after minimal debate. The police supporters in the audience filed out before Twiggs’ motion for immediate reconsideration was filed.

A petition pushed by Walsh, Twiggs, Luna, Concepcion and Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards to extend the city council term to four years was also debated.  An earlier incarnation of the petition would not have put the issue to voters, but this petition did.  To take effect, the petition would need to be signed by the mayor, passed by the legislature, signed by the governor and then voted on by residents in November.

However, were the city council to get a four year term, it would longer than that of any member of the Massachusetts legislature or members of the United States House of Representatives.  As Fenton noted, no council in a Massachusetts of 100,000 or more, including Boston, Worcester, Cambridge and Lowell have terms longer than two years.  Western Mass Politics & Insight called these cities’ council offices and confirmed this.
Councilor Walsh (Facebook)
Walsh and Twiggs tried to make the issue about input from people while noting that the mayor’s term was recently extended to four years as of next January.  Walsh claimed that having municipal elections only every four years would save money by having less elections (and democracy).  However, Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen deftly pointed out that school committee election would continue to occur on years that would have otherwise included council elections and thusly save nothing.

Rooke pointed to polls that showed support for a four year mayoral term gave a thumbs down to four year terms for councilors.  Rivera noted that the longer term had the effect of essentially distancing the public further from the process.

One way or another an extension of the council’s term to four years would be an invitation to further bad governance on the part of the city.  The mayor, by contrast can use the added breathing room because his position is full time.  The council, by comparison only works part time, and as Rivera noted, is not staffed to suddenly become full time, an implication of a longer term.  Furthermore, two year terms act as a democratic means to change course when city governance goes awry.
The claim that it should be up to voters is merely a fig leaf for the hubris behind this idea because the measures sponsors not the voters are behind it.  Twiggs, but especially Walsh, are using that as an excuse to justify a longer term during which most of they will not be accountable to voters.  Absent the fervor of a Wisconsin style recall (which Springfield does have), councilors would have no motivation to do their jobs, however part time, to the best of their ability.  Sadly, not all do now with two year terms and four years would only worsen the problem.  The petition went to committee for now.

The meeting closed shortly thereafter with votes to deed tax foreclosed properties to new home developers, which passed by significant majorities.  Tosado’s opposition remain politically bewildering.  As a Hispanic candidate for mayor, the smart move would be to support codifying the review board with an eye to change in 2013.  

Instead, he alienated both police and minorities by announcing support for full civilian review (of which the rank and file of Springfield’s finest would be suspicious) while opposing a loan of credibility to the interim solution.  To add insult to injury, a growing split is materializing between Tosado and Luna, who, up until recently, usually voted together.

The trash fee, which had six cosponsors, is simply waiting in the wings.  By far the saddest vote was the civilian review board.  Sources close to city hall suggest that Twiggs had failed to whip his votes appropriately and that led to the defeat.  To succeed on immediate reconsideration will be Herculean task for Twiggs and his allies to change the minds of obstinate councilors.


Preview: Take My Council Please Apr 4, 2011…

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)
Tonight’s City Council Meeting will feature a renewed effort by at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs to extend the term of City Councilors to four years, coterminous with the mayor’s 4 year term.  Walsh and Twiggs are joined by councilors Melvin Edwards, Clodo Concepcion and Zaida Luna An informal survey of the state’s largest cities, Boston, Cambridge, Lowell and Worcester has found that all have two year terms for their councils.  Walsh’s proposal (we vaguely remember her trying to attach a similar clause on the petition to lengthen the mayor’s term) would give the City Council, essentially a legislative body, a term longer than any elected official in the Massachusetts Legislature or the United States House of Representatives.  Below the jump is the full text of Walsh’s petition.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:

SECTION 1.  Notwithstanding the provisions of chapter forty-three of the General Laws or Chapter 125 of the Acts of 2007 or any other general or special law to the contrary, the city council of the city of Springfield, shall hold office for a term of four years from the first Monday of January, 2016 coterminous with the term of the mayor of said city, and until their successors are qualified with all the rights, powers and duties vested in and exercised by said city council under the charter of said city.
SECTION 2.  Notwithstanding the provisions of any general or special law to the contrary, to ascertain the will of the people of the city of Springfield, the board of election commissioners shall cause the following binding public opinion question to be placed on the official ballot to be used in the city at the next regular municipal election to be held on the eighth day of November in the year two thousand and eleven:
Shall the term of the city council of the city of Springfield be for four year coterminous with the term of the mayor?
SECTION 3.  If a majority of the voters casting a ballot on this binding question shall vote in the affirmative, the provisions of said act shall take effect at the next regular municipal election for the mayor held in the city of Springfield in November, 2016.

By way of comparison, no Western Massachusetts city council has a term in excess of two years either.  More on this after tonight’s meeting, as well as additional commentary on the subject.

Industria: Around Diamond Match…

On March 5 1920, the New York Times reported that a tract of land in “Central Springfield, MA” had been purchased by the Diamond Match Company.  Although that article claimed matches were not to be manufactured there, eventually they were.  Until the 1980′s the company made matches at the Paridon Street facility.  It was served by a branch of the former New York New Haven & Hartford Railroad before passing to Conrail.  Conrail outlived the rail line, which was effectively abandoned along with the Diamond Match Property.  The tracks themselves were pulled up over the following decades.  The only evidence of their existence are the orphan tracks on Sumner Avenue.

Today, we start a new photoblog entitled “Industria.”  Its focus will be industry, past, present and future.   Just a reminder that these properties are private and by their very nature may not be safe.  Do not trespass for your own safety.  In case you do not understand…

Diamond Match is an odd focal point for the East Forest Park area.  The neighborhood is almost entirely residential.  Still from the southern areas of the neighborhood and along the Springfield border in East Longmeadow the old smoke stack rise, a silent sentinel to time long past.  If you wish to behold some of these areas yourself, PLEASE, stay on public streets.  There is plenty to observe along the property’s perimeter.
The Property is primarily used for equipment storage now.  The smoke stack rises from a largely obstructed building.
You can get a better view of the plant at the base of the smoke stack.
Probably a microwave tower, but it could provide cellular service, too.
Long abandoned Railroad Ties (sleepers).  The rails have largely been removed.
Visible just to the left of the picture’s center is a rail, nearly overtaken by nature.
This is the former Right of Way of the NYNHH’s branch.  It went through East Longmeadow and ultimately into CT
Illegal Dumping is a problem, but could be far worse.
More railroad ties, these not cast aside from the ROW
From here, the Smokestack almost blends in with the trees.
Dumpsters from MLK Charter School punctuate the ROW.  The school takes up the former Goodwill building.
A Small nature trail, set up by MLK school takes up a wooded area technically within the old Diamond Match perimeter
This clearing, today an access road, probably held the industrial spur off the Railroad’s mainline.
The clearly runs around the Smoke Stack Building.  At right are buildings from the YWCA facility on Clough St.
Easily the tallest structure in the area, the smokestack base appears to take up less room than the main building in satellite pictures from Google Maps
Possible Evidence of Squatting?
A Blast from the Past.  Albano left office in 2003, so the sign is AT LEAST that old.
Although the building at the smokestack’s base is hardest to see, the main building goes back quite a distance and is not easily seen without blatant trespassing.
Although much of the Diamond Match property is not used, it is private property and does have regular activity.  WMassP&I observed some in the main lot facing Paridon Street.  Do not attempt to get any closer without permission.  More photos are visible on our Flickr stream.  Check out this USGS map from the 1940′s which shows the path of the railroad and its spurs to Diamond Match.

At Libya to Say…

Pres. Obama giving his Libya speech (White House)
For a nation already overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would seem foolhardy for President Barack Obama, a fierce critic of the Iraq war, to lead us into battle once again.  Yet, a little over a week ago, Obama ordered US air power into Libya, as part of an international coalition to enforce a United Nations’ no-fly zone.  Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s dictator of forty years, had been engaged in a violent crackdown against a rebellion that had started like many of the other Arab uprisings of late: peacefully.

Obama articulated his reasoning for sending US forces into this engagement last night in a speech, carefully orchestrated to undercut any confusion that this was a true war.  Since the term war is relatively plastic (from the Korean War to the War on Drugs), this effort is largely semantic.  The White House wanted to make clear and the president underscored, that this was not like America’s other adventures into Muslim nations.  It still walks and quacks like a war, save for the lack of boots on the ground.

Many in Congress are grumbling that Obama did not go to them first.  Although their concerns are valid, Obama emphasized the urgency and Congress had just adjourned for one of their constituent weeks.  A false comparison has been made with Bush’s Congressional resolution for Iraq.  However, arguably, the former president’s foray into Iraq may have been no more legally valid (truthfulness of statements to Congress notwithstanding) because it called for the president to work with the United Nations.  The United States did not invade Iraq with any international authority.  While Obama explained his reasons for not waiting, it is unlikely that nothing he could say would appease opponents.

Isolationist Chas. Lindberg (wikipedia)

Those opponents, however, are overwhelmingly Democrats.  There are some Republicans complaining, but as Newt Gingrich’s schizophrenic position on Libya illustrates, most are struggling to find a reason to hate the intervention.  While anti-spending, anti-government non-rich misanthropy has taken hold of the Republican party, its neocon interventionist tendencies remain alive and well.  With only a few exceptions like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Charles Lindbergh style isolationism has not gained much in popularity.  Consequently, intervention in Libya almost screams Republican foreign policy.  However, most of these same Republicans try their darnedest to hate anything Obama.  Consequently, the best they can come up with is “what is the endgame?”

This is a fair question.  How long will the United States be engaged in Libya?  Well we do not know.  It will probably be about as long as it takes for Qaddafi to take a hint and bolt like the former rulers of Egypt and Tunisia.  After all the UN resolution does not just establish a no-fly, but it also allows for any measure to protect civilians.  However since many Republicans have historically supported open-ended commitments, the complaints seem to be about money.  Luckily South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, showing a little bit of that moderation that we used to like about him, called out Republicans for not complaining about Iraq’s costs.

Benghazi (wikipedia)

The fact remains that Libya is a unique situation in which the United States was able to lead an international effort to stop a massacre.  Qaddafi was on the verge of invading Benghazi, the Libyan opposition’s stronghold.  If he did, as the President said last night, there very probably would have been a slaughter.  Qaddafi has already shown a willingness to murder civilians (in addition to foreigners as in Pan Am 103).  When the uprising began, it was peaceful as in Eqypt and Tunisia.  However, Qaddafi saw fit to open fire on his own citizens and that led many of his government’s officials and military leaders to defect.  This also happens to be what turned the revolution into one of the armed variety.

As Obama explained, we could not wait until we saw the images of “slaughter and mass graves.”  Indeed Obama turned that determination not to allow a humanitarian crisis into an example of that American exceptionalism (which incidentally spell check does not recognize) everybody seems fear is fading.  “America is different,” Obama said defining our role as a vanguard for those that are seeking our ideals of self-government.

Star Spangled Banner Flag (wikipedia)

Many have said this, but last night’s speech should put to rest this disgusting notion that Obama (or liberals and progressives or any non-tea partiers) do not love American or believe in American exceptionalism.  Those that believe in this incarnation of exceptionalism perceive America as a place under the grace of God to show the world how wonderful we are.  A more nuanced, yet practical notion is that America is a blessed place (or not if you don‘t buy into God), but one that is an example to world of what democratic principles, inclusion and creativity can yield.

Obama’s rejection of the Iraq example, wherein we actually invade a country like Libya, narrows the focus of what our role is when facing a humanitarian crisis.  Not only does it cost us dearly in blood and treasure, but it also gives the United States ownership of everything that happens thereafter.  While Obama will inevitably be blamed for any bumps in the Libyan road, the United States as a nation is unlikely to be so roundly scorned by the international community as a result.

Col. Qaddafi (wikipedia)

While the Obama administration is straining to assure that there is no Obama doctrine, there is an implicit message or at least one that we received.  America’s foreign policy cannot be enacted through bullying.  While Saddam Hussein was a terrible person in just about any way, with the commingling of craven oil interests and family vendettas, to the outside world, it looked like the US was pushing countries around.  The arrogance of the notion that we were “liberators” poisoned the establishment of democracy in Iraq.  Obama’s perspective is one intended to stop the next Rwanda or Bosnia before it happens.  A helping hand to our fellow human beings not a life lesson in superiority complexes.  Still, as Obama told Brian Williams, Libya’s is not a “cookie cutter” policy.

There are serious questions that Americans need to ask and should ask about who controls what (NATO is in the process of taking over) and how long we will be investing in this.

I think that Obama would encourage us to ask question and yes even challenge his positions and we have an obligation to do so, but not disingenuous.  I do not think he would question our patriotism or American pride, whether it is John Boehner or Dennis Kucinich, for asking these questions.  Truly, American is a special place, if we can defend an assault against our common humanity, but also engage in honest and genuine debate without being attacked for not being patriots…or worse.

For a primer on Qaddafi spelling, try this.


Take My Council, Please: Committee Can-Do!…

As Western Mass Politics & Insight arrogantly takes credit for starting the cascade of news stories about Scott Brown’s sudden love for family planning and women’s health, the Springfield City Council got short shrift again.  Monday’s meeting emphasized the importance of committee.  Much of the important business before the council ended up going to committee.  In some cases, the reason was good and in others it was just odd.

Councilor Amaad Rivera was absent due to a car accident.  City Council President Jose Tosado announced his absence at the beginning of the meeting and other city hall sources confirmed that an email had been sent by Rivera to that effect.

As always, let us begin with the easy stuff.  The City Council accepted money for the city’s Housing department to fight blight and foreclosure aftermath.  The police department accepted grants to fight underage drinking and to purchase a special camera that would read license plates to the rear of a police cruiser.  Two ordinances, one changing fire department fees and another regarding junk shops advanced to the mayor.


However, three other items mostly routine caught the eye of some councilors who wanted the items moved to committee.  Moving a bill the appropriate committee of the City Council is a delaying tactic.  However, those delays can either be positive or negative.  Sometimes they are simply redundant.  Take last meeting’s committee referral of the civilian review board.  Because the board was a ordinance change, initial approval would have sent the ordinance to committee anyway before it would be enacted.  Still, the council found it fit to send it to committee before it would go to there anyway.

The first item that went to committee was a net positive.  The issue before the council was an authorization to the school committee to seek a five year contract for food service in schools.  Although the School Committee is largely a law onto itself, it is technically little more than a department of the city, albeit one with an elected body.  As such, it often needs Council approval just like the police or park departments would.  To award a contract for more than three years under M.G.L 30B §12 they would need council approval.

However, several councilors, including at-large councilors Kateri Walsh and Tom Ashe, and Ward 4 councilor E. Henry Twiggs, wanted to vote to give the school committee approval now.  Walsh and Ashe, however, mischaracterized the intent of the measure and the law.   Both, but particularly Walsh, pushed for a vote now, claiming that if they did not vote for this the school committee could not even ask for a five year proposal.

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)

Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen both protested noting that we had no idea what the council was voting for by giving this authorization.  To make matters worse, nobody from the finance, law or school departments were on hand to fully explain the legalities.  It was up to City Clerk Wayman Lee, who succinctly explained the truth.  Nothing in the law says the school committee cannot issue a request for proposals for five years, it just cannot award the contract until the council approves.  In fact, many times it is the bidders responding to an RFP who suggest a longer contract length.  Authorization absent a bid would give the school committee carte blanche to sign whatever it wanted for five years.

In any case, many councilors simply wanted to better understand for what they were voting.  Walsh’s complaint that is was not the City Council’s place to negotiate school contracts were misleading.  The council does not negotiate contracts but it does have an obligation to see to it that authority it grants another city entity uses it responsibly.  Sending the matter to committee will have no impact on the school department’s ability to seek the contract it wants.  The measure went to committee on a tight 7-5 vote.

The next item destined for committee fell well outside the parameters of the typical committee bound measure.  The City Council was asked to accept on behalf of the Police Department a $500,000 grant for gang prevention.  The money is split between community organizations and overtime for the department.

Councilor Luna (masslive)

Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, famous for her silence, stood up and began peppering the department’s finance representative with questions about the program.  Specifically, she asked which organizations got the community money.  Among those mentioned were the Salvation Army and the Springfield Boys & Girls Club.  Luna appeared to criticize, however obliquely, that the same groups received the money consistently.  Then she somewhat hesitantly made a motion to send the measure to committee. 

Councilor Allen stated that he had worked on that committee that doles out the money prior to his election to the council and found that the entire process to be fair and above board.  Councilor Walsh, not to be outdone pounced on the subject in support of Luna, articulating clearly what the latter had appeared to imply.  At-large Councilor Ferrera, in a rare burst of common sense, stood to oppose sending the measure to committee because the money paid for overtime for the police department.

What happened next was even more bizarre than the motion to send free money to committee.  Many measures can be approved by voice vote.  Others, like this one are, usually done with a roll call.  After a hardly unanimous voice vote, one councilor asked for roll call, which Tosado denied after pausing briefly.  Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak asked for immediate reconsideration.  Tosado at first promised the matter would return to the council at its next meeting, but Lysak pressed the issue and Tosado relented.  Still, the motion for immediate reconsideration failed on a 6-6 (it needed a majority to call a new vote).  The money will go to committee for now.

Photo of Artist’s Rendering After Renovation (WMassP&I)

Finally, the last measure that went to committee was approval to use some of the city Community Development Block Grant loan money to renovate the one-time Holiday Inn off of I-291.  The hotel owners, represented by Shardool Parmar, noted that since the hotel had lost the Holiday Inn name, the building’s value had collapsed as its vacancy rate skyrocketed.  Parmar and the city’s economic development department noted that the hotel had not been renovated since the building was constructed in the 1960’s.

The loan itself is part of the Section 108 program named after its place in the Housing and Community Development Act.  Springfield has access to loan money up to five times the value of its annual CDBG funding.  A spokesperson for the Boston HUD office told WMassP&I in an email that the money itself comes from US government bonds. The bonds are backed by the community’s block funding and in cases where it will be re-lent to a third party,  such as this one, a lien is placed on the property to be redeveloped.  Past projects that have used this program include the Basketball Hall of Fame.

HUD Seal (wikipedia)

The Parmars’ plans call for re-branding the hotel a La Quinta and almost doubling the number of jobs at the hotel.  Past projects in mid-range hotel market had failed to attract financing in the down economy making the Housing and Urban Development program a good fit.

Parmar said that business at mid-range hotels, whose rates range from $80-$100 per night, largely go West Springfield, Chicopee or Enfield.  Parmar also noted that travelers prefer recently built/renovated hotels and none of the area‘s town have such facilities.  Consequently, he described the project as a win for the city as it would gain both property and hotel taxes.  To his discredit Parmar also offered some tacky reasoning for choosing La Quinta, namely the city’s heavy Hispanic population while saying the city’s other hotels do not “fit the community.”

Councilor Ferrera, however, questioned the need for another hotel in Springfield and whether or not there was a market study to justify it.  This faux-due diligence only came off as micromanaging the city’s hotel market.  Ferrera claimed that those hotels actually did offer mid-market rates based on calls he made.  As such the need for hotels at this price point would be unnecessary.  Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, rebuked Ferrera claiming his research found the opposite.  WMassP&I looked up all three hotels’ rates online for two randomly selected time periods–one a weekend and one midweek–and found only the Sheraton offered similar rates and only on a weekend.

The more substantive concern arose as to who was actually on the hook for the loan money.  The city’s economic development department seemed say roughly what the HUD website describes.  The impression was left, however, that the city was ultimately responsible for the money (in fact it appears to only be the city’s CBDG money that could be in jeopardy).  In any case, the matter, too was sent to committee on voice vote. 


Committee is not inherently a bad thing.  However, some councilors’ use is entirely selective and political.  It is hard to imagine how Councilor Walsh would justify her opposition to committee oversight of school contracts while supporting a motion to send to committee a measure authorizing acceptance of free money.  We can err on the side of cautious oversight or trust the machinations of government, but not both (at least not in the same meeting).  Maybe Walsh sought some sisterhood with Luna, the only other woman on the council.

The council put on a half-way decent show on Monday, but in the end the whole affair was just a quickie.  The council had debated, voted, and adjourned in little over an hour.


Our One Hundredth: UPDATE


An update from yesterday’s Scott Brown post.  Less than 24 hours after WMassP&I noted Scott Brown’s disconnect from women and his vote for the House budget, which included a ban on Planned Parenthood funding, Scott Brown issued a new statement condemning the cuts.  The new release, TWO WEEKS after the budget votes in question, put Brown more in line with statements by Senators Snowe, Collins & Murkowski.  Brown says “ the proposal to eliminate all funding for family planning goes too far” and affirms he supports funding for “family planning and health services for women.”
Nobody thought Brown opposed such funding.  However, WMassP&I did question his connection to everyday real women when he voted for H.R. 1 (the House budget) and then issued a bland explanation in the immediate aftermath.  Is it better late than never?  When the questions are one of women’s health, the answer is not always yes.  Scott Brown’s political career may need better odds.

This story was originally broken by the Political Intelligence blog on and Talking Points Memo.

Our One-Hundredth: Insert Brown Pun Here…

Senate Seal (wikipedia)

With the 2012 campaign underway, albeit somewhat passively, it seems appropriate for us to begin looking into the races (and THE race) that will define the 2012 campaign.    However, any discussion of Congressional races is up in the air pending redistricting, which could either be kind or cruel to Western Massachusetts.  As such we only have the Senate race in Massachusetts and, for now, the Republican nomination for president.  For Senate coverage, look for the “Our One-Hundredth” and for President look for “The 2012 Steps.”

Today, as the title suggests, we are talking about the Senate race.  Normally at this stage Brown posts would be limited to stand-alone postings with self-proclaimed clever puns on his name alone, but given recent events it seems the race has undeniably begun.  The hint?  Brown told David Koch, yes that David Koch, that he was “already banging away” for the 2012 year. 

Mayor Warren (Facebook)
What also opened the Senate race floodgates were the movements of some potential Democratic challengers to Brown.  Newton Mayor Setti Warren, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and Somerville Congressman Mike Capuano are right now the lead maybes.  Bob Massie, a Somerville activist has already announced and Alan Khazei, who ran in the 2009-10 special is also a possibility.  The dream candidate of the left would be Elizabeth Warren, presently a special assistant to Pres. Obama to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Commission.  Other possibilities are Cong. Ed Markey of Malden and Cong. Stephen Lynch of Boston.  The former has lots of seniority he would have to sacrifice and the latter voted against the Health Care Act (it did not reform enough for him), which dimmed his light among many in the party.

Another poll released recently showed Brown with great approval ratings and comfortable margins over potential challengers.  However, the most telling part of that poll, conducted by Western New England College, was that most of the Demographic challengers had poor name recognition.

Cong. Capuano (Facebook)
Capuano has the tenacity to take on Brown and his truck.  While he had been called rough around the edges and a comment at a union rally drew rebukes (this was before the WI GOP exposed their plot as purely political), Capuano does have an everyman approach and, more importantly, an eye to compromise.  He, unlike many Democrats, often found himself defending his Health Care Law vote from the left.  Capuano, like all of the likely candidates, is from the east, but he might be able to appeal to the west better than the others.  However, Capuano found difficulty gaining traction during his run to succeed Edward Kennedy in the Senate against  Martha Coakley.

Setti Warren offers an intriguing challenge because of his military experience and time as a staffer for both Bill Clinton and John Kerry.  However, in addition to not being well-known, Setti Warren has only been in office 15 months.  He was elected in 2009 and is Newton’s first black mayor.  Were he to become a senator, he would become the second African-American elected to the Senate from Massachusetts after Edward Brooke.  Still, Warren’s brief time as mayor could hurt him, where he would need the most support: Newton.  Few politicians’ home base likes officials leapfrogging to new seats midway through their first term (we criticized Obama back in ’08, but Illinois did not seem to care).  Warren may better serve his interests by waiting for Kerry’s retirement or even Barney Frank’s and start off in Congress.

Driscoll is also a possible candidates, but being Salem’s mayor is not like being Newton’s what with Newton’s insane wealth and powerful Democratic politicians (Barney Frank calls Newton home).  Plus, Driscoll has very young children and a grueling campaign (at least in 2012) could be very hard on her family.

Sen. Brown (wikipedia)
But why are we even talking about this?  We have already laid out how the Democrats are in trouble lacking a name that resonates with voters.  Scott Brown is apparently beloved by Bay Staters (interestingly polls show similar approval of John Kerry).  What are we doing here?

Well, David Koch notwithstanding (which was somewhat reported), there is another terribly under reported story that involved our junior Senator.  You may recall that the House and Senate have agreed to, yet another stopgap budget resolution while the remainder of FY2011 get hammered out.  However, the House did pass a resolution for the remainder of the year, which included $61 billion in draconian discretionary non-security/defense cuts and several arch-conservative wish list items.  That resolution along with a Democratic alternative, could not pass the Senate.  However, Brown did vote to pass the House version.

Well let’s forget that the $61 billion was an obscene amount from an area of the budget largely not responsible for the deficit (and pitifully unable to correct it).  It prohibited any money be used to implement the Health Care Law (a restriction that would only make implementation more difficult and with poor results, not actually stop it) eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, cut Tsunami warning systems and end all money for Planned Parenthood.  The last one is of particular interest to us.

The right charged that funding for Planned Parenthood had to stop because it effectively enabled the organization to use its other funds for abortion.  Republicans said it was a way around the Hyde Amendment, which bans any federal money from being used for abortion absent rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s life.  The House’s ban on Planned Parenthood covers a wide gamut of women’s health services from cancer screenings, birth control, pregnancy testing and disease testing.
Jeff Perry (wikipedia)
Some critics have charged that Brown has been cavalier about women’s issues before.  The most notable example may be his staunch defense of GOP candidate for the 10th Massachusetts District, Jeff Perry.  Perry was the sergeant of a Wareham cop that sexually assaulted two teenage girls while in police custody.  Perry resigned from the police department days after the offending officer was indicted.  The issue resurfaced when Brown claimed in his new book that he was sexually abused by a camp counselor as a child.  The parallels were not lost on Bay State media.
Now it would be irredeemably trite to say that Scott Brown is indifferent to women’s health or even worse is a misogynist.  That is absurd.  After all, Brown’s wife, mother and daughters are all, incidentally, women.  Brown may have minimal cover on the issue as both Maine Senators and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, all women and pro-women’s health, voted for the House version, too.  However, all three expressed concerns about the scope of the House’s budget and described their votes as messaging or protests against the entire budget process.  Murkowski, somewhat to right of both Senators Snowe and Collins, condemned the Planned Parenthood cuts specifically.

Brown’s statement failed to telegraph any similar sentiment, “While I don’t agree with how the House prioritized its spending or cuts, I do believe that significant spending reductions and reforms are needed to bring fiscal discipline and strong management to Washington.”  Brown does register some disagreement with the House, but not in any significant way.  Noting that no areas are safe from cuts, Brown failed to mention that the House resolution leaves defense and security excesses untouched.  This statement should have gone a lot farther if he really meant it…or really connected to the real-world impact of the House’s cuts.
Sen. Brown in THE truck (wikipedia)
No, Brown is not a misogynist.  However, his position on the House budget (whatever the problems with procedure and the fact that everyone knew it would not pass) raises a different suggestion.  One that belies his most storied image: that everyman quality.  Scott Brown is far wealthier than most Bay Staters.  He is poor by Senate standards, but definitely above-average comfortable for the rest of us.  His legal business did well, even as he was  state senator and his wife, Gail Huff, probably made a decent living when she worked for WCVB in Boston (and she has a part-time gig at DC’s WJLA, an ABC affiliate).  His daughters attended top tier schools and he owns, however mortgaged, several Boston investment properties and built a home in Rye, N.H.  One Boston condo is strangely in his daughter’s name.  Plus his book?  HarperCollins, his publisher and a piece of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, almost certainly paid him well.

Wealth is not in itself a disqualifying factor (certainly it should not have been in last year’s election to succeed well-known blue-collar Ted Kennedy).  And John Kerry is no stranger to money either (though almost all of it belongs to Teresa).  However, when put up against this paradigm of truck-driving, barn jacket wearing guy down the street, the image comes apart.  It is all the more damaged by the Perry dust-up and then the House budget, oh and the tax cuts for the wealthy.  If nothing else, in a state like Massachusetts, Brown should have mentioned something at the time he voted like how essential women’s health services had been cut.

Ayla Brown’s Album (wikipedia)
Does Scott Brown care about women in general (and not just his family)?  He probably does.  However, to be most kind, it does expose a compelling disconnect between Brown and everyday women.  Neither Brown nor his family would ever need to go to Planned Parenthood or any public health clinic for cervical cancer screenings or mammograms.  They have health insurance, private doctors and the money to purchase these services out of pocket, if necessary.  Ayla, who attended Boston College probably has some money leftover from her recording contract and American Idol.

It is not surprising that Brown’s numbers of good.  Any politician in Massachusetts is probably doing better than most as the commonwealth weathered the recession better than most, even Springfield.  However, in addition to the relative anonymity of leading Democratic challengers, Brown has not, himself, been very challenged.  As we said in February, his bipartisan moments were shared by many Republicans (DADT, START II) or were tarnished by his special interest shilling (Wall Street Reform).  The impending campaign ads will be the ones that remind us of his more partisan moments, particularly the ones where he sided with millionaires and against the unemployed and poor or even middle-class women.

Still as we have said, Brown has a sizable war chest and some time to correct these inequitable votes with less wicked ones.  In the end, however, Brown may need to do more than let admirers see and touch his truck to show them he is “one of them.”  With $6 million in the bank and counting, Brown should not have trouble filling his gas tank to give rides to voters who are otherwise intimidated by gas prices…or trying to flee an undetected tsunami.

The Insight: “Amaad” About You?…

Today we start a new series on WMassP&I called “The Insight” consisting of interviews of politicians, officials and other newsmakers within the Greater Springfield universe.

Councilor Rivera (Facebook)

Springfield, like many cities, has long been a place where politics is a contact sport.  Campaigns can be “messy,” especially as candidates scramble for elusive votes amidst low turnout.  Still, as the city stares into the abyss of a new budget problem (partly the work of rising costs and foreclosures) and suffers a weekend of homicides, the biggest political news this year has been the situation in Ward 6.  Keith Wright resigned his office citing family issues leaving Amaad Rivera, who lost the race (or placed second under municipal law) to ascend to his position.

While the volume of the uproar may be in dispute, its existence is undeniable.  Angry residents grumbled over the outcome brought on by a quirk in the law while others made more strident (and unsubstantiated) accusations that Rivera was not even a resident of Springfield.  Even as that furor died down, Rivera, however unintentionally, reignited it when he invoked a parliamentary maneuver intended to delay a vote for eminent domain as part of the renovation project at Forest Park Middle School.  That move prompted accusations in both directions and a torrent of criticism directed at Rivera from this and other blogs and several mainstream media outlets.

This blog sought comment from Rivera for some of these stories, but due to a desire for expediency, we did not hold off publication pending his reply.  An exchange of emails followed, which may be characterized as contentious, and ultimately culminated in an interview with the Ward 6 Councilor.  Western Mass Politics & Insight is based in Ward 6.

During the interview, Rivera appeared eager to cool temperatures walking back some of his complaints directed at WMassP&I, but not others.  Still, he and this blog were interested more in clearing the air then engaging in a dispute.  Rivera was fairly at ease and appeared less upset than concerned that a media institution, however self-important and self-appointed like WMassP&I (our tongue-in-cheek description), would fail, in his view, to relate the whole truth.

Forest Park Middle School (School Dept. Site)

By far this was among Rivera’s biggest concerns politically.  Media should work, Rivera said “to ensure people can make [informed] decisions for themselves.” He gave examples, which he felt failed to meet this standard: the omission of certain details of his stance on Forest Park Middle School; an allegation that public opposition to his council-designation in December was overblown (the election commission only received a few letters and councilors‘ constituent correspondences are not public record) and the Valley Advocate’s depiction of some of his endorsements as being largely from out-of-town.

Rivera also spoke about a source of friction between himself and the Forest Park Civic Association.  While he claims that he was added to the agenda of the civic association without his knowledge and on short notice, Rivera acknowledges the group’s complaint given his use of Rule 20, the delaying tactic.  That said, Rivera claimed while he had canceled other trips, the event in Boston on February 13, the tweets from which WMassP&I published, had been planned months in advance.

That friction, Rivera notes, is part of the divisions that run deep in Ward 6 and Forest Park generally, arguably among the city’s most diverse neighborhoods by any measure.  Rivera noted that these divisions are older than he.  While the civic association is by no means the sole voice of displeasure, they and their members have become his most outspoken critics not otherwise elected to something at 36 Court Street.  Still, Rivera maintains that “building bridges,” rather than burning them, is his mantra as he insists that he wants to engage all of his constituents.

A standing concern has been Rivera’s education at Brandeis University in Waltham.  Some have wondered whether he can adequately balance both commitments which are separated by about 80 miles.  Rivera was reluctant to go into details, but he appeared to imply that if anything his schoolwork has suffered more than his representation of Ward 6.  He hinted at the possibility of scaling back his studies.  Rivera also noted criticism of his absence at meetings adding that he is not the only councilor who misses some meetings (WMassP&I will try to spread the scrutiny around to all councilors).

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)

Rifts between Rivera and his colleagues on the council were not discussed very much but one notable transgression came up: Rivera’s “present” vote for at-large councilor Kateri Walsh as vice-president of the Council.  Rivera defended this vote—juxtaposed against his affirmative vote for Jose Tosado’s second term as Council President—by noting Walsh’s lack of outreach.  By comparison, Jose Tosado, apparently asked Rivera to support his second term soon after Wright‘s resignation was announced.  Still, against the din of the succession ordeal (Walsh was among those questioning the process), Rivera’s stated reasons seemed a bit strained and at best had more to do with Rivera’s past relationship with Tosado and lack thereof with Walsh.

Rivera was somewhat candid about the law that enabled him to gain his seat admitting that the outcry over the law’s defects are a “fair thing.”  However he noted that little if anything has been done in the city council to correct it.  Presently the responsibility for crafting such a new petition would come from the General Government Committee chaired by at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera.  Despite a charge to draft a petition from Tosado earlier this year, no hearings have been held on the matter in 2011.

Councilor Rivera (C-SPAN)

Rivera segued to the work one of his campaign backers, Oiste? (Spanish for “Are you heard?) did to bring ward representation to Springfield.  That group along with other civil rights organizations was behind a law suit earlier in the decade to compel the city to adopt ward representation.  The legal argument nonetheless had an impossibly high bar to clear.  Low voter turnout among minority groups and minimal irregularities were not sufficient evidence of minority voter suppression.

However, Rivera also attempted to claim that complaints about succession were ironic as they came from the very people that wrote the ward representation bill.  Rivera noted that a city council committee was responsible for writing the home rule petition that put the ward rep question on the 2007 ballot.  Rivera is correct that the council dropped the ball, as did the legislature when they passed the petition.  However, groups like Oiste and others, although focused on court battles and not legislative sausage-making, do share responsibility.  Rivera tried to push back on this theory, but the fact is that groups that supported ward representation, as advocates for a more representative government deserve some blame for the oversight that led to the legal snafu.


When asked about the city’s limited power to reshape its destiny, Rivera disagreed with that characterization.  He outlined numerous areas of policy from land use to efficiencies in budgeting where this was not true.  Rivera did say that the city and its residents were somewhat ineffective at getting the most out of its representatives in Boston and Washington.  He implied that a more proactive approach on the part of local officials and residents could secure more help and better public policy beneficial to the city.

For all of the public relations ordeals Rivera has been through, he remains downright ebullient commenting how he loves how “democracy is messy.”  Still even though he was thrown into city government somewhat suddenly, Rivera has called the whole process “exciting.”  He is “moving at warp speed” on many issues from the budget, to the police review board and mayoral pay.

Since much of the impetus for this interview was his treatment in the media, Rivera was asked what he felt was a fair criticism of him might be.  “Actions, I take,” Rivera said, in addition to his stance on issues are fair game.  In other words, criticism of his actions regarding Forest Park Middle School are fair.  However, “silly socialism” charges are not and attacks on his family are simply not appropriate.  Opponents, he said should “focus their energy on me.”  “I was ready,” Rivera said referring to his designation as Wright’s successor.  He was, however, “not expecting the negativity.” 

Councilor Rivera (Campaign Site)

Rivera speculated that having gained his position as he did, he is “not beholden to any one group” and that troubles some.  As such his “actual due diligence” and not just “political due diligence” may have been somewhat jarring to those in the establishment and even those outside of the establishment who are nonetheless used to operating around it.  When judging him or his actions, Rivera asks constituents and outside observers alike, “consider facts” and not just personal beliefs alone.  For now Rivera is looking ahead at the city’s challenges and his bid for a full term this November.


Wisconsin’s Most Shameful…

Wisconsin Capitol (wikipedia)

Not to bump off the Springfield City Council from the top of our page, but WMassP&I has learned from multiple news sources that Wisconsin Republicans have abandoned their longstanding belief that collective bargaining rights were a fiscal issue.  In doing so they hastily sliced the money out of Gov. Walker’s budget bill and passed, possibly in violation of the state’s open meeting laws, the bill in a conference committee.  Per the Wisconsin Constitution, the 3/5 quorum is only necessary for fiscal matters.  A majority suffices otherwise, which obviousloy the GOP has. 

The Wisconsin Senate has since voted on it 18-1.  GOP Sen. Dale Schultz courageously voted against this boondoggle. Democrats were not even given notice to reconsider returning to vote on the measure.  While you may have differences with the Dems’ decision to bail, the nighttime, undebated and sudden passage of this bill is a travesty.  It proves that GOP negotiations were in bad faith, as the governor himself admitted in that infamous phone call.  Moreover, it all but assures the upcoming recall drives in Wisconsin will get nasty.  More when we can.

Take My Council, Please: Proceed to Police the Police…

While the Springfield City Council is usually known for at least being a good show, typically, the more controversial or in-depth the measures, the more entertainment is guaranteed.  Despite the presence of a volatile issue in the form of a Civilian Police Review Board ordinance, the evening was characterized less by passion (although it was there) and more by confusion and glib posturing by some councilors.

Let us get the less controversial stuff out of the way first.  Nearly all of the night’s votes were passed unanimously or as unanimously as you can get.  The city accepted approximately $1,380,000 in grant money for the Health & Human Services Departments from its federal counterpart.  Ward 2 City Councilor Michael Fenton took a moment to recognize the city’s health director, Helen Caulton-Harris for her department’s work in securing the grants which cover a wide range of health services for the city’s neediest residents.

Orlando Ramos (Facebook)
Two appointees to the License Commission, Orlando Ramos and Raymaond Berry, were confirmed by the Council to resounding applause.  The council gave the green light to move money around within the budget to pay for furnace upgrades, water/sewer payments, and a legal settlement.  Reports allowing utilities Verizon and Western Mass Electric were approved as were some property transfers.  Notable among the transfers was property to be conveyed to Springfield college to be used as open space.  While the city has a moratorium of sorts of conveying city property to tax-exempt entities, Springfield College’s receipt of the property came along with promises for a PILOT (payment in-lieu-of taxes), which would make it the city’s first college (as far as we have confirmed) to establish one such arrangement with the city.

Several home rule petitioners were thrown around, none particularly controversial (are you asleep yet?).  A refile on a bill to permit the city to tow cars for non-payment of excise tax and one about use of public ways, both passed in previous councils, passed without trouble.  One petition that was wisely withdrawn would have extended the term of city councilors to four years to match the mayors.  Councilors need a little more accountability than what four years of lethargy would yield.

Councilor Lysak (Facebook)
Among the more interesting items were Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak’s proposal to adopt an ordinance that would ban the sale and use of substances called synthetic marijuana.  Unlike the real reefer, these substances, sold in convenience stores, produce more of a cocaine-like high with sometimes fatal results, Lysak explained.  As an ordinance, the proposal would need three votes, in between which it would go to committee without further study.

However, the ordinances eventual path to committee was made more winding by questions from councilors.  Perhaps councilors were simply trying to avoid having their name on a bill they mind some day on some planet oppose for some reason (odd given that these passed without a recorded vote).  Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera queried whether we should do this, particularly raising concerns about criminal records (the city cannot set statues that involve criminal statutes unless granted by special law or as a general power to municipalities from the legislature). Lysak’s ordinance would be entirely civil in nature.  City Council President Jose Tosado, an at-large member, questioned whether the council had the authority, but a lawyer from the city solicitor’s office assured them that given a temporary Drug Enforcement Administration ban on the substances (the effect of which was left ambiguous), the city was on sound legal footing.

Councilor Rivera (Facebook)
Also attracting attention was a resolve (a resolution expressing an opinion rather than an act that has any practical legal effect) that encouraged contractors, vendors and so on to adhere to the National Labor Relations Act.  Well, it was not quite that simple.  It specifically mentioned TV and Cable operators in the city of Springfield, which pretty much means Comcast (they are only cable company to have thus far secured a cable franchise in Springfield).  That less than oblique swipe at Comcast, admittedly one of America’s somewhat bloodsucking corporations, drew a rebuke form Lysak. While Lysak encouraged adherence to labor law, he was uncomfortable with a resolution that clearly targeted one company.  Rivera, the measures lead sponsor, made light of a municipal contract that Comcast has with the city that is up for renewal, bemoaning the fact that another opportunity like this will not arrive for ten years.  Rivera refused offers of friendly amendments to make the resolve broad enough to simply encompass anybody doing business in the city.  At that point, an amendment could be offered without Rivera’s consent, which it was by Fenton, also a sponsor of the resolve.  WMassP&I cannot confirm whether or not Comcast employees are unionized and we can believe that Comccast is somewhat “insistent” that it stay that way.  Still had the resolve remained as written, Comcast would have been no more likely to treat labor fairly and only more likely to reduce jobs in the city for retaliation.  Bloodsucking was not meant to be flattering, after all.

Police Comr. Fitchet (SPD website)
By far the meat and potatoes of the evening came at the end, however there was a taste at the beginning.  The long awaited report from the special police oversight committee was delivered to the city council.  It was clear that tensions were running high as several speakers during the pre-meeting speak out mentioned the unfortunate example of police brutality that occurred in 2009.  Melvin Jones III was allegedly beaten by Springfield police officer Jeffrey Asher in 2009 with a flashlight.  The encounter was caught on tape and became a flash point among the city’s minority communities.  When Asher retired a day before Springfield Police Commissioner William Fitchet fired him, Asher retained his pension only exacerbating the tension.

Nobody will pretend that any one thing would make the Jones incident go away.  However, the city’s minorities communities, especially its black community (Jones was black), felt that reestablishing a citizen review board would at least lend credibility to the city when it addresses complaints against police officers.  The problem is that under Fitchet’s contract, he is the civil service authority empowered to dismiss police officers.  No amount of huffing and puffing, no matter how justified, can change that, absent a protracted, expensive and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle.  The Control Board had abolished the Police Commission after a scathing report former had ordered on the police department was released.  That report, if memory serves, laid most criticism at the feet of the department’s brass.  The Control Board dismantled the commission, dumped then-chief Paula Meara and established a commissioner with the singular authority to hire and dismiss officers, which Fitchet holds to this day.

Although not absent, muted has been the opinion of the police union.  Odds are they like that Fitchet, a lifelong member of Springfield’s finest, deciding who goes and who stays.  Even before Jones there was a push to reconstitute a civilian review board for complaints (the police commission did this before its disbandment) and Mayor Sarno created a board to address complaints after the 2009 incident.

Council Pres. Tosado (Facebook)
The case led Tosado to establish the special committee that presented recommendations last night.  While its recommendations and a competing proposal from at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe were only beginning their three vote path to passage, emotions ran high.  Tosado tried his best to keep the meeting under control and to some extent he was lucky what did happen was fairly tame.  As stated, several speakers denounced the Jones incident and eagerly awaited the committee’s proposal.

During the customary debate time when a report is received, Tosado attempted to make clear to councilors how the process would work.  It put Tosado in the unenviable position of calming tempers on both sides without offending anybody.  Tosado drew a rebuke from Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, when the former announced the special committee would be disbanded as its task of writing a report was done.  Rivera, too, opined that disbandment was premature and that he wanted to hear from the committee members.  While the committee was disbanded, its members were not eliminated and will be on hand for future hearings on the ordinance.  However, he and to a lesser extent Twiggs seemed to question why anybody would want to change the reports recommendations at all.  At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh wondered whether sufficient input had come from police.

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)
Walsh’s comments prompted heckling from the audience, particularly the imprudent quip that “Nobody likes to get arrested.”  Tosado was forced to remind the audience to remain silent.  When the meeting shifted to the debate on the proposed ordinances themselves that would change the civilian review board’s authority, Tosado made the mistake of trying to play Solomon.  While he favored the committee’s reports over Ashe’s proposal, he began to wax theoretical about the merits of both proposals and the need for something better than both, however impossible under Fitchet’s current contract.

Given Fitchet’s contract, the recommendations from the special committee reflected the reality that a change in final authority was impossible.  Still, it recommended that the mayor’s board grow to nine from seven members.  Four will be drawn from neighborhood caucuses (whose boundaries match ward-based school committee seats), three will be appointed by the mayor and two from the city council.  All would have two year terms.  Theoretically, only the mayor can make appointments per the city charter, but it is doubtful the mayor would ignore the plot of the ordinance.  The board would sit in panels of three and be the finders of fact in complaints, could issue subpoenas and recommend action to Fitchet.  Any final decision as to police discipline would come from Fitchet.  Ashe’s proposal would shrink the review board to five members and deprive it of subpoena power.  City Solicitor ed Pikula, in his description of the proposal called the plan to grow the board a formal establishment of the power the present board, but with greater community involvement.  Mayor Domenic Sarno established the original board by executive order last year, but he cannot grant it subpoena power.  The City Council can.

Councilor Twiggs (masslive)
Jose Tosado’s peacemaking only drew complaints from Ashe who did not enjoy Tosado’s public disapproval of his admittedly toothless proposal.  Twiggs, arguably the council’s philosophical point man on reform was behind the committee recommendations.  Walsh, however made a motion to refer the matter and both proposal ordinances to committee before it got its initial vote.  Apparently aware of the ordinance process involving 3 separate votes with committee meeting sprinkled throughout, Twiggs pressed, in an impassioned speech for the first approval now, urging the council to “to give [the recommendations] a chance!”

Councilor Ferrera (Urban Compass)
The last act in the circus was at-large councilor Jimmy Ferrera’s pronouncement that neither option was good enough and that we should be looking at giving full disciplinary powers to a civilian board.  While a majority of the council would like to consider something like that, everybody including Twiggs, know that cannot happen until Fitchet’s contract is up.  Ferrera was simply pandering to a pool of voters whose very real concerns are done a disservice when addressed with disingenuous suggestions.  Some in the audience responded positively to Ferrera’s comments, underscoring all the more, the danger in what the councilor said.

Both were sent to committee in the end and the council wrapped up a little after nine.

Overall, Fitchet is about as good anybody to have this disciplinary power.  The real question is not necessarily whether what he does is fair to all parties (which these situations must be under civil service law), but whether those actions have credibility.  Without it, citizens of all stripes, cannot trust the police and the negative feedback loop makes the police department unable to do its job of protecting ALL residents.  The one-dimensionality of Walsh’s comment on getting arrested serves to diminish this reality which is paramount to all other concerns.

While this is not uncommon for politicians, much of the bluster at this long and yet dry meeting seemed like a bad case of electioneering. Whether right or wrong, Tosado, Ashe, Ferrera, Walsh, Rivera, and even Twiggs to a far lesser extent offered their positions as if Pete Goonan of the Republican was transcribing everything and as if the television news stations would likewise broadcast everything.  


While we are gearing up to an election season destined to be a doozy, city officials on any issue need to at least present an honest view of their concerns.  Kateri Walsh is entitled and correct to have concerns about how Fitchet and perhaps the police department more broadly feels about these change.  However she should not reduce residents’ concerns to the inconvenience of arrest.  Tosado is probably right about Ashe’s proposal being “weaker,” but he undermines his own ability to navigate the council through its Byzantine processes by expressing an opinion so nakedly.  Rivera may very well want to chastise Comcast for their behavior, but a shout-out to organized labor from the City Council only agitates the beast.  Save the direct attacks for a rally or better yet couch it so it connects the issue to consumer complaints against Comcast

We could go on, but we have bantered long enough.  Bottom line is what it often is at 36 Court Street: To be continued.