|US Capitol (Wikipedia)|
For the political cynic, that members of Congress may be enriching themselves as a result of their position in Congress is nothing new. When CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a report on insider trading by members of Congress, however, the story appeared to suggest that members of Congress were immune from prosecution even where famously Teflon stock brokers could not escape the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The crux of the problem lays in what is “material non-public information.” Anybody can be prosecuted for insider trading, not just stock brokers and CEO’s. A bum outside the New York Stock Exchange could have a man in a suit introduce himself as J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, receive a stock tip on J.P. Morgan, trade on it, and then face a securities prosecution. However, the material non-public information Congress, executive branch employees and their families have access to does not count because under current law that information arose as a result of their official duties.
In fact, while the 60 Minutes special did spur a wave of reactive legislation, plenty of bills predated it. Representatives Tim Walz and Louise Slaughter of Minnesota and New York respectively introduced a bill years ago to prevent elected officials in Washington from using the information they glean from the normal course of their duties for financial gain. However, to the lament of good government groups, this legislation never moved and had no life to speak of in the Senate…until CBS aired its report.
While the report accusations fell short against both John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi according to the Huffington Post, it got some things right and touched a nerve spurring Senators to show off their accountability credentials. Two seemingly identical Senate bills rose out of the ashes of Congress’s seemingly ever-smoldering credibility. One from a Democrat and one from a Republican. While both arguably drew from the Walz-Slaughter bill and the 60 Minutes report was the impetus for both, one has more credibility from colleagues and a better record to back it up.
|Sen. Gillibrand (Official Portrait)|
New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill and our own Republican Scott Brown’s bill were introduced about only forty-eight hours apart. Both bills initially needed some revision. Brown’s bill, according to one watch-dog group, included revisions to House procedures, an impossibility under the Constitution. Gillibrand’s bill is expected to require technical revisions as it winds its way through committee.
However, despite being the newer of the two bills, the Gillibrand legislation has attracted more support from senators than Brown’s bill and by any measure appears to be much stronger than Brown’s legislation. Gillibrand also has a greater record of calling Washington and its denizens to account both in word and in deed.
On the surface Brown and Gillibrand share some striking similarities. Both come from politically active families in their homes states. Gillibrand’s grandmother was active in Democratic circles around Albany. Brown’s father was a Republican luminary in and around Newburyport, Mass. Both came to the Senate in rather unlikely circumstances. Brown succeeded liberal lion Ted Kennedy in deep-blue Massachusetts. Gillibrand, though succeeded a Democrat, became a dark horse appointee to fill out Hillary Clinton’s second term. David Patterson, then New York’s governor, picked one-term, recently reelected Gillibrand over now-Governor Andrew Cuomo amid the collapse of a possible Caroline Kennedy appointment. Their closeness in Senate seniority is only separated by Minnesota’s Al Franken. Both represent states that have had historic impact on Washington and are home to some of the nation’s most powerful and famous financial institutions.
|Sen. Brown (Official Portrait)|
However, their tenures in the Senate could not have been more different. Gillibrand has been a passionate, at times relentless advocate both in and out of the Senate. Brown seems cool and detached on many issues. When Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal came before the Senate in 2010, Gillibrand, who in the House represented a historically Republican district, came out in full force for repeal. Brown hemmed and hawed until it was apparent Democrats had more than enough votes to overcome a filibuster.
However, each senator’s version of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge or STOCK Act has become another difference between the two. Both senators testified in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Oversight Committee in support of reform and both received support from good government groups. Yet Gillibrand’s continues to draw cosponsors and Brown’s is bobbing around largely forlorn and alone especially since last week’s hearing.
That may be because Gillibrand’s bill is simply better. As said, both bills essentially add to existing definitions of insider trading so as not to upset the law as it relates to traditional insider trading. Both also empower the SEC and Commodities Futures Trading Commission to investigate members of Congress.
Insider trading requires, according to the SEC website, the buying or selling of a security, in breach of a trust or confidence while in possession of material non-public information. That can include those who received the information via a “tip” from somebody with the fiduciary trust. Prosecution of family and friends of those with that trust is common for the SEC and the law that allows them to do so is crucial. The New York Times has written about how “pillow talk” may have led to some SEC prosecutions. Even when spouses have not been directly charged, the SEC will often name them as “released defendants” in order to prosecute an individual trading on their spouse or family member’s brokerage account. Prohibitions against “tipping” are crucial for insider trading laws to work effectively.
Brown’s bill omits coverage for spouses, family members and friends of members of Congress and their staffs. Indeed, Brown’s own FAQ sheet on the bill admits that this is the case. Gillibrand’s bill does include a prohibition against “tipping” and is now scheduled for mark up next Wednesday. According to a press release from Gillibrand’s office, her bill is designed to assure that “members of Congress and their families and their staffs are fully covered by insider trading laws.”
The relative failure of Brown’s bill is debatable. It did spur some positive press coverage, although Anne Mostue of New England Public Radio did ding Brown for pushing the bill only after the 60 Minutes story and possibly as a means to burnish his image ahead of a tough election in November. However, the bill that is likeliest to pass and get the requisite press coverage will not be the one he introduced regardless of his final vote. This will not be because, as some Senate Republicans have complained in recent press reports, Democrats have sabotaged Brown’s efforts to appear moderate ahead of reelection. Gillibrand’s bill has simply attracted more interest including among Republicans like Marco Rubio. Most recently John Thune, Republican of South Dakota also signed onto Gillibrand’s bill.
There may be a broader point, too, albeit one that may not be motivating Republicans to back Gillibrand over Brown. Gillibrand has the transparency and government reform goods whereas Brown does not. Brown has been criticized in Massachusetts, specifically by former Senate candidate Bob Massie, for being the “caboose” of the Senate, essentially joining a fight at the end of it and then claiming a starring role for himself.
|Screenshot of Gillibrand Senate Site. Sunlight Report & Transparency Links Highlighted by WMassP&I in Green and Red|
For Gillibrand, moves toward real transparency began before she was even sworn in. In 2006 after her election to the House The New York Times editorial board praised Gillibrand’s “quiet touch of revolution,” nothing such a commitment was simply unheard of in Washington at the time. She promised to post her schedule and earmark requests when she got into office. Indeed, Gillibrand would go on to the Senate maintaining that commitment (via the Sunlight Report) and her homepage includes an invitation to peer through the window of transparency she keeps open as well as the agenda she maintains on the issue.
Brown by comparison does not even include government reform as among his “key issues,” although the STOCK Act appears on 3 of the 5 items advertised sequentially on his homepage. Indeed, Brown’s website is designed to permit only selective crawling by search engines, limiting the public accessibility of his own website, something he and only a few other senators of both parties do. Brown did call for a Taxpayer Receipt, but the relative ease of producing such a document led the White House to do it without any help from Congress.
|Sen. Brown in June (WMassP&I)|
Even when he was in the State Senate, it is difficult to ascribe any of the reform the legislature passed in the last ten years to his leadership of example. The most significant reforms in which Brown participated, passed just before Kennedy died, were approved on a 40-0 vote and spurred by the scandal involved Dianne Wilkerson. An survey early in his tenure at the State House when he was only a Representative has him down as opposing restrictions on donations to political campaigns. There is little evidence from press accounts that he ever took the lead on government reform while on Beacon Hill outside of the traditional back and forth among Democrats and Republicans.
It is impossible to measure objectively Brown’s seriousness on the insider trading issue, but it is possible to see that like many efforts to reform government, the process is a marathon. Since she entered Congress nearly five years ago Gillibrand has been running that race for reform. The LGBT magazine, the Advocate, quoted one Capitol Hill staffer who compared Scott Brown’s vote to repeal DADT to the Boston Marathon cheater Rosie Ruiz. On government accountability and transparency, the parallel to DADT, Brown stormed onto the stage at the last minute and got a little free media over it. However, the bill sponsored by the senator who has been going the distance for some time is in line to get more of the credit.
Good government groups like Public Citizen appear ambivalent about which bill actually becomes law. In a statement to WMassP&I, they noted the errors in both bills and while acknowledging that Brown’s bill was weaker, noted that Gillibrand’s included amendments to the Senate rules, which require a 2/3 vote if proposed mid-session. Groups like Public Citizen appear to want some progress on the issue and because each bill came from members of different parties, they wished to not break the fragile peace on this issue by picking one bill over the other.
|Gillibrand at NY State Fair (Facebook)|
Gillibrand’s bill has since been updated in preparation for Wednesday’s markup. In the same press release that came out today, Gillibrand’s bill has since been amended to direct the Ethics Committees of Congress to bring ethics rules into compliance with the changes in law. This will be in addition to empowering the SEC and CFTC to do the same while avoiding the need for a 2/3 votes for Senate rules changes.
Work is also underway in the House where the House also held hearings at the Financial Services Committee. That committee is chaired by Alabama Republican Spencer Baucus who was featured in the 60 Minutes report, who possibly embarrassed, engaged Financial Services in its first actions on the bill since March.
With 222 sponsors in the House and a growing list in the Senate passage of this bill seems likely, if not certain. In any case, with Gillibrand’s bill seeming like the one the Senate will vote on first, it is likely that Brown will join with others to pass it, but it will not be his legislation and he cannot blame Democrats for that.
Both Senators face reelection next year, but Brown will have to settle for casting a practically anonymous vote that will probably be close to unanimous. No doubt his spinners will try to give him more credit, but the discriminating news agency will look below the surface and see his efforts only ever went half-way. Gillibrand, on the other hand, can claim a victory on one of her priorities that go back to 2006. With that in hand her star will shine brighter and the national profile will rise even higher as she looks to next year‘s election and beyond.
The grants to animal control and the Department of Health and Human Services were accepted late in the meeting, but with nary a word of explanation, an oddity for the council. The grants to HHS were in excess of $1.2 million in total. The council also approved the emergency appropriation for the October snowstorm, although Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton warned the city may need to issue a type of short-term bond to pay for the disaster pending disaster relief funding from FEMA.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs spoke about a couple of item that concerned him although no official action was taken at that meeting. Early on in the meeting he asked that the council investigate or rather asking Code Enforcement to investigate a halfway house going into his neighborhood. Twiggs’s objection appeared to not be the fact of the halfway house, but rather the fact that it had been established as something other than what it ostensibly was. The second measure, sponsored with Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, called for assistance to Community Block Development Grand and HOME projects that affected by the June tornado.
The tax incremental financing projects were by far the most contentious items of the evening—or at least one of them was. The first was an agreement for a TIF to Custom Carbide, which is currently at the corner of Tapley and St. James Avenue. The company is seeking a TIF, apparently only to finance the move to Dwight Street in a tax-exempt formal postal building. According to Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, the company could move elsewhere as its clients are as diverse and far-flung as Boeing, but wanted to stay in Springfield. The TIF passed without dissent.
|Councilor Allen (Facebook)|
The second TIF was less fortunate, indeed its fate remains uncertain. F.W. Webb, a plumbing supply company wanted to purchase the last bit of the former Smith & Wesson Industrial Park land off of I-291. Although there is some confusion as to the dollar amount, the TIF called for a 50% break on the taxes on the building for 10 years. The promised jobs were minimal and total employment at the site was guaranteed to under 20 jobs with the potential for a few more. Including a sale price of about $1 million and un-exempted tax revenue, the city stands to gain about $6-7 million over ten years from the project. The project had been in the works for about two years and had surfaced earlier this year, but languished in committee for several months. Allen, the chair of the council’s economic development committee, presented the project and recommended.
However, Fenton said he could not support the project because the property should be used for a project that will attract more jobs. By comparison, the Performance Food Group facility nearby has hundreds of employees. Fenton also noted that there are no assurances for more jobs or assurances that union labor will be preferred during construction. Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera noted that a similar project with the same company included considerably more concessions from F.W. Webbs, but no TIF was provided.
At-large councilor Jimmy Ferrera blandly offered perhaps the vaguest words of support for the project with a hearty, “I think this is a good project.” He noted that F.W. Webb is a national company and that that should mean something. Alluding to a cabal of businessmen who meet (quite possibly in Bill Gates’ basement?) Ferrera said that businesses talk among themselves. Approving this TIF to save less than 20 jobs would show these masters of the universe that Springfield is serious about attracting business, Ferrera argued.
At-large councilor Kateri Walsh offered less insipid, if not terribly illuminating, words of support, praising the company like she would her own family. It fell to Allen to support the project with, well, facts. He acknowledged the downfalls of the project, but felt that the advantage the sale had in clearing the Springfield Redevelopment Authority’s debt. Moreover, he suggested that if expansion at the site did occur, the TIF would not apply.
The TIF was approved on a 7-6 vote with Fenton, Rivera, Luna as well at at-large councilors Jose Tosado and Tim Rooke and Ward 8 councilor John Lysak in opposition. The decision seemed final, but a last minute call for reconsideration from Luna led to the item being put in limbo until the next council meeting.
|Massachusetts State House (WMassP&I)|
The council then moved onto consideration of a home rule petition to install cameras at traffic intersection to catch red light runners. The item had been referred to the Public Safety Committee chaired by at-large councilor Thomas Ashe. The report came back favorably and referenced similar home rule petitions from Pittsfield and Worcester. Ferrera, who started the ball rolling on this, praised the measure citing anecdotal success elsewhere in the country and again noted Pittsfield and Worcester, whose petitions have successfully became inert on Beacon Hill. The home petition ultimately passed. Civil liberties concerns aside, the measure is difficult to vote against politically.
An eminent domain measure for a traffic project came before the council as well. Only the council can authorize eminent domain and municipal authorization is necessary for the traffic project which would involve the state. Although there was some concern from one of the property owners, both the appropriation for eminent domain and the authorization itself passed 13-0.
The council moved on to vote to approve a permit for a car lot on State Street that it had rejected at last week’s hearings meeting. However, like the Internet Café permit earlier in the year, the city could not use its parliamentary procedure to reverse itself under the state’s umbrella zoning law. Councilors practically made jokes about the vote as City Clerk Wayman Lee openly warned councilors that his office will not formally issue the permit regardless of their vote. The permit was approved, though not really, by a new vote 12-1.
Finally, HHS head Helen Caulton-Harris came before the council as it took the first step to pass an ordinance to allow the Public Health Council to charge fees for site assignment. Essentially, site assignment is a component of the Public Health Council’s efforts to protect public health as it relates to projects such as the biomass plant. However, this ordinance goes beyond the biomass plant. If passed the Health Council could charge the developers for independent analysis of their plans and also charge them to hire a hearing officer to consider site assignment. However the measure is not unique to biomass. The measure passed on a voice vote as it traveled to the ordinance committee. Two more steps remain before final passage.
The F.W. Webb project showed an area of legitimate disagreement and that is clear as it divided Allen and Fenton, who typically are of like mind on most issues. F.W. Webb should be thankful that it had articulate supporters and not just vacuous ones. However, if only one vote flips by next meeting, they will lose the fight. As sad as it was the council insisted on voting for the State Street permit even though they were told they lacked the authority, at least the council had at least a semblance of self-deprecating acceptance that they, in fact, could not make it up as they went along.
|Mayor-elect Morse (© RD Photography 2011)|
Morse shocked Holyoke’s political establishment by upsetting incumbent mayor Elaine Pluto and setting himself up to become Massachusetts’ youngest mayor. Since his November 8 victory, Morse has received a glut of invitations, honors, and accolades and faced a “whirlwind” of events, meetings, press interviews and interviews for potential staff in preparation for the January inauguration. “I haven’t really taken a break, yet,” Morse said in an interview with WMassP&I at his campaign headquarters on Route 5 in Holyoke.
Morse is no stranger to politics local or otherwise. Ten years ago he joined the city’s Youth Commission and served as a student member of the School Committee. While in high school, he was an organizing member of a high school gay-straight alliance. While at Brown University, Morse interned in the office of then-mayor David Cicilline working on neighborhood services.
|Holyoke City Hall (wikipedia)|
Providence also provided a template for Morse’s ambitions for Holyoke. Rhode Island’s capital city has faced industrial decline similar to Holyoke, but has managed to resuscitate its urban core in a way most New England cities have not. However, before Providence’s redevelopment, that city had the benefit of being the state capital and, considering its condition at the time, a state embarrassment, which could spur state and civic leaders to action.
The strength of Morse’s bid for the mayor’s had to come as something of a surprise to the Pluta camp. Early on, Pluta mocked Morse for his age, saying to the Republican that she would debate his education plan when he “graduates from college.” Other voters simply said, “He didn’t have a chance in hell.”
Morse says his campaign began not only before graduation, but before this year. During his junior year of college, he spent a semester in the Dominican Republic, during which, in addition to becoming fluent in Spanish, he began seriously thinking about running right out of college. When he got back to the States was when he began planning in earnest. He began meeting with people to line up support and raise money. By the time he announced in January, still not quite a college graduate, it was clear that his opponents would zero in on his age.
Morse is not the first just-out-of-college graduate to seek political office. Springfield Ward 2 City Councilor Mike Fenton ran for his seat right of out college against a well-connected scion of a political family who was favored to win early on.
To Morse, his campaign, and apparently the residents of Holyoke, however, his age was not a problem. “Instead of buying into my opposition’s language” about age, the mayor-elect said he sold his youth as an asset. Morse, wearing his ever-present colorful “I love Holyoke” button said his campaign portrayed him as somebody with the energy, enthusiasm, digital savvy and new ideas that Holyoke needs to turn itself around.
A candidate declaring his love for the community which he hopes will elect him is probably a campaign tactic older than some centuries-old New England towns. However, Morse put his whole shoulder into that strategy and instead of coming off tacked on and predictable it translated into a sincerity that resonated with voters of all stripes.
|Morse with a voter (Facebook)|
One issue that did not become an issue either out front or the behind the scenes in the mayoral race for this blue-collar working class city was Morse’s sexuality. Morse, who is gay, appeared encouraged that neither his opponent nor voters seemed to give the issue if much thought. “It was a non-issue,” Morse said noting that he had been out since high school and that, except for some vaguely allusive language in press reports, it was barely a footnote in the campaign itself. “I have been open and honest about my sexuality since I was 16,” Morse said noting that if that fact mattered at all, it proved that he was prepared to be open and honest about the issues that actually make a difference in people’s lives. Indeed transparency has been a big part of his transition, thus far.
Nevertheless, Morse did get some financial assistance from the Victory Fund, a national group that advocates the election of gay candidates to elected office. Indeed, the Victory Fund, in a statement said Morse’s credentials were so impressive that “his sexual orientation was almost a non-factor.” In that same vein, Morse notes and the anecdotes and press reports appear to confirm that what made the difference was the people and the campaign on the ground.
Now that he is about a month away from the mayor’s office, Morse’s focus is on the transition and hitting the ground running. While one committee is planning for the inaugural ceremonies, plans are underway for a transition conference that will be open to public. A unity breakfast is coming up to bring the city together after the long campaign. He also started a tumblr site, transitionholyoke.com to add transparency to the process.
|Victory Theater (mifafestival.org)|
The Victory Theater, redevelopment of the city’s train station in anticipation of future rail service, and further work on the canal walk. Better marketing for the city and a streamlined permitting will also be necessary for economic development.
Economic development also appears to be tied to finding a new balance between serving the needs of a poorer population while building a tax base to sustain those and other crucial city services. Morse, whose degree is in urban studies, looks to greater urban density as part of the solution in addition to incentives that bring young people back into the city. Even with cosmopolitan Northampton up the road, Morse is undaunted. “We are much more diverse than Northampton,” he said noting the city’s historic architecture, canals and cheaper property and energy costs.
Morse wants to turn downtown Holyoke into a destination itself. That, too, will involve bringing more residents into downtown. He says he has met with Buy Springfield Now, a group that advocates purchasing homes in that city, in order to get ideas for promoting home ownership in Holyoke. That in turn could develop a broader restaurant or entertainment scene. “There‘s no where to eat out,” Morse said and that lack in downtown Holyoke continues to push people toward the Holyoke Mall, downtown Northampton or even downtown Springfield.
However, efforts to bolster downtown Holyoke to better compete with downtowns and shopping districts across the region beg to ask questions about how the city can better cooperate with its neighbors. “We share a lot of the same challenges,” Morse said highlighting Springfield in particular. Many students in each of the cities’ poorer neighborhoods shuttle back and forth between Springfield and Holyoke facing the same challenges of an urban environment. He hopes that there will be greater collaboration with and “not just competition” against Holyoke’s neighbors.
|Morse’s Invitation to the White House (Facebook)|
Part of that may also be speaking out on behalf of Western Massachusetts and its communities as a whole. Unlike Providence, none of Western Massachusetts’ communities are the state’s largest city or capital, of which Providence is both. “Western Mass needs loud voices We lack leadership in this region,” Morse said. On the day of WMassP&I’s interview, news broke that Morse had received an invitation to the White House for a December 13 reception as a guest of President Obama and the First Lady. Morse intends, if the opportunity presents itself, to speak with the president about Holyoke and the needs and aspirations of cities like his and those in the Pioneer Valley.
Visits to the White House and calls from Deval Patrick, Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren after the election alone offer proof that Morse has already made an impression. Additionally, he along with Springfield Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards and other area political luminaries will host a fundraiser for Warren tomorrow in Springfield. “The media attention has been intense,” said Morse who has done interviews with blogs, the Boston Globe, Commonwealth magazine and CBS News.
|Downtown Provdiece, R.I. (Wikipedia)|
Still Morse may have his work cut out for him. Unlike Providence, where Morse saw urban renewal at work, Holyoke lacks the same investment and commitment by state leaders to invest in massive redevelopment projects. Providence spent millions uncovering its urban rivers and building a new urban mall. Both projects have been wildly successful in attracting tourists and residents to downtown with help from the colleges and universities like Brown and Providence College. On the other hand Holyoke does not suffer from fiscal pressures of the same magnitude as Rhode Island and Providence itself are experiencing.
Further outreach will be crucial, too. Morse likely spurred some increased turnout among Hispanic voters, in part due to his bilingual campaign, most votes remained in non-Hispanic wards. When asked how he will continue to connect directly with residents, he says he has gone to the Puerto Rican cultural center and other venues that cater to Spanish-speaking residents. Many react happily with surprise to see their mayor-elect socializing with his constituents outside carefully choreographed events with community elders.
Still, everything from victory at such a young age and deluge of press and official attentions begs asking questions about ambition. To this Morse is sanguine, “I’m looking to be a long-term mayor,” he says looking to 8-10 years in office in order to achieve his goals. Notably he is not closing the door, either. Perhaps, if he achieves his goals, Morse does not appear to rule anything out.
When Steven Desilets approved a building permit for Palmer Renewable Energy’s biomass plant off Page Boulevard, he had to know it would provoke a rebuke from the City Council. Five months before he approved that permit, the council voted 10-2 to revoke PRE’s permit on the grounds that the project had changed considerably from its previous incarnation and would pose a threat to human health. Desilets would approve the permit on the advice of the Law Department, which argued that PRE did not even need a special permit under the revised proposal.
On Monday the Council gathered for a special meeting to formally appeal the building permit. Because the council is an integral part of the planning and zoning process of the city, it has standing under the umbrella state zoning law to appeal the decision. It can appeal to both the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals and, if still unsatisfied, to court as well. Indeed, it seemed as if the council would do exactly that last night…until one councilor made Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell proud and filibustered.
|Councilor Fenton (Facebook)|
Before the meeting began it was well-known where everybody stood. Ward 2 Council Mike Fenton wisely requested a recorded vote on last week’s non-binding resolves and it revealed that at-large Councilors James Ferrera, Tim Rooke and Kateri Walsh were opposed to any further council action to oppose the biomass plant. All ward councilors and at-large councilors Thomas Ashe and Jose Tosado were in favor of further action just as they were in favor revoking the permit.
Nevertheless, the opponents tried their best to derail the process. Ferrera started first by trying to sow the seeds of confusion among the councilors with an assist from City Solicitor Ed Pikula. Ferrera inquired into who would represent the council if it voted to appeal and Pikula argued that the Law Department may need to recuse itself because it would be obligated to defend the building commissioner. Ferrera also asked about PRE’s existing suit against the city over the council’s permit revocation. However, that remains, as Pikula described, a placeholder suit if a court or other board rules the special permit is indeed needed.
Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak took on Pikula’s position directly asking how the Law Department could be defending the city against PRE’s lawsuit on the revocation while maintaining the position that a special permit is not necessary. Pikula argued that the two issues were parallel, but did not have conflict within each case individually.
At the same time, however, Pikula noted that the council cannot appropriate money on its own for a lawyer. Though true, Pikula could also not deny that the council could finance counsel out of its own pockets, receive pro bono representation, or even go to court pro se.
However, Fenton noted that the council needed no lawyers to appeal to the Board of Appeals. The board is an administrative body just like the City Council and like the City Council, appellants to the board appear without any council constantly. Certainly a lawyer can represent an appellant before the board, but there are no legal documents to serve or actions taken that require a law license to be properly executed. Thus, before the Board of Appeals, the council needs no lawyer and does not even need to contemplate the need to find money for one until and unless the Board rules against the council.
|Councilor Walsh (WMassP&I)|
Councilor Walsh condemned the appeal as an attack on the building commissioner himself. While it is true that many were upset at his decision (especially as some sources say he was unduly pressured to issue the permit), being a professional it seems hard to think that he would suffer an existentialist crisis because politicians disagree with him. Moreover it seems all but absurd for the council to not act because, in effect, a city official’s feelings would get hurt.
Pikula continued to hedge, saying that he was unsure if the Council had the authority to appeal (it plainly does). If it was not clear that the goal of opponents was to delay the vote until it was too late for the council to appeal, this soon became unmistakable. Councilor Rooke called for a legal opinion from the same city solicitor who disagrees with the council’s position. The council shot the referral down on a 10-3 vote with only Ferrera, Rooke and Walsh supporting it.
| Councilor Walsh Channeling Mitch McConnell?
(by WMassP&I from Facebook & Wikipedia images)
At this point passage of the appeal seemed inevitable, but then one at-large councilor stood and used a parliamentarian tactic to halt all debate. Councilor Mitch McConnell, er Kateri Walsh, invoked Rule 20, which ends all debate on a measure pending a report on its financial impact. Council President Jose Tosado held a temporary recess to see if there were any means to avoid the rule’s effects since the council was merely voting to assert a legal right, not pass a law or order that could cost the city money. The council deciding to vote to appear before another city body like any citizen could will cost nothing. Nevertheless, City Clerk Wayman Lee informed Tosado there was no way to set aside the rule.
Walsh is not alone in her opposition, but she made the decision to engage a tactic that either betrayed a terrible ignorance of the law and the council’s role in city life or exposed her own political cynicism. Realizing that she and her side were hopelessly outmatched, she reached for what was essentially a filibuster to delay the council’s action to assert that its decisions matter. However, unlike Senate Republicans, Walsh’s tactic is not a brick wall. The council has enough time to digest this delay. Instead, Walsh merely bought herself scorn and, possibly, more scrutiny than she might prefer.
Some non-Frank news. Efforts to repeal Massachusetts’ Health Care mandate, made possible by a cabal of arch-conservatives and pro-lifers, has failed to garner the necessary signatures. If you are wondering why the Pro-Life movement is behind it, they do not like that the law does cover abortions and, of course, contraception. However, ending the mandate, while making the overall law untenable would do nothing to assure less abortions are performed in Massachusetts or even less performed on the taxpayers nickle.
WMassP&I will be live-tweeting the biomass meeting. Follow #spfldpoli, #SpringfieldMA or #biomass on twitter (if you do not already follow us @wmasspi).
Also on Biomass, Maureen Turner wrote on her blog “On Springfield” about the contributions the Callahan family, owners of Palmer Renewable Energy, have given to Springfield politicians over the years. Most of the top recipients have opposed the council’s revocation of the permit and, as of last week anyway, efforts by the city council to see its revocation stand.
Among the minutiae before the council was a series of utility reports, permit revocations for non-renewal, several property donations and grants. The revocations were for underground storage tanks and parking lots permits brought up by the City Clerk because the permittees failed to respond to renewal notices. The city formally accepted some parcels of property for public use and the council accepted grant money for Health & Human Services, Dispatch Services and tornado relief.
|Bill Gibson of Springfield Speaks in Opposition to Biomass
Plant Permit (WMassP&I)
A speak-out before the meeting included several opponents of the biomass facility on Page Boulevard, which controversially received a building permit despite the council’s revocation of its special permit. Among the speakers were local activist Michaelann Bewsee and a representative from the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England environmentalist group. Kevin Sears of the Sears Real Estate Company spoke to oppose to the city’s Foreclosure Ordinances adding in an un-sourced claims of retaliation by lenders who would refuse to loan in the city (a legally suspect action, if true).
Budgetary updates showed the city more or less on target, but the monthly reports are off because City Hall was closed at end of the October when the city often receives tax money. Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen requested more information on the Tornado and now October Snowstorm costs to the city. Those numbers were not included in officials’ reports because spending for disasters is done in separate emergency accounts. Budget officials promised a detailed report on disaster spending by the next meeting. In a pleasant surprise, the city also clocked in a higher than expected surplus last year of $4.7 million.
Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton, chairman of the Finance Committee, also announced an end to the city’s budget drama with the transfer of $6.2 million from stabilization reserves to close the city’s budget deficit. Fenton praised the council reduction to $6.2 million from $10.5 million from stabilization reserves used to balance the city’s budget. The reduction was made possible through cuts and an increase in local aid to the city. Fenton called it a “much more reasonable position,” for the city in light of still-unknown disaster costs, union contract negotiations and another deficit expected next year. Fenton also alluded to using some stabilization to mitigate an increase in the property tax rate for the city.
|Councilor Tim Rooke (WMassP&I)|
At-large Councilor Tim Rooke wanted to put the measure into committee until the city responded to his call for a bid for health insurance. The move to committee failed 7-6 and the measure to transfer funds to the budget passed 10-3, meeting the two-thirds threshold needed to move stabilization funds.
Minor changes to the city’s foreclosure ordinances also achieved final passage. The changes, explained Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera, were primarily a tightening of definitions and terms to allow the ordinance to better withstand legal challenges. Rivera countered the contention that banks would refuse to lend in the city due to this ordinance by claiming that such a refusal would be illegal. He also dismissed a letter from the Massachusetts Bankers Association as a scare tactic and noted that the trade association had opposed countless measures proposed on Beacon Hill as well.
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, who did vote for the initial ordinance, demanded that the revisions go to committee for further discussion on the ordinance itself. Fenton replied by noting that doing nothing would not stop or even slow the ordinance and the revisions proposed today were largely administrative in nature. The final step for the ordinance passed 10-3. At-large councilor Thomas Ashe, ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, and Walsh were all opposed.
Finally the city council considered two resolves, which though non-binding themselves may have an impact nevertheless. The first resolve called on the Post Office to keep open the Bulk Mailing Facility in Indian Orchard in addition to countless post offices across the city including, again, Indian Orchard’s branch. Input from local government and citizens will be considered–supposedly–by the Postal Service when making its final determinations on closures.
|PRE Rendering (Springfield Intruder|
The final resolves set up a showdown between the Council and the Building Commissioner over the Biomass Plant slated for Page Boulevard in Springfield. Building Commissioner Desilets, acting on the advice of the City Solicitor, has given an initial building permit to Palmer Renewable Energy for their biomass plant. Earlier this year the Council revoked the plant’s special permit, but a legal opinion from Solicitor Ed Pikula claims that no permit is needed because PRE changed the plant’s plans. Others have noted that issuing the permit at all is illegal because construction cannot begin until all air permits have been granted. The Department of Environmental Protection did grant PRE an air permit, but the Conservation Law Foundation and other groups have appealed that decision. In the interim, PRE does not actually have its permit.
The council resolve was only a first step to a special meeting called by Council President Jose Tosado for next Monday. At that point, the Council could vote to appeal the commissioner’s decision to the Zoning Board of Appeals. If unsuccessful there, the Council can litigate in Court, which it is expected to do.
The first biomass resolves called on the Building Commissioner to not grant a building permit while the second biomass resolve expressed the sense that PRE needs a special permit. Tosado called a roll call vote for both resolves, which could have theoretically passed on a voice vote.
The final tally was 10-3 for both resolves. Councilors Ashe, Tosado, Fenton, Concepcion, Rivera, and Allen joined Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, and Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak to support the resolve. Rooke, Walsh and at-large Councilor James Ferrera were opposed. All three opposed have received sizable contributions from their Callahan family, who owns PRE, and the family’s lawyer over the years.
All told, the council meeting was fairly productive and stayed civil, despite the possibility for fireworks on some issues. The meeting was also brief clocking in at just about an hour. Moreover, loose ends such as the budget and the foreclosure ordinances were at last put to bed. Some fear that such good days may be numbered with impending transitions coming to the council. However, for the moment at least, the council adjourned having served the city well and having done so without leaving any apparent black clouds hanging overhead.