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Take My Council, Please: Anatomy of a Feud…

Sorry for the delayed post of this week’s Take My Council, Please.  If it make you feel any better, part of the reason was due to the relatively minor items that were before the council.

The Springfield City Council pulled out a quick meeting despite some divisiveness on non-binding issues and ordinance revisions  The meeting took place following a rally of Occupy Springfield and Take Back Springfield, two separate groups arguably focused on the same issues.  Many from those protests, who were on hand to support a resolve against Bank of America and technical changes to the city’s foreclosure ordinance, filled the council chamber and milled around city hall.  Although the chamber and the hall were much fuller during the Biomass debates, police were deployed throughout the building.  Ultimately, the proposal fueling much of the crowd’s interest was sent to committee deflating the crowd and causing them to release their anger in not-so-veiled, but somewhat overstated political complaints to the council generally.

Disposing of the minutiae, non-controversial ordinance revisions of the city’s vicious dog and criminal disposition ordinances passed second steps.  Fire, Library, Health & Human Services and the Health departments all got approval to receive grants.  Director of the Health and Human Services Department Helen Caulton-Harris once again showed off her departments grant-writing prowess with a $100,000+ haul.  The council received reports from Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna on a literacy program and Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton on prior year bills.  Payment of the bills was approved without objection.  A permit and some zoning changes were approved and deed delivered to the developer of a tax-foreclosed property.

Councilor Rivera (Facebook)
Toward the end of the debate the council considered two resolves.  Once sponsored by Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera called for the city remove its remaining funds from Bank of America and another calling for greater enforcement of the city’s residency ordinance.  The residency ordinance encouraged the mayor to negotiate in residency to the upcoming employee contracts while working to see the spirit if not the letter of the residency ordinance is applied to non-bargained employees.  The city ordinance is rarely enforced and Mayor Domenic Sarno has not appointed the enforcement commission as required by law.  More to the point, he frequently uses its exemption provisions.  Councilors ultimately sent the resolve to committee to discuss broader options to enforce residency.  At-large councilor Jimmy Ferrera called for a home rule petition, but such a petition would require the mayor’s signature and would almost certainly die in the legislature.  This was a point noted by at-large Councilor Tim Rooke, but he also pointed out the politics behind legislators avoidance of the issue.  However, neither point suggested a way to actually enforce residency broadly nor a recognition that legislating away residency as a negotiable item is political impossible in this political environment.

On the Bank of America resolve, Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen rose to ask the city’s Treasurer-Collector how much money the city really had in the Bank of America account.  The treasurer said that the money is there because one payee to the city continues to wire the money into that account, despite continued protests to the contrary.  The treasurer went on to say that the only reason the city left the bank anyway was because they got a better RFP from Citizens Bank, a Scottish-owned firm.  Allen was uncomfortable singling out Bank of America, however much the institution deserved it, especially in light of the city’s broader efforts of the city to  rein in renegade financial institutions.  Rivera, who sponsored the resolve disagreed and voted against an effort to send the resolve to committee, where it went.  The crowd overheated from the earlier rally attempted to call out “shame” for each councilor that sent the measure to committee, but Council President Jose Tosado squelched that.  The crowd exited chanting, “We’ll be back!” as if the measure had died, which it did not.  Rivera said afterward that the dialogue of sending the measure to committee was a positive thing, although he would not have done so.

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)
On the foreclosure ordinance revisions, which Councilor Fenton noted in his comments were technical.  Nevertheless it exposed once again the feud that had dropped out of public view between Councilor Rivera and at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh.  Walsh, who joined a unanimous council in supporting the measure, wanted the ordinance revisions sent to committee to discuss them and the broader ordinance further.  Rivera for his part wanted no further delays on this ordinance as passing or not passing the proposal before the council would change nothing about the concerns Walsh has.  The two went back and forth over what the bills would do, whether or not there were meetings on the bills before hand and so on until Dad, ahem, Tosado stepped in.  The changes passed second step, but could not be finalized until public notification of the ordinance.

The escalation mirrored the hearing on Forest Park Middle School, where Walsh, filling in for Tosado as President, called Rivera out of order for alleging corruption behind the city’s action.  While she was [gulp] right to do that in those limited circumstance,  this time when she called Rivera rude, her complaints seemed more petty than anything else.  Rivera, who had formed a brief alliance with Walsh over employee furloughs, seemed frustrated that Walsh was re-litigating the ordinance once more and offered no concrete examples of the concerns she says she had heard.  The Sears family,  a powerful political bloc and who own the eponymous real estate firm, have expressed opposition on Facebook and elsewhere to the ordinance.  Like Walsh, however, they have not publicly stated why the requirement that banks pay to maintain (rather than the city) foreclosed properties or that banks try to mediate with homeowners are so onerous.

In some ways the feud between Walsh and Rivera, neither or whom were interviewed for his posting, represent the very struggle over the city.  

Walsh, the wife of a one-time Council President and the city’s former Veterans Affairs Director, represents the old Irish power structure that defines many Northeastern cities.  She once ran against Congressman Richard Neal, allegedly to his right, for the Democratic nomination.  She has made several attempts to make a move for the State House district where she lives (as of now she had been redistricted out of that Longmeadow-based district and into Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera).  The head of the Springfield Woman’s Commission, however, she seems out of place from the typical male-dominated image of conservative urban America.  Additionally she recently opposed Mayor Domenic Sarno during the recent budget votes.  Although some opined that that may have been related to the departure of her husband from the Veterans department, a departure some say was forced.

Former AG TomReilly

(Cooley Manion Jones)
Rivera by contrast represents an older established minority group (black), but also the the growing Hispanic and gay communities in the city.  However, unlike many minority politicians, he has opted to not be co-opted by the broader political infrastructure, which many minority politicians will do to secure their own personal political future, at times at the expense of their ethnic constituency.  A devotee of the the community organizing politics that propelled Gov. Deval Patrick  past  Springfield son Tom Reilly in 2006, Rivera has an education anti-intellectuals love to attack.  Unlike the other councilors with whom he often votes, he will ask the impolitic question without regard for whom in the establishment it upsets, but well-enough armed with facts to not look like a fool.

The contrasts could not be starker and are only aggravated by the fact that Rivera and Walsh share a ward.  Where ward residents stand is clouded by the fact that Ward 6 is divided between better-off and not itself and the fact that many residents early impressions were colored by the (legally correct) means in which Rivera got his position.  Meanwhile, Walsh could not do better than break even with Brian Ashe in 2008’s Democratic primary among the Springfield precincts in the House district.  It would be a mistake to say that either one is outstandingly popular in their home ward.

Heading into November’s election, we will see whether the two will remain colleagues.  Rivera could be doing more to scoop up votes in the areas ostensibly “opposed” to his policies while Walsh, as an at-large councilor should probably be doing more to reach out to areas not her in (shrinking) base.  Win or lose for either of them, neither one is likely to stop being active in the community, necessitating some peaceful coexistence.  Unsympathetic to the establishment as we are and Walsh being old enough to be Rivera’s mother, it would seem the onus is on her to take the first step.  But that is our take.  It would be beneficial to everyone to resolve their differences as when they actually were on the same page, positive things did get out of the council chambers.

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