Take My Council, Please: What Have We Learned?…
Two potentially historic throw downs in the Springfield City Council chamber ended with barely a whimper Monday night. The Council selected its president for the 2013 term and approved the first step of changes to the fire commissioner’s qualifications. Both had the potential to get messy, especially the Council Presidency, but in the end, the meeting wrapped up quickly without even a moment of passion.
Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards was absent, still recovering from knee injuries. Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs was also absent after an apparent hospitalization over the weekend.
The meeting opened with its typical moment of silence and say the Pledge of Allegiance. This took on a special salience in light of the Newtown shooting last Friday. Also remembered was Michael Patrick Rodgers, a former School Committeeperson, who had been eulogized by several councilors and others in an article announcing his death..
Minutiae took up the majority of items on the Council’s agenda. The November statement of revenues and budget was delivered by Comptroller Pat Burns with no questions. Utility work reports were approved as well as easements to the electric and cable companies so that they could access work sites at city schools.
Grants to the Fire and Elder Affairs Departments were also approved. Two Housing Department grants, were sent to committee as no department representatives were on hand to explain them. Also approved was payment of $144 leftover from photocopying in the Assessors Office.
Budget Director LeeAnn Pasquini also introduced a rescission of appropriated outlays for the reconstruction tornado-damaged Dryden School. Cost shifting resulted in the need for less of an authorization from the Council. Also passed was a home rule petition to permit the transfer of parkland near UniFirst in Indian Orchard. An earlier bill that effect had been voted on before, but it had been lost in machinations of Beacon Hill.
The Council took the report from at-large Councilor Tom Ashe’s Public Safety Committee and the accompanying ordinance out of order. The ostensible reason was because several firefighters were on hand to support the full appointment of acting Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant. The changes to ordinance were necessary to allow Conant to get the job.
When Sarno appointed Conant, the proposed removing the requirement for a masters degree. Conant only has an associates degree presently. Over the weekend, Ashe and Mayor Domenic Sarno announced a compromise which required a bachelors degree or pursuit thereof.
The entire notion of lower qualifications stoked some opposition to the changes, notably from the local NAACP and Conant’s chief competitor for the job Deputy Fire Chief Jerrold Prendergast.
To satisfy certain statutory concerns, the original associates degree measure that was actually in committee had to be formally defeated before the Ashe-Sarno version could be presented. Once that happened, Ashe introduce his compromise ordinance. A friendly amendment mandating residency for the Fire Commissioner was also added. The whole process created some confusion for a few moments as councilors confirmed what exactly was being voted on.
The measure passed on a voice vote. The measure needs two more affirmative votes in order to amend the city ordinance. Supporters gave Conant a round of applause afterward.
During the regular meeting before the informal caucus, WMassP&I confirmed that at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera had secured enough votes to be Council President for another year. While some media were on hand for what was expected to be a showdown between Ferrera and challenger Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak, Ferrera’s success left little room for drama.
Lysak did not even seek to have his name put into contention. An email to Lysak sent today had yet to yield a response. However, despite the exposure of the contest between Ferrera and Lysak, it is reasonable to assume that Lysak preferred not to publicly lose to Ferrera.
Despite being the only name in contention, in contrast to last year, Ferrera did not get unanimous support. At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen cast “present” votes. Ferrera, therefore won the presidency with eight votes.
Fenton explained his vote of “present” as an expression of his belief that the Council Presidency tenures should not last more than a year. It was unrelated to his spat with Ferrera over committee assignments early this year, he said. Fenton declined further comment.
Unmentioned was how this was different from the back-to-back terms for former at-large Councilor Jose Tosado. However, it is widely known that at least a majority of councilors made that exception then as a means of boosting Tosado’s mayor campaign in 2011.
In this outcome, Lysak opted to vote for Ferrera rather than join other Councilors to deliver the incumbent a 7-4 vote. Given the background noise during the fight for the Council presidency, particularly the possibly partisan and political reasons some opposed Lysak’s bid, it is unclear exactly, in the end, he decided to vote for Ferrera rather than “present.”
Also selected was at-large Councilor Bud Williams as Vice-President, a largely ceremonial role reserved for circumstances when the President wishes to join a debate during a meeting. Williams’ vote was unanimous.
Lurking in the background of this whole process were rumors of a compromise candidate for Council President in lieu of either Ferrera or Lysak. In that past two weeks, sources from outside City Hall saw such an outcome as a distinct possibility to break what had become an intractable deadlock.
The outcome of Ferrera’s committee assignment could offer some illumination, but councilors’ commitments to Council President candidates had appeared solid and traditionally are. The breaking those commitments—before any votes are even cast—has been implied to be a breach of the relative fraternity even the sometimes ruthless Council enjoys. Tosado had told WMassP&I during an interview earlier this month that no such flip had happened in his ten year tenure, but that he had “heard stories” of its occurrence in years past.