Take My Council, Please: Diligence Peacocks…
SPRINGFIELD—In a city where the mayor wields tremendous power relative to the legislative branch, it can be difficult to adequately hold the executive branch accountable. Similarly, some councilors may show caution before premature votes, too. However, for either effort to be effective and, just as important, credible, they must be by earnest diligence and not merely opportunism and showmanship in an effort to craft an image.
At Monday’s meeting the Springfield City Council contemplated a thin agenda that included revisions to the city’s ordinances as well as boilerplate administrative grant/report acceptance. However, while the agenda and the meeting were fairly short, its length was extended as certain Councilors raised objections to certain items. In both cases, there is a case to be made that those councilors’ points were valid. However, in both cases, the broader context of their argument indicated more flash than substance.
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs were absent from the meeting.
The phrase “diligence peacocks” is an obvious reference to the animal. While beautiful and stunning creatures, part of their feathers’ purpose is to put on a show either for mates or scare off predators. The phrase, “deficit peacocks” have been used to mock those worried about the national deficit, mostly conservatives, who fret about the nation’s debt/deficit, but demand extensions of the costliest Bush tax cuts. The “peacock” comes in because they put up a show about caring about the deficit, but cannot back it up because they refuse to contemplate ending the Bush tax cuts, a huge deficit driver.
A healthy share of the Council’s Monday agenda was fairly non-controversial. Grants for the the Parks and Library Departments were approved. Conduit reports from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative were also approved.
The second and third of the three steps necessary to revise the city’s Fire Commissioner ordinance were approved, paving the way for Joseph Conant, who had held the job on an acting basis, to take the position permanently. After the final vote, Conant, who was in the audience received an applause from the audience and councilors. Mayor Domenic Sarno, who proposed the change initially, is expected to sign the ordinance.
Also approved, but with no acclimation was second step for a heavy discount for the city’s trash fee to elderly residents. During the life of the trash fee, it has gone up and its senior discount has fluctuated. Sarno, whose response to an inquiry on this item had not been returned as of posting time, sought to bring the fee back to what seniors had been paying before the latest increase. Essentially, seniors would see no increase while other residents would.
Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, who supported the decrease, only held one meeting on the matter and some Councilors wanted more information, and particularly explanation for the disparity in seniors’ treatment versus all other fee-paying residents. Despite requests from Councilors, no such second meeting was held even after first step was passed last year. Second step passed 8-3. At-large Councilor Tim Rooke, Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea were in dissent.
While this particular battle might seem to fit into the accountability peacock, it did not. It had history and in particular, more discussion on the subject had been promised, but did not happen.
The peacocks’ appearance occurred on a property transaction and on the proposal to hold a citywide vote on approval of a casino in the city. The first concerned the transfer of city property, the Mason Square fire station in particular, to American International College.
At-large Councilor Bud Williams pointed out the order before the Council did not include the purchase price, which it typically would. City attorneys suggested a friendly amendment be added to fix it, but Williams noted, correctly, that this is not how these processes are to work. Deputy Economic Development Director Brian Connors and Assistant City Solicitor Thomas Moore’s answers proved unsatisfying to Williams.
Throughout the exchange, Williams’ point was never invalid. However, his rhetoric turned to the theatrical at one point, excoriating the two city bureaucrats almost personally. Williams is known for seeking the limelight or any bulb, flashbulb that is, attached to a camera. That can overshadow the valid points he can have. On Monday, that dynamic was on full display, making it impossible to determine whether his concern was diligence or the appearance thereof. Williams invoked Rule 20, which terminated debate on the matter pending a report form City Comptroller Pat Burns.
The other alleged diligence peacock appeared during the debate over whether to hold a citywide or ward vote on casinos. Under state law, for a city of Springfield’s size, a ward vote is the default approval for a casino, but the legislative body of the community may set a citywide instead. Virtually all supporters and opponents of casinos have supported a citywide vote in Springfield.
Nevertheless, Rooke argued the Council may want to hold off on voting in order to preserve its leverage during negotiations. The notion received some support from councilors. Indeed, Rooke pushed it for a while, but when asked by Council President Jimmy Ferrera whether or not he was making a motion for committee, Rooke declined. The citywide vote was approved unanimously.
Rooke is no fool, and yet he was offering his suggestion without explaining how the Council could or did gain leverage from a delayed decision.
It is impossible to go into the minds of any councilor and were it not for Williams’ propensity for speaking and Rooke’s mercurial caution, perhaps neither might invite the diligence peacock appellation. The problem may be, however, not that a councilor would appear more diligent than they are, but that on many of the biggest things, their diligence peacock’s feathers are folded back and no where to be found.