Take My Council, Please: When We Elect to Vote…
SPRINGFIELD—Although long, the City Council’s agenda was not particularly controversial or compelling. A few items offered councilors the typical, out-of-context grandstanding, but even that was fairly spare given limited opportunities.
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh was absent from Monday’s meeting.
The Council’s agenda was largely transfers of funds within departments, acceptance of grants and property transfers. The most notable of transfers involved the Department of Public Works, which was able to avoid deficit spending in the snow and ice account, despite the massive February storm. There was even a small surplus, which as used to pay for an inspection of the city’s flood control systems.
Other transfers included added funding for the Veterans Affairs Department. Higher than projected caseload necessitated the transfer. The city is reimbursed 75 centers on the dollar for higher than expected needs, but not until about a year afterward according to acting Chief Administrative and Finance Officer, T.J. Plante.
Other transfers included some moving fundings within the Workman’s Compensation accounts. The Council also approved a transfer from free cash accounts to the Election Department to begin preparations for the July referendum on the casino agreement. Responding to a question from Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, Plante explained that because the funding and execution of the election crosses over two fiscal years, the free cash account is only being used to get the ball rolling on the election. MGM will reimburse the city for all referendum costs.
Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton asked Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola about outreach to voters, especially in light of the referendum’s placement exactly in the middle of the special senate and regular municipal elections. Oyola said that there will be letters sent out to every voter explaining the referendum and other outreach is expected as well. Oyola also said because of the multiple elections, the outreach effort is also focused on reducing confusion on absentee ballots.
A later item related to the funding, specially the approval of the Election Warrant from the Commissioner and the setting of polling places for Tuesday July 16. Both require Council approval. Discussion on the warrant prompted questions from councilors about the whether the city should consider holding the referendum on a Saturday instead of the typical Tuesday Election. Oyola told WMassP&I that while the city can do nothing about state and federal elections, it could choose to hold its municipal elections on any day.
Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak specifically cited a meeting last year that discussed the wisdom of moving non-state elections to Saturdays to improve turnout. He claimed that some communities are doing this more and more often. Oyola expressed skepticism that Saturday elections would boost turnout. Responding to Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards suggestion that the casino referendum be put on Saturday, Oyola said she was personally concerned that putting a Saturday election in between two Tuesday elections (the June special Senate general and the City Preliminary in September) would actually depress turnout by confusing voters.
Other councilors seemed open to the idea, but were not interested in making the casino referendum a guinea pig for these purposes. Both Oyola and City Solicitor Ed Pikula agreed.
Elsewhere, the Council approved second step on ordinances to raise fees from the City Clerks Office and Health and Human Services Department. Second step was also granted on changes to the city’s residency ordinance. Fenton moved to take final step at the end of the meeting, but the absence of City Clerk Wayman Lee, filled in by his deputy, led many councilors to question whether or not proper notice had been granted in order to enact third step.
Reports were accepted from utilities laying cables and pipes and from the Planning Board regarding the citywide zoning ordinance. Action on the zoning revision will happen at a Council permits meeting.
The remainder of the agenda went quickly. Surplus property was disposed of, largely to abutting property owners. Although all of these items were unanimous, some councilors were in and out during this time and were recorded as absent. The Council accepted grants for the HHS Department including training for the reserve medical corps and to assure fair treatment of patients at medical facilities.
Donations to the Fire Department and the Parks, Recreation and Buildings Department were also approved. The grants to the latter included tree planting.
The final item was a Home Rule petition out of Fenton’s special Residency Committee. It would exempt the city from the commonwealth’s prohibition of imposing municipal residency requirements on any school employees below the superintendent level. The law, passed in the late 1980’s has been an added complication to municipal residency ordinances from Boston to Springfield.
At the request of Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, the item went to committee for further study and review with the School Department since it would affect that side of the city more than the non-school side. The onus would be on the School Department to enforce this petition, however, unlikely it is to pass Beacon Hill.
The only real news out of the Council meeting was the setting of the casino referendum. However, at the top of the meeting, there is some hope that the city might end the year with a 1% surplus. That could translate into as much as $5 million dollars, however, much of that appears driven by school savings, which as a rule must be reinvested into the school. For now, however, it appears that the city may be closing FY13 on a better note than it started, although that does not mean FY14 will be any less grim.