Take My Council, Please: You Are My Resi-Density…
UPDATED 7/18/13 12:29PM: To reflect a quote from Councilor Fenton.
SPRINGFIELD—Returning to the chamber for one of two summer meetings on Monday, the Springfield City Council finally moved several issues long-festering on its docket bringing closure after months of indecision. Despite a substantial passage of time, there were few if any financial orders and instead a litany of ordinances and permits that awaited approval.
Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna was absent for this meeting.
The bulk of the Council’s time was taken up on discussion on changes to the city’s residency ordinance and, to a lesser extent on establishment of a state cultural district in the city. Other items included routine permits, reports and property transfers.
Among those were a permit from Planning and Economic Development for a taxi company and a property transfer on Allen Street for a construction company. Permits were approved for utilities and a petroleum permit for Titeflex. A land transfer to the Conservation Commission was also approved.
A property transfer of property on Central Street to Viva Development, LLC, a local company was held up over an appeal filed. The land was to be used for single family homes. The proposal was backed by Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, but at-large Councilor Bud Williams said that somebody had filed an appeal of the city’s decision to award it to Viva because of a conflict of interest involving a city employee. The matter was referred to committee.
Also sent to committee were eminent domain takings necessary for reconstruction of Boston Road in the Eastfield area. City Engineer Chris Cignoli said that the normal process had been delayed as the apparent owner of one affected property was not, in fact, the actual owner. That caused the clock to restart on condemnation proceeding and eliminating any need to hit the gas on the related Council orders.
Changes to the city’s pawnbrokers ordinance, sponsored by at-large Councilor Tom Ashe was also referred to committee. The proposed ordinance was amended since he had brought it up earlier. Among them was an increase in the fee charged to pawnbrokers, ostensibly supported by business owners as a means to weed out “fly-by-night” brokers. However, at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh objected to voting on first step without getting input from the business community first, which had not yet seen the changes.
Changes to storm water ordinances also passed first step on a voice vote.
Notably withdrawn were applications for digital billboard applications put forward by Lamar Advertising. One of Lamar’s agents in this region is Pat Keough, the brother of since released-Frank Keough, who went to prison for taking money from Friends a homeless shelter in Springfield. Lamar’s permit applications were not themselves controversial, but there were questions about whether or not Frank Keough was nevertheless using his influence to smooth over the process.
Walsh introduced a resolution that would establish a state cultural district stretching from the Armory on State Street and encompassing much of Downtown and the Quadrangle museums. Similar such districts include Lowell’s Canalway District and the Fenway Cultural District in Boston.
In order for the groups to secure approval from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a resolution in support from the City Council was necessary. Formally, the city an applicant, but the Business Improvement District would take the lead. A contest will be held later to name the Cultural District.
The real action took place over the City’s residency ordinance. Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton, the chair of the Special Committee on Residency, asked the Council to give final approval on changes to the ordinance. A vote in June was delayed to Monday’s meeting after Councilor Luna invoked Rule 20. The changes in Fenton’s ordinance would eliminate most waivers for employees, reserving them for non-department heads and requiring more oversight before being granted.
Originally passed in 1995, the ordinance was largely unforced through the intervening mayoral administrations until the Control Board took over. The Board had the power to ignore any ordinance, like the one on residency. In 2009, the waiver procedures were established. Mayor Domenic Sarno voted against the establishment of waivers as a member of the Board, but has used them liberally, but so far lawfully, since.
Since the June meeting, however, at-large Councilor and Council President Jimmy Ferrera announced he would seek an amendment to strike a provision in the proposed ordinance that would permit existing waivers to endure. The Council’s budget meeting took place before he could offer the amendment. Instead Ferrera sought to strike funding for department heads who had such a waiver, despite legal admonitions. The mayor issued a statement in response that asserted his right to have his own team. Ferrera’s efforts failed miserably, largely for lack of a second from his colleagues.
On Monday, Ferrera, ceding the podium to Vice-President Williams, offered the actually amendment again which would strike the so called “grandfather clause” in Fenton’s ordinance. However, none of his colleagues seconded. Embarrassingly, Williams had to ask at-large Councilor Tim Rooke, the body‘s dean, to take the podium so that Williams could step down and second Ferrera’s motion.
Repeating at times verbatim arguments he had made on June 17, Ferrera howled about the unfairness of Sarno’s decision to grant waivers to department heads who lived outside of the city. Demagoguing the issue further, he said residents were denied an opportunity, but never claimed the waivers were unlawful or directly addressed the legal minefield his solution presented.
Fenton countered that the entire purpose of the ordinance as presented was to keep that process from ever happening again. He agreed that the waiver process had been abused, but added that righting the previous wrongs through coercion would be illegal because the waivers themselves were lawful.
Williams, defending Ferrera, said that since the mayor has hiring and firing prerogatives, that the idea that revoking the waivers was ridiculous. By Williams logic, because the mayor could fire an employee for cause, the Council could thereby compel him to do so.
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea also added that Ferrera’s proposal also invited a Constitutional challenge to the ordinance as improper interference with a valid contract. He noted that although in the mayor’s appointees are “at-will” their employment is subject to employment contracts and conditions, like the waivers themselves.
Ferrera persisted saying he had asked for a legal opinion to justify his proposal. That prompted a rare rebuke directly from his colleagues. Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs said that if Ferrera wanted this so badly, why had he not brought it up at the Residency Committee, which he himself appointed. “Why appoint the committee if we do not use the committee?” Twiggs asked rhetorically.
Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen agreed noting that Ferrera’s tenure on the Council is twice as long as either his or Fenton and yet Ferrera had done nothing on the matter in that time. Agreeing with Twiggs, Allen said the delays ran counter to the reason why the Residency Committee had been established after years of inaction on the issue. “I didn’t hear from you on residency until now,” Allen said.
Ferrera’s amendment lost on a 5-7 vote. Ferrera and Williams were joined by Edwards, Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion and Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak in dissent. The overall ordinance passed as presented on a 9-3 vote with only Concepcion, Ferrera, Williams voting in the negative.
Ferrera’s latest efforts match a pattern of attracting attention to himself ahead of yet another difficult election season. Instead of raising the issue when the matter was before Fenton’s committee or even during the first and second steps to approving the ordinance, Ferrera waited until he could maximize press coverage for himself.
Indeed, Ferrera promised to bring the issue up again and again, probably until November. On principle he vowed to push the financially uneasy city toward an unconstitutional policy that would expose the city to hopeless lead fights and cost the city funds better spend on services. Monday at least, councilors put the city first and said “No!”
Fenton, for his part, seemed unconcerned with Ferrera’s theatrics, mirroring his calm approach during the meeting. “After three years of excruciating work, we have achieved positive reform,” Fenton said in an email. Noting that he was proud of his colleagues for turning the corner on this issue. “Our work is not done, but we have made progress,” toward a total revamp of the policy.
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