Springfield Council Debate a Battle of Facts, Display of Style…
SPRINGFIELD—Three incumbents. Three challengers. Two-thirds of the field for the at-large City Council race appeared Wednesday evening for a debate at American International College for the at-large seats on the City Council. It was a debate that featured differing styles among both the challengers and the present incumbents.
Councilors Jimmy Ferrera, Kateri Walsh and Bud Williams crossed swords with challengers Ernesto Cruz, Jeffrey Donnelly and Justin Hurst. Incumbents Tom Ashe and Tim Rooke sent word of their absence. Challenger Joshua Carpenter was also not there.
The event was sponsored by the Diversity Committee of AIC, the Student Organization P.O.W.E.R. and the McKnight Neighborhood Council. Attendance was decent, if not of blockbuster proportions. The debate was divided into two parts consisting of questions from the moderator and then between candidates. Moderators held firm on timekeeping. Question topics varied from public safety to economic development to engaging citizens.
As important the answers were, the styles were themselves illuminating. Both Cruz and Hurst were largely poised, in their statements and their zingers. Donnelly’s delivery was often rushed and halting, leading him to joke about his public speaking ability.
The incumbents behavior seemed a bit of a tell itself. Walsh seemed by far the most at-ease of the incumbents, a bit rehearsed, but at ease. Ferrera often struggled with questions, defaulting to his residency position. Williams adopted his Council persona most vividly, blending in at times rushed recitation of names and facts. Conventional wisdom suggests that the absent Ashe and Rooke along with Walsh are the surest to get reelected. Ferrera and Williams placed fourth and fifth respectively.
On a question of public safety, Cruz took the opportunity to discuss the police commission, although he said the idea had come from other councilors, including Jose Tosado for whom he worked in 2011. Cruz repeated a line from before asserting that the commitment to fix the problem must be real and not timed to Election Day.
Donnelly, whose run-ins with law enforcement are the subject of book he self-published, said the battle begins with the cops following the law. Ferrera responded by reaffirming his stance on a strong, if not legally viable, residency ordinance.
A similarly posed question to Hurst, Walsh and Williams led off with Hurst calling for accountability from the Police Commissioner. He added that police operations cannot rely so heavily on potentially unpredictable grants to fund operations. Hurst also jabbed Councilors for raising their won pay, at a cost equal to one police officer position.
Walsh backed the return of the Commission, but also advocated an ad hoc citizens committee to provide input. Williams, admittedly one of the city’s most effective political performers, rose as he did each time it was his turn. He laid on a thick defense of grants, hurriedly cycled through their legislative sponsors from US Rep. Richard Neal to the city’s Beacon Hill delegation.
While making an accurate point about the city‘s finite resources, Williams mixed things up some details. Citing his multi-point plan, which includes wrangling more money out of Beacon Hill, Williams asserted retiring Boston Mayor Tom Menino could get whatever he wants out of the legislature. Menino, “just winks at Speaker Sal DiMasi,” Williams said. DiMasi, presently incarcerated in a federal prison, was the Speaker until resigning in 2009 amidst scandal. Robert DeLeo is the current Speaker.
On a question of responsiveness, Ferrera asserted he responds to every call or email, while Donnelly took a jab at city bureaucracy. Cruz again called for an ordinance mandating greater outreach and cited the city‘s “clunky“ website as an example were engagement needed improvement. “Bring City Hall to the people,” he said to cheers.
Asked about foreclosures, Williams touted funding for one foreclosure ordinance last week. The foreclosed property ordinance had waited nearly two years for implementation, but the mediation ordinance remains unimplemented. Williams credited an “Armando Cruz,” perhaps a reference to the ordinances’ lead sponsor in 2011 former Councilor Amaad Rivera. Williams was not on the Council during that term.
Walsh called the Council’s passage of the ordinance “courageous.” She voted for the law in 2011, but had an uneasy relationship with it thereafter. She did vote for the funding last week. Hurst pointed out that there are broader housing problems in the city, namely situations where individuals pay as much or more on rent than they would on a mortgage. Action could include homeowner programs or working with landlords.
An exchange on schools between Cruz and Donnelly offered different education apporaches. Cruz cautioned that the Council‘s role was limited, but it could create conditions attract teachers to work and live in the city. Donnelly pointed to drugs and gangs. Ferrera highlighted his School Safety Committee, saying he appointed it because students and staff do not feel safe in school. At the time of it formation, Ferrera said he appointed the committee in reaction to Newtown.
The others were asked about the role of the city’s colleges. Hurst and Walsh praised programs that the colleges in the city did for the community. Williams knocked the city’s major non-profits for paying no taxes and said Boston extracs payments-in-lieu-of-taxes from its non-profits. Left unsaid, Boston non-profits must go through the redevelopment authority to expand or build, and thus Boston has leverage Springfield does not.
During the second segment in which candidates could question each other, the incumbents played it safe by asking questions only of each other, except for Bud’s second question (the other candidate took a pass on a second question). They softball nature of the question about CORI (from Ferrera to Williams) and residency (from Williams to Ferrera) seemed staged. Walsh asked her question of Williams.
Cruz questioned Ferrera’s push for far-reaching residency ordinances that do lack veto-proof majorities (necessary considering Mayor Sarno’s veto of weaker ordinances) or even simple majorities necessary to overcome a mayoral veto. Cruz argued that this wasted taxpayer money and the Law Department’s time. Ferrera defended his actions and blamed the Residency Committee that he appointed for reporting out a weaker law.
Cruz, on rebuttal, said that if his position was so important why had Ferrera never attended a meeting of the committee to fight for it. Ferrera rambled to a suggestion that it was the committee’s responsibility to consider items, he himself have referred to it.
Hurst challenged Williams over his opposition to raising the holding time for pawnbrokers to 30 days. Williams replied that the proposed changes were unfair and that the Council needed to start again. Williams deflected Hurst’s charge that the former had taken pawnshop money, but backtracked a little to admit money from George Sarkis. Neither noted that the holding time for pawnshops has only been 10 days for about a year and half after having been 30 for many years.
Williams responded in kind asking Hurst on the bottom line of police and city budgets. Hurst, taking a page from Cruz, said the website was not working and could not have obtain the data. Williams accused Hurst of not being serious without having that number. Hurst retorted by reiterating the cost of the Council salary hike. Williams voted for the Council increase, as did Walsh. Ferrera did not.
The closings were mostly boilerplate, but each had a unique touch. Williams remained the optimist and Ferrera touted accessibility. Donnelly promised to fight. Walsh employed of flattery (toward us) and Cruz noted how many (by an huge show of hands) knew to attend via via text, email or social media and emphasized without a mayor, there was “one chance to make change” next Tuesday. Hurst went for the heart asking voters to let him ensure the next generation, like his son, have the same opportunities he had.