Take My Council, Please: Pass Me the Buck…
UPDATED 10/10/13 3:32PM: Comments from the Council’s Public Safety Committee Chair Thomas Ashe added; clarification between last month’s defeated pawnbroker ordinance and the one referred to committee; and confirmation as to when the old holding period was shortened to the current 10 days.
SPRINGFIELD—With elections drawing ever closer, the Springfield City Council marched toward some politically difficult votes. Other matters were passed along to committee, likely delaying any action before November.
The Council’s Monday agenda included heavy issues like the mayoral pay increase and another chapter in the continuing saga of the pawnbrokers ordinance, but the vast majority of the agenda the Council dispensed with fairly quickly.
During the public speak out, members of Springfield No One Leaves had been prepared to protest the mayor’s salary increase because the city’s landmark foreclosure ordinance had gone unimplemented. That protests had been diffused to a certain extent after Sarno announced he would begin implementation after he sent a measure to the Council for its October 21 meeting.
The Council received updates on the city’s expenditures and revenue form Comptroller Pat Burns. Chief Administrative and Financial Officer T.J. Plante also gave the city an update on the emergency spending to clean up the site of the former Chestnut Jr. High school, recently destroyed by a fire.
As per usual, there was a cascade of grants and financial orders that needed approval. The departments gleaning the extra cash include elder affairs, police, parks, and libraries. The abutters lot program which transfers foreclosed property to abutting landowners received approval for several transfers as well.
Committee reports included details of the Finance Committee’s adventures in the mayor’s salary and the General Government’s look at a revision of city purchasing ordinance to conform to state law. That ordinance change passed first step on a voice vote.
The Human Services Committee, led by Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen also updated the Council on changes to the Library system including the conversion of the Liberty Branch to a senior center. Also mentioned was the possibility of relocating the East Forest Park branch library from rented property on Island Pond Road to a new building in Nathan Bill Park. No funding has been identified for design or construction.
Two financial transfers had been in limbo due to an active referral to the Finance Committee. One would hire outside counsel to negotiate union contracts, but had been questioned at the last meeting. It remained in committee. The other, a $250,000 transfer from excess funds in capital project, would fund demolition of a fire-damaged city-owned building. It was approved as the Council decided to pull the item out of concern for public safety. Only Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton voted against the transfer.
The Council sent to committee an approval of an agreement between the city and the Downtown Business Improvement District. The move came after at-large Councilor Bud Williams claimed businesses were complaining to him about mandatory fees that must be paid to recognized BID’s under state law. Councilor Allen agreed that such a discussion was necessary, but faulted using this as a vehicle to force that discussion as the agreement merely allowed the city to make payment on its own contribution to the BID. The move to committee succeeded on a voice vote.
At-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera requested and received referral to committee for an oft-appearing home rule petition of his that would exempt Springfield from a state law that prohibits municipalities from enforcing residency laws against school employees. The petition requires Council and mayoral approval before going to Beacon Hill for passage. Its prospects for passage in the legislature have long been hilariously dismal.
The Council also approved a resolution that would establish a committee to assess the value of a cogeneration plant that will soon become taxable, but added Ward 6 Counilcor Ken Shea as a member.
But the real action of the night came on ordinances before the Council. It was not particularly explosive, but it did assure that the pawnbrokers ordinance debate will get dragged out even further. On tap was the next step for a pawnbrokers ordinance that would tighten reporting requirements for pawnbrokers, junk dealers and other second-hand establishments.
Stepping down from the podium to debate, Ferrera called for the item to return to committee, hardly its first return to the Public Health and Safety Committee, which at-large Councilor Tom Ashe chairs. Ashe had held several meetings on this matter over the last few months and was the lead sponsor of the measure.
Earlier in the meeting, several speakers, mostly pawnshop owners, had raised alarm about the civil liberties and cost to business were this to go through. That perspective was disputed by both Ashe and the police, which backed the measure.
Ferrera had argued for the return to committee to try to differentiate between pawnshops and other second-hand store owners, although the police said such a distinction may be impossible to fully define. Councilor Fenton argued that this issue had been debated ad nauseum before and that a final vote should just be taken. Ashe echoed Fenton noting, “We’ve committeed this thing to death!”
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh argued that this issue “screams for a compromise.” Ashe replied that the matter had actually gone through a number of revisions to reach a compromise and that this proposal and ostensibly one defeated at the last meeting, were the results of those compromises. However, the opponents have thus far been able to bleed the matter into defeat.
The vote to send to committee was 9-4. Ashe, Allen, Fenton and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs were the only votes against the move. Ashe accused his colleagues of pitching the item back to committee to avoid voting on the controversial matter, which pits police and victims of theft against pawnshops and business owners.
Ashe, in a interview with WMassP&I repeated his belief stated Monday that councilors are hoping to keep the issue off the docket before the election, after which scrutiny of the measure may be lower. He said the genesis of the two ordinances, the reporting measure sent to committee and an extension of the period of time a shop must hold an item (which was defeated at the last meeting, but was part of Monday’s ordinance, too), began a few years ago when the Council voted to shorten the holding period from 30 to 10 days. City Clerk Wayman Lee said that shorter period passed in April of 2011. The police found this shorter window problematic and requested a return to the old holding period.
The reporting requirements had bounced between the Council floor and Committee several times. It had been sent to committee only a few meetings ago, Ashe said because his colleagues complained it was “not substantive enough.” During the last stay in committee, the ordinance underwent further revisions to address opponents’ concerns. Ashe added that despite attempts to compromise—as Walsh had urged—with pawnshop owners and business leaders, opponents never seriously engaged the discussion and instead remained “very combative” throughout the process. Last month’s defeated measure was such a compromise extending the holding period from 10 to 23 days, less than the originally 30 days the police requested. Monday’s measure extended it to 30 days.
Ashe said he intends the pursue the matter whether it is resolved before the election or not. “They think I’m going to let it go away,” he said.
The final ordinances that passed first step were increases in the mayor’s and the Council’s salary. Members of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, which has vigorously backed the mayor’s pay hike, were on hand to back the measure.
Although the increase had attracted controversy, that did not manifest itself Monday. Fenton, Shea, Twiggs, at-large Councilor Tim Rooke and Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, the chair of the Finance Committee, all spoke in favor of the measure. Rooke noted that it had been a long time since the last increase, but that had the salary risen with inflation it would be the $135,000 councilors were now proposing. “It is always controversial,“ he said.
Fenton said the higher salary would help attract the best candidates to take the far-more-than full time position. First step passed on a voice vote. The current salary is $95,000
The Council salary hike passed its first step only narrowly. The increase was sponsored by Councilor Twiggs who said the Council deserves a hike too. He pointed out that the Council had voluntarily cut its salary during the city’s fiscal crisis about ten years ago. Twiggs’s measure would raise Council salaries to $19,500 from $14,500. The Council President makes an additional $500, which would be unchanged.
Roll call was requested and the measure succeed 7-6. Allen, Fenton, Shea, Twiggs, Walsh, Williams, and Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna were in support. Ashe, Concepcion, Ferrera, Rooke, Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards and Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak voted no.
At the end of the meeting, Rooke had asked for reconsideration to add the provision that would increase the mayor’s salary with the increases in the Consumer Price Index. Procedural complications led Rooke to withdraw his amendment.
Ashe had already scheduled a committee meeting assuring a swift return of the pawnbrokers ordinance. Meanwhile, the salary increases, too, will reappear in two weeks. With doubt hovering over an election whose turnout is unpredictable and publicity is non-existent, the next Council meeting (and the last before Election Day) has the potential to go nuclear.