Take My Council, Please: Short & Sweet near the Bitter End…
UPDATED 12/5/13 10:57AM: To reflect a CORRECTION. Upon reviewing the tape of Monday’s council meeting, neither the Fire nor the Police Commission ordinances received first step. They were both referred to committee.
SPRINGFIELD—This Monday at its penultimate regular meeting of the term (there is a hearings meeting next week before the final meeting on December 16), the City Council breezed through a light agenda. However, items referred to committee presaged what will become the body’s agenda in the new term come January.
The bulk of the agenda were basic utility reports and a couple of zoning measures the Council will likely vote on at its next hearings meeting. The October revenue and spending report yielded zero questions from Councilors, usually a sign of little trouble at this point in the fiscal year.
The Council also approved second and third steps on a revision of the city’s purchasing and contract ordinance. The city’s ordinance is derived from the Massachusetts General Laws on governmental purchases and contracting, which the city must follow anyway. Following a revision of the state statute, however, the ordinance was in conflict with the state legislation.
Although the city would have to follow the state law anyway, the Council voted to move the ordinance into the compliance with general laws. Rather than merely update the ordinance’s legislative language, the revision passed by the Council makes references to the General Laws so that if any future revision is done by the state legislature, no action on the city’s part (other than compliance) will be necessary.
The Council sent back to committee a home rule petition that would allow the city to regulate street vendors, such as the famous “hot dog cart” guy who had an epic feud with mayor Domenic Sarno some years ago. At-large Councilor Tim Rooke, the measure’s sponsor, had introduced it at the last meeting and said a prior version of the petition had died in the legislature. This past Monday, Rooke said the Law Department was exploring with him an option that would only require an ordinance and therefore no action from Beacon Hill.
City lawyers had suggested to WMassP&I in the past that the necessity for a home rule petition may be up for debate. Because some of the licenses a street vendor in the city would need are authorized under state law and not a power delegated to municipalities, it is not certain that the city could act without approval from the legislature. On the other hand, it could be possible that the city, using its powers reserved under its charter and the Home Rule Amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution, could write an ordinance that avoids any violation of state law. For what it is worth, even if it did offend a state law, it is not clear who would have standing to block such a municipal action.
Finally, at-large Councilor Bud Williams along with a cadre of other councilors introduced an ordinance to reestablish the civilian oversight commissions for both the Fire and Police departments. Williams said that the issue had come up on the campaign trail, partly pushed by some of the challengers for Council. Generally, Council candidates focused on the Police commission, although Jose Claudio, who unsuccessfully challenged Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna this year, mentioned reviving the Fire Commission, too.
During its tenure, the Finance Control Board abolished the civilian commissions, changed the department leader’s title from chief to the one and only “commissioner” and more or less handed that position the commissions’ powers.
Most candidates running on the Commission issue shared one common belief, however. A new Police Commission must have teeth. A note appended to the bottom of both of Williams’ ordinances, each drafted by Council attorney Anthony Wilson, said the ordinance would effectively restore the commissions as they existed before the Board eliminated them.
If the proposed ordinance is little different from the pre-control board commission, then it is unclear whether it would satisfy the concerns of the community or even rank and file patrolmen, who are said to support the commission’s return. In other words, return to the status quo ante may not have been what advocates of commissions had in mind.
Both measures were referred to committee without any formal action, although Williams had suggested that they get first step that night. Public Health & Safety Committee Chair Tom Ashe told WMassP&I that his committee is unlikely to review the proposal until after the first of the year when the new Council and its new members are sworn in.
The proposal, however, are unlikely to take effect immediately anyway. The terms of Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant’s contract have received little attention, but based on an earlier attempt to establish merely a civilian complaint review board, Police Commissioner William Fitchet currently holds total disciplinary power over the department.
Therefore, a police commission cannot to take effect until after Fitchet’s contract is up without the city breaching, virtually guaranteeing a mayoral veto. This was the sticking point to the civilian review board. The proposed measure then lacked final say on discipline as some members wanted, but to do so would have caused a breach in the city’s contract with Fitchet. As for this proposal, Sarno has also been cool thus far.
With that the meeting ended in under a half-hour. While it is certainly possible that some of these items may resurface that the December 16 meeting, such a move may raise protest from the incoming members who would likely want to have some say in legislation that could define their first terms in office.
The Council also held its annual property tax setting meeting Wednesday night. According to Masslive, the residential rates were set at $19.71/$1000 in value and commercial were set at $39.04/$1000 value. Assessor Chair Richard Allen noted during the meeting that after years of declines, the value of the city’s overall taxable property actually increased by $200 million to $6.9 billion.