Take My Council, Please: It’s Hip to Be a Square…
UPDATED 3/29/14 1:16PM: For grammar.
SPRINGFIELD—The City Council’s brief meeting Monday night reflected well both the city broadly and the council’s difficult embracing technology and also the latter’s battle for respect as a branch of the city’s government. A light agenda greeted councilors including an otherwise straightforward item to not only inch the council closer to the twentieth century, but also take control of its own messaging.
A short agenda lacking the minefields of the Police Commission for the first time since January, the Council’s biggest sticking point was a decision to refer a resolution that the Council create a Facebook page for itself.
Much of the meeting proceeded without a hitch. It opened with a word of introduction from John Barbieri, the city’s next Police Commissioner, who made some brief remarks just prior to the meeting. Comptroller Pat Burns presented the February revenue and expenditure report. He said the city was running a deficit, but attributed this to snow and ice removal spending. The mayor and council will need to rectify any deficits later in the year.
Reports from committee were anticlimactic, with Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen laying out the work his ad hoc committees, New Revenue and Workforce Development, had done. At-large Councilor Tom Ashe said the Public Safety Committee was holding additional hearings on technical changes to the pawnbrokers ordinance and on a street vendor’s ordinance. Consequently, the pawnbrokers ordinance on Monday’s agenda did not advance, and was instead tabled.
Utility reports were accepted without debate. Grants for the T.J. O’Connor Animal Control center, the police department’s at-risk youth program and libraries were accepted as well. The library money was the regular state grant according to Library Director Molly Fogarty. It came later than usually, she explained because the city applied for and received a waiver from the match communities usually need to provide under the state library program.
Sergeant Brian Elliott, the Police Department’s grant overseer, presented the $90,000 at risk youth grant, which is used to help keep youth out of trouble. He said more money is coming having received assurances from the Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration that the money for the remainder of the fiscal year is on the way.
Chief Administrative and Financial Officer T.J. Plante also presented a bond authorization for a roof project at Chestnut Accelerated Middle School. The repairs provisionally qualified for the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s accelerated repairs program. Plante said the roof was damaged during a hail storm. He added that based on current estimates that the city’s share of the nearly $4.5 million project should not exceed $900,000 and could come in much lower. It passed without dissent.
A transfer of a property to the Conservation Commission also passed without dissent.
At-large Councilor Justin Hurst, the chair of the ad hoc Young Professional committee introduced the resolve calling for the Council to create its own Facebook page. Arising out of the committee, Hurst said it was important to broaden the Council’s ability to communicate. “I believe will allow us to communicate to a broader audience,” Hurst said adding that it could be used to post roll call votes, ordinances, as well as public safety announcements.
Hurst said he had spoken with the city’s Information Technology department, who indicated to him it was the entirely doable, but would take some changes to the city’s Internet controls. Hurst added that the Springfield Fire and Police Departments and the Election Commission have presences on Facebook and other social media. He added that the mayor’s office did the same last year.
Other city agencies like the library department and Housing Authority have been tweeting and making Facebook friends for some time now.
Then the wheels came off the wagon, becoming a source of mockery from Massterlist to, of course, Facebook. It is not that the concerns of some were invalid, but some objections were clearly absurd and out of touch. Others could be resolved as a later date.
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, who for a time was a social media maven during last year’s campaign, asked who would maintain the page. She added later that if Council staff are expected to do it, they could at least be asked first. Injecting a bit of levity into a debate that cratered quickly, Walsh asked, “What if nobody friends us?”
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, who has engaged his own efforts on social media of late, supported the idea. However, he worried that if Councilors posted to the page, ostensibly either through their personal pages or via the Council page directly, it could constitute an open meeting violation.
At-large Councilor Bud Williams asked how the page would relate to the public records law, noting interestingly his use of a personal, rather than city email account implying, incorrectly, it shields him from public records law.
The best (and by that we mean worst) objection came from the body’s heppest cat, Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, who in his trademark invective questioned the move. “Who is going to pay for this?” Concepcion demanded. The Ward 5 councilor was the first to speak after Hurst, and his objection did not appear related to who would be paid to maintain the page, but rather who would pay for the social network, which earns its revenue through advertising and not user fees.
Uttering concerns that it may be used for politics, Concepcion—after whom the Greenleaf Community center was renamed days before his preliminary election in 2013—announced his opposition.
Snickers erupted from several councilors and some in the audience. Concepcion’s complaints were, ironically, those reverberating the most across the Internet and social media. A nonplussed Hurst rose and assured Concepcion the service is free. Addressing concerns about who would control the page, Hurst insisted that the benefits would outweigh the risks. The matter returned to Hurst’s committee.
Some matters like who would update the page, or more importantly, who would have administrative control of the page, are not unreasonable questions. However, given the fact that IT needs to make changes to its infrastructure such that Facebook can be accessed, it seems that that this could have passed and rules or even an ordinance be written between starting the process and the day the page actually goes live.
The Council often complains that it is left out in the cold, or as Councilor Williams once said, its authority is limited to land use. Strong mayor or not, the Council is far more powerful than even its members realize. However, the key to exercising that power is, in part, asserting the control it can already access such as its ability to reach residents directly. If it cannot even do that, then it probably does not deserve the power it chooses to leave idle on the table.