Take My Council, Please: You Have 13 Friend Requests…
SPRINGFIELD—Despite the best efforts of the its finest inertia, the City Council finally agreed to dip its toe into social media while tackling a budget that was more complex than it appeared. A slew of financial measures ahead of the new fiscal year and a few new collective bargaining agreements were also on tap Monday night.
City comptroller Pat Burns reported that the city’s collection of vehicle excise tax was coming fairly strong at 83% and expected that percentage to rise before the fiscal year closed on June 30. Reports came in from the Finance, Maintenance & Development, Ad Hoc Workforce Development and Ad Hoc Young Professionals committees as well.
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh reported that her committee was monitoring a number of capital projects and recommended approval of a $1 million+ grant to develop North Riverfront Park, abutting the North End Bridge. The Council approved the measure on a voice vote.
Finance advanced acceptance of winter money from the commonwealth to repair streets. City Engineer and DPW Director-designate Chris Cignoli said the city would engage in a program to repair arterial streets first. Cignoli explained the legislature put timing and use restrictions on the money, so repair of arterials was prioritized with side streets likely getting repaired later by shuffling around Chapter 90 money already appropriated for road work. Approval passed without dissent.
Cignoli’s presence at the lectern prompted at-large Councilor Bud Williams to query the incoming DPW head about enforcement of the city’s Responsible Employer Ordinance. Among other things, the ordinance is designed to encourage contractors doing work for the city be city residents whenever possible as well as pursue women and minority workers and subcontractors.
Williams was near-apoplectic about the ordinance’s non-enforcement, especially since a compliance officerwas hired. Cignoli said he agreed with Williams that enforcement was necessary, but cautioned Williams that the ordinance is largely advisory and cannot compel more diverse hiring, only demand contractors show they are trying. Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton, the Council President, suggested a committee of the whole meeting to discuss REO further.
On another matter Fenton, ceding the chair to Vice-President Walsh, presented a resolve supporting ChangChun’s bid to build the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s next generation of subway cars. The manufacturer, a Chinese firm, has proposed a factory at the former Westinghouse site on Page Boulevard, to meet the MBTA’s preference for an in-state builder. Fenton said the railcar facility would be “state of the art” and fit well with the city’s manufacturing heritage. Fenton’s district, Ward 2, includes the Westinghouse site.
Leaders from organized labor and a consultant for ChangChun were on the hand to speak in favor of the resolve. Emmet Hayes, a former legislator who is advising the railcar company, said the company looked at over 50 locations across Massachusetts, but “Springfield came out on top for a whole bunch of reasons.” Among them was the city’s manufacturing history and its educational institutions and vocational training schools.
Fiore Grassetti, president of the AFL-CIO’s Pioneer Valley Central Labor Council, said the company reached out to him at his office, which is just across Page Boulevard from the Westinghouse site. Daniel D’Alma, President of the Pioneer Valley Building Trades Council said the city is “looking at manufacturing jobs we desperately need.” The Council approved the resolve on a voice vote. Hayes said the MBTA is expected to make its decision later this year. The selection of a rail car builder in Western Mass., has the support of Gov. Deval Patrick, although the MBTA’s decision making process is independent of him.
Elsewhere the Workforce Development Committee updated the Council on its speaker series. The Council accepted the city’s annual allotment of grants from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The largest piece of that was HUD’s Community Block Development Grant valued at $3.6 million. All of the grants passed without dissent. Also passed were small dollar grants and donations for libraries, animal control, the Fire Department and veterans.
The Council also approved a special permit for a gas station at 612 Carew Street at Armory Street, presently the site of a small shopping plaza opposite the former Our Lady of Hope Church. Councilors noted that the area is in need of help and the developer, who owns a station on Sumner Avenue in Forest Park has a good record. The permit passed 13-0.
The Council also approved about $700,000 in budget transfers within the Police Department to pay for capital expenditures for the department and a new academy class. Chief Administrative and Financial Officer T.J. Plante said the money, a surplus amount in police department’s salaries account, would end up in the city’s free cash account, unavailable for immediate use, unless moved before June 30.
At-large Councilor Justin Hurst inquired into why the items the transfer would fund were not already budget, especially as that appeared to have been prior practice. Plante suggested that prior practice was partly due to clearing a backlog of decrepit equipment, like police cruisers, which the Finance Control Board did upon coming into office in 2004 Plante said that a period of layoffs from FY2008 distorted the historical figures, but also police retirements fiscal year exceeded expectation. The academy class of 24 will apparently fill most of the vacancies. Hurst suggested these costs the transfer will fund should be in the budget, which Plante assured they are in FY2015 beginning July 1.
The transfers were approved on 12-1 votes with only Fenton in dissent. Explaining his vote, Fenton said he has seen this kind of last minute transfer before and would prefer they be put into the budget before it goes into effect and not as it nears its end.
The Council approved without dissent a transfer from the annual contingency account to fund the Treasurer-Collector’s tax title operations. It also approved a transfer within Capital Assets Management to perform more project management in-house by staffing up the department.
Also approved without dissent were two collective bargaining agreements with AFSCME Local 3065, who are primarily foremen for the Parks and Public Works departments. One agreement is retroactive to July 1 2012 and runs through June 30 this year. However, the second picks up on July 1 this year and runs through June 30 2016. Notably, the agreement subjects those employees to the residency ordinance.
By far the debate on establishing a Facebook page for the City Council took up a monumental amount of time. Hurst, whose Young Professionals Ad Hoc Committee extensively reviewed the matter to allay concerns from its last appearance, patiently took almost all of his colleagues questions after relating his committee’s findings. Andrew Doty, the city’s Chief Information Officer also spoke the matter.
Hurst envisioned the page as a place to mirror information about the Council’s current page on the city website, available to a broader, perhaps more tech-savvy audience. Control would be limited to Council staff, interns and the crews that record the video of meetings.
“At a minimum it will updated with City Council meeting dates and agendas,” Hurst said with other council business to follow as the page develops. Doty said that to satisfy public records law the city website would need to archive and be the source for all of the page’s activities. The IT department would develop a way to allow the page to automatically post agendas and meetings to the page. Additional Council business would go through the Council’s administrative assistants.
Walsh and Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea peppered Hurst with a few questions about posting community events and the legality of Facebook ads. Hurst said the page could certainly promote community events, but the page would start with the Council’s own business. Assistant City Solicitor Anthony Wilson said the city would not be in any danger of endorsing whatever Facebook ads might appear since it would not be collecting anything from the ads and because the ads are clearly marked as such and not as any endorsement by the city.
Hurst also made clear that Councilors would not have posting privileges, but agreed to a suggestion by Walsh that the Council President could convey to Council staff material councilors want posted.
As he had before, Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion objected to the page, “I am not convinced that this is necessary.” While crediting Hurst for his work, Concepcion went on a difficult to follow rant about how the Council should concern itself with the present and not the future, of which social media is ostensibly a part. “This will be used for politics and at election time,” he said, blithely ignoring the irony that a city building was named after him only days before his preliminary election last September. “The rules are very flexible,” he worried aloud.
Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna backed the measure, noting constituent concerns about the city website, which “has so many different areas.” She added some residents have little appreciation the council’s work, but that could change if the body were on Facebook, which some people check constantly.
Williams noted that the Council’s lack of modernity looks bad to the public and urged passage, “It is a perception thing” and “We’ve spent way too much time on this.” Echoing that, Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards added “This is not as complicated as this debate suggests.” Perhaps subtly jabbing Concepcion, Edwards said many residents are “the future,” “they get it,” namely the impact of social media.
While Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen suggested that the Council codify conditions to ensure the page is used properly. The Council nevertheless passed the resolve. Concepcion did not verbalize his dissent.
The final item of the night was the increase in fees at the City Clerk’s office, including copies of birth, death and marriage certificates. A change in ordinance, only first step was passed, again on a voice vote.
The progress on the Facebook page is a hopeful sign for the Council as it attempts to get out of its own way and find its way to the role that the city charter actually provides. However, the embrace of social media is a work in progress. Even now, newer outlets like Instagram and Pinterest are drawing people in, even as others like Twitter and Youtube remain mainstays. Part of the problem is a lack of guidance on social media and public records from Beacon Hill, but for the Springfield City Council, ultimately it may come down to political will.