Take My Council, Please: According to the Latest Poll…
SPRINGFIELD—A relatively quiet agenda Monday night made for a hefty number of speakers at the beginning of the meeting and then a fight over polling places. The Council’s few summertime meetings usually make for packed schedules, but overwhelmingly the items in play were small financial matters. The housekeeping was dispensed with while the other matters took up the bulk of the meeting’s time.
Although debate during the actual meeting was brief, Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos’s proposal to enact a broader registration system for the city’s 30,000+ rental units drew a considerable crowd at public speak out. Those that spoke on Ramos’s ordinance during the half-hour pre-meeting were almost uniformly against it. However, the opponents’ comments seemed to show a bit of awareness that something is likely to be passed.
Antonio Cardaropoli of Longmeadow, a property owner and manager, called the proposal redundant saying that any building that houses four or more units must already submit to inspection every two years. Cardaropoli claimed that this would only add to existing receivership programs that already can sometimes leave the city with unpaid taxes and deteriorating properties. “The problems don’t get better they get worse, they go to receivership, Cardarapoli said.
Patrick Nolan, another property manager, echoed Cardarpoli, but added that the ordinance would damage a very fragile real estate market in Springfield. Kevin Shippee, who works for Yellow Brick Management, seemed to suggest that his boss was in favor of making changes to how the city enforces dangerous conditions. However, this ordinance, in his mind was not the right way.
Noting the understaffing at Code Enforcement, he said, it could lead to landlords chasing after inspectors to get their buildings looked at, “it needs a whole lot more rethinking.” Instead, for the time being he suggested a public awareness campaign so tenants would be encouraged to report violations.
Sheryl Chase of Ludlow, who also owns a property management company, suggested that given Code Enforcement’s staffing, enforcement of the new ordinance would quickly outstrip the city’s resources. However, she also said it would unfairly burden the Springfield market to the advantage of its neighbors. Chase did not address, however, that Springfield’s multiple family dwelling market is already not much like its neighbors. Overall landlord and managers’ comments suggested that they knew the Council would end up passing something.
In any event, Ramos, when the ordinance came up during the meeting, defended his proposal. Expounding on the definition of blight, Ramos said like the blight that afflicts plants, “The longer it goes untreated, the further it spreads.”
Ramos said he based his ordinance off of a similar one in Boston, but he also consulted a University of Texas study that considered numerous such schemes across the country. He noted that many tenants fear retaliation and that relying purely on complaints is reactive, not proactive. “Rental registration programs give cities a chance to keep track of problems.”
“My hope is that through this process some of those concerns will be addressed,” Ramos said just before motioning to send his proposal to committee for more study.
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea applauded Ramos’s efforts adding, “I think this is an issue we have to deal with.” Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards agreed, “Let’s look at this as an opportunity to look for a solution. Then we can begin to address some of their [property owners] concerns.”
Elsewhere on the agenda were grants and financial orders. The council received it May expense/revenue report. Parks, Recreation and Buildings grants were approved as well. One, technically a bond to be reimbursed by the state, would finance the replacement of boilers in school, some of which date to the schools’ opening at the beginning of the 20th Century. Other Parks grants included money for the new North Riverfront Park and Balliet School facilities.
Health and Human Services also had a series of grants, including those used to keep alcohol and tobacco out of the hands of kids, which, in addition to her department’s prodigious grant writing generally, earned HHS czar Helen Caulton-Harris an applause.
The city also transferred ownership of some properties that MGM will use to build its facility. Under the terms of the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement MGM and the city signed, there will be some retroactive tax payments coming to the city as well. Another property transfer on Catherine Street, was withdrawn by Mayor Sarno.
A grant for the Mayor’s Office of Consumer Information, a technically regional entity, was also approved. Second step on a strengthening of the city’s ethics ordinance was sent to committee at the request of its sponsor Councilor Edwards.
The final items were approval of the city’s election warrants for the September 9th primary for statewide office. A two part procedure, the Council had to approve the warrant ordering the election and approve the polling places in the city. The former was approved without debate.
Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola encountered some resistance to some of the proposed polling changes. One would have moved the polling location for precinct 5F polling from Duggan Middle School to the Church of the Acres about half a mile down Wilbraham Road on the other side of Western New England’s campus. Oyola said the move came at the request of that ward’s councilor Clodo Concepcion, whose constituents were complaining about limited parking.
At-large Councilor Bud Williams, however, protested saying that polling place had been at Duggan for decades and would result in drop off of voter turnout. Williams repeatedly referred to the new polling place as on being on the other side of Parker Street, which is in fact a mile further down Wilbraham Road than Church of the Acres. Oyola tried to assure Williams that there would be a robust voter outreach campaign, but he remained resistant.
The change was stricken from the polling list. Sources later said Williams’ consternation, in part, lay with the fact that his daughter lives in the affected precinct.
The other changes were also briefly in danger as well. In the North End, Precinct 1C would move from Main Street at the New North Citizen’s Council to 1772 Dwight Street at the North End Youth Center. The other would consolidate precincts 3H and 6E at the Holy Name Social Center on Alderman Street. Those two precincts would join two others whose polling place is already at the Social Center. Previously 3h and 6E were at the Wesleyan Church on White Street. (Don’t know your polling place? Check it here, but note your precinct when you do. If you are in 1C, 3H, or 6E, the addresses in bold are the up to date polling location.)
Following the defeat of the change in precinct 5F, at-large Councilor Justin Hurst proposed striking all of the changes in fairness to the voters in other precincts. A flash of panic crossed Oyola’s face, who struggled to pipe in as councilors debated changes. Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna objected to striking the move on the basis that putting the polling place at the Youth Center would be free as opposed to the current location.
Finally Oyola chimed in and said the city was not invited to return the polling place to the Wesleyan Church. In other words, striking that change would leave those precincts with no polling place. Consequently, Hurst withdrew his motion.
In the North End’s 1C, politics is in play, too. Critics of New North have accused the group of pressuring voters who come in to support politicians the group supports. However, in a brief interview after the final vote, Oyola dismissed politics as a reason. Instead, she said because the New North facility is also a drop-in center, those receiving drug tests or other social services were often in and out. It was not an environment in which staff and voters felt secure. Oyola did say Ward 1’s precincts frequently do need extra enforcement of rules that give voters and poll workers space to vote and operate.
The meeting closed shortly after that, but not before Council President Michael Fenton announced that the Massachusetts Senate may soon pass an amendment to the city charter, which would order an election to fill vacant ward seats. As currently written, the charter fills vacant ward seats with the next highest vote-getter in the last election, which essentially means the loser.
Councilor Williams had a litany of questions, but the thrust of his concern was the impact on at-large seats. Fenton assured him the legislation before the Senate would leave unchanged the provision that fills vacant at-large seats with the 6th highest vote-getter in the previous election. If passed by the Senate, the change would still need the governor signature. It would then go before Springfield voters in November.
The meeting wrapped thereafter. The Council is not expected to have a full meeting until September except for a permits meeting in August.