History of the (Council’s) World: Part Allen…
UPDATED 8/17/14 11:00AM: For grammar & clarity.
As a general matter, since the return of Springfield City Council has avoided the banality and pettiness that sometimes typify other Valley municipal legislatures. Without a doubt both happen at 36 Court Street, but it does not tend to dominate meetings. A perception exists that the Springfield City Council is a weak body, but from time to time, the Council has asserted itself.
In the four years since ward representation became a reality, Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen has been among those who have realized that power. His ward, which covers East Forest Park and southern third of 16 Acres, largely opposed ward representation (as of the last all at-large Council 7 of nine councilors lived there), but it stands to reason the ward would not tolerate a slouch either.
Although not always apparent, Allen’s record on the Council is a central component of his bid to succeed Gale Candaras in the 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate District. Both as a means to fortify his base in Ward 7 and put forth proof of delivery. It became all the more important after Allen got tagged—fairly or not—as a “politics as usual” pol after the Lesser residency objection earlier in the campaign.
Allen faces Ludlow School Committee member James “Chip” Harrington, social worker Thomas Lachiusa, former White House aide Eric Lesser also and Ludlow Selectman Aaron Saunders in the primary. The district includes about a third of Chicopee and Springfield each including all of Ward 7, Belchertown, East Longmeadow, Granby, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow and Wilbraham.
The record Allen is jockeying to market to voters consists of both items at which he was prime mover and other successes which many claim as their own. Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards and former at-large Councilor Jose Tosado, too, both running in different races, have claimed credit for many of the Council’s actions.
Speaking to WMassP&I by phone, Allen listed a bunch of items for which he claimed full or partial credit including the repeal of biomass, preservation of library services, tax breaks for city manufacturers, zoning revisions, and a demolition-delay ordinance.
Representing the most electorally active ward is a double-edged sword. Because it also gets attention of at-large councilors and the mayor, projects and initiatives are common in Ward 7. Allen can share the glory whether he was a force behind it or—as can be the case with any councilor—he just happened to represent the impacted neighborhood. Meanwhile, the city’s reform community, while clearly seeing Allen as on the side of progress, has sometimes privately complained he is too provincial.
Early in his tenure Allen gained a reputation as a skeptical and prepared councilor. With Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, a voracious fiscal hawk, Allen criticized or opposed executive proposals for lack of information or time to deliberate. In late 2010, he, Fenton and then-Ward 6 Councilor Keith Wright came under fire for abstaining on some fiscal votes for the same reasons. Wright resigned the council shortly thereafter for personal reasons, but afterward Allen and Fenton would typically vote no rather than abstain. The two would later pass some $3 million in cuts in a later budget year, although some of them were later reversed.
On some matters Allen and Fenton split. Fenton supported more fiscal restraint in the police overtime budget than Allen (the overage in the line item, critics say, gets used to fund non-payroll police initiatives). Allen backed a “sweepstakes” license in his ward while Fenton did not. Fenton also opposed the F.W. Webb tax break because it created too few jobs. Allen had shepherded it through the Economic Development committee as chair. The two did agree on tax breaks for Titeflex and Smith & Wesson.
Council watchers recall Allen getting into the battle against biomass early. Allen said he was among the first to join the fight after John Lysak, who had made it a campaign issue in the 2009 election. Other councilors like Fenton agreed, remembering he came to oppose the project after Allen. As others signed on, the push grew larger than any one councilor. Fenton, an attorney, notably took on a legal role, countering City Solicitor Ed Pikula. Pikula questioned the Council’s repeal efficacy and advised the issuance of a building permit depite the Council’s repeal of the biomass plant’s special permit.
Ultimately, the Council voted to appeal the building permit (which would allow construction of the plant to commence). Allen, Fenton, Lysak and other councilors spoke in opposition to the plant and ultimately the Zoning Board of Appeals overturned the permit.
The June 2011 tornado took a particularly hard toll on Allen and, coming in the midst of a mayoral election, occurred at probably a lower ebb of council-mayoral relations. Mayor Domenic Sarno, taking command—to a certain degree—as mayor was criticized for inconsistently briefing the Council. Allen was said to anecdotally share that feeling.
The tornado sliced through Wards 3 and 7 almost exclusively, but the aftermath differed greatly. The latter, principally single family owner-occupied homes, had insurance and resources to rebuild, which as of today, the neighborhood largely has done. Allen says he held his own regular community meetings to help residents deal the aftermath. He also regularly attended the updates from city officials.
Although Allen did not have a near-death experience like Edwards, the ordeal affected him. After weeks of attending updates, Allen pled with his colleagues to discuss the event during a meeting as if to relieve some stress and tension as much as fulfill the body’s duties to the affected regions of the city.
In 2012, Allen received meager committee appointments, but he also proposed a host of initiatives to combat crime. Only a resolution to call for a gun court gained any traction. The following year Mastroianni adopted the proposal to some fanfare. The rest of the crime package was referred to committee where it languished.
Much of Allen’s record is partly or arguably a team effort, but libraries are indisputably his. In Sarno’s Fiscal 2013 spending plan, continuing budget issues closed branches and slashed library hours to levels not seen since the city took over the system about ten years ago.
The branches on Liberty Street, in Pine Point and in East Forest Park—in Allen’s ward—“closed unexpectedly,” Allen said. Shortly thereafter, “I got in contact with citizens and we held a demonstration” outside the shuttered East Forest Park branch on Island Pond Road.
The city’s branch library system has long been one of its crown jewels, but its political support has waxed and waned over the years. The political pressure of these closures forced Sarno to negotiate with Allen. That same year, the mayor had sought higher trash fee and hotel tax increases. The Council had rejected the latter. Allen and Sarno agreed to a larger trash fee hike and a smaller hotel tax increase to reopen the libraries.
However, the solution Allen found was not without controversy. The increase in the fee and tax rate, if made permanent, could only be guaranteed to keep the closed branches open for a year. Some complained that such revenue should be used for capital, rather than operating expenses.
The following year, while East Forest Park’s branch was given a longer-term reprieve, Pine Point and Liberty branches closed permanently to be remade as community centers with some virtual library services. Previously unaffected branches were due to get a boost in hours. These plans were implemented with the fiscal year 2014 spending plan, beginning July 1, 2013. Councilors from wards 5 & 8, both representing parts of Pine Point squawked, but the plan passed anyway.
Allen said the battle seemingly put the mayor on notice about libraries. “We raised the public nature of the situation,” he said. At Monday’s candidate meet and greet he said Library Director Molly Fogarty told him, “’The mayor has been more generous…ever since we did that’” referring to the protest of branch closures. Allen said the Library Department got $1 million more in funding for FY15.
Longer term efforts were bringing to conclusion the revamping of the city’s zoning ordinance. A relic of the 1970’s, Control Board officials began the mammoth task of rewriting the city’s planning and land use code in 2006. By 2012 Allen had picked up the effort from the legislative end, but commercial property owners were still resisting.
Allen claimed he had gotten the issue to the 5 yard line, but couldn’t get a touchdown without help. His colleague, Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, whose constituents were among the most fervent reform supporters among residents, provided critical help. “Shea helped get it into the endzone,” Allen said. There were other collaborations. With Edwards, Allen pushed through passage of the city’s demolition-delay ordinance, which holds off demolition permits for potentially historic properties. Likewise, Allen backed at-large Councilor Tom Ashe’s regulations on pawn shops.
Before Allen himself was accused of his own politicking, most critics of the councilor were themselves acting more out of politics than substance. Consequently, it is difficult to find concrete complaints outside of the unsourced or anecdotal ones above. However, maneuvering 36 Court Street, a building still running on by-gone politics, differs considerably from Beacon Hill.