Take My Council, Please: An Opening Bet for the Public’s Trust…
SPRINGFIELD—A cautious, but generally supportive City Council approved the first step of a casino ethics ordinance Monday evening signaling more debate, discussion and possible amendment in the weeks ahead. Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, the body’s president, and Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen introduced the ordinance at the Council’s first full meeting of the year.
The rest of the agenda was primarily the acceptance of grants and approval of financial measures. However, other ordinances and legislation were on tap as well including final step on a door-to-door sales ordinance and first step for an animal control law revisions.
The fate of the casino ethics ordinance now lies in the hands of the General Government committee and its chair, Allen. At the moment, final passage appears likely despite some opposition from at-large Councilor Timothy Rooke, but Mayor Domenic Sarno’s cryptic silence on the issue remains a wildcard.
Much of the agenda were uncontroversial. At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, outgoing chair of the Maintenance & Development committee, recommended approval of a grant for Balliet Park renovation valued at $200,000 (matched by the city) as well as statements of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority to replace the Homer Street and Brightwood schools. Both passed unanimously.
School Superintendent Daniel Warwick said both schools date to 1896 and the city has gotten its money’s worth. “Our average building is 60 years old,” Warwick said. He also praised parks & facilities director Patrick Sullivan for a “very aggressive” maintenance program. Were the MSBA to approve the submission, the city would likely receive 80% reimbursement.
The Council also approved bonding for window and door repairs at JFK Middle School and Kensington Elementary school valued at $4.8 million. That, too, will be submitted to the MSBA for reimbursement.
Allen, the Ward 7 Councilor, asked Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Timothy Plante about the city’s bonding capacity. Plante said historically the city has had an annual debt payment of $38 million. It has been slightly lower of lower. Plante said the city’s winter bond sale would not raise that figure much.
The Council transferred about $11 million to the city’s reserves, raising them to about $40 million. The remaining $3 million in free cash the state certified, Plante said, would go toward incidentals. Unused money would go to stabilization reserves.
The Council accepted utility and planning reports. Fenton noted a request to enlarge the casino overlay district would be subject to more hearings before approval. At-large Councilor Bud Williams said approval of a larger overlay zone should be concurrent with the Council’s acceptance of the casino’s site plan.
The Council also accepted several recurring police grants. The department’s grants officer, Sgt. Brian Elliott, said the $787,000 Shannon grant was used to help at-risk and high-risk youth. At-large councilor Thomas Ashe abstained because one of the beneficiaries is the YMCA, his employer. The highway grants, totaling nearly $265,000, go toward enforcement of moving violations.
Sgt. Elliott also offered the department’s support for a solicitation ordinance that passed second and third steps Monday evening. Ashe, the chair of the council’s Public Safety committees, said residents had complained about salesman sometimes targeting vulnerable, often elderly individuals. Broader registration requirements would help minimize that risk and help better manage police resources.
At-large councilor Justin Hurst noted the proposed ordinance “not only covered goods, but it added the door-to-door soliciting of services.” Second step passed unanimously by voice vote. The final step passed 10-0. Rooke was absent.
The Council passed first step on revisions to the city’s animal control ordinances to conform with changes in state law. Among the changes are fines, standards for dangerous dog determinations and limits on number of animals in a home.
A block of vacant storefronts were transferred to Ellen Boynton, whose family owns other businesses in the Mason Square area. The property at 870-880 State Street had been taken by the city and a 2012 effort to sell them to a developer fell through after Councilor Williams objected to the sale price.
Other property transactions on Eastern Avenue and Nash Street were approved.
During the debate on the casino ethics ordinance, the early reaction appeared positive. Allen explained the ordinance’s ban on employment with the Region B operator (currently MGM). As written it would apply to the mayor and councilors for five years and to department heads and their deputies (making more than $60,000) for two years. Other city employees involved with casinos may also be affected.
“The point of this ordinance is to build public trust,” Allen said, adding that casinos—deservedly or not—have a certain reputation among the public.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, 75, said with a laugh he was not looking for a job and that relatively few employees would be affected. Yet he recognized residents’ concerns. Many come up to him at church questioning his approval of the casino and if he gambled.
“I don’t want to tell them I do,” admitting to trips to Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, but added this ordinance would address fears about corruption. Several casino opponents attended Monday’s meeting to support the ordinance.
Williams, too, said he would back the ordinance, but inquired about its relationship with state law. Assistant City Solicitor Anthony Wilson said the restrictions would be concurrent with any state prohibitions and do not appear to conflict with those statutes.
Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos praised the intent, but panned the length of the cooling-off period for elected officials. “I would prefer to see the five period reduced to three years,” Ramos said planning to propose that in the weeks ahead. After the meeting, Ramos told WMassP&I it was too early to say whether the time period was a deal breaker for him.
While somewhat muted, Rooke offered the only opposition. He called it unfair to single out casinos, as the Council approves agreements with Smith & Wesson and Bay State Health systems. Calling it a headline grabber, as to the ethical standards he asserted, “I am responsible to myself.”
First step was approved on a voice vote and despite his opposition, Rooke did not voice his dissent.
Fenton, speaking to Rooke’s argument, asserted that casinos are different “for a laundry list of reasons.” No other business in the city has a revenue-sharing arrangement with the city, he noted.
More importantly, he said, few industries, fairly or not, have had such unflattering cultural portrayals as in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. He added, after a TIF (tax agreement) hearing, “People don’t come up to me to ask which [city officials] are on the take or getting a job.”
“Our job is to quell those rumors,” Fenton said.
The only other item before the Council was a home rule petition to exempt the city from a 1951 law related to city engineer compensation. The Council referred it to the General Gov’t Committee. Allen scheduled a hearing for both the home rule petition and the casino ethics. Amendments to the ethics ordinance could be proposed there, but very likely major revisions will appear before the full Council at its next regular meeting in February.