Take My Council, Please: It Becomes a Term of Years…
UPDATED 2/14/15 11:35PM: To reflect a correction. The vote to transfer bond proceeds to overruns on other projects was originally reported to be 13-0. It was, in fact, 12-1 with Fenton in dissent.
SPRINGFIELD—Finally holding a meeting after a rush of early-week storms scrubbed its typical Monday gatherings, the City Council took the next lumbering step toward a casino ethics ordinance while acting to ensure Lamar Billboard advertising will get another shot at its years-long quest to erect a digital billboard.
Despite the fusion of a hearings meeting with the Council in its capacity as a permit-granting authority and a regular, legislative meeting, the pace was mostly brisk. However, the question of the billboards’ fate and renewed debate about the city’s responsible employer ordinance did drag out the Wednesday evening meeting a bit longer.
As per usual, grant funding and transfers had a number of items. The Council approved transfers within the Parks Department for snow removal and within the police department for equipment usage. The Council also accepted funds from a vendor to compensate the city for damaging a sprinkler. Grants for the emergency preparedness, animal control and libraries were also accepted. The Police Department also received a federal grant under the Violence Against Women’s Act.
Beyond the casino ethics ordinance, the Council gave final, unanimous approval to changes in its animal control ordinances. Due to changes in state law, the city’s ordinances were now out of date. The changes cover a range of issues from humane standards to fines.
On digital billboards, Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen articulated objections to Lamar’s withdrawal of its application for a permit, ostensibly because the company lacked the votes in the needed. Allen suggested that the company’s shoddy presentation was the reason it lacked support on the Council.
“When people come before us, people should be prepared,” Allen said.
To receive its permits for digital billboards in the North and South Ends, Lamar would need nine affirmative votes from the Council. While Allen’s colleagues including Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos, who chaired the permit committee last year, agreed Lamar had utterly dropped the ball in its pitch, they were unprepared to spike Lamar’s attempts to try again.
Ramos did make his position clear, “I don’t want to go through this again down the road.”
With at-large Councilor Tim Rooke abstaining, the vote to accept withdrawal of permits for both sites passed 9-3. Councilors Melvin Edwards and Ken Shea joined Allen in opposing withdrawal.
The other two hearing items passed without much discussion. An expansion of Astro Logistics’s facility in the Memorial Industrial Park was approved 12-0. Ward 2 Councilor and Council President Mike Fenton abstained as his law firm represented the petitioner. The other item, a transferal of a permit for a car dealership at 712 Boston Road, was approved 13-0.
Ramos, currently the chair of Economic Development, briefed the Council on his committee’s work on a new rental property ordinance. Last summer Ramos introduced a major revision to the city’s existing ordinance. Property owners squawked and the measure has not been on the floor since, but Ramos’s report indicates the issue is far from dead.
The General Government Committee, chaired by Allen, released its recommendation to amend the casino ethics ordinance to prohibit mayors and councilors from working for a casino company for three years. As originally drafted, the prohibition was for five years. Committee notes indicate the change to three years was approved on a 3-1 vote. Fenton, as Council President, voted as an ex officio member of the committee in opposition to the change.
The full Council took approved the amendment to three years. Although a voice vote, Fenton requested that his objection be logged in the record. First step passed last month. Because of the change, the Council could not pass final step Wednesday night. Second step was approved unanimously on a voice vote.
Elsewhere the Council granted approval to pay an arbitration consultant bill from last year fiscal year.
One item that unexpectedly brought a lot of debate—or at least discussion—was a bond for Union Station. Several weeks ago, the Council approved $3.2 million in bonds to pay for the full build-out of Union Station, rather than allowing only Phase I to proceed with state and federal money alone. The city funding covers a parking garage and renovations to the station’s upper floors. Payments on the bond are expected to be paid with money MGM set aside for Union Station.
Wednesday night, Budget Director Jennifer Winkler told councilors the city’s bond counsel advised them to revote on the approval due to errors in the city’s bond advertisement. Allen, a new member of the city’s REO committee, took the opportunity to inquire into whether this revote would allow the city to bring Union Station under the jurisdiction of the city’s Responsible Employer Ordinance.
The REO is intended to ensure contractors for city projects hire city residents as well as women and minority employees. Union Station, overwhelmingly funded by state and federal funding does not qualify and for the most part, Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Timothy Plante said even with this city money, there was little leverage to subject the station’s construction to the ordinance.
Hypothetically, the money would only apply to the parking garage and office renovations, not the bulk of the construction work on the station itself.
Still, the issue prompted a spectrum of legitimate concern about the ordinance’s effectiveness to more surface level hand-wringing about it being flouted. At-large Councilor Bud Williams, who has long paid lip service to the REO, also declared that MGM was subject to it as well. Plante corrected him, noting that goals for resident, minority and women employment are in the community host agreement, but not adoption of the REO, which only otherwise covers public projects. The bond ultimately passed 13-0.
Another curious item, the expenditure of excess bond proceedings may be ripe for revisiting again soon. The proceeds arise from bonded projects that come in under budget. This is not controversial. However, the proceeds are due to cover overruns on other projects including the renovation of Forest Park Middle School, which reopened almost eighteen months ago.
Sources have again pointed the finger at the same person behind the new Putnam High School overruns—months after that school’s opening were. Former capital asset chief Rita Coppola-Wallace was in charge of those projects when they were under construction.
Little was said on the measure came up Wednesday night and it passed 12-1. Fenton cast the lone vote in opposition.
Whether more months-later deficits could materialize remains to be seen, but nearly a year after Putnam first arose as an issue, the matter has obviously not disappeared from the city’s body politic.