Take My Council, Please: Borne Back, Ceaselessly into Inconsequence…
SPRINGFIELD—After an arduous two-part, nearly three hour special convocation of the City Council, there was some substantive action to show for it. Overall however, everything seemed to become an exclamation point on deterioration of both the Council’s own statutory authority and the body’s relationship with the executive branch.
The first of the nominally separate meetings was to approve the tax incremental financing deal with CRRC, the Chinese railcar company building a facility at the former Westinghouse site. The second was set after MGM Springfield announced it would be axing the 25-story hotel tower as part of its $800 million casino. It was the Council’s first opportunity to weigh in on that change.
Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna was absent from the meetings.
On item introduced by Council President Michael Fenton which did not make the cut was a nonbinding referendum asking voters about MGM’s new design without the tower. When voters approved the MGM host community agreement in July 2013, the ballot explicitly mentioned the tower.
Fenton withdrew it, however, saying the Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola told him her office could not accept the proposal after 5pm, the same time the first meeting began. Tuesday was the last day nonbinding questions could be ordered under state law. Fenton and Oyola’s back-and-forth in the press aside, Mayor Domenic Sarno would still have needed to sign the measure. The law does not state clearly whether the mayor’s signature is necessary before the deadline, too.
But from approval of CRRC’s TIF to the removal of parking along Main Street and poor communication with the mayor on MGM, there appears to be a breakdown in city governance.
“Do you care your authority is being circumvented?” Fenton asked his colleagues semi-rhetorically, while discussing the Department of Public Works’s removal of street parking without Council approval.
The railcar factory TIF proceeded with relative ease, compared to the clamorous tone two weeks ago when Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos invoked Rule 20 to halt debate. Although there was some banter strengthening the best efforts language to hire city residents, the proposal did pass on a 12-0 vote.
Still, the TIF went through numerous changes since its introduction. Additionally, the but-for analysis, required under city regulations for TIFs, was received ten days after it was first before the Council.
Responding to criticism that delays were politically motivated, Ramos, who is unopposed for reelection this year, said, “We were able to do our due diligence by determining whether the city can afford it.” He added, “It is unacceptable for any of us to expect us to vote on anything 45 minutes before a meeting.”
The amendments strengthen clauses requiring CRRC to employ city residents if at all possible. A definition for “best efforts” was also added. Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen proposed another clause, but could not secure a second to advance it.
Between meetings there was another public speak out, largely dominated by residents who either opposed changes to MGM’s plan or called for more preservation of 73 State St, which had, until the tower’s deletion, been the planned location for MGM’s hotel.
Ralph Slate, Chair of the Springfield Historical Commission, focused on the fate of 73 State Street, also known as the United Electric Building, “Since the tower has been removed, we should relooking at the structure to see if it can be saved.”
Ivelisse Gonzalez, a former mayoral candidate panned the removal of tower, likening MGM’s decision to a form of bait & switch, selling the city a “Rolls-Royce” only to get a “bicycle.” “That is the way everybody is seeing it in my community.”
Evan Plotkin praised the change as more conducive the city’s form, papering over the mandate for a tower in the 2013 referendum.
Michael Mathis, President of MGM Springfield, was blunter. Cost drove the change. Though armed with reviews from Condé Nast, Mathis emphasized escalating costs for construction, including glass and steel.
“We didn’t assume 18 more months of escalation,” Mathis said, referring to the opening delay caused by the longer timetable for I-91’s rehabilitation.
Much of the conversation proceeded as a back and forth among councilors and Mathis. Some councilors expressed reservations about the new design. Others were all-in. However, even during this conversation, the poor communication between the mayor and the council resurfaced.
“The Council has not been consulted, and when we are consulted it is at the last minute,” at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh said, referring to several items. Turning to Mathis, she suggested the Council have a seat at the table in future discussion. “Ultimately, you need our approval,” she noted.
Mathis who arrived early in the meeting well before MGM was being debated added, “I sensed that at the start of the discussion.” He appeared open to more direct Council participation.
Councilor Allen asked MGM to produce a calendar for the next few months including gaming commission hearings and presentations before the Council for site review and amendments to the host community agreement.
“That to me helps to inform me what I need to know,” for future meetings, Allen said, and know “where we add value, we were are superfluous.” Mathis agreed.
Fenton, ceding the gavel to participate in the debate, expressed his reservations, but also made clear he was not seeking answers from Mathis at that moment.
“When the time comes, we should know what are they saving,” he said,” What is the benefit to the city?” referring to the absence of the tower.
But Fenton also noted that MGM is not entirely responsible, “Our internal municipal dysfunction is our business and not yours.”
Still, Mathis had a front row seat to it. Earlier, DPW chief Christopher Cignoli discussed the jersey barriers were placed along Main Street near State in anticipation of MGM-related utility work and construction. With sidewalks closed, the barriers allow pedestrians to use to road instead. However, businesses such as McCaffrey’s Public House have lost street parking for their patrons.
The approximate location of the barriers.
Allen said McCaffrey’s has suffered a 22% decline in business and laid off employees since the barriers went up. Caring Health Center and Red Rose Pizzeria, both closer to Union Street, have also experienced problems.
DPW has the authority to initiate temporary road changes for 120 days. That order technically ran out at the end of August, yet the barriers endured. The Traffic Commission, which refers permanent road changes to the Council, does not meet until November, while Councilors had an order Tuesday night to move the barriers immediately.
However, Cignoli cautioned, removing them would require DPW to take away parking on the other side of the street, where McCaffrey’s is located, to facilitate needed utility work safely.
“Is there any compromise position that allow businesses that are there…to have parking there for a certain period of time?” Allen asked.
Although acknowledging parking has disappeared, Cignoli said only eight spaces on Main Street were affected. Moreover, the host community agreement with MGM permanently eliminates the spots.
Allen made a motion to committee, but Fenton, speaking from the floor, opposed it.
“The rules of the road is a City Council decision,” he said. Though the changes are in the agreement with MGM, he said the Council was to be fully involved in enacting those changes, rather than effected by the DPW’s temporary powers.
“The spirit is for the department to test road impediments,” Fenton asserted. “I believe that the barriers are illegal. It is clear that the authority to place them there for this period of time is only in this room”
Nevertheless, over Fenton’s objection, councilors sent the matter to the Maintenance and Development Committee for further review.
Many councilors expressed frustration at the mayor leaving the body in the dark, but only Fenton articulated it as a diminution of the Council’s power. Like Ramos’s discussing the TIF though, Fenton’s remarks seemed as much a defense as a warning about the decay of checks and balances in Springfield.
“I’m constantly struggling to make sure we are respected in these process,” he said. “My intentions are true and honest, to be sure we play the role we are required to under the charter.”