Take My Council, Please: Only the End of the Beginning (Hopefully)…
UPDATED: 1/16/16 1:29PM: To reflect a correction. Councilor Edwards led the Maintenance Development Committee in 2015, not Walsh, the 2016 chair.
SPRINGFIELD—Opening its first meeting featuring new members with the election of a new City Clerk, the City Council began what some hope will be a productive year. However, Monday, the Council’s only regular meeting in January, featured a limited agenda. Most of its responsibilities were approving grants and financial transfers.
Council President Michael Fenton also announced committee assignments for 2016, which could set the tone for the body as well. Because two new members had joined the body, some shakeup was necessary. The changes was not particularly dramatic, though.
Ward 6 Councilor Kenneth Shea was absent from Monday’s meeting.
Before Monday’s meeting, a screening committee formally reviewed former assistant city solicitor Anthony Wilson’s credentials. That committee then recommended the Council elect Wilson to the post and replace retiring City Clerk Wayman Lee.
Mayor Domenic Sarno had big-footed the Council’s selection process by recommending Wilson last year. Many media outlets had misreported this as a nomination—the city charter and state law endow the Council alone with the power of selecting the clerk—but Wilson’s good reputation among councilors smoothed over whatever political turbulence Sarno’s intrusion into process had wrought.
Wilson was elected on a 12-0 vote. He will take office on January 29.
With much of its agenda still in committee awaiting review, the Council’s biggest moves were financial. Among moneys accepted were funds for police youth programs and the Health and Humans Services Department’s dental care program for the homeless.
Smaller grants for the animal control and elder affairs departments were accepted without debate.
The Council also approved financial transfers to cover the departure of employees including Lee and the mayor’s former communications director James Leydon. Both Lee and Leydon have or had unused vacation time the city owed them.
City financial officials explained that this normally does not require a transfer from contingencies. The city simply uses unspent funds accumulated while a position is vacant to pay back vacation. Because both Lee and Leydon will be and/or were immediately replaced, this option is unavailable. The transfer passed 11-1. Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen was in dissent.
The other transfer concerned low wage employees of the parks department, such as those working in summer youth programs. The funds will bring their wages to $10 per hour, matching the commonwealth’s minimum wage. Municipal workers are not covered by the state minimum wage, which is higher than the federal one, to which the city must adhere.
City financial officials explained that when the current budget was adopted, budget writers did not know if the city would honor the new state minimum wage anyway. Because it decided to do so half way through the budget year, transfer funds from the contingency account was needed. Because of the action taken Monday evening, it is likely the city will also honor next year’s minimum wage increase and build that into the FY2017 budget.
Aside from planning and utility reports, accepted without debate, the only other item was authorizing the School Department to enter into a five-year contract with a vendor installing fiber-optic cables into the schools. The contract is expected to improve the schools’ bandwidth tenfold. The contract is funded through the School Department budget.
Councilors engaged in a lengthy discussion about their plans ahead after the meeting. Over the next several weeks, the Council will be receive testimony about on MGM’s casino design, taking votes on street closures, the site plan and amendments to the host community agreement. Because some of these procedures will be conducted under state zoning law, Council President Fenton warned councilors that absences during these hearings could limit their ability to vote on the items.
Before the meeting, Fenton released his committee assignments for his third year leading the Council.
The most significant changes were among chairmanships. Councilors Thomas Ashe and Orlando Ramos will remain the head the Public Safety and Economic Development committees respectively. Allen will take over Finance from Shea, while Justin Hurst takes over General Government from Allen. Kateri Walsh will take over Maintenance & Development from Melvin Edwards
Freshman councilor Adam Gomez will head Health and Human Services, replacing But Williams, who will continue to lead the State/Federal Relations committee. Timothy Rooke remains in charge of the Audit Committee. Edwards also keeps his chairmanship of the Responsible Employee Ordinance committee. The Council’s representatives on the Capital Improvement and School Building Committees were also changed.
Marcus Williams will lead the Elder Affairs Committee and the Young Professionals Committee, the latter being one of three ad hoc committee Fenton will maintain in 2016. The ad hoc committees’ includes individuals in the community, too. The Labor Advisory Committee, chaired by Ashe, and the Neighborhood Business Development Committee, chaired by Walsh, will continue in 2016.
Fenton told WMassP&I that the other ad hoc committees dating from 2014, will be wound down this year and issue their final reports this year.