Take My Council, Please: Déjà Vu et Déjà Dit…
SPRINGFIELD—With MGM off its docket after weeks of reviews and hearings, the City Council returned its focus to its normal duties. Greeted with a lengthy and technical agenda on bond authorizations and contract approvals, the meeting opened with a push from the community for the city to staff and develop its climate change initiative.
The bulk of the meeting centered on financial matters. Questions about process delayed authorization of a five-year school foodservice contract, dredging up longstanding concerns about limited notice the Council often receives on items.
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea was absent from Monday’s meeting due to a personal commitment.
The meeting opened with pleas for the city to move on its climate action and appoint a coordinator for it. Many emphasized poor air quality, particularly in Springfield’s poorer quarters like the North End.
City activist Ivette Hernandez described the toll bad air had taken noting the “times I had to take from work to attend to my kids” and “time my kids had to take away from school to be in the doctor’s office.”
Arise for Social Justice Executive Director Michaelann Bewsee, while praising some city officials work, said appointing a climate change coordinator “would not just be overseeing what Springfield, the city of, is doing, but also what the rest of the community is doing.” She pointed to Columbia Gas’s hundreds of methane leaks in Springfield. Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
Tina Quagliato, a city disaster recovery official speaking later on said some of these issues would be addressed with a grant the Council approved Monday night.
Seniors angry about naming the senior center slated for Blunt Park after former state rep and Democratic party luminary Raymond Jordan presented the Council a petition urging the building be named after nobody. Kathleen Murphy, an East Forest Park resident, said Mayor Domenic Sarno and other officials would not even entertain opponents’ comments.
“We need to put something in place where they don’t go sticking names on any building they want,” she said. Council President Michael Fenton said the Council would forward the petition to Sarno and the Parks Commission.
Just before the meeting began, Councilors also welcomed former councilor Angelo Puppolo who had received the “Person of the Year” award from Springfield’s branch of UNICO. Councilors honored Puppolo, now a state rep, for his work and advocacy for Springfield at the State House.
The grants before the Council were approved easily. In addition to disaster preparedness funding from the feds and MassMutual, the council accepted grant money for library services, homeless health care, opioid addiction, police anti-gang efforts and to repair the long-neglected Van Horn Park dam.
Ronald Senez, a nominee for the License Commission, received confirmation without any trouble.
General Government Committee chair, at-large councilor Justin Hurst, declared, “We approve Col. Senez unanimously and we hope you will do the same.” Councilors did so and praised Senez’s commitment to use his own judgement and not parrot the administration’s policy.
Utility reports and quitclaim deeds were granted although one deed passed 11-1 with Fenton in dissent.
The meeting’s comity disintegrated amid a School Department request to authorize a five-year contract for student meal services. School Department Chief Financial Officer Patrick Roach asked the Council to allow a five-year contract to make the bid more competitive as bidders could amortize costs over five rather than three years.
“A three-year contract would have effectively left Sodexho as only vender,” Roach said. “Five years forces [Sodexho] to compete with others who might be willing to bid.” Roach noted the contract was actually for one year, but had four one-year options.
State law requires a community’s legislative body to authorize contract longer than three years, although bodies do not need to approve the contracts themselves.
Roach added the city would be building a new facility to make school meals to save money and in-source some meal preparation. The United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the school lunch program, will allow the schools to pay the city rent to finance construction bonds.
Councilors were angered the schools had already issued the request for proposal for five years. Roach and Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Timothy Plante tried to assure Councilors their vote was not taken for granted. The RFP could be amended if the Council demurred.
Finance Committee Chair and Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen, said he had no problem voting on the five-year authorization Monday, but recommended sending other financial items back to committee.
Fenton observed the foodservice contract experienced similar hiccups before. In 2011, the Council was informed that its authorization is only required before the contract is executed. The problem was settled when the Finance Committee’s chair, then Fenton, was added to the contract’s RFP committee.
Monday night, some like Williams, argued that the Council’s power was being usurped, although it was unclear what a happy medium would be. Williams said the Council should vote on a finished contract, but that has also been criticized for involving the Council too late. Granting authorization before the RFP process might not allay councilors’ concerns about seemingly writing a blank check.
Roach and Plante said granting the five-year authorization would not affect the Council’s ability to weigh in. “We have no problem bringing the project back for certification,” Plante offered, a concession state procurement law does not require.
All other financial matters including bonding for capital improvements and using excess bond funds to repair City Hall were returned to the Finance Committee.
The Council also approved a resolve urging mayor—and, as amended, other appointing authorities—to fill vacant seats on dormant city commissions including the Ethics, Youth and Residency Compliance commissions. The Human Relations Commission was added by amendment.
Some councilors balked. “It’s the mayor’s prerogative,” Walsh said, whom to appoint if anybody at all.
The mayor can appoint whomever he wants within the guidelines of statute or ordinance, but typically the obligation to appoint at all is not discretionary. All commissions in question require the mayor to make appointments under their enacting ordinances.
“It is critically important that we encourage the mayor to fill these positions,” Hurst said, adding the appointment process should be transparent and inclusive. The resolve passed on a voice vote.
The final item Monday was a revival of a 2013 proposal to limit waivers to the city’s employee residency ordinance. As explained by Fenton, the change would eliminate waivers for department heads and deputies. Other non-residents employees hired or promoted by the city could obtain a waiver from human resources, but the job would be reposted first to allow city residents another bite at the apple.
Though some councilors hesitating about broadcasting what individuals were seeking waivers, the ordinance passed 1st step. Allen observed the Council passed the same ordinance in 2013 only to have Mayor Sarno veto it. The Council could not muster the nine votes needed to override his veto then.
He urged his colleagues to remember that when should they face the same situation again.