(Re)Institution of Relevance, Respect Part of Fenton’s Presidential Legacy…
SPRINGFIELD—Every schoolchild in America hears about separations of powers and checks and balance. They exist on all levels of government. In Massachusetts’s third largest city, however, another phrase wins out: “Plan A,” often shorthanded as strong-mayor.
The city charter and other state laws do endow great power in Springfield’s mayor. Recent history has seen further erosion to the City Council’s power. But as his time as Council President comes to a close, Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton hopes that he has stemmed and even reversed what he considers a decline in the City Council’s image/self-image and role.
“I care very deeply about this institution,” Fenton said. “One of my main goals in becoming council president was to restore some missing respect and professionalism in” the Council chamber.
From stronger employee residency rules in ordinance and collective bargaining contracts to casino and tax incentive oversight to broadening Council transparency and involving the public via ad hoc committees, Fenton has presided over a lot in three years.
“His grasp of the legal issues, I think, aided him in his confidence of running the meetings,” Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea said of Fenton’s tenure.
A Millennial and a City’s History
Elected as the city’s youngest councilor in 2009 (there are now four Millennial councilors), Fenton made history as council president too. He is the youngest and first openly-LGBT person to hold the title in Springfield. Past presidents rarely served back-to-back one-year terms. Fenton served three.
He attributed his unusually long tenure to a desire—ostensibly shared by his colleagues—to have a land use attorney like himself lead the Council amid MGM’s design changes last fall.
“I thought his stewardship through the casino process was quite impressive,” Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards said.
Though he voted against the changes, councilors said that Fenton negotiated and organized a review process that reassured a public unnerved by MGM’s alterations.
Yet, Fenton’s decision to challenge the prevailing attitudes about the Council and its relationship to city government may prove the most consequential.
That put him on a collision course with Mayor Domenic Sarno. It is tempting to see this in the context of Fenton and Sarno long-running rivalry (Fenton toyed with running for mayor in 2015). That would diminish the role majorities and supermajorities of councilors and their—by extension the public’s—desire to change policy.
Monday night the body is expected to issue its second major rebuke to the mayor and override his veto on reestablishing the Police Commission.
“I’m proud of the work on the Police Commission. Taken us seven years to get here,” he said.
Mayor Sarno’s staff declined to comment or did not respond to opportunities to offer a counternarrative on Fenton’s tenure. After an event at Union Station last week, Sarno refused to entertain any questions from WMassP&I.
Legislative Body & Soul
In an interview the week before his last meeting as president, Fenton, who turns 30 next month, discussed issues before the Council and in his ward, but also his desire to restore the prestige of the body as an institution. It was something he alluded to several times when he was sworn in as president.
“The members of this Council are the heirs to far greater forefathers, but our mission is the same,” he said in his 2014 inaugural speech. “Make this city a better tomorrow than it was yesterday.”
Many things may have undermined the Council over the years. Relegated to near-irrelevance under the Control Board, a period bookended by particularly assertive mayors, councilors’ drive to do more than approve the budget and land use permits seemingly waned.
Meanwhile in the Council chamber, civility and fairness broke down. Councilors squabbled over agenda minutiae. Some presidents ignored the rules and colleagues when they stood to speak.
To counter this, Fenton revised Rule 20—a motion that halts debate on financial matters—streamlined agendas, ensured councilors had their say and embraced the role of parliamentarian, something perhaps lacking since now-judge William Boyle’s presidency in the 1990’s.
“He’s never afraid to take a moment to confer with the clerk or grab a copy of the rules,” Edwards said. “That’s what I like. That consistency of professionalism.”
Delays, like committee referrals, including those Fenton instigates, still happen, of course.
Those interviewed for this article, however, declined to compare Fenton’s presidency to that of his predecessors.
Closer to Home
The position has not changed Fenton, a Type A personality able to turn on the charm and the wrath at will. It has required a greater time commitment, though. His presidency coincided with the 2014 gubernatorial race—Fenton was a major supporter of political mentor Steve Grossman’s candidacy—and personal milestones like his wedding this Fall.
“I don’t have any regrets at all,” he said. “I have had the support of my family and husband to make those time commitments.”
Nor have neighborhood groups complained Fenton’s presidency detracted from his representation of Ward 2. Whether potential opponents in next year’s election will argue otherwise remains to be seen.
Fenton was eager to note his accomplishments in Ward 2. The ward roughly runs between I-291 and the Chicopee border from Bay State Medical Center to Roosevelt Avenue. It encompasses Atwater Park, East Springfield, Hungry Hill and Liberty Heights.
He listed projects he has worked on such as the reconstruction of the Van Horn dam and Mary Troy Park and the abutting senior center built out of the old Liberty Heights Library.
“He’s extremely receptive to any issues and concerns that the residents have” and provides “extra time to work through some of those problems,” Kathleen Brown, President of the East Springfield Neighborhood Council stated.
Fenton briefed her organization on ongoing issues and worked with residents on re-purposing the former Westinghouse Property—now CRRC’s railcar plant—and the new PVTA facility and medical marijuana dispensary both slated for the Cottage Street area.
“We’re fortunate that he’s willing to talk and share,” Brown said.
A League (and Agenda) of Their Own
There have been setbacks, too. In 2014 and 2015, courts ruled against opponents of the biomass power plant slated for Page Boulevard, a project Fenton has since joining the Council.
“I’m proud that we fought the fight. We never thought it was a slam dunk,” he paused, then added, “It’s worth noting that it’s not built yet. Construction has not started on that site.”
More recent battles mirrored the biomass fight. Fenton was a key player, but it was the Council as a whole that stood up and refused to accept the administration’s line.
Earlier this year the Council overrode Sarno’s veto of changes to the city’s employee residency ordinance. Most notable, waivers for top staff were eliminated. The administration insisted this was illegal, yet it has not actively defied the new ordinance since.
The revival of the Police Commission has followed a similar script, although a legal battle is more likely. At the last meeting, the Council passed the ordinance 10-2 with one absence. Sarno promptly vetoed setting up the override for Monday. Sabre-rattling on both sides suggest an inevitable court battle on the legality and enforcement of the ordinance.
City Solicitor Ed Pikula did not reply to a request for comment.
The residency and Police Commission ordinances are part of a broader legislative push. The Council passed a casino ethics ordinance and quality of life measures like a stronger leash law and pawn shops regulations. Sarno signed those.
“There’s a lot more that we could have done, but I really truthfully believe that we did more in these three years than we did the aggregate four years before that,” he said.
This legislative onslaught may reflect more than what is happening inside the chamber, though. External forces gave councilors a chance to stand out.
“We’ve had a couple of big things,” Councilor Shea said. “Certainly the casino project has got to be one of the biggest projects the Council has had to deal with.”
Likewise it was the video of Detective Gregg Bigda that fueled the push to revive the Police Commission this time. Other progress like that on residency was the result of years of pressure on city labor negotiators and legislative starts and stops.
Not the Way We Were
“The mayor runs the government,” Fenton explained. “We serve to organize the government, to check his running of the government, pass laws where necessary and oversee land use.”
Next year Fenton must continue to make that case from an ordinary councilor’s desk. Although, there are some upsides to stepping down from the dais.
“One of the more difficult things about being council president is abstaining from debate on the floor. It is one of my favorite things about being a councilor,” he said.
Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos has declared he has the votes to be the next president. However, Fenton does not expect a return to a place where councilors, erroneously citing Plan A, think land use is their principle concern.
“I think Orlando is going to do a very, very good job,” Fenton said.
“The Council is in very good hands.”