Take My Council, Please: But Will They Notice Me…?
SPRINGFIELD—The skimpiness of the evening’s agenda was no impediment for a lengthy and at times Byzantine City Council meeting. Though subjects like tax rates, snow removal and parking bans are familiar matters, councilors managed to expend considerable time and summon from the well of procedural arcana as well.
As the holidays approach and 2016-2017 City Council winds up, councilors faced few particularly weighty subjects. Indeed, the holiday spirit—and weather reports—seemingly imposed a seasonal flair onto the agenda. Ordinances to better regulate the dumping of snow in streets and enforce the parking bans seemed straightforward enough. Yet, they dragged to passage.
The Council was at full-strength Monday. Councilor-elect Jesse Lederman joined them and observed from the seat to the right of the president’s podium.
The meeting opened with a tirade during public speak-out from Damian Phillips about speeding in the McKnight area of Springfield. He accused the mayor of lying to him about solutions he proposed to calm traffic. He easily exceeded his allotted three minutes concluding only when councilors assured him the Traffic Commission would hear his concerns.
From there, Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen, the Finance Committee Chair, reported on financial items on the evening’s agenda. He also announced a schedule of special meetings tomorrow and next Monday before the Council sets the tax rate. That prompted some complaints about the 3:30 p.m. time from at-large Councilor Bud Williams.
General Government Committee Chair Justin Hurst, an at-large councilor, detailed his panel’s review of the snow ordinances that would get so much attention later.
Finally, Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, who chairs the Responsible Employer Ordinance committee, notified the body of an impending amendment the REO.
Financial items passed without any trouble, including the revenue and expenditure report for October, acceptance of funds to repair the Van Horn Park dam, and a grant for traffic enforcement. Utility reports and a token fire grant also received acceptance by voice vote.
The Council approved payment of a $33,076 bill from last year on a unanimous recorded vote.
The snow ordinances did not sail through as easily—or at least one of them.
Councilors were considering second and third steps—ultimately passed simultaneously—on an ordinance that would penalize property owners that plow snow off their property and into city streets. Springfield Public Works Director Christopher Cignoli explained the ordinance was aimed at commercial property owners main arteries like Boston Road, Carew Street, Parker Street, State Street and Sumner Avenue.
After some debate the councilor finally got around to passing the ordinance 12-1 with Council President Orlando Ramos in dissent.
However, another ordinance to harmonize fines for ignoring the parking ban during snowstorms was even bumpier.
Cignoli said the ordinance began after councilors raised concerns about enforcement of the ban. It ultimately took the form of standardizing the fine at $50. However, upon further review, it became clear the fine was already $50 in place. However, there is also $15 fine in existence. Often unsure which applied, police would usually write tickets for the latter. The ordinance before the Council would clarify the difference pending a more sweeping solution. That is now being developed in the Springfield Traffic Commission.
Hurst, whose committee had reviewed the ordinance announced his support despite earlier misgivings. However, he asked Cignoli to make sure word go out to residents. “I would only ask that people are informed that people are notified.”
With that as inspiration, Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton reached for a rarely used Council rule that would enable the body to pass the ordinance immediately. Under the rules and the City Charter, the Council can pass ordinance intended to protect residents and property in one vote rather than the customary three.
With snow predicted this weekend, Fenton argued that one set of rules should be in force for the entire winter.
This prompted a lengthy discussion about how Springfield would notify residents about the change—to the extent that a significant change was actually happening. Councilors Kateri Walsh and Marcus Williams objected to the immediate enactment, which would limit the time for residents to know about the change.
As of this posting, there was a chance of snow showers this weekend.
The struggle over whether to pass the bill immediately or go through the normal process seemed to be a battle over consistency and notice. Yet, there was also exasperation among councilors. Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez, noting the high poverty in his ward, expressed little sympathy for those already ignoring the parking ban.
The amendment to the ordinance text to enable emergency passage passed 8-5. Councilors Allen, Walsh, both Williamses, and Ramos were in dissent. However, to utilize the emergency procedure, a 2/3 vote was necessary. That failed on the same 8-5 vote. Instead the Council could only pass first step. Final passage can occur at the next meeting.
The meeting closed with a resolution calling for the legislature to reduce the zone outside polling places within which campaign paraphernalia is verboten. Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs described it as a reaction to claims of harassment constituents and supporters have faced while campaigning near polls.
Twiggs’s resolution, which had several cosponsors, urged the zone shrink to 50 feet from 150 feet. A brief search of the legislature’s website turned up no filed legislation to this effect.
However, the issues began to drift from there with several councilors lamenting rules that limit signs sizes or bar unattended signs outside polling stations. That ultimately led Councilor Gomez to stand and praise hard-working candidates—naming Councilor-elect Lederman in particular.
The resolve passed on a voice vote. The meeting closed with a promise from Allen to hold another tax rate meeting in the evening.
On a fundamental level, the concern and care about notifying Springfield residents was admirable and appropriate. But in another way, it reflected a deeper trouble for the body. It got caught in the weeds of a rather simple issue. In fairness, this has become less common than it was in the past. This is in part due to turnover over the last few years. But as signs point to Springfield’s best (local) hope being its legislative body, it can ill-afford missing the forest for the bark on the trees.