Take My Council, Please: In Those Days Caesar Domenicus Decreed…
SPRINGFIELD—It is possible 2018 may go down as one of the most legislatively active years for the City Council in recent memory. Though not all efforts succeeded, the body aggressively moved multiple bills Some passed. Some did so over the mayor’s veto. Others did not make it over the finish line.
Monday’s meeting continued that pattern. New laws on marijuana and police oversight crossed the threshold. The Welcoming Communities Trust (WCT) ordinance passed its final step by a veto-proof margin—which it will need. That’s before all the financial housekeeping at every meeting.
As with other nights featuring the WCT, the meeting ran late. Councilors opposed to it objected to taking it out of order.
After the agenda ended at nearly 10pm, councilors informally nominated the 2019 President and Vice-President. At-large Councilor Justin Hurst and Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams, respectively, shall hold those titles next year.
One initiative Hurst unveiled Monday was an ordinance to start Council meetings at 6:30pm instead of 7pm. Hurst said that on longer nights, an earlier start time would benefit the public and minimize legislative fatigue.
Comptroller Pat Burns presented a revenue/expenditure report. The Council received a briefing on a tax break for Big Y’s pending expansion on Roosevelt Avenue.
The local grocery titan’s headquarters has an expiring break from the 90’s. Given its distribution center expansion, the parties are negotiating a new incentive. Councilors should receive it in January.
The Council accepted elder affairs, traffic enforcement and emergency management grants. It also unanimously greenlit a six-year lease on a Fire Department water pumper.
Among unfinished ordinances, only rules governing recreational marijuana establishments passed. The ordinance covers fines, facility report, reviews and other issues not in the zoning ordinance.
The vote was 11-0. Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs was absent. Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos abstained. In September, Ramos filed an ethics disclosure for a potential, but heretofore unrealized interest in a recreational marijuana facility.
The WCT ordinance was not the only perceived challenge to Mayor Domenic Sarno’s eminence. The first was an override of his Police Commission veto.
In 2016, councilors revived the five-member civilian panel to run Pearl Street. The move reversed a Control Board-imposed decision to vest these powers in a single, sworn commissioner. Hiring, discipline, promotion and presumably organization would go to the Commission. Daily operations would therefore fall to a chief-like figure.
That ordinance was not to take effect until Commissioner John Barbieri’s contract expires this May. Commissioners also required Council confirmation, which contravenes the city charter.
The new ordinance axes Council confirmation and revives the Commission immediately.
On December 3, it passed third step 11-1. At-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield abstained. Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea dissented. Both voted no Monday.
Ramos, the outgoing Council President, joined the debate to emphasize the ordinance was not about Barbieri.
“My vote tonight is not an indictment on the current police commissioner,” Ramos said. He all but dared Sarno to defy the ordinance and reappoint Barbieri without going through the new Commission.
The mayor “is entitled to his own opinion, but he is not entitled to his own laws. If he chooses not to follow the law, there will be consequences,” Ramos continued.
Whitfield however questioned both the ordinance’s legality and its effectiveness.
She questioned whether superseding Barbieri’s contract was legal and observed crime has fallen under Springfield’s current system. Whitfield remarked police brutality also existed under the old commission.
City Solicitor Ed Pikula did not directly answer Whitfield, but he informed councilors that Barbieri’s contract had, per its terms, self-extended six months. This was because Sarno intends to reappoint him.
Both Pikula and Whitfield repeated a mayoral claim that a commission is antiquated. Evidence for that is thin, at least in New England. Shea argued the ordinance just added bodies to the process.
Supporters focused on transparency.
“Unfortunately, we don’t always get the answers we’re looking for,” Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez said. He then noted US Department of Justice investigations and Officer Gregg Bigda’s escapes from termination. Video allegedly shows Bigda threatening juvenile suspects in 2016. The feds indicted him in October for that incident in suburbia.
At-large Councilor Timothy Ryan, a member of the former Commission, said Sarno has announced he wants to reappoint Barbieri. However, there is no transparency as to his desert.
“That’s one of the benefits of having a public process,” Ryan said.
With the override approved, the immediate implications are unclear. Barbieri will likely keep authority over personnel through at least May. After that things become fuzzy. Commission supporters may sue to compel compliance.
The WCT Ordinance process was somewhat less tame.
The mayor has needlessly stoked hysteria and fear on the issue. He has claimed the ordinance would make Springfield a sanctuary city. That phrase has no legal import and is little more than a rhetorical flourish nativists employ.
Rather, the WCT codifies existing police department policy to not ask about immigration status and applies it to all city employees. There are exceptions for inquiries mandated by law. City interactions with Immigration & Customs Enforcement would be limited except where required.
WCT also follows a 2017 Supreme Judicial Court Decision, Commonwealth v. Lunn. As Councilor Gomez explained, that decision barred state law enforcement agencies hold suspects on ICE detainer requests alone.
“Our state supreme court ruled that those types of nonjudicial detainers violate the law and the [state] constitution,” he said.
In an impassioned speech, Gomez recalled Sarno’s confrontation with South Congregational Church. It had provided sanctuary to Gisella Collazo, a married mother of US citizens, who faced deportation.
The Ward 1 councilor mused on the privilege of being Puerto Rican (and thus US citizenship) and standing up for the voiceless. He respected Sarno’s public service. Yet, Gomez could not countenance the mayor’s fact-free, increasingly nasty campaign against the ordinance, which media often uncritically magnified.
“It is really disrespectful, especially when it comes to the harassment my colleagues have received,” Gomez said.
Gomez knocked down myths about the ordinance, but he did propose changes. The amendments allow police inquiries into status solely to find resolution of open criminal probes.
The change came after a December 13 General Government Committee meeting. According to minutes, Barbieri worried police investigating a specific crime could not inquire into immigration status to identify a suspect. Councilors agreed to accommodate his concerns.
Councilor Ryan linked the issue to the Christmas season, as he had linked the Collazo case to Easter.
“For the last 30 years, the United States has refused to take the appropriate action,” he said. “We are left with these people who are in our community, who are working” and are entitled to schools, fire protection and code enforcement under law.
Councilor Shea, one of the three noes, tried to tiptoe across a bed of hot coals carrying a gallon of gasoline. He may have spilled it on himself.
The WCT ordinance, Shea said, may attract undocumented immigrants. Data suggest the largest undocumented populations go to places with booming economies, something Springfield does not exactly have. Shea also claimed undocumented populations experience higher crime.
His colleagues pushed back.
“That just doesn’t make any kind of sense at all,” Councilor Whitfield said as undocumented persons don’t want such attention. She also called out lies on Shea’s Facebook page—not necessarily from him—and pressed Shea to explain how the undocumented used more services than they paid in taxes. Whitfield later clarified she was not calling Shea a liar.
At-large councilor Jesse Lederman asked Shea to identify hte law the city would be blowing off were WCT passed (Shea never answered).
These retorts to Shea drew a rebuke from at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, pleading for decorum.
“Every councilor here has the right to their opinion. They do not have to justify their opinion,” she said. “It is their opinion and based on their facts.” She then said she received concerns from residents like those Shea articulated.
Opponents have directed invective at councilors. Yet, in a telling moment in the chamber, Walsh’s remarks were met with an energetic, but lonesome blip of applause.
The ordinance passed 10-3. Shea, Walsh and Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen voted no. Only nine are necessary to override Sarno.
The Council also accepted a 2016 state law Monday that authorizes the creation of special purpose funds. The same order dedicated half of the 3% local option tax on recreational marijuana sales to neighborhood stabilization efforts with 1.5 miles of the shop.
Lederman, a co-sponsor, said Springfield could glean upwards of $2 million in local option revenue from pot shops. But he cautioned that could ebb as other communities’ dispensaries open. That tax is not the only revenue localities can collect from recreational marijuana purveyors.
Sarno vetoed that, too, claiming he supported the concept, but the 50% diversion was not fiscally prudent. He wants only 25%, the minimum allowed.
The move surprised councilors. It is not clear whether this is more mayoral power-hogging or a legitimate concern. Lederman told WMassP&I negotiations are ongoing.
The order passed unanimously. Should not compromise manifest, the Council could ignore Sarno and set the earmark at 50%.
Before 2013, Sarno had not vetoed anything as mayor. Now he vetoes multiple bills a year. Some, like the chief diversity officer ordinance, held, but the Council has mostly gotten its way. It likely will on the WCT.
This much is certain. With election next year, there is no incentive for the Council to slow down the lawmaking. Even if Sarno win reelection, councilors may still claim a mandate to keep up the pace.