Take My Council, Please: So Comes Great Responsibility…
SPRINGFIELD—After nearly two months of kulturkampf seizing the city and local body politic, Springfield councilors took final action to enact the Welcoming Communities Trust ordinance (WCT). Mayor Domenic Sarno had vetoed the measure hours after the Council passed it last month, but Monday the City Council overrode him 10-1.
The chamber was again packed with activists from religious, community and immigrant groups. They broke into cheers after the vote, but the debate was short. Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez, the measure’s lead sponsor, observed almost all that could be said had been. A lengthier debate centered on revising the Responsible Employer Ordinance (REO).
The meeting was the first to begin at 6:30pm instead of 7pm. At-large councilor Kateri Walsh and Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea were absent due to illness and travel respectively.
Shea and Walsh had voted against the WCT last month. In their absence, only Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen dissented Monday. During public speak-out before the meeting, a lone East Forest Park women joined her opposition with Allen’s otherwise silent no vote.
The relative calm was in stark contrast to the hours-long debates that consumed previous meetings. Aside from the lone speaker in opposition, objections to the ordinance were largely confined to a burst of social media flatulence.
Other notable wind included Sarno’s 9:17PM statement claiming, falsely, the ordinance would cost the city money. Aping his own previously heaved invective, Sarno claimed WCT would make Springfield a “sanctuary city.
“Sanctuary city” is a phrase of scant legal import. It mostly serves as a catalyst for anti-immigrant hysteria.
Several councilors wrote a prebuttal Op-Ed, which The Republican published, to dispel lies WCT opponents had discharged in recent weeks.
Absent an act of Congress—unlikely given the Democratic House—Springfield faces almost no legal consequences for passing the WCT. The measure is inherently passive. It merely bars inquiries into immigration status when residents interact with city departments. The ordinance includes exceptions when state or federal law mandate the collection of immigration status.
The new ordinance also limits the Springfield Police Department’s interaction with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That provision largely echoes a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that said local or state enforcement cannot honor ICE’s civil detainers. Springfield officials still cannot ignore warrants ICE secures from a judge.
In closing debate on the issue, Councilor Gomez observed the ordinance defended residents with zero political agency but nonetheless suffer because of Washington’s intransigence on immigration.
“I think this override means so much to a demographic of people who feels so hopeless and helpless,” he said.
Earlier in the meeting, councilors accepted positive committee reports on school renovations and grants. The school renovations fall under a Massachusetts School Building Authority program to maintain existing buildings. Unlike the new school buildings, which the Capital Asset department manages, these school projects will be managed by the Parks, Recreation and Buildings Department.
A full list of schools submitted for the MSBA’s consideration is listed here.
The Council accepted a $2.3 million grant for lead paint remediation. Also greenlit were smaller grants for the police, fire, and parks departments, including a new K9 unit pooch.
Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton also reported his marijuana policy committee’s plans to develop standards ahead of a swell of recreational marijuana applications.
On a 11-0 vote, the Council approved a tax incremental financing package for Big Y Foods’ new structure at the company’s Roosevelt Avenue campus.
The local grocery goliath will build a massive distribution warehouse as part of its growth strategy. Matt D’Amour, the company’s veep for real estate, said other sites were on their radar. Among them was the former Hallmark distribution center in Enfield.
“Our intentions with this is really to grow the business long term,” said D’Amour, whose family owns the chain. The warehouse will let the company to distribute foodstuffs from vendors who presently lack the infrastructure to distribute in the region. Thirty-two jobs will be created immediately with more to come as the chain—hopefully—expands.
Richard Allen, the chair of the Board of Assessors, said Big Y would save $4.6 million over the eight-year life of the TIF. However, he added that city coffers would still reap about $6 million extra as a result of the project.
Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos asked D’Amour if Big Y’s contractor knew about the new TIF rules councilors had imposed last year. The TIF ordinance allows a process to claw back tax benefits from developers who violate wage and hour, health and safety, and other rules. D’Amour said their developer knew about the ordinance and would comply with it.
Councilors also formally adopted a new order to earmark 35% of the local option tax imposed on recreational marijuana. The money will fund programs to mitigate the impact legal pot shops have on the surrounding neighborhood. The figure is a compromise from the 50% diversion councilors approved last month. Sarno had vetoed it, urging 25% instead. The small amount passed without opposition.
Aside from reshuffling items in committee, the Council’s final action was first step passage on an REO rewrite. The REO encourages the hiring of women/minority/veteran contractors and/or contractors that employ those demographics. It also aims to encourage hiring of city residents. However, the ordinance has languished due to legal complications and limp enforcement.
Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, who serves on the REO committee, introduced the revisions. Despite preferring $500,000 as the level at which the REO applies, Edwards’s bill reflected the administration’s favored figure of $1 million. He welcomed an amendment to lower the starting point for the ordinance.
Councilor Ramos took Edwards up on his offer.
“The original threshold had $250,000,” Ramos said. “It isn’t too much to ask from a contractor if you’re receiving” city funds to hire residents, he continued.
That launched a debate among councilors as to whether they were moving too fast by starting with a $500,000 instead of double that. Allen, the other councilor on the REO committee, urged patience to allow city officials to allow enforcement to get up and running.
At-large councilor Timothy Ryan concurred. “It’s a sea change,” he said of the revisions. “Contracting law has had a rich history in this commonwealth of abuse,” Ryan added, but “Nobody here has seen [the ordinance] in practice, nobody here has seen it in operation.”
At-large councilor Tracye Whitfield, recalling her own experience as a construction contractor said other government entities enforce such rules at far smaller amounts. “If the state does it, why can’t we do it?”
The Council voted 7-4 to pick $500,000. Councilors Allen, Fenton, Ryan, and E. Henry Twiggs opposed the move. The ordinance needs two more votes to go to the mayor.
Victorious on the WCT, councilors are moving on to other matters. The REO could prove more vexing, though. The WCT will be law. The mayor and the administration must follow it. Even if the Police Commission ends up in court, either it will exist or it won’t.
The REO is different. Its efficacy will take time to flesh out and is ultimately contingent on the administration’s eagerness to implement it. Councilors say now it the REO is toothless and want to change that. Yet, even after revisions pass, knowing for certain whether the ordinance has bite may prove elusive.