Take My Council, Please: Banned in Boston…& Now Springfield?…
SPRINGFIELD—After weeks and months of fits and starts, the City Council passed its ban on the free distribution of plastic bags. However, passage came at the expense of the fee on non-plastic bags provided at retail, intended to discourage consumer use of single-use bags regardless of material. But the apparent conclusion also entailed an admonition for the gratuitous complexity of the debate.
By contrast, the Council appears headed for another longer review—perhaps appropriately—of a new ordinance on police oversight. By a vote of 9-3, Councilor referred the new police complaint board ordinance back to the Public Safety Committee. Councilors largely remain skeptic of the new bill, which would also reverse the ordinance to revive the Police Commission and maintain much of the status quo.
The Council spent relatively little time on the police ordinance. The proposal, which Councilor Michael Fenton and Timothy Ryan put forward, would reverse the Police Commission ordinance and codify the mayor’s police complaint board. Various city departments would also staff the new board.
It was the subject of a Public Safety Committee hearing last week. However, that panel’s chair, Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos, requested a referral back to committee for additional review.
“It’s a conversation that I think should continue,” Ramos said. “I’m not prepared to consider this ordinance in its current form.”
Ryan opposed the request suggesting instead first step pass and the review take place in between Council meetings.
Ostensibly alluding to the recent news about subpoenas, Ryan panned too much delay.
“To just send it off to committee doesn’t serve any of the goals before us,” he said.
But Ramos found support among his colleagues. At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh suggested it was appropriate to defer the Public Safety chair. Jesse Lederman, another at-large councilor, said a committee referral ensure more debate. If the item failed first step, it was dead.
The committee referral passed 9-3. Councilors Fenton, Ryan and Timothy Allen were in dissent and Councilor E. Henry Twiggs did not vote.
With the noted exception of the plastic bag ordinance, the Council breezed through the rest of the its agenda. Comptroller Patrick Burns presented the revenue and expenditures report. He told councilors the budget remained overbudget for now because balancing measures in the police budget passed on April 1. They would appear in the next month’s report.
The Council approved utility petitions, donations to the Police and Fire departments, and deed transfers. The transfers were for land near the Gaucher Ramp on Roosevelt and on Pinecrest Drive to a private developer and the Conservation Commission respectively.
Library Department chief Molly Fogarty presented a $154k grant from the state. The funds, she said, would pay for the substitute library program and defray payroll costs.
In the Better Late than Never department, the Council passed a resolution congratulating Stop & Shop on the conclusion of their strike. The resolution had expressed support for the 31,000 workers whose action had begun on April 11. The resolution did not come sooner because the Council had not met since before the strike began 1. An agreement in principle was reached on Easter, ending one of the largest strikes in recent history.
As for the plastic bag ban, the Council labored through its debate. By Monday night, it was clear the ordinance, in some form, would pass. Earlier, Councilors Lederman and Melvin Edwards, the chairs of the Sustainability & Environment and the General Government committees, feted attendance at a recent joint meeting on the ban. Lederman remarked that some skeptics on the bill had been converted.
Noting that Monday was Earth Day, he said, “This is simply the right thing to do.”
“This is by far not going to solve the issue of climate change. It’s not going to solve on its own the issue of single-use plastic,” Lederman continued. But he noted that the Council has taken firm steps on environmental issues before.
However, Councilor Fenton again raised concerns about the body’s authority to impose the fee on the bags themselves. Lederman countered that a fee on all single-use bags offered at retail helped reduce waste overall. He noted that dozens of communities in Massachusetts, including Boston, had already passed similar bills.
Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez, who sponsored a similar bill shortly after his 2015 election, suggested the Council cap the bag fee, rather than employ a floor. However, that might upend retailers who already charge such fees at a higher rate than the proposed cap.
City Solicitor Ed Pikula, asked about the Council’s authority, conceded he had not researched the issue. However, Pikula said it was possible such fee was beyond the Council’s authority.
The Council scrapped the fee in the end. It then made some technical changes to the enactment dates and definitions. The ordinance passed unanimously save Whitfield who was absent. Mayor Domenic Sarno has not expressed his opinion on the issue, but the Council clearly has the votes to override.
But before the vote, Councilor Edwards offered a critique on the debate itself. He said the ordinance was straightforward and yet councilors spent nearly an hour rehashing its terms. Edwards suggested this did not portend well for far more difficult issues that lie ahead.
In a sense, Edwards is right. The Council entered its meeting all but united on the issue. But it ended up overthinking provisions like the bag fee almost to division. It is also true that the body has become increasingly sensitive to overstepping its authority.
This fear is mostly unfounded here. Although councilors vehemently disagree with Pikula’s opinion on the Police Commission—he says they can’t resurrect it—his office will usually say if an ordinance has legal problems.
But, as residents demand more out of city government, the Council has begun to step up especially where the mayor does not. However,this is unfamiliar and unpredictable territory. Thus, the furtiveness seen tonight will recur, perhaps ensuring Edwards’s prophecy will come to pass.