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Take My Council, Please: “Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be…”

(WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—City councilors continued their legislative blitz on April Fool’s night, passing a new array of laws to reign in pawn shops and tax incentives. But it was no laughing matter. In fact, the bills were extensions of existing rules. Yet they were notably for the furtive unanimity they received while passing into law.

The pawn shop moratorium lacked any controversy, at least among pols. Mayor Domenic Sarno had signed it by the next day. However, the tax break regulations rolled through 45-minute debate on fresh, if familiar concerns the Law Department raised. The Council passed the ordinance anyway, despite misgivings. Unlike the ordinance’s predecessor, however, the mayor ostensibly signed this one.

Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams was absent from Monday’s meeting.

The new tax incremental financing (TIF) ordinance imposes notice and claw back provision for recipients who later violate wage & hour laws, building codes, and safety rules. The Council passed an ordinance for commercial projects last year. But the imbroglio at Silverbrick’s ex-YMCA project exposed a key flaw. The new ordinance did not reach breaks for housing developments.

Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos proposed a new bill that would essentially duplicate the earlier TIF ordinance for housing developments.

Councilor Tim Ryan. (via Facebook/Ryan campaign)

While the item had received its due diligence, two issues suddenly lay down in front of the bill Monday night. The first was an ostensibly new legal opinion outlining potential issues. The second was an objection from at-large Councilor Timothy Ryan about a key phrase.

Specifically, he worried about language that would seem to empower 10-citizen lawsuits, injecting residents into the TIF process.

“The problem with it is the TIF is the tail of the process,” he said. Rather, enforcement should be a city-run process, rather than one residents can sue to enforce.

But Ramos was reluctant to part with the section. At-large Councilor Jesse Lederman concurred, noting that 10-citizen suits were a right under state law. He argued the provision merely allowed a 10-citizen suit if the city found a developer had violated the TIF agreement. Then, residents could sue to force the city to pursuit of revocation of the tax breaks.

In Massachusetts, a 10-citizen suit is a way to use the courts to force government entities to follow the law. In that sense, the 10-citizen suit language was superfluous. The right would exist regardless.

Ryan’s amendment to strike the reference failed 4-7. Councilors Ryan, Timothy Allen, Ken Shea and Kateri Walsh backed the change while Councilor Tracye Whitfield abstained.

As for the legal opinion, Councilor Shea noted its 11 items of concern. The opinion’s author, Tasheena Davis, the Council’s attorney, was not present. Her boss, City Solicitor Ed Pikula, was and he agreed the Council should wait.

Contemplating a delay… (WMassP&I)

The move to committee appeared picked up steam when Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, a supporter of the ordinance, said he hadn’t had a chance to review the opinion.

“I will begrudgingly support a delay,” he said.

Ramos, appearing hurt, noted that the item had considerable review.

“I’m disappointed that now at the 11th hour, now all of a sudden we’re sending it back to committee,” the Ward 8 Councilor said.

But then councilors suddenly realized the opinion raised concerns identical to those related to last year’s ordinance. The body had approved that measure over the mayor’s veto and the city had implemented it.

Then the hesitancy melted away and the ordinance passed unanimously. Even Sarno balked at vetoing. The city clerk’s office confirmed he signed the bill Wednesday.

The rest of the meeting was far less dramatic. The extension of a moratorium on new pawn shops passed unanimously. The measure, which Fenton first proposed six years ago and passed in 2014, had a June expiration date. Now no new pawns shops/junk dealers can open in Springfield until 2022.

MGM’s gaming floor in Springfield.
Some more change is gonna come. (WMassP&I)

Earlier in the meeting, Fenton, the chair of the casino oversight committee, detailed MGM’s plans to invest $11 million in the renovation of the Court Square Building across State Street from their facility. If it goes through, the proposed apartments would satisfy MGM’s housing obligations.

Fenton also reported MGM’s plans to add new bars to its facility.

Ramos, the Public Safety Chair, offered a public safety report on a dirt bike ordinance and oversight of police recruitment efforts. Lederman, the Health & Human Services chair, discussed a proposed senior tax abatement.

Comptroller Pat Burns presented the February Revenue/Expenditure report. He again identified the deficit building in the police overtime account. In past meetings, Burns and other officials have said the developed because of faster than expected attrition at Pearl Street.

The deficit would later disappear thanks to a pair of budget transfers totaling $2 million from free cash. One, for $1.3 million, clears out some retirement costs and pays the newly approved police supervisors contract. It passed without dissent.

The other $700,000 prompted some consternation. Most of the retirements it funded were uncontroversial.

Out of sight, but not out of mind. (WMassP&I)

But the debate indicated the item included $234,000 to pay out former Police Commissioner John Barbieri’s retirement. This led to a stony exchange between Ramos and Pikula on how that even happened.

Pikula said that Barbieri’s contract had automatically extended late last year by six months. It was set to end in May, but he was entitled to notice six months before that if the city did not plan to reappoint him despite the city ordinance reviving the Police Commission. Pikula disclaimed knowledge of negotiations, but indicated the mayor intended to reappoint Barbieri. This had been widely reported at the time. Thus, when Barbieri suddenly retired in February, his contract was set to run through the fall, not May.

What was not explicit in the meeting, but clearly allusive was Barbieri’s payout came because of another provision in his contract. While his abrupt retirement has been couched as a mutual decision, only the mayor’s request for his departure could trigger the payout clause. Thus Barbieri did not simply decide to quit. He was asked to leave.

Nor was he technically fired for cause. That would have sidestep a payout, presuming cause existed.

Ramos urged a committee referral so he could hold Public Safety meetings on this, noting that the money could go to other things.

Councilor Orlando Ramos. He didn’t have as much backup on delaying payment to Barbieri. (WMassP&I)

“We’re talking about, in terms of the budget, a small amount of money,” he said. “That $120,000 could have funded the open gym program for 6 years,” Ramos continued, referencing the extra pay Barbieri got because of his contract’s extension.

Councilors shared Ramos’ concerns, but they  were reluctant to hold up other retirements the transfer would finance.

“We’re still going to have pay this money,” Councilor Whitfield said. “It’s part of the law.”

Without a second to send the item to committee, Ramos became the sole dissent on the transfer. Nonetheless, he promised to hold hearings on Barbieri’s retirement.

The remainder of the agenda were humdrum utility reports and small grants for the fire, code enforcement and health departments. There was a $2.2 million homeless grant for healthcare, mental health and dentistry.

The city withdrew an acceptance of private ways, however. A public works said the streeets needed additional review.

Very often, the Council succumbs to the urge to send items to committee. Resign can short-circuit that process, as with the item that officially deployed Barbieri’s parachute.  However, Monday also showed the Council slamming on the breaks only to hit the gas again.

(WMassP&I)

Doubt has provoked committee referrals in the past. The mayor has sown it when he dislikes an item. This time, the Council saw through it or at least declined to relitigate an issue they settled last year. Sarno’s apparently approved this TIF ordinance after vetoing the previous one. Perhaps he chose not to stand in front of an oncoming legislative train this time.

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