Take My Council, Please: Making a City (More) Fully Elect…
SPRINGFIELD—Past, present and future orbited around two major items at the City Council’s Monday meeting. The body passed first step on an ordinance to step up election education notifications. It also reallocated $1.5 million from bonds to finance upgrades to Symphony Hall, nee the Municipal Auditorium of the city’s Municipal Group.
However, these issues touched on some long-simmering disconnects and gripes among councilors. Councilors disagreed on, though obviously did not stymie, the appropriate means to improving abysmal voter turnout in Springfield municipal elections. Meanwhile, the use of unexpended bond proceeds to spruce up the city-owned venue reignited concerns about other unmet infrastructural needs.
Near the meeting’s start, at-large councilor Tracye Whitfield briefed the Council on a disconcerting Audit Committee meeting. There, city officials revealed they had begun an audit of the benefits office following the departure of its director. According to Whitfield, retired, dead, and terminated employees were listed as active while employees paying for benefits sometimes weren’t enrolled. That could have exposed the city to liability, she indicated.
The city is in the process of rectifying accounts with its life insurance provider.
“This is going to get worse before it gets better,” Whitfield said, adding that audits would soon commence for health insurance.
Conversely, Whitfield said, an audit of the city’s financial statements came back very good. Incidentally, Comptroller Pat Burns informed the Council the city’s revenue was $36 million ahead of benchmarks. That was because of April tax receipts.
In other reports, at-large Councilor Jesse Lederman informed councilors about his hearing on the spike of opiate deaths in the city. He described the meeting as principally informational. Officials told Lederman the spike was due to the rising use of fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opiate.
Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, the casino oversight chair, said MGM is working out issues related to smoking and noise from outdoor concerts.
The Council greenlit utility petitions and accepted grants for the Mason Square Community concert series, the fire department and for housing. The housing money is for the entire region. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development uses the city as a passthrough entity for $4.2 million for homeless programs. At-large Councilor Timothy Ryan abstained from the voice vote because of an affiliation with the YWCA, a grant recipient.
Symphony Hall was not the only project to obtain leftover money from bonding on other projects. A touch over $500,000 was added to the reconstruction of the actual Six Corners intersection in the eponymous neighborhood. The project will replace the current crossroads into a roundabout.
Two other financial items included transfer of funds within the Law and Parks departments. The Council also permitted payment of prior years’ bills with the current fiscal year’s funds. All three passed on unanimous recorded votes. Another financial item, a tax break for a solar farm, went to committee.
However, the Symphony Hall transfer, while passing with near-unanimity, drew a long debate. The $1.5 million is essentially a down payment on long overdue upgrades on the 106-year old venue. City financial officials told the Council the sound system had not been upgrade since the 1980’s, forcing acts to bring in their own equipment.
In addition, function and catering spaces are arcane, limiting the ability to market the facility and earn revenue on concessions. While the building is structurally sound and its acoustics, audio systems notwithstanding, are in decent shape, the needs exceed what city officials thought when bidding for a new operator began.
MGM has been running Symphony Hall on a short-term basis after the venue’s long-time operator, the Springfield Performing Arts Development Corporation, folded. The gaming giant and the city are negotiating a five-year contract to start July 1. The Council authorized extensions, at the city’s discretion, last year.
Councilor Fenton, who opposed the extension authorizations because the Council would be approving them without knowing contract terms, observed his concerns had come true.
Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos took a different tact. Long an advocate for modernizing the city’s private ways, he noted how money always seemed available for other things.
“They were funded by unexpended bond proceeds. Each time we bring this up, I have to remind everybody we have complained and voice our complaints about private ways in the city of Springfield,” Ramos said.
Councilors chewed over the other priorities of the city, however, Timothy Plante, the city’s Chief Administrative & Financial Officer, said these unspent proceeds could only go toward select things. New state limits require that projects that came in under budget—in this case school construction—spend excess funds on similarly classed project. Roadwork would not qualify.
As for the specific work at Symphony Hall, Timothy Brown, a Finance Department management analyst, said the sound system was a top priority. After that would come dressing rooms and the kitchen, both of which suffered from deferred maintenance. However, more upgrades would be necessary, eventually.
Fenton requested that the Council receive updates as they became available. Plante and Brown indicated a full dialogue with the body would occur.
However, the conversation also stumbled around questions about the quality of the acoustics and the utilization of the venue, too. The veer toward the granular prompted Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs to note the venue could not be run out of the Council chamber.
At-large councilor Kateri Walsh suggested a move to committee for more debate. But even proposal skeptics demurred. Only Ramos voted for the motion.
Final approval came on a 12-1 vote. Ward 5 Councilor Marcus William was in dissent.
When the Council got to the election turnout ordinance, its chief sponsor, Lederman, outlined its structure. The bill had already been to committee and Lederman had prepared some technical amendments. All passed on voice votes.
The ordinance would mail every voter household a notice of municipal election. The notice would include the household’s polling place address. It would also utilize the city’s phone-calling system to send reminders and place signage to note upcoming elections. Estimates for cost, if fully appropriated, came to $13,000 per election. It the city had a preliminary, it would cost another $13,000.
Still, Lederman himself admitted it was no “silver bullet” for the city’s comatose turnout (10% in the 2017 election).
During debate, Walsh objected to the robocall inclusion. Lederman said that was current Election Commission practice, but he could part with it. Twiggs suggested the Council require the written notices go out 20 days, instead of 30, before an election. The body accepted that change.
Fenton, while backing the bill, urged the Council to ensure the notification process happened in every city election, not just some—a hedge against chicanery in other words. He also suggested councilors consider not every ward or race has a preliminary while others may.
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, however, wondered if all the ordinance’s components were necessary now. He suggested that low participation was due more to abstention than ignorance. Shea did not telegraph outright opposition, but rather a slower rollout of the bill’s components.
Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez responded by recalling his and several colleagues’ 2018 trip to Denver to review marijuana regulations. He saw kiosks set up to collect ballots from the state’s all-mail voting system. That and education facilitated much higher turnout rates, he said.
In the end, Shea’s hesitancy changed little. The bill passed first step.
The additional scrutiny on these two broadly popular items did not squelch them. However, it displayed two dynamics on the council, one developing and another, arguably, receding. As the Council draws itself and is itself drawn into complicated issues like Symphony Hall, there is an impulse to pick them apart. Sometimes that is necessary, but as Twiggs noted, the body cannot micromanage a 2600-seat venue.
As for the election bill, there is some gap between what some residents and pols believe about Springfield voter interest and reality. It has been poor for 30 years. However the situation has also deteriorated and, to some extent, the powers that be have suppressed it. Moreover, unlike the presidential elections—where city turnout is up—local elections are not all-consuming affairs. Some action is necessary to correct this imbalance.
Indeed, a little education may not be enough, but it’s a start.