Take My Council, Please: To Save You from Your Old Ways…
UPDATED 9:53AM 12/20/19: To note Sarno’s veto of the order on the X intersection.
UPDATED 8:39PM 12/18/19: To clarify Councilor Ryan’s comments about the X project and to include comment from MassDOT.
SPRINGFIELD—In the final meeting of the year, City Councilors saw off their retiring colleagues, paid tribute one that passed and took a symbolic stand on behalf of refugees. Even as the accolades rolled in, the body got waylaid in the details of a stillborn special permit. Earlier in the Fall, marijuana purveyor INSA had failed to secure the necessary votes for its proposed Hall of Fame Avenue facility.
Even as the Council struggled to understand the implications of its vote on the reason for rejecting the permit, there was a mix of relief and pride among councilors. Despite simmering tensions below the surface and a stressful campaign season, the Council’s mayor-wary supermajority remains intact. With the mayor winning another term, that cohesion will become even more important.
Incoming Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown and Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila attended Monday’s meeting. At-large Councilor-elect Sean Curran did not. Also attending were the late. E. Henry Twiggs’s family.
Toward the end of Monday’s meeting, after bidding farewell to retiring Councilors Timothy Ryan and Ken Shea, councilor paid tribute to Twiggs.
Council President Justin Hurst described councilors reaction to their colleague’s death.
“Whenever we talk about councilor Twiggs, no matter how strong you are or how strong you think you are, It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through, Councilor Twiggs has touched all of us enough to become emotional,” he said.
Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez summed up the feelings of many of his colleagues. “I got to walk amongst giants. I got to walk amongst giants,” he said, almost losing his composure at one point. “That’s the most, greatest feeling that I’ve ever had.”
Twiggs had been a national and local civil rights leader and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. Yet, he never bragged about it At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh observed.
Other councilors recalled his continued commitment to the Council even as his health flagged. They praised Karen Twiggs for bringing him to the chamber and often waiting until meetings ended..
“I really wouldn’t be here if it is wasn’t meeting by happenstance councilor Twiggs,” At-large Councilor Jesse Lederman said, referring to Twiggs recruiting him to the Ward 4 Democratic Committee.
After public speak-out, the Council turned to committee reports.
Gomez, the chair of Planning & Economic Development, updated councilors about a Paridon Street composter that has been the subject of complaints. Lederman, Health & Human Services, announced plans to ask legislators for additional funds following recent meetings on the spike in city opioid deaths.
Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams, chair of Maintenance & Development, moved to keep proposed snowstorm parking ban changes in committee. The proposals after the poor snow removal job earlier this month. While calling the current law “an antiquated piece of legislation,” he said more diligence was needed to get it right.
Then, the Council took up the nuclear non-proliferation resolution. The resolution calls for the United States to renounce first use of nuclear weapons, cancel arsenal replacement and pursue agreements to dismantle stockpiles.
Comptroller Pat Burns delivered the November Revenue and Expenditure Report. He noted the police expense line appears high because an educational disbursement was made last month.
The mayor withdrew the nomination of Peter Lappin to the Mobile Home Rent Control Board. However, the nomination of Katherine Garvey was approved. City Solicitor Ed Pikula told councilors Garvey had once staffed the Rent Control Board for the Law Department and would a helpful addition.
Also greenlit were utility reports for Eversource, Verizon and Comcast.
The Council accepted a $550,000 grant from the feds for improvements to Walsh Park in the city’s Liberty Heights Neighborhood. The total renovation cost is $1.1 million including other funds.
Councilors accepted $130,000 for homeless youth programs, $71,000 for emergency management and $50,000 for traffic enforcement equipment. Smaller grants for signage and youth programs also passed.
The Council approved a $75,000 transfer within the Law Department to fill miscellaneous legal needs. Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos queried Pikula about when the Council itself would have a lawyer—Pikula has been filling that role since Tasheena Davis became clerk. Pikula hopes to name somebody Counsel to the Council in January.
The Council also approved three land transfers. One goes to a private owner for parking. The other two were transferred to the Water & Sewer Commission for $85,000. The Commission bought the land as part of long-term strategic planning.
The Council left acceptance of a reservist benefit law and several ordinances in committee.
It did approve an order Councilor Ryan had filed. The item bars the city from changing Sumner Avenue’s curb cuts in any reconstruction of the X intersection.
During debate Ryan explained that as proposed, the project would widen Sumner Avenue five feet on either side from Churchill Street to the X. That would shrink sidewalk frontage and cut several decades-old trees. Residents oppose this, but the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which oversees the project, has not relented.
Moreover, Ryan indicated local officials like the Council have no formal role in shaping the project and no guarantee of further community outreach.
“It doesn’t nothing for the citizens for the city or the neighborhood,” Ryan said, wryly noting it would only speed commuting to East Longmeadow and Wilbraham.
Councilor Gomez said entities like MassDOT often makes such decisions, but don’t include stakeholders, like the Council. “This is the opportunity to have them work with us,” he said.
The order is broad enough to limit any curb work along Sumner Avenue. Lederman offered an amendment to allow such work if the Council approves. That would avoid any need to repeal the order completely should a compromise arise.
The order passed without dissent. On Wednesday, a MassDOT spokesperson, confirmed in a statement, that advertisement for the project, is not scheduled until January 2024 and disagreed that community input was limited.
On Thursday, The Republican reported that Sarno vetoed the order, but an override seems likely in the new year.
“Prior to that, the design has to be finalized and any potential Right of Way acquisitions Have to be taken by the City of Springfield,” the statement continues. “As this project advances, MassDOT welcomes the comments from City officials, community groups, or other interested parties.“
The Council followed a convoluted path to closing out the INSA permit denial. After moving debate to the end, to allow for a never-undertaken executive session, the Council approved its denial reasons. It took some time for councilors to un-gum the situation and finally vote.
The final vote was 7-3. Councilors Gomez, Hurst Shea, Ramos, Williams, Walsh and Tracye Whitfield backed the reasons. Councilor Lederman, Ryan and Tim Allen were in dissent. Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton has abstained from marijuana votes since his law firm secured clients in the cannabis industry. Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards was absent.
The final item came under suspension. Earlier this year Trump filed Executive Order 13888, which requires states and localities to affirmatively consent to refugee. The order seems part of an effort to minimizing immigration as much as possible.
“This federal administration and president has gotten this subject wrong at every turn when it comes to refugees and settlement policy,” said Fenton, a lead sponsor.
Fenton noted that unlike last year’s immigration bill, the current resolution concerns legal, vetted immigrants. It involves no direction to the municipal workforce.
The Council’s action became necessary after community groups reported radio silence from the mayor’s office about accepting refugees. Governor Charlie Baker has already consented on the state level.
Mayor Domenic Sarno was never directly invoked, but there were references to him. Gomez noted the city administration’s silence and that this was the kind of issue Twiggs fought for.
Lederman recalled the Council’s order to Code Enforcement to stand down after Sarno sent it into South Congregational Church for sheltering a woman facing deportation.
Councilor Ramos read from a fact sheet Jewish Family Services had put out that states paid $107,000 in Springfield rent and contributed more to the economy than they received in benefits.
“Refugees are human beings and we are here to make sure all human beings are treated fairly,” Whitfield said. Evoking Trump’s family separation policy, she added, “Can you imagine your child being torn away from you?”
Shea remarked on the absurdity of the EO. “It’s kind of sad that we have to write this kind of bill,” he said. “That we have to welcome people who have already come into the United States.”
The resolution passed unanimously.
Nevertheless, provoked by the resolution, Sarno formally refused to issue a letter of consent on Tuesday. Sarno, who has opposed refugee resettlement in Springfield before, offered questionable claims about refugees concentrating poverty. He said other communities should step up. They have.
Then, the Council bid farewell to Ryan and Shea. Shea is retiring from the Ward 6 seat following a 32-year career in municipal service. In addition to eight years on the Council, Shea served 24 years on the School Committee starting in the 1980s.
Colleagues praised Shea’s analytic takes during debate, particularly his frequent public struggles with both sides of an issue.
“You had always come up with something that all of us hasn’t thought of,” Allen said.
Ryan joked that after a career of teacher, lawyer and city official, “Clearly Ken Shea is a glutton for punishment.”
In his remarks, Shea urged his colleagues to recall the broadness of their responsibility, even in a ward seat. “Once you sit here, you represent you represent all citizens of the city of Springfield,” he said.
Ryan stepped down from his at-large seat to run for Shea’s seat. However, he lost to Davila. He had only served a single term—he had an earlier Council tenure from 1994 to 2003—but he left an impression.
Williams thanked Ryan for stepping up on issues even when it wasn’t politically expedient.
“Councilor Ryan we are going to miss you very dearly,” Fenton said. “Thank you for continuing to stay involved and stay committed.”
“You leave not just as a colleague, but as a friend,” Edwards said.
Among the last acts of the 2018-2019 Council was informally nominating its officers for 2020. Ryan and Shea stepped away to allow Brown and Davila to vote. Hurst was re-nominated for another term as President and Gomez was nominated for Vice-President. There is no opposition.
As the refugee issue illustrates, the Council may not always successfully curtail the mayor. Regulations around Trump’s EO state specifically only executive approval can grant consent and there is not enough time to legislate around that. Legal action is possible.
Despite the mayor’s reelection, given anemic turnout and his abstention from the campaign, few deem it an unassailable mandate. The remembrance of Twiggs even touched on the importance of enduring.
At one point, Gomez quoted the late councilor once saying, “Keep on fighting and keep on pushing no matter what.”
It seems likely the Council will in 2020.