Take My Council, Please: Taking It to the (TD) Bank…
SPRINGFIELD—If sparks were flying at the first City Council meeting of the year, they had manners.
Equipped with three new members after last year’s elections, the Council moved ahead on a now-moratorium on facial recognition software. The body also formally requested the help of the federal government to ensure banking services continue to be available in and around Mason Square given the impending closure of its last bank.
However, this first meeting also underscored enduring tensions. The facial recognition software moratorium and bank resolution had broad support in the abstract, but there were differences. That manifested in the vote tallies. Elsewhere, one effort to solve the Police Commission imbroglio concluded Monday, not out of agreement, but resign.
Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen missed part of the meeting due to a delayed flight.
Last year, TD Bank announced it would close its branch in Mason Square on January 31. That area is predominantly non-white with many low-income residents. TD Bank will maintain an ATM there, but councilors worried poor and elderly residents will lose access to safe banking services.
The resolution was spearheaded by at-large councilor Tracye Whitfield and Ward 4’s new councilor Malo Brown. The resolution urges TD Bank to reconsider, but its most direct ask is for the US Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), a banking regulator, to convene meetings on mitigating the loss of banking services in a low-income area.
US Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren recently wrote to the OCC requesting such a meeting after it failed to do so when asked by state legislators.
“Some people don’t want to bank online,” she said. The area “would become a bank desert just like it is a supermarket desert.”
The comments Monday were relatively tame, but Brown and Whitfield had released a more forceful statement the week before. In it, Whitfield noted TD Bank’s profit growth. Brown accused the bank of putting “process before principle.”
On Monday, Whitfield said TD Bank officials had met with residents, but it declined an offer from the community to bolster foot traffic to keep the branch open.
Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez and Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos observed the North End and Indian Orchard, which each represents respectively, lost their last banks in recent years.
In a statement, a TD Bank spokesperson said the bank respected and valued its customers in Mason Square. It committed to providing service through its six remaining Springfield branches, some of which, it said, are within two miles of Mason Square.
“We understand that our decision to close the TD Bank store at 958 State Street on January 31 is a change for our State Street customers and Mason Square residents, but they can expect outstanding customer service from TD Bank employees at our other Springfield locations, where we look forward to meeting their banking needs,” the statement said.
In addition to the ATM at its future ex-branch, TD Bank said it has ATMs at Walgreens, including one nearby on State Street.
Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, while also concerned about poor access to banking services, defended TD Bank. Unlike some banks operating in Springfield, he said, TD Bank is a good corporate citizen. He pointed to its sponsorship of the Urban League and Regreen Springfield, among others.
In an interview with WMP&I, Fenton, who audibly opposed the resolution during the voice vote, said he did not object to OCC mitigation meetings. Rather, he objected to some public statements that vilified TD Bank amid a broader banxit from poor neighborhoods.
“Banking deserts are a bigger problem than just one location,” he said.
Fenton’s observation about TD Bank’s responsiveness may relate to its local predecessor’s legacy.
Canadian-owned TD Bank—TD stands for Toronto-Dominion—owns the successor to the Springfield Institute for Savings. Maine-based Banknorth acquired SIS in 1998. Toronto-Dominion gained control of Banknorth in 2004. Following a 2008 merger, TD Banknorth became simply TD Bank. Virtually all historically Springfield-based banks have been lost to mergers and buyouts, but few have kept local ties.
TD Bank’s local headquarters in Center Square was built by SIS. Corporate records indicate TD Bank controls the building’s LLC. It also owns the property the Mason Square branch is located on.
Next, the Council considered the facial recognition moratorium.
“We’re not saying the police department will never be able to use this technology,” Ramos said. “What we’re saying is this technology is not ready to use.”
The technology, which Pearl Street says it doesn’t currently use, analyzes faces from available video to identify people for law enforcement purposes. There is a civil liberties concern. One relates to surveillance generally and the other points to the software’s propensity to misidentify people of color.
Councilors agreed the Police Department should not use the technology until it is more accurate. There was less agreement about how long the moratorium should be and how Pearl Street would prove the tech was ready.
“There’s an awful lot of moving pieces,” at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh said.
Fenton shared concerns about misuse like at a protest but worried a too-rigid ban could ultimately inhibit policing. He said Police Commissioner Cheryl Claprood has assured this will not be implemented without regulations in place.
Even councilors who voted to advance the ordinance worried about the pace. Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila asked how state and federal law enforcement use of the technology would affect Springfield Police. At-large councilor Jesse Lederman said the ordinance should bar use until Claprood presents regulations to the Council.
Other backers highlighted the disparate impact on people of color presented not just a civil rights issue for residents, but a liability for the city if people are misidentified.
A clarifying amendment to ensure the ordinance appeared on the agenda in five years passed on an 8-4 vote. Councilors Davila, Fenton, Walsh and Sean Curran dissented. Councilor Allen was absent. Dissenters worried five years was too long.
Two other amendments passed on a voice vote. One exempted the ordinance was technology that allows the faces of individuals to be blurred when the city releases video footage, like it has done when minors are on tape. Davila offered an amendment that changed the bills references to “ban” from “moratorium.
The final vote on first step passed 9-3 with Councilor Curran, Fenton and Walsh in dissent and Allen absent. Additional amendments are likely. The Council must take one more vote before it goes to the mayor, who has threatened to veto.
Aside from some debate on a land transfer, the remainder of the agenda proceeded rather quickly. The Council accepted a statement of interest from School Committee LaTonia Monroe Naylor related to her new job with Worcester State University.
The university runs an early college program at Commerce High. Naylor will be adjunct faculty in the program. Even though she is not working for Commerce, she does oversee the school as a member of the School Committee. Out of an abundance of caution, parties to her employment wanted the Council to bless an exemption to the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The exemption passed unanimously.
The Council greenlit utility work and an increase in Chapter 90 road money. Public Works czar Chris Cignoli said the increase in funds came from the legislature’s passage of a supplemental budget. The money will go to paving and design projects.
Councilors accepted another $240,000 for homelessness programs. Small grants for the Emergency Management, Library and Police departments also received approval.
The Council however seized up on approval of a property transfer for the former Knox factory on Wilbraham Road. Councilor Gomez, the Chair of Economic Development, took pains to say he did not oppose the project, but was upset the item came before the Council with little warning.
It is not unusual for councilors to hear of an item only when the mayor submits it to the Council. This is not a problem either unless, as in this case, the item is described as urgent. Councilors have demanded more notice in such circumstances.
The prospective buyer, First Resource Management, wants the deed to secure the building and obtain insurance. Gomez countered that taxpayers expect scrutiny of projects. It was ultimately not referred to his committee, but Gomez opposed its passage in one vote. The Council must approve it again at its next meeting.
The companion item transferring the property from the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (SRA) to the city itself passed easily.
Transfer of another six parcels along Morris Street from the SRA went to committee. Payment of a bill from last year passed without dissent.
The Council deferred action on revisions to the snowstorm parking ban and local acceptance of a military leave benefit program.
It also tabled consideration of an override of Mayor Domenic Sarno’s veto of an order that would bar the city from widening Sumner Avenue as part of the reconstruction of the X intersection.
Cignoli, the DPW chief, said that passage would make the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which is funding it, think the city is not really interested.
The resolution was originally proposed by now-former Councilor Timothy Ryan. He originally put the item on ice while seeking a meeting with Cignoli. When that did not materialize, Ryan sought a vote at his final meeting last month.
Councilor Davila said residents felt they were being ignored. Councilor Marcus Williams, the chair of Maintenance & Development, has promised to hold a hearing.
Councilor Walsh those concerns. While people in the neighborhood do not oppose any change, they are worried about dramatic alterations.
“The neighbors and residents don’t want changes that are going to change their neighborhood identity or the character of the park or nobody wants the removal of the trees,” she said.
Cignoli said his department would be answer more questions.
By tabling the override, the Council leaves the item available to consider later.
The only other significant action concerned withdrawal of a change to the Police Commission ordinance. Given the Mayor’s refusal to implement the ordinance as it exists on the books, Fenton had proposed, essentially, a codification of the status quo. Without it, Claprood’s position may lack legal force.
Fenton noted that Ramos, the Public Safety chair, had failed to hold a committee hearing. Ramos replied he thought it unnecessary after the mayor issued an executive order on the subject. This has played out before, so Fenton withdrew it.
Despite the tension Monday, everything remained polite. Councilors never really turn on each other nor get personal. Their differences lie in how to address these complex issues, many of which have festered for years, dating back to well before most if not all current councilors were elected. The Council has become a release valve for public frustration that is invisible to the mayor.
The challenge will be managing that release to fruitful conclusions lest the whole chamber detonates.