Take My Council, Please: Facing the Hard Truth…
SPRINGFIELD—The growing ambition of the City Council beached itself onto the body’s widening political gulf, amid procedural and substantive disagreements on civil liberties and a public works project. While the Council ultimately voted to kill an order that could frustrate the X intersection project, it had no choice but to step back from a bill banning facial recognition software.
The facial recognition bill, which had been restyled, if not rewritten, as a moratorium decayed into a slog that lasted well over an hour. Councilors could not agree on the length of the moratorium and, relatedly the means of its extension. Others fretted about an exception to locate missing persons. Despite the debate’s length, councilors concluded resolution was not then possible. They tabled the item until a future meeting the body could dedicate solely that bill.
During public speak-out prior to the meeting’s formal start, many residents rose to express concern about short-term rentals offered through services likes Airbnb. The Council is considering an ordinance that would lay down additional regulations, consistent with a recently passed state law.
The Council ultimately opted sent the bill to committee. One of its sponsors, at-large councilor Jesse Lederman has suggested there would be more public feedback and possibly some tweaking. In addition to the ordinance itself, the Council also sent the enacting state law to committee. The city must accept the new law before it can pass its ordinance.
This was not the only item that centered on work in committee. The Maintenance & Development Committee recommended the Council kill its override of the mayor’s veto of the X Intersection order. In December, the Council voted to bar the city from widening Sumner Avenue as part of a state-funded reconfiguration of the X intersection. The order arose after continued discontent from residents worried about the destruction of trees, redirection of traffic and other elements.
The committee’s chair, Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams, said that DPW officials warned the Massachusetts Department of Transportation could pull funding entirely if it doubted the city’s interest. In addition, the order original sponsor, former Councilor Timothy Ryan, asked that he not be responsible for such an outcome. Williams and other councilors said there would other points at which the city could veto the project if necessary.
However, when the Council became bogged down in confusion about what the appropriate move was. The body had already voted for the order and the mayor had vetoed it. The Council’s only options were to vote to sustain the veto, vote to override or table consideration. Williams indicated that only terminating the item could calm MassDOT’s fears. A spokesperson for MassDOT did not respond with a request for comment as of posting time.
Some councilors questioned why waiting would matter. The Forest Park Civic Association had a meeting on the subject scheduled for February 11, at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh noted.
Still, councilors seemed wary about the city losing funding, even for a project of dubious provenance. A motion to send the item back to committee advanced by at-large councilor Sean Curran failed 6-7. Councilors Curran, Walsh, Timothy Allen, Adam Gomez, Justin Hurst and Orlando Ramos were in favor. The final vote on the veto override was 11-2 with only Gomez and Walsh in favor.
The facial recognition bill fared little better. Councilor Ramos, the chair of Public Safety, began the discussion on the ordinance with his committee report. He laid out a solid case about the risks to civil liberties, to civil rights and to the city treasury should it have to pay out for violations of the former two.
Ramos acknowledged that the issue had taken on a racial context because those most likely to be misidentified by the technology were people of color, particularly darker-skinned women.
“To me it was common sense,” he said. “Unfortunately, it has become somewhat of a racial issue because this technology affects one population more than another population.”
However, there were doubts. This issue, too, was plagued with procedural rigmarole as Council President Hurst initially limited questioning of the public to the ostensible Police Commissioner Cheryl Claprood. The body ultimately narrowly voted allow a representative from the detective bureau to speak.
For her part, Claprood said that she had received solicitations from purveyors of the technology. However, she added, “There is no intention of using this technology at this time.”
She indicated that there would a rather lengthy process and millions of dollars lie between the present and adoption of the technology.
Claprood’s measured response was a climbdown from her early demand for an apology from the Council President. During a Public Safety committee meeting, Heart had defended the ordinance, arguing he didn’t want to have to trust the Police Department on facial recognition.
That contrasted with Mayor Domenic Sarno who, earlier that day, had dumped a diarrheal screed about crime onto the public discourse. He also invoked the abduction of Charlotte Moccia as part of his opposition to the bill. Facial recognition played no role in her safe return and Sarno offered nothing but a vague theoretical to justify the connection.
Gomez, the Ward 1 Councilor, warned that this was merely another ploy on Sarno’s part to divide the Council from cops.
“This is a politicized attempt to pit us against the good guys, the boys in blue,” he said. “This just stops a municipality from misidentifying people.”
At-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield warned that the mayor’s invocation of a “war on crime” was a relic that ultimately only hurt people of color.
“In my experience in ‘war on’ anything, it has been a war on black,” she said.
Despite this heated situation, there was some consensus to make the ordinance work. Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila pressed for an exception for child abductions. Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton and Councilor Lederman both made appeals to changes to ensure the bill had enough support to survive a veto.
Fenton proposed two amendments, originally joined as one, that would waive the moratorium with respect to child abductions and shorten the moratorium to six months (versus 5 years) with options to extend. Councilor wrangled over these for some time before finally approving the child abduction exception on a 8-5 vote. Councilors Curran, Gomez, Hurst, Ramos and Walsh were in dissent.
The amendment to shrink the moratorium length—and clarify that this was, in fact a moratorium—failed 5-8. Only Councilors Allen, Davila Fenton, Walsh, and Malo Brown were in support.
At this point that councilors realized the current bill could not survive Sarno’s promised veto. Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards suggested either a committee of the whole meeting or some other special forum to debate amendments in public on their merits. The Council ultimately settled on continuing the item until a meeting to be determined later. The final vote for this action was 8-5. Councilors Curran, Davila, Hurst, Ramos and Whitfield were in dissent.
The meeting pace quickened from there. The Council greenlit utility reports and the inclusion of a dozen school building projects on the city’s statement of interest for state funds. The Council also approved a $185,000 budget transfer within the parks department from payroll to services. The city also accepted its annual $225,000 elder affairs grant, a $100,000 technology grant and smaller grants for fire awareness education, libraries, public health and the city’s 9/11 memorial.
Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola presented, and the council issued, the writ for the Presidential Primary election on March 3. Oyola confirmed the city would hold two off-site early voting events.
Councilors authorized $1 million in bonding for police vehicles and the transfer of property for the redevelopment in Mason Square and on Irvington Street. The dispatch department was also permitted to seek a contract for computer equipment that exceed three years.
City Clerk Tasheena David presented councilors with two items. The first was a conflict of interest exemption for Lavar Click one of the Council aides. Technically, Council staff fall under Davis’ jurisdiction, but she reports to the Council. Click had been facing criticism for working in the Council office while coaching basketball at Commerce High School.
Davis said Click had disclosed this when he was hired by the former clerk, Anthony Wilson, and she confirmed that authorizing an ethics exemption was appropriate. Click met all the conditions outlined in state law. Councilors reacted with indignation that people questioned Click’s integrity. They approved the exemption unanimously.
The Council also sanctioned Davis’ continued work on marijuana issues even though she no longer works for the Law Department. Davis said she would receive no additional salary, but that the Law Department had nobody as well-served in the law as she.
The Council gave first step passage to a regulating scheme for outdoor restaurant dining, but otherwise took no other action Monday. However, an ordinance on private ways was withdrawn for redrafting.
The facial recognition ordinance had been presented as a prophylaxis to violations of civil liberties. By the nature of the technology’s errors caused it to bleed into racial issues. With an increasingly erratic mayor incapable of countenancing differences of opinion, a confrontation was inevitable.
That set the conditions for the Council’s wild ride on the bill Monday. However, the sharpness of the disagreement, given the relatively few differences, was not inevitable. It might have been avoided if more of the tinkering had happened ahead of time. Now the Council will have a chance to do that at a special session dedicated to this issue.