Take My Council, Please: Laws & Ballot Order…
SPRINGFIELD—The City Council here rejected a Police supervisors labor pact Monday, primarily due to a provision that limits when officers can face discipline. The offending clause is not new. However, in the aftermath of this summer’s social justice protests, the were fears that some officers could avoid discipline if they did not face charges promptly. Yet, as with anything, the issue is caked in nuance.
So too was a proposal to alter the order of council candidates on the ballot. Currently, incumbents appear before challengers. Both are rendered in alphabetical order. At-large councilor Tracye Whitfield proposed randomizing the order within both groups. While she had hoped to preserve the incumbent placement, Whitfield may have uncorked discomfort some councilors had long have with the incumbent privilege.
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh was absent from the meeting.
Like other Council meeting since the shroud of the coronavirus fell over the world, Monday’s was remote. Council President Justin Hurst formally announced his intention to not return to the chamber before year’s end. Absent an improbable plummeting of cases, he said the decision came after consultation with city building officials. Hurst pointed to the city’s red COVID status specifically.
Whether the Council would return in January would be up to the next Council president, but Hurst suggested a hybrid with some councilors participating from. It is not obvious that would be necessary. The chamber itself has been fitted with plexiglass and other distancing modifications.
The Council accepted the revenue and expenditure report. Comptroller Patrick Burns reported no major changes, except that a surplus of FY20 school funding now appears as added appropriations to FY21 pursuant to state law.
The Council had five permits and zoning items on its docket ostensibly from an earlier hearings meeting. All but the first, a special permit related on Armory Street, passed without dissent. Councilors also greenlit petitions for work Comcast will be doing along Chestnut and Worthington streets.
Finance officials presented a $7 million from the federal CARES Act. This is the second tranche of funds the state has provided to Springfield as part of its distribution of the federal monies. The funds can be used for COVID-related expenses, including potentially covering city matches to other grants.
Deputy Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Lindsey Hackett told councilors that most COVID costs are in a separate budget separate from the regular budget appropriation. The approval was unanimous.
Another $200,000 grant the Council authorized will replace the boiler at the city’s Allen Street facility. Smaller approved grants fund recycling, a library program and the business improvement district.
Among even tinier financial orders were a transfer within the Health & Human Services budget to pay for additional security at its building. Another approved payment of an animal control department bill from last year. Councilors also sanctioned land transfers to abutting lots on Green Street and Hayden Avenue as well as five-year leases for city computers.
Councilors also granted final approval to an ordinance that would modify the city’s tax incremental financing (TIF) rules. At a recent meeting, Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos observed that the existing ordinance passed a few years ago, was unenforceable. That ordinance requires recipients of property tax breaks to follow various labor and wage rules or face claw-backs of the incentives.
The defect relates to the ordinance’s reference to Springfield’s responsible employer ordinance. The new ordinance removes that language.
The Council also passed first step on a new ordinance relating to the repairs and upgrades to private ways. Another hobby horse of Ramos’, councilors largely agreed with the spirit of the law. However, the debate indicated that some changes to the bill will be considered before a final vote.
Councilor Whitfield framed her proposed change to ballot order as an attempt at fairness. She noted data that shows simply being first on the ballot can increase votes for that candidate. However, she defended the placement of incumbent first, albeit randomly as well. Whitfield argued that incumbents had earned the right to appear higher on the ballot.
Assistant City Solicitor Thomas Moore explained that the Council would be using a different mechanism to enact this change. Rather than file a home rule petition to the legislature to modify the city charter—a legally clean, but politically laborious process—the city would utilize home rule procedures. Assuming Council and mayor approval, councilors would hold a public hearing and submit the change to the Attorney General for review. Barring any conflict with state law, the change would then take effect.
This process has limits. It could not, for example, alter the length of Council terms or the administration of elections themselves.
Moore and Whitfield cited a controling general law, but there is also a 1965 special act that alphabetizes Springfield municipal candidates and prioritizes incumbents. This is a departure from the off-the-shelf language in the Plan A charter Springfield uses, which would otherwise randomize all candidate irrespective of incumbency or alphabetical provenance.
Moore said if adopted, the Springfield City Clerk and the Election Commission would draw candidates names from a hat—or similar receptacle—to determine ballot order at a public event. Cities like Boston and Holyoke do this now.
However, some councilors balked at preserving the incumbent privilege. At-large councilor Sean Curran, who would top next year’s ballot under current rules, suggested incumbents and challengers enter the same order lottery.
“Isn’t that a more fair system?” he said. Curran later added, “If we’re going to change the system, let’s change the system and go all the way.”
Whitfield pointed to caselaw Moore had raised, in which found courts observed the incumbent placement helped voters identify who was already doing the job. She also suggested challengers, as she was in 2017, do not make their campaign plans based on ballot order anyway.
“I had no idea where I would be on the ballot,” she said.
Others concurred with Curran. Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton said challengers had complained about this setup for years. While sympathetic to some of Whitfield’s arguments, he noted ballots already separately note incumbency.
“The only advantage an incumbent should get, if any, is their identity and characteristic as an incumbent,” he said.
Whitfield did not oppose a committee referral, which councilors ordered. In addition to incumbency, the Council must consider whether to extend the change to ward seats, School Committee and mayor.
The Council again considered a one-year supervisor’s contract that had returned to the body after a spell in committee. Ramos, also the chair of Public Safety, had brought the item out of committee Monday, but was no more enthusiastic about it. The contract would run from last July through next June and provide supervisors a 1.5% raise. Patrolmen are in a separate union.
Human Resources/Labor Relations Director William Mahoney again pitched the pact as only temporary pending a fuller picture of the city’s post-COVID finances. The goal, he said, is “Just trying to get through this one year.”
Yet, the contract’s 30-plus year-old limitation on discipline weighed it down. To stand up in arbitration, disciplinary procedures must begin within 120 days of the alleged behavior. This window is an extension from the current 90 days, but the limitation itself irked councilors especially post-George Floyd.
Ramos said his research found that “we’re the only ones who have a statute of limitations from the date of the incident.” He pointed to other cities that explicitly start the clock upon the discovery of misbehavior, not its actual occurrence.
Mahoney argued that other language in the pact allows discipline if the department did not know of the incident. In other words, unless the city otherwise knew about the circumstances, it should be able to act on a citizen complaint filed more than 120 days thereafter. Plus, bargaining for the next agreement is imminent anyway.
Despite warnings that the current shorter period would continue absent a new pact and a refresher on labor law, the pact failed 4-8. Councilors Curran, Fenton, Timothy Allen and Melvin Edwards voted for approval.
The Council also approved two resolutions on Monday. The first recognized the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote.
Curran introduced the resolution, noting Springfield’s connection to the amendment. When it cleared Congress in 1919, the city’s congressman, Frederick Gillett, was Speaker of the House.
The following year, enough states ratified the 19th Amendment, thus assuring that women could vote in the 1920 election. In that election, former Northampton mayor and Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge became vice-president. He would became presidency when Warren Harding died in 1923.
The Council approved the resolution unanimously.
Another Northampton politician made an appearance, via Zoom not historical memory, Monday night. State Rep Lindsay Sabadosa of 1st Hampshire district joined councilors to pitch a resolution supporting the single-payer health care in Massachusetts. Dr. Don Berwick, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS) and a 2014 gubernatorial aspirant, was also on hand.
Speaking to the Council, Sabadosa acknowledged a long road lay ahead of either of the bills. Yet, the Council’s sanction would add to and amplify endorsements from other Massachusetts municipal bodies.
“It will signal to the state that Springfield stands with the people who believe healthcare is a right, not a privilege,” she said.
Berwick emphasized his belief that single-payer would cost less while delivering more care to more people. Recalling his time at CMS, he estimated that now some $300 to $400 billion goes to processing paperwork nationally.
More to the point, he argued, setting aside payment issues could allow health policymakers to focus on broader problems—like coordinating responses to pandemics—and facilitate flexibility.
Berwick, too, noted the hurdles, but argued the benefits were worth it.
“If you wanted a real courageous solution, a solution that would help us have universality, better quality of care, investments in social determinants of health and lower cost, I just don’t see a straighter shot than coming up with a single-payer system for entire the commonwealth,” he said.
The resolution received a largely warm welcome. At-large Councilor Jesse Lederman and Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams, both sponsors of the resolution, are alums of Berkwick’s gubernatorial campaign. Berwick had centered his bid on enacting single-payer in Massachusetts.
If there was any opposition on principle, nobody articulated it. However, Councilors Allen and Fenton were leery about endorsing specific bills.
“I feel bombarded tonight with information,” Allen said.
He and Fenton urged referral to committee for review. Fenton stressed his concerns were about the legislative details, not single-payer itself.
“I believe that healthcare is a human right. I believe in the aspiration of a single-payer healthcare system,” he said. Fenton avoided the phrase “universal health care” which single-payer advocates view as a dodge.
Lederman argued that naming the bills should not give councilors pause. Rather, councilors should consider the legislation to be “aspirational.” A yes vote was merely a vote for the goals therein.
Indeed, Sabadosa said as much in her remarks.
“While not new, these bills are the culmination of many years of organizing and work,” she had said. “But instead of viewing this bill as set in stone, we view these bills as living documents.”
The committee motion failed 3-9. Allen, Fenton and Hurst were in support. The resolution itself passed 10-2. Allen and Fenton dissented.
The single-payer resolution was not unanimous, but it did pass. Eventually, the Council will decide on the ballot order matter, likely more broadly than Whitfield had envisioned. Either way, the fates of both items are apparent.
As for the police supervisor contract, the pact simply left a bad taste with too many councilors. At the same time, the critique about the time limit may not actually touch a central problem. Mahoney could be right. The city might successfully defend discipline imposed after the limit. But as the oft-invoked Justice Department report on Pearl Street implied, the problem is not the limit on when to mete out discipline. Rather, charges are filed to infrequently in the first place.