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Take My Council, Please: Rules Were Made to Be Amended…

Rebooted for 2021… (WMP&I/Google images Search)

SPRINGFIELD—The City Council here Zoomed into its first regular meeting of 2021 armed with a light agenda. However, the body also had to approve its rules for the term’s new session. That matter had not been settled at its organizational meeting last week and the new Council President, Marcus Williams, had laid out some changes.

For the most part, Williams’s alterations passed easily if not unanimously. However, uncorking the discussion on rules led an on-the-floor debate about the body’s procedure. In the end, councilors only one added one rule beyond Williams’s recommendations. However, a wider will now go to the General Government Committee that, in essence, will parse the very meaning of the Council rules themselves.

Williams opened the meeting by acknowledging the siege at the United States Capitol in Washington. Last Wednesday supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Congress to, at a minimum, disrupt the counting of the Electoral College votes. Just before the assault, Trump himself egged on the rioters.

Williams noted the sacrifice others make the ensure legislative bodies the Springfield City Council function. He specifically named the two Capitol Police officers who have died in the aftermath of the siege: Brian Sicknick and Howard Liebengood.

With the committees just announced last week, there were not reports.

Among budget items were a $215,000 grant that Public Works czar Chris Cignoli said would finance a curb bump on Worthington Street. Its location will be in front of Theodore’s, a barbecue mainstay on Worthington.

Two health-related grants for $85,000 and $75,000 would supplement spending on COVID-19 contact tracing and the opioid epidemic.

In response to councilors’ questions, Health & Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris said that the city’s inhouse contact tracing had proven more successful than the state average. Unlike the state Contact Tracing Collaborative, tracers from the Springfield health department appears as a 413 number on contactees’ phones.

HHS Commish Helen Caulton-Harris at a COVID briefing in April. (WMP&I)

At the weekly coronavirus briefing Monday morning, Caulton-Harris said her department would be temporarily handing new cases over to the state to free up staff for mass vaccination planning. Coronavirus vaccination for law enforcement, including in Springfield, began this week.

Caulton-Harris also emphasized the importance of the opioid funding. She observed that this epidemic continues to ravage the community, even as it has lost prominence amid the squeeze the coronavirus has placed upon the world.

These grants passed without dissent.

Pam Peebles of the Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control Center answered questions about roughly $85,000 in grants the Council approved. Peebles said that the funds came from a similarly-named foundation that funds veterinary services. Peebles explained that pet adoption is through the roof. Animals are finding homes faster than it takes to pour a bowl of kibble.

“It’s been really interesting to not have enough animals,” she said.

However, the most challenging animals, both medically and behaviorally, are now the focus of the shelter. To ensure these animals, too, can benefit from the run on furbabies, the veterinary grants have never been more important, Peebles indicated.

The rules debate did not move so quickly. Williams’s changes were straightforward, but they triggered additional rules changes that seemed aimed at long-simmering gripes.

Council President Williams in less virtual times. (still via Focus Springfield)

To join the debate, Williams vacated the virtual dais. Council Vice-president Tracye Whitfield took over. Williams’s proposal technically had two components: the amended rules for 2021 and an ordinance. The latter was necessary as Williams proposed moving meeting start times to 7pm from the 6:30pm.

Other alterations included reducing the share of councilors expected to attend public speak-out; changing limits on how often a councilor may speak on an issue if others have not yet spoken; and revising expectations of committee chairs.

“I think it is a good idea to tighten up the meetings,” at-large councilor Kateri Walsh, the body’s dean, said. Though she said she did not support changing the start time.

Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, who changed rules as president himself, backed the time change, too. “We haven’t been working smarter by making our meetings longer,” he said. Fenton noted that moving the time back to 7pm would give committees more time to meet before Monday Council meetings.

Williams originally proposed moving speak-out ahead, too. But not knowing whether Williams’s meeting time change would pass, councilors opted to simply tie it to whenever meetings begin. They set speak-out to begin one half-hour before a meeting. That passed 12-1. Only Whitfield dissented.

Councilors unanimously decided to maintain an expectation that all councilors attend speak-out. The speaking order change also passed unanimously. Williams’s final change would empower council presidents to remove committee chairs if he/she did not hold any meetings. It, too, passed with all councilors in support.

Under the prior language, presidents could boot chairs if they did not submit a schedule of meetings. Williams said such a rigid requirement was unnecessary, but he wanted to retain leverage over chairs who do not operate their committees.

Orlando Ramos

Ramos rules? (WMP&I)

With Williams’s rules done, Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos proposed a rule change that would curtail members’ ability to call up items the Council had referred to committee. Under current rules, unless the committee has reported on the item, any councilor can return an item to the floor from committee 30 days after its committee referral. A similar maneuver is available to any five members 15 days after referral. Ramos proposed striking the single-member move.

Most councilors including Fenton and Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen opposed this.

“I think chairs have enough authority,” Allen said later on in the debate.

Some councilors, including at-large councilor Justin Hurst and Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila, objected to any such change as long as the definition of committee reporting remained nebulous.

Historically, councilors have used this measure sparingly. Likewise only rarely have committee chairs bottled up items. One noted exception came in 2019 when Ramos sequestered a bill to re-repeal the Police Commission. The item, which Fenton and then-Councilor Timothy Ryan had sponsored, was essentially a concession to the mayor’s refusal to implement the revival of the Police Commission. The bill almost certainly lacked the votes to pass. Yet, Ramos, as Public Safety chair, held the item down in his committee. The episode prompted some subtle tension between the two councilors for a time.

Fenton proposed an earlier Council bedtime. (WMassP&I)

The Council, including Fenton, has since voted to sue the mayor to force implementation of the ordinance. Ramos is leaving the Council this year after winning a seat on Beacon Hill.

On Monday, councilors batted around alternatives. At-large Councilor Sean Curran proposed changing the single-member rule to three members. Ramos altered his amendment to keep the rule, but lengthening the waiting period to 90 days.

Ramos’ change failed 10-3. Only he, Davila and Councilor Adam Gomez supported it.

Curran’s proposal never came to a vote as councilors increasingly signaled a desire to continue the conversation in committee—of course. However, a formally committee referral would put the 2021 rules on ice completely, leaving the body with no rules. The city charter does require the Council to adopt rules. Curran withdrew his amendment as General Government Committee chair Melvin Edwards promised to hold a hearing.

The Council did consider, and pass, one more change. Echoing earlier discussion about efficiency, Fenton proposed the Council impose hard stop for meetings at 10pm unless the body unanimously voted to continue longer. The proposal hardly received unanimity, but the opposition did not argue much. The vote was 8-5. Councilors Allen, Davila, Ramos, Williams and Jesse Lederman dissented.

The final vote on the entirety of the rules themselves was unanimous. In the end, however, councilors split on passing first step for the ordinance that would the time of meetings to 7pm. In an 8-5 vote, councilors Davila, Hurst, Ramos, Walsh and Whitfield noted no.

The complexity of the rules debate is no surprise. Councilors rarely open up the rules absent reason to do so. Reform of Rule 20—a short-term filibuster for fiscal items—arose after abuse. The council presidency vote last month was another example, though nobody proposed changes on that subject Monday. Still, such shenanigans are relatively rare.

Stairs

(WMP&I)

Rules for legislative bodies are essential. The mandate for them exists for a reason. Yet, during the pandemic, councilors have tried to defer to the City Clerk on parliamentary issues. Usually, it is not a problem, but sometimes this puts her in a tough spot. Although, the dirty secret about them is absent a law or ordinance, Council rules lack the force of law.

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