Take My Council, Please: Want to Hold Your Hearing…
SPRINGFIELD—During the pandemic, the City Council has been remote including its laborious special permit hearings. The slower virtual events lead some permits to receive final vote, usually quickly, at the next regular Council meeting. That did not exactly work out as planned this past Monday when a dispute over one project dragged the Council into another lengthy sitting.
The meeting had plenty of regular business. The meeting was also the first to feature the Council at less than full strength officially. State Senator Adam Gomez had resigned his seat as the Ward 1 Councilor the week before. Council President Marcus Williams used the meeting to offer the body a chance to fete their now-departed colleague.
“His dedication to the people of ward 1 was clear,” Williams said. “While we may be losing an advocate, we will be gaining an ally on Beacon Hill.”
All councilors offered huzzahs to Gomez. Gomez was among the body’s more activist voices. His dedication and frankness are deeply valued.
“When Adam Councilor Gomez gave you his word, you knew it was coming from his heart,” Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton said.
“I’m just really, really blessed to have met you,” at-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield said. She noted she had met Gomez and at-large city councilor Jesse Lederman at demonstrations long before they were councilors.
Even City Clerk Tasheena Davis feted Gomez. “I appreciate you and your honesty with me at all times,” she said. “We’re from similar neighborhoods and I want to know you we’re all proud of you.”
Gomez joined the call briefly, now a visitor to the Council’s virtual chambers. He became emotional about how the Council had spring-boarded him to the State Senate—he is its first member of Puerto Rican heritage.
“It is a privilege to serve the city of Springfield,” he said.
The Council will hold a formal sendoff in chambers once COVID conditions permit it.
Earlier the Council accepted reports from committees. At-large councilor and Maintenance & Development Committee chair Kateri Walsh described an introductory meeting with DPW czar Chris Cignoli. Ward 3 Councilor and Responsible Employer Ordinance Committee Chair Melvin Edwards provided an update about jurisdiction and future meetings.
Lederman, COVID-19 Response Committee Chair, disccused recent meetings. The week before the committees met with representatives of both US Senators and US Rep Richard Neal.
Whitfield, the Finance Committee Chair, recommended the Council hold back the Shannon Grant. She said nobody from the Police Department attended the Finance Committee meeting. Thus, her committee could not get answers about where funds would go.
The Planning & Economic Development and Elder Affairs committees also issued reports.
Councilors accepted the January Revenue & Expenditure report. Comptroller Patrick Burns said inlays and outlays were normal.
Early in the meeting, the Council voted on permits. The first, a greenlight for a preexisting nonconforming use, passed unanimously. Likewise, all councilors approved a permit for a sign on a Chestnut Street building and a change of ownership for a marijuana business.
Conflict arose over the renovation the Knox building. The project, which Gordon Pulsifer’s First Resource Development Corp is undertaking, will bring apartments to the structure. It has support from a Black chamber of commerce and others in the community. However, the developer had not yet met with area neighborhood councils. Failure to do so is often a no-no for permit-seekers.
In addition, at-large Councilor Justin Hurst released a blistering statement Monday morning in which he castigated Pulsifer and those who allow his company to “pillage” the Black community. Specifically, Hurst claimed Pulsifer had failed to hire many or any Black-owned subcontracting firms.
However, concerns about nearby evictions featured more prominently. First Resource has contracted to purchase adjacent structures as part of the project. However, the outgoing landlord has apparently served notice to quit upon tenants there.
Several councilors sought to continue the hearing so Pulsifer could meet with civic associations. He countered that such delay could endanger state funding he has pursued. Councilors split on this point, while Hurst pressed the contractor issue.
Councilor Fenton claimed that Pulsifer’s concerns were valid while warning about legal jeopardy if the Council tried to link a permit to specific contractors. Others, like Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen appealed for a two-week continuance.
That failed 5-7. Councilors Allen, Hurst, Lederman, Whitfield and Victor Davila supported the delay. After the lengthy debate, Councilors moved quickly and granted the permit 10-2. Davila and Hurst were in dissent. However, answering a query from Whitfield, Pulsifer assured he would meet neighborhood councils. Earlier, he also he would investigate the evictions, too.
A second permit First Resource sought passed on an identical 10-2 vote.
Once the Council returned to the regular agenda, its pace quickened. Utility work reports for Wilcox Street, Armory Street, Industry Avenue and Berkshire Avenue passed without much debate.
Among financial orders, the Shannon Grant went to committee as Whitfield had requested. Deputy Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Lindsey Hackett said there was no rush to approve the $1.06 million item.
The Council accepted $275,000 for a program that allows seniors to perform community service to offset property taxes. Others large grants that passed were $160,000 for youth homelessness and $121,000 from the feds to counter crime. Smaller grants for the police and health departments and for personal protective equipment also received Council approval.
Councilors sent a Water & Sewer Commission nominee to committee as nobody was on hand to speak about the appointment of Daniel Rodriquez. The Springfield Water & Sewer Commission is legally distinct from the city, but the mayor appoints its board subject to Council confirmation.
Two budget transfers of nearly $337,000 and $162,000 also received approval. Parks, Recreation of Building Director Patrick Sullivan told councilors the funds would pay water and snow removal bills for the city’s golf courses and facilities respectively.
Councilors greenlit five-year contracting authority for school food services and new garbage trucks. Councilors Fenton and Lederman dissented in the 10-2 vote on the five-year grant for the food services contract. City officials said would align with US Department of Agriculture’s rules. Neither spoke about their dissent.
The garbage truck vote was unanimous. In response to questioning, the DPW’s Cignoli told councilors the trucks could work with smaller barrels. However, city plans to shrink barrel are shelved for now. Originally, this change would have coincided with a greater recycling push, but the economics of the latter militate against such an effort now.
The Springfield City Council joined other local councils in denouncing Comcast’s plans to cap Internet data. Councilor Lederman had spearheaded a three-city resolution on the subject alongside Holyoke Councilor Rebecca Lisi and West Springfield Councilor Sean Powers.
The Councilor’s final action enacted a bill that shifts Council meetings to 7pm. The Council had earlier amended its rules to start public speak on half hour before meetings—as opposed to a set time. Moving the default start time of meetings, however, requires an ordinance.
However, passage itself ran aground the rules.
State law bars passage of ordinances in one-sitting, unless passed for an emergency. The Council can pass bills only after three readings—or steps in the Council’s parlance. However, this can happen in as few as two meetings. In recent years, the Council has passed second and third simultaneously. To do that, however, the Council invokes that merges one voice vote and one recorded vote into a single recorded vote.
However, the pandemic has upended that. Voice votes are effectively verboten under the state’s remote meeting rules. To invoke the single-vote rule, the Council has to take another roll call vote. Thus, the Council is no longer actually saver any time as two recorded votes are necessary anyway.
On Monday, the Council ended up taking three votes for two steps. Second step on the bill to change meeting time passed 7-5. Councilors Davila, Hurst, Walsh, Whitfield and Orlando Ramos dissented. The one-vote rule invocation failed by virtue of a dissent from Whitfield. At that point, the Council could either take its third vote at the next meeting or at the end of Monday’s agenda.
Before this rule came into vogue, third step votes after agendas were common. Councilors revived that tradition and third step passed 8-4. Davila, Hurst, Ramos and Whitfield dissented.
This meeting lurched beyond 10pm, its new cutoff time, but the Council did not adjourn. Fenton, who had proposed this rule, told colleagues it required a point of order. President Williams concurred. The Council continued and exhausted its agenda.
The rule’s purposes, sources say, was to focus the Council’s agenda and minimize unwieldy meetings like this. That does not mean the Council cannot be ambitious or that lone councilors cannot take principled stands. Yet, that the Council may need to rethink agendas since virtual hearings can run slow, brutally at times. With in-person sittings still months away, perhaps the Council should reconsider permit action at regular meetings—which can drag on already.
Maybe more, but shorter meetings could be a solution. After all, virtual chambers are but a click away.