Take My Council, Please: Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Program…
SPRINGFIELD—Beyond selecting a new colleague, the City Council’s Monday night remained within the normal. Still, there were a few standout items. The Council approved the first components of the city’s new master plan for downtown, namely around MGM and the MassMutual Center. A discernable vision for downtown’s gateway at the South End’s edge has been missing the casino opened.
The city also took first step on an ordinance to address puppy mills. The bill would regulate pet stores in response to a phenomenon arising out of pandemic life. With millions at home, the market for fur-babies has exploded. An upside has been the emptying of animal shelters. Yet, it has also fueled a market for essentially factory-farmed pets, which are replete with health and behavioral issues. From there, the animals’ fates only darken.
At the top of the meeting, councilors selected longtime veterans rights activist Gumersindo Gomez to fill the seat his son, Adam had vacated. The younger Gomez resigned in February about a month after taking office in the Massachusetts Senate.
Because of the Council’s current remoteness, it was impossible to swear the new councilor in immediately. Hence, Monday’s meeting continued with only 12 councilors as other recent meetings had.
Among reports of committee were those for General Government—on how to fill the vacancy—and for a Finance Committee review of Shannon Grants. At-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield told the body that the Police Department, which administers the grant, sent Sgt. Brian Elliot to discuss the program. She recommended the grant’s acceptance and councilors later approved it unanimously.
At-large Councilor Justin Hurst, the chair of the Audit Committee, previewed the re-appointment of Yong No, the Director of Internal Audit. Hurst also noted an investigation into the disposal of an old sign for Nathan Bill Park that No’s department had conducted. Public Works had given it to a like-named restaurant. While not criminal, this action ran afoul of ordinance.
When No’s confirmation came up for a vote, he briefly addressed the Council and thanked and Mayor Domenic Sarno for their confidence. The internal audit director is among the few mayoral appointees the Council confirms.
Among councilors feting No were Whitfield, who noted that she once chaired the Audit Committee. She said No was instrumental to getting her up to speed on the subject matter. The Council confirmed No for another three-year term unanimously.
Councilors also received Comptroller Pat Burns’s revenue & expenditure report. Burns told the Council the high spending in the month reflected a large payment to the retirement system.
The Council approved a traffic agreement with the state for work at Cottage Street and Robbins Road. Two related items were an expropriation of an easement for the project and funding to compensation to landowners. A Jasper Street utility report for Eversource and a completely separate grant of easement to Eversource passed, too. Deputy City Solicitor Kathy Breck said the easement was for electrical equipment for the pedestrian underpass under construction in the North End.
These votes were unanimous. A petition for work on Armory Street went to committee.
Aside from the Shannon Grant, the only other grant with a separate vote was for the Library Department. Library Director Molly Fogarty explained this state grant usually arrives in the fall. However, the legislature’s late passage of the budget had delayed it until now.
That grant and a bloc of small cultural, library, health and transportation grants passed without dissent.
Phase I the master plan for downtown has three elements. However, Chief Development Officer Timothy Sheehan explained only two were before councilors Monday. Those were an authorization for loans from the US Department of Housing & Urban Development and an implementation blueprint. The loans fall under the Section 108 program HUD administers. In short, it allows the city to use future Community Development Block Grant funds to guarantee loans for private development.
As Sheehan and the city’s consultant, Tim Brangle, explained, the blueprint of Phase I is part of a broader plan. The focus is along Main Street near the MassMutual Center and MGM. This includes better utilization of Willow Street—mostly a land of parking lots—one block to the northeast.
Brangle explained that the master plan was an obligation of the host community agreement with MGM. In addition to developing street retail, the blueprint aims to reactivate Court Square as a main outdoor event space.
Sheehan told at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh that these authorizations would not commit the city to support any specific development now. Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen asked whether Section 108 authorization would affect CDBG money. Sheehan said the Council was only opening the blueprint area to loans on Monday. Any actual collateralization of CDBG funds would require additional Council action.
Allen noted that the city had used the program for a hotel before. Sheehan confirmed it was used to guarantee renovations at what is now the downtown La Quinta.
The Council authorized both the invocation of Section 108 and the blueprint without dissent. Sheehan told the Council Phase I’s third element, a zoning overlay plan, would come before the body later.
There was an ordinance on speed humps, but it went to committee as stakeholders had more input to offer. However, the puppy mill ordinance passed first step. Despite, its name, the bill would apply to dogs, cats and rabbits.
Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards was the lead sponsor of the bill. With demand for animals clearing out shelters, pet shops—and their suppliers—have found a growing market. But animals they sell have health or behavioral problems and ultimately a grim fate. An adopter of shelter pets himself, Edwards said the ordinance was as much about consumer protection as countering cruelty.
The bill text appears to restrict the sale of dogs, cats and rabbits entirely outside shelters, animal control and private breeders. Pet shops could operate, but they would need to be facilitating adoptions from animal control or animal rescue groups.
Pamela Peebles, who runs the city’s Thomas J. O’Connor’s Animal Control Center, praised the bill. “It’s exhilarating to see Springfield considering this,” she said.
Peeples confirmed that O’Connor has been basically devoid of adoptable animals since the shroud of coronavirus fell. That has led pet-seekers to go elsewhere with unfortunate results. She described situations where people spent thousands of dollars for breeds that should be family-friendly—but the animal ends up not being anything but. Such animals overwhelmingly come from mills in the Midwest.
“More and more people who don’t conform to ethical business standards are finding this is a very easy and fast way to make a profit in selling animals,” Peebles said.
She said that only one store would be subject to the ordinance immediately, but the law would draw a line and limit access to milled animals. Presumably, it would also stoke momentum for similar laws in neighboring communities and perhaps provoke state legislation.
A strange subplot of the COVID era is that animals can contract the novel coronavirus. Species-hopping is quite common for viruses, though non-humans do not appear to develop dangerous cases of COVID-19. It would be a cruel irony that animal suffering from the coronavirus would not arise from the microscopic, but from the fellow mammals who steward the earth.
More committee hearings for Edwards’s bill are on tap. Yet, councilors opted not to delay the bill before first step to stem risk to the four-legged in Springfield.