Take My Council, Please: Feels Like the First Time, Feels Like the Very First Time…
SPRINGFIELD—Two members were absent. Two that were remote dropped out. Two stuck it out virtually. But for the first time since the shroud of the coronavirus fell upon humanity, the City Council of Massachusetts’s third largest city met in person. The meeting was not in chambers. Still, half the Council—alone not quite a quorum despite Marcus Williams’s resignation last month—were physically together.
That the meeting happened in-person is something of an accident of timing. The suspension of in-person mandates under state Open Meeting Law (OML) was to expire last week. As constant extensions have been haphazard with little guidance or assistance from the state, councilors had to scramble to meet in-person. The hybrid meeting was scheduled before Governor Charlie Baker signed the latest extension. Because he did sign it, virtual attendance was sufficient to establish a quorum.
“The reason we are in a hybrid is because the extension did not happen in enough time,” at-large Councilor Jesse Lederman explained Monday.
Since taking over as President, Lederman had resolved to bring the body back. City workers were back at their stations. The School Committee has been in person. Springfield had been by far the largest Massachusetts city still with a remote council. In Western Massachusetts, nearly all councils had returned at least in hybrid form, save holdouts in Hampshire County.
Other than the January inaugural meeting, when in-person attendance was necessary to validate oaths and take organizational votes, some councilors had never attended an in-person meeting. Freshman councilors Maria Perez and Zaida Govan were among the six city lawmakers who attended in person.
The original plan was to resume in-person meetings in August, Lederman explained. A special meeting to complete Monday’s agenda is virtual. But plans are to be in chambers, wired to allow hybrid attendance participation, next month. Ironically, formally adopting a hybrid policy was among the items not finished this week.
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen were absent from the meeting. Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton and Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown signed on virtually, but did not survive the 3-hour meeting. At-large Councilors Justin Hurst and Tracye Whitfield were virtual and attended throughout.
The Council took up permits first. These were among items that frequently got bogged down because the virtual format has prompted multiple hearings. All but one permit passed as did one zone change. Councilors continued a separate zone change as its proponents did not show.
Councilors accepted the May expenditure and expense report. Comptroller Pat Burns said revenue was meeting expectations and expenditures were normal.
A regular report on Law Department settlements was also presented. Lisa DeSousa, an attorney in the Law Department who oversees litigation, said $3.4 million of a $5 million appropriation to settle longstanding cases remained. Councilor Hurst asked for more details about the funds’ use—some are financing litigation that could not settle. DeSousa, who was remote, said she would need to get the info from her office.
Councilors approved petitions to excavate city streets for utility work without dissent. Councilor Perez abstained on a petition for Grenada Terrace.
An annual grant for youth programs that the Police Department oversees received approval. The Council greenlit acceptance of $1.5 million from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. This money will pay for sprucing up the intersection of Main and Court streets. Additional grants for health, police and public works also gained approval.
The Community Preservation Committee’s operating budget also received councilors’ approval. Of the nearly $1.77 million budget, just under $70,000 goes to administrative expenses. The rest finances community preservation grants the CPC distributes. The CPC funds historic preservation, open space and housing projects.
CPC chair Bob McCarroll explained the administrative monies mostly go to pay the committee’s administrator. A few other expenses go to postage, advertising, membership in the state preservation alliance, and a historic consultant for a new historic homes program.
The Council also approved polling location changes and an early voting schedule. These will only affect the state primary on September 6 and November general election. While there are special elections for Ward 5 next month and a week after the primary, the polling place changes will not affect that ward.
The Election Commission proposed moving two polling places for four precincts. Precincts 1D and 1E in the North End, originally at 414 Chestnut Street, will shift to the Emily Bill Pool House. The change became necessary due to construction at the old location. The polling location for precincts 6A and 6B in Forest Park will move across Oakland Street from the library branch to the middle school. That change will be permanent. Those precincts’ polling locations had been in Forest Park Middle School before.
The early voting schedule includes multiple days of early voting at City Hall, the Ray Jordan Senior Center and the Greenleaf Community Center in 16 Acres.
Other than an easement to provide utilities to the new Deberry School—approved without dissent—the rest of the agenda continued to next meeting. This included several items that required a Council supermajority—by this point, only eight were present—and two items would not reach conclusion before the Council’s 10pm cutoff.
The items requiring supermajorities were all financial items related to budget transfers or bonding (or could not pass without a supermajority financial item. A resolution opposing a proposed gas pipeline also continued as councilors wished to have more members present to send a stronger measure.
As for the hybrid policy, that too fell victim to time and disagreement.
Councilor Lederman ceded the gavel to the new Vice-president Melvin Edwards—there was no dais in the conference room. He explained that one day the legislature would stop kicking the can down the road and allow the OML to return to full effect.
When that happens, remote participation will still be possible. The OML still requires that a majority of a government panel be in person. For other to participate virtually, the body must adopt a remote participation policy. Mayor Domenic Sarno, pursuant to state law, had already issued an order permitting boards and commissions to operate remotely.
Lederman explained that he had conversations with Springfield financial and facilities officials as well as the city’s public access station Focus Springfield. They had all agreed to spend American Rescue Plan funds to upgrade the cameras, audio and other equipment in the Council chamber. There will be televisions to allow members or the public to participate remotely and to facilitate presentations.
For now, committee meetings would not need to be in-person. The Council’s committee room, however, is part of the upgrades to allow for future in-person meetings.
Although the law permits remote participation by members or proponents of agenda items, the sense was conveyed that virtual participation was mainly for the public. Both virtual and in-person meetings produce impediments to accessibility. The new setups, once fully installed, will maximize access.
Brendon Holland of Focus Springfield, explained that a full build-out will not occur until early next year. Supply chain issues have slowed the purchase of the necessary equipment. However Focus Springfield will be able to operate in the chamber next month.
One wrinkle was the policy’s requirement of notice to the chair—i.e. Council President—from members wishing to participate remotely. The OML does not encourage remote participation by members of a body. It is only allowed when “unreasonably difficult” under state regulations. A councilor would have to tell the president why they could not attend. Yet, Lederman indicated he would not reject any facially good-faith reason.
Councilors Hurst and Whitfield were skeptical, raising the prospect of a reason being rejected. One cited a councilor contracting COVID and the president trying to leverage approval over them. Given health guidance, remote participation then, on its face, likely meets the “unreasonably difficult” standard. Whitfield also raised the concern about public participation.
Councilor Perez also signaled concern, comparing it to being called to the principal’s office.
Other councilors were enthusiastic. Councilor Govan, who works as a social worker, observed human interaction relies on nonverbal communication and body language. Neither consistently come through on Zoom screens, she said. She observed it was her first time with colleagues in session.
“I am really excited to be back,” she said.
Lederman assured he was not looking to deny anybody remote participation. He cautioned that some action was necessary to get ahead of the OML returning to normal next year.
Councilors sent the policy to committee for now. Since Monday, City Hall sources said additional conversations suggest only a few tweaks should be necessary to assure passage.
Although Monday’s meeting took place in a random meeting room adjacent to the chamber, the meeting had an old-school quality.
To Govan’s point, members gathered around the conference table interacted more crisply and cleanly, even with masks, than they had in years on Brady Brunch-style Zoom screens. With offices, restaurants, and arenas filled to far higher capacity than Council meeting space ever is, the moment to return, the first time for some members, has arrived.