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The Year in Springfield

Sorry Folks, I’ve been working at my job in Springfield like crazy. I’ve finally had a day off and given that I’m to spend New Year’s Eve with myself, I’ve the time to cap the year with The Year in Springfield.

Two Thousand Six was not entirely good to Springfield, however it was not entirely bad, either. Here is a little review of the events that shaped Hoop City.

In January, Charles V. Ryan was sworn in for another two year term as the city’s mayor. Ryan, having completed his first term marked with the arrival of the Springfield Finance Control Board and union contract disputes, was sworn for his technically fifth term (Ryan served 3 terms in the 60’s) in a modest ceremony on the steps of the emblematic, yet troubled, Municipal Group.

Also in January, Brian Lees, who for the last eighteen years and the next 48 hours or so has served as State Senator from Springfield and its eastern suburbs, announced his retirement for the Massachusetts Senate. His retirement set off speculation as to his future plans, as Lees had in recent elections held his seat by comfortable margins. Rumors, fanned in part by Senator Lees himself, suggested that he considered running for mayor of Springfield, requiring a relocation to the city from East Longmeadow, or taking some other position in government, as he later would in the November elections. His retirement prompted a heated primary and general election for the State Senate seat.

Early this year dissension rippled through the somewhat side-lined City Council as freshman Bruce Stebbins proposed a cut in the Councilors’ salary. Cries of poverty welled up from the most senior members, and procedure was used to stifle the planned cut. The council, largely feeling left out of the machinations of SFCB and partially responsible for the situation, ultimately did the right thing and supported a tiny, but perceptible cut in their pay. That cut appears to be, and should be sustained until the SFCB’s job is done.

Amidst the city’s fiscal stabilization the Control Board finished its search for a permanent occupant of the city’s newly minted position of Police Commissioner. The official finalist list took a while to be released; local contenders included then-acting Police Commissioner William Fitchet, Edward T. Cannon, a deputy chief from NYC, and Robert McNeilly, a former Pittsburgh police chief (*info courtesy Heather Brandon, see below comment). Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety Edward Flynn got the job. Whining detractors claimed he only got the position as a parting gift from exiting Governor MIA Mitt Romney, which he probably did. Nonetheless, Flynn took the job and has showed a consistent enthusiasm for his job. Apparently gaining the respect of Springfield’s Finest and working hard to gain creditability with the people, Flynn won the respect of this citizen by buying a home in city. Such a gesture has not been universally undertaken by all of the city’s employees, specifically the ones earning six figures.

Executive Director of the Control Board and Mayor Charles Ryan presented to the SFCB the city’s first balanced budget since 2003. Though in part predicated upon the introduction off a trash fee, thus far suspended, it marked a major step by the financially troubled city. With spending under control, hopefully contained to match the restricted growth of Proposition 2 ½ and anemic growth in local aid, the city may have a fighting chance. Though still struggling with crime, underperforming schools, high unemployment and a poor track record of economic development, the worst may be over.

This summer and early fall contract negotiations with the city’s three largest unions, firefighters, police, and teachers finally bore fruit. Contracts were inked, signed, and approved by city employees and the SFCB enabling a predictable approach to future fiduciary policy. City officials appear optimistic that such predictability will generate confidence in the financial markets and permit new debt financing, critical to the city’s grand capital plan. The plan includes necessary projects such as the renovation of the Municipal Group, the refurbishment of police HQ, a new fire station, demolition of old buildings, and general upkeep.

The SFCB irked city residents by imposing a $90 trash fee upon residential property owners. While to some extent unnecessary, the plan followed the systems in place at other municipalities in the state such as Worcester and was legal. However, Judge Constance Sweeney, in response to the lawsuit brought on by a handful of residents, issued an injunction prohibiting the city from collecting the fee pending a hearing next month. While the SFCB decided to compensate by taking money from the state loan, they have not given up in the fight. While in theory, should the board not be extended and the Council decide not to pursue the trash fee, the issue is moot. However, Sweeney’s ultimate decision will have impact statewide as the city in essence copied other cities’ plans. Sweeney was disinterested by plaintiffs’ claims about the fee supposedly paying for other services, which it doesn’t. She found that the fee and trash pickup was involuntary because it created hurdles for homeowners to opt out. Turning in your city issued bin is not enough. However, the city needs to know and confirm where residents are dumping garbage to comply with Environmental Laws.

In November, Democrats took back the United States House of Representatives and Senate. The implications run back to Springfield as the city’s Congressman, Richard Neal, stands to receive a chairmanship of a subcommittee of the House’s powerful Ways & Means Committee. In addition, the Chairman to be, Charles Rangel of New York, has a good relationship with Neal. Cong. Neal’s influence on the committee can only serve to benefit the city. Senator Edward Kennedy stands to once again chair the Senate’s education committee. Hoping to work on No Child Left Behind, Pell Grants, and education in general, Kennedy’s efforts stand to benefit urban schoolchildren everywhere, especially Springfield.

In the same election, Democrats in the Statehouse gained further on the Republicans, tightening their supermajority. Among the locally elected was Gale Candaras of Wilbraham. Having served in the House, Candaras announced her candidacy after Lees decision to retire. She won her seat after defeating Rosemarie Mazza-Moriarty in the primary and Lees aid Enrico Villamaino in the general. City Councilor Angelo Puppolo won her seat putting another city resident into the Statehouse. When Puppolo resigns, effective when the new Legislature convenes, Jimmy Ferrera, 10th place winner in the Municipal Election of 2005 will take Puppolo’s seat. In addition, Deval Patrick trounced Republican Kerry Healey after a bitter, but lackluster campaign. Patrick will become the second black elected to statewide office and first black governor. The impact of his administration is general seen as positive for Springfield, but in reality is unknown. Having not taken a position on the Control Board’s future, supporting option taxes, and basically the same legislature as before, much remains a mystery.

With less than three hours to go, Springfield closes the year with the lowest number of homicides since the early part of the decade. The city was cruising toward the lowest number of homicides in long time, until violence erupted this month resulting in four homicides in only a few weeks time. Nonetheless, statistics suggest a drop in crime overall following a pattern reinforced by Springfield’s absence from Morgan Quitno’s detestable 20 most dangerous city list.

And so much more happened in Springfield, but these are the major events that WMassP&I has remembered. Hopefully, a year from now, if we are still in business, we can have a pithier, yet more expansive list for The Year in Springfield.

From Western Mass Politics & Insight, have a happy, healthy and safe New Years. Remember, area cab companies are providing free rides so you don’t have to risk your own life and the lives of others on your way home. Once again HAPPY 2007.

*Photos from top to bottom (Mayor Charles Ryan from City Website, Edward Flynn from Spfld PD Website, and Cong. Richard Neal from his Official Website)

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