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Take My Council, Please: Forest Park Face-off…

It was a hot time in a cool town’s halls of power Monday.  The regular city council meeting, like all the others it seems, appeared destined to be a big snooze.  Instead, it was full of sound of fury, much of it signifying nothing or told by an idiot.

Springfield’s recently certified free cash was transferred by the council to the stabilization fund for safekeeping.  The fund presently exceeds $40 million dollars and finance officials projected the city to run a $2 million dollar surplus for the fiscal year.

However, what drew much of the attention and time during the meeting was the renovation of Forest Park Middle School.  After years planning, the school committee recently approved a plan to build an addition and secure a new parking lot (the present one will be taken up by the addition).  Alternative locations like Diamond Match (too far from the neighborhood) and Longhill Gardens (idea was submitted WAY too late) were ultimately rejected.  The density of the Forest Park neighborhood limited choices that would not include a massive land taking by the city.

Forest Park Middle School (school website)
The selected plan carried a coveted 90/10 state funding (The Massachusetts School Rebuilding Authority will be paying 90 cents on the dollar for the renovation).  That plan called for taking multiple family dwellings on the east side of Sumner Terrace, a dead-end off of Sumner Ave that backs the school.  A restaurant, Sam’s, is also included in the taking, ostensibly for new parking.

In order to qualify for the state funding, the city must put up its own (non-school) money to pay the 10% and obtain the land.  The takings, relocation of tenants, and demolition is projected to cost $1.9 million of which $700K will cover the actual property purchase.  The money needed to be transferred and eminent domain authorized which only the City Council can do under state law.

Councilors Tim Allen (Ward 7), Mike Fenton (Ward 2), Kateri Walsh (at-large) and others stood in support of the project.  Assistant City Solicitor Kathleen Breck detailed the meticulous process by which the city ascertained the value of the property, worked with tenants, and assisted with relocation.  Case closed, right?  Ha!

Councilor Rivera (Facebook)
Ward 6 City Councilor Amaad Rivera, whose district includes most of Forest Park and the middle school in particular, raised objections to a lack of meetings (or at least ones of which he was aware), despite ample evidence to the contrary.  Rivera went on, rambling at times, about traffic and that charter schools were able to use public money to build schools in the neighborhood, although he did not say which ones.  Rivera must have been referring to Horace Mann New Leadership and MLK Jr. charter schools, which occupy existing buildings formerly Holy Name School and Goodwill Industries respectively.

Things heated up after Walsh rose to support the renovation.  She noted the long search and that the clock was running out not just on the time frame to get the money (the city will fail to qualify for the funding if the property is not seized by the end of February).  She wondered how much longer kids can be reasonably educated absent this renovation and addition.
Rivera did not take this sitting down.  He referred to the back row of the audience being filled (with two or three people) of a family that, in his description, would lose their livelihood.  Left unexplained by Rivera, however, was why the city’s legal obligation to relocate the business would fall short.  It is true that Sam’s has been in that location for some time and expanded in the last few years but there are empty storefronts nearby with parking.

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)
Clearly aware that his council chamber theatrics could not stop the appropriation and vote for eminent domain, Rivera whipped out a rarely used council rule that requires an inquiry of the city comptroller whenever a financial order, such as this appropriation, is before the council.  In an obstructionist move that would make Mitch McConnell proud, Rivera effectively ended debate on the issue pending the comptroller’s input.  City Solicitor Ed Pikula and Breck advised the council that they would need to shoehorn in a special meeting between the 14th and the 18th to meet the state’s deadlines for the financing.

It got better…or worse.  Walsh and Rivera, tore open a fresh wound from January when the latter refused to vote for the former, the only other Forest Park councilor, to be Vice-President.  Walsh attempted to paint the issue as one that had gone through the process and this was the result that could gain consensus.  Rivera would have none of that.  He bristled at Walsh’s attempt to play to finality and a perceived implication she had made that Rivera did not understand that the owners of Sam’s would be compensated and relocated.  After Rivera rattled off his grievances once more, the issue was tabled.

Next up, Councilor Jimmy Ferrera needled Library Director Molly Fogarty and City Solicitor Ed Pikula as to why non-circulating “rare books” had been sold.  The books were technically owned by the Museum Association.  Those that were valuable would have required special maintenance neither the city nor the association could provide.


The meeting then pivoted to the Smith & Wesson tax deal that had been proposed, in part, because the gun maker was relocating 225 jobs from the great low-tax haven of New Hampshire.  The deal will waive or exempt Smith & Wesson from some of the taxes they would owe for a number of years and the manufacturer will invest over $60 million over the same period of time and add the above mentioned jobs.  Governor Deval Patrick had earlier secured other  state tax breaks for the deal.

Normally this would be passed with little debate, but Councilor Tim Rooke had taken issue with a past deal that had not gone as planned.  Smith & Wesson had likewise agreed to add jobs and invest in a new shooting range on Page Boulevard.  The jobs never fully materialized due to economic factors and Rooke demanded that the gun maker pay those back taxes.  Juxtaposing this complaint against praise for the manufacturer, Rooke failed to realize the city had opted at the time to not revoke the exemption because the rest of the agreement (the shooting range) was going forward.  Even if he accepted that position, he refused to admit that state law, once the agreement is approved, erases the tax obligation for the time specified.  Revocation, which is the city’s only available option, is neither retroactive nor automatic.

Councilor Rooke (Spfld Intruder)

Rooke began to get a little testy as officials tried in vain to convince him.  Fundamentally, Rooke, who is not a lawyer, very probably viewed the old agreement as a breach of contract, but in fact this was a regulatory decision agreed to by the state, city, and Smith & Wesson.  Therefore the solution cannot be simply reverting to the status quo ante as breach of contract disputes do in some cases.  The tax deal for Smith & Wesson passed 12 to Rooke.

Other theater during the tax break debate included  Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion’s own story about shuttering manufacturing.  Before that though he mistook Pikula’s referral of his question to an assistant solicitor who had the answers for ducking or handing it off a Smith & Wesson official.  Concepcion dropped awkwardly Reagan’s “trust, but verify” quote, ostensibly an allusion to verifying Smith & Wesson’s job creation.

Councilor Ferrera (Urban Compass)
The meeting wound down by formally accepting grants for the fire department.  The council made Fire Commissioner Gary Cassanelli wait through the whole meeting to make a presentation that lasted minutes.
Finally, Ferrera proposed his legislation of the month.  He wanted home rule legislation from Beacon Hill to install cameras throughout the city to catch red light runners.  Setting aside the civil liberties and liability issues that Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak raised, Ferrera’s law ran afoul of his own thinking.
Solicitor Pikula reminded the council of  such previous legislation’s fate.  The Control Board proposed a similar home rule petition that the legislature did not pass.  They did not want to give up the power or were otherwise uninterested in passing it.  Ferrera made the exact same charge against Mayor Domenic Sarno’s trash fee home rule petition back in December.  The former claimed, without any evidence, that Sarno’s petition lacked support (although no legislator worth their salt will support a home rule petition until it has been formally made).


Ferrera’s proposal was sent to committee and the meeting closed.  Leave it to the Springfield City Council to turn the routine into an almost catty fracas that would be hilarious were it reality TV and not our government at work.  It is too early to pass judgment on the Walsh/Rivera spat beyond what we have implied, but this is not the last of it.  It is obvious that the 2011 session of the Springfield City Council may top the contention and divisiveness of years past…like 2010.

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