Take My Council, Please: Committee Can-Do!…
As Western Mass Politics & Insight arrogantly takes credit for starting the cascade of news stories about Scott Brown’s sudden love for family planning and women’s health, the Springfield City Council got short shrift again. Monday’s meeting emphasized the importance of committee. Much of the important business before the council ended up going to committee. In some cases, the reason was good and in others it was just odd.
Councilor Amaad Rivera was absent due to a car accident. City Council President Jose Tosado announced his absence at the beginning of the meeting and other city hall sources confirmed that an email had been sent by Rivera to that effect.
As always, let us begin with the easy stuff. The City Council accepted money for the city’s Housing department to fight blight and foreclosure aftermath. The police department accepted grants to fight underage drinking and to purchase a special camera that would read license plates to the rear of a police cruiser. Two ordinances, one changing fire department fees and another regarding junk shops advanced to the mayor.
However, three other items mostly routine caught the eye of some councilors who wanted the items moved to committee. Moving a bill the appropriate committee of the City Council is a delaying tactic. However, those delays can either be positive or negative. Sometimes they are simply redundant. Take last meeting’s committee referral of the civilian review board. Because the board was a ordinance change, initial approval would have sent the ordinance to committee anyway before it would be enacted. Still, the council found it fit to send it to committee before it would go to there anyway.
The first item that went to committee was a net positive. The issue before the council was an authorization to the school committee to seek a five year contract for food service in schools. Although the School Committee is largely a law onto itself, it is technically little more than a department of the city, albeit one with an elected body. As such, it often needs Council approval just like the police or park departments would. To award a contract for more than three years under M.G.L 30B §12 they would need council approval.
However, several councilors, including at-large councilors Kateri Walsh and Tom Ashe, and Ward 4 councilor E. Henry Twiggs, wanted to vote to give the school committee approval now. Walsh and Ashe, however, mischaracterized the intent of the measure and the law. Both, but particularly Walsh, pushed for a vote now, claiming that if they did not vote for this the school committee could not even ask for a five year proposal.
Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen both protested noting that we had no idea what the council was voting for by giving this authorization. To make matters worse, nobody from the finance, law or school departments were on hand to fully explain the legalities. It was up to City Clerk Wayman Lee, who succinctly explained the truth. Nothing in the law says the school committee cannot issue a request for proposals for five years, it just cannot award the contract until the council approves. In fact, many times it is the bidders responding to an RFP who suggest a longer contract length. Authorization absent a bid would give the school committee carte blanche to sign whatever it wanted for five years.
In any case, many councilors simply wanted to better understand for what they were voting. Walsh’s complaint that is was not the City Council’s place to negotiate school contracts were misleading. The council does not negotiate contracts but it does have an obligation to see to it that authority it grants another city entity uses it responsibly. Sending the matter to committee will have no impact on the school department’s ability to seek the contract it wants. The measure went to committee on a tight 7-5 vote.
The next item destined for committee fell well outside the parameters of the typical committee bound measure. The City Council was asked to accept on behalf of the Police Department a $500,000 grant for gang prevention. The money is split between community organizations and overtime for the department.
Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, famous for her silence, stood up and began peppering the department’s finance representative with questions about the program. Specifically, she asked which organizations got the community money. Among those mentioned were the Salvation Army and the Springfield Boys & Girls Club. Luna appeared to criticize, however obliquely, that the same groups received the money consistently. Then she somewhat hesitantly made a motion to send the measure to committee.
Councilor Allen stated that he had worked on that committee that doles out the money prior to his election to the council and found that the entire process to be fair and above board. Councilor Walsh, not to be outdone pounced on the subject in support of Luna, articulating clearly what the latter had appeared to imply. At-large Councilor Ferrera, in a rare burst of common sense, stood to oppose sending the measure to committee because the money paid for overtime for the police department.
What happened next was even more bizarre than the motion to send free money to committee. Many measures can be approved by voice vote. Others, like this one are, usually done with a roll call. After a hardly unanimous voice vote, one councilor asked for roll call, which Tosado denied after pausing briefly. Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak asked for immediate reconsideration. Tosado at first promised the matter would return to the council at its next meeting, but Lysak pressed the issue and Tosado relented. Still, the motion for immediate reconsideration failed on a 6-6 (it needed a majority to call a new vote). The money will go to committee for now.
Finally, the last measure thatwent to committee was approval to use some of the city Community Development Block Grant loan money to renovate the one-time Holiday Inn off of I-291. The hotel owners, represented by Shardool Parmar, noted that since the hotel had lost the Holiday Inn name, the building’s value had collapsed as its vacancy rate skyrocketed. Parmar and the city’s economic development department noted that the hotel had not been renovated since the building was constructed in the 1960’s.
The loan itself is part of the Section 108 program named after its place in the Housing and Community Development Act. Springfield has access to loan money up to five times the value of its annual CDBG funding. A spokesperson for the Boston HUD office told WMassP&I in an email that the money itself comes from US government bonds. The bonds are backed by the community’s block funding and in cases where it will be re-lent to a third party, such as this one, a lien is placed on the property to be redeveloped. Past projects that have used this program include the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Parmars’ plans call for re-branding the hotel a La Quinta and almost doubling the number of jobs at the hotel. Past projects in mid-range hotel market had failed to attract financing in the down economy making the Housing and Urban Development program a good fit.
Parmar said that business at mid-range hotels, whose rates range from $80-$100 per night, largely go West Springfield, Chicopee or Enfield. Parmar also noted that travelers prefer recently built/renovated hotels and none of the area‘s town have such facilities. Consequently, he described the project as a win for the city as it would gain both property and hotel taxes. To his discredit Parmar also offered some tacky reasoning for choosing La Quinta, namely the city’s heavy Hispanic population while saying the city’s other hotels do not “fit the community.”
Councilor Ferrera, however, questioned the need for another hotel in Springfield and whether or not there was a market study to justify it. This faux-due diligence only came off as micromanaging the city’s hotel market. Ferrera claimed that those hotels actually did offer mid-market rates based on calls he made. As such the need for hotels at this price point would be unnecessary. Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, rebuked Ferrera claiming his research found the opposite. WMassP&I looked up all three hotels’ rates online for two randomly selected time periods–one a weekend and one midweek–and found only the Sheraton offered similar rates and only on a weekend.
The more substantive concern arose as to who was actually on the hook for the loan money. The city’s economic development department seemed say roughly what the HUD website describes. The impression was left, however, that the city was ultimately responsible for the money (in fact it appears to only be the city’s CBDG money that could be in jeopardy). In any case, the matter, too was sent to committee on voice vote.
Committee is not inherently a bad thing. However, some councilors’ use is entirely selective and political. It is hard to imagine how Councilor Walsh would justify her opposition to committee oversight of school contracts while supporting a motion to send to committee a measure authorizing acceptance of free money. We can err on the side of cautious oversight or trust the machinations of government, but not both (at least not in the same meeting). Maybe Walsh sought some sisterhood with Luna, the only other woman on the council.
The council put on a half-way decent show on Monday, but in the end the whole affair was just a quickie. The council had debated, voted, and adjourned in little over an hour.