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Take My Council, Please: Storm Stories…and Nullification at 36 Court?…

 **UPDATED** The following post has been updated as of 6/9/11.  Data on the slots votes has been corrected.

The Springfield City Council held their first meeting since last week’s tornado sliced through the heart of Springfield and neighboring towns.  The council had a great deal of regular business to attend to, but there was also time to bat stories from the disaster back and forth among the councils.  Unfortunately, even a somber a subject as the tornado was unable to escape some political rancor.  The only item that dredged up as much emotion as the tornado, was oddly, the Slot Parlor/Internet Cafe on Cooley Street in the city’s Five Town Plaza.

First the boilerplate.  More money was accepted by the Health Department from grants and other sources.  The police department had an order to transfer funds from its salaries account to its equipment account to purchase new vests for police officers.  However, left unclear was why this money was being appropriated now as opposed to in the original budget approved last year.  Motions were made to refer the matter to committee, but between the police sergeant holding a vest in the audience and the admonitions of at-large councilors Tim Rooke and Kateri Walsh about police safety, the motion could not find a second.  The money did not come from reserves, but still a better explanation is merited.
Thomas Belton, right (Masslive)

On a far more positive note, the City Council approved the nomination of Thomas Belton to be director of Veterans Services.  Belton, a former marine and Vietnam Veteran, received hefty praise from Clodo Concepcion, Jose Tosado and Kateri Walsh, whose husband abruptly resigned earlier this year.  After the vote, Belton briefly thanked the council in remarks from which long winded Oscar winners could learn a thing about brevity.

Then the council started veering into some very strange territory.  WMassP&I has not confirmed the original date of the first vote, but the council took up reconsideration of a vote for a special permit for the 777 Internet Cafe on Cooley Street in Springfield.  These Internet Cafes have gained attention as violating the state’s laws against gambling.  Essentially, via an elaborate system using tokens and whatnot, proprietors have been able to shirk these laws.  The Attorney General shut down many of them, but others have sought to reopen under narrow exceptions.  Those exceptions require a permit from the city.
777 Internet Cafe on Cooley St (WMassP&I)

The original vote failed by an 8-4 vote (special permits require 9 votes, notwithstanding absences).  A motion had been made for reconsideration, for whatever reason. Apparently there is considerable support for the parlor on Cooley Street, which is very popular and by all accounts far better run than some of the others shut down.  However, per Massachusetts General Law 40A Sec. 16, the matter could not be brought up again for two years after a final decision had been rendered.  The 8-4, according to the City Solicitor, was that final decision, not subject to reconsideration.  

Reconsideration is a parliamentary tactic the council has written into its own rules.  It cannot and does not override the state law, which does not allow for any the do-overs.  The reason is because, as with biomass votes last month, the council was sitting as a regulatory body governed by very specific and complex land use statutes set by the commonwealth.  The elected council just happens to be the body empowered to execute that state statute in the city.  


When the council, as the municipal legislature, votes on an ordinance or monetary transfer, for example, it is acting on general powers granted by the mosaic of special acts, the general laws and the city charter that govern the City of Springfield.  Therefore, it can set its own rules on when issues can be brought up again. Typically under council rules, if an item is not reconsidered immediately after a vote, it cannot be brought up again until the next council is seated.  Still, that rule exists at the council’s direction.

The debate descended into a strange battle over what was being voted on in the last vote and what was being voted on now.  The city clerk, Wayman Lee, seemed especially uncomfortable throughout the process as he reminded the council—repeatedly—that no special permit in his research had been reconsidered (and then approved) as was being done here  Some councilors tried to make the argument that the lack of precedent was irrelevant.  Most of the councilors simply appeared not to grasp how their own parliamentary rules did not supersede or nullify, the commonwealth’s zoning laws.
Still the motion for reconsideration succeeded and the permit was subsequently approved.  However, the decision is technically on hold.  Lee, the city clerk, informed the council that as a member of the bar, he had to consult with the city solicitor before publishing their decision.  As a lawyer, Lee has obligation to carry out the law and cannot directly contravene state law as the the council itself did.  Councilors have an official immunity that Lee would not in his capacity as a lawyer (that is his law license could be in play in a way no similar privilege is for the councilors).  Were the city solicitor to inform him that he himself would face no charges because he lacks the authority to reject the council’s decision, he would probably then publish the decision.
A.G. Martha Coakley (Wikipedia)

WMassP&I contacted the Attorney General’s office for comment about the council’s actions both from the slot parlor’s perspective and from the legality of the council’s action.  A spokesman for Martha Coakley has yet to come back with an answer.

 At the end of the meeting, the council voted on an emergency measure from the mayor to permit the city to deficit spend in order to pay for the response to the tornado.  Under state law, the city is allowed to spend money without having the actual money when a state of emergency is declared.  The money, hopefully, will be reimbursed from federal and state sources.

Then the council shifted gears and began talking about the tornado.  Earlier in the meeting, a seemingly exhausted Tim Allen, the councilor for Ward 7, unloaded about what he had seen both in his ward (the northern sections of East Forest Park were particularly hard hit) and elsewhere.  Allen appeared eager to share his experiences with his colleagues and wished that he could have done so earlier in the meeting, particularly before the acrimonious vote on the slot parlors.

Councilor Allen (campaign site)

Council President Jose Tosado apparently misread Allen’s comments and accused the councilor of equating visibility in neighborhoods with the action and dedication of individual councilors.  It was difficult to gauge how much of that tongue lashing was prompted by Tosado’s misplaced outrage or how much of it hit a nerve on Tosado, whose mayoral ambitions have been complicated by the disaster.

Other councilors were more measured, mostly sharing stories of heroism.  At-large councilor Kateri Walsh and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs spoke about how some non-profits were turning away offers of help.  Others raised concerns about the execution of relief and recovery efforts.  Although not directly mentioned in session, there was a palpable concern about how much the mayor’s office was communicating with them individually.  Allen has attended the city’s daily briefings at the emergency operations center and offered to relay information to any councilor unable to attend.


Councilor Edwards (Facebook)

By far the most compelling story came from Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards whose district was also particularly hard hit.  Ward 3 includes the Maple Heights/Six Corners area as well as the South End.  Edwards described how he was in his car with his wife as trees were collapsing around them.  “I thought I was going to die,” Edwards said choking up at times.  But, Edwards went on, he was comforted by the fact that he was with his wife.

 Allen rose again and, clearing the air over his previous comments (and Tosado’s reply), expressed satisfaction and relief that councilors were sharing as they were.  “This is what I wanted,” Allen said.  There was some slight awkwardness as the council was still being broadcast by Public Access.  However, depending on the speaker, the discussion of the tornado seemed more like a support group than the often windy Springfield City Council.

The council adjourned shortly thereafter.  Unfinished before the council were a few financial orders that will likely be settled next meeting.  A special meeting is scheduled for next Monday to formally receive the redistricting plan for the council’s ward seats.  Budget consideration is set to begin in less than two weeks.  However, that may change due to the tornado.
 The passion and humanity seemed genuine, Monday.  However, it was clear from some tornado comments and the slots legalities that the disaster would not itself revolutionize 36 Court Street as a political institution.  However, the tornado may offer a guide as to how such changes for the better could happen.