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Who, Not What, Should Now Go to Committee?…

UPDATED 1/11/13 4:56PM: For Clarity

Councilor Jimmy Ferrera 2013 President (Urban Compass)

SPRINGFIELD—The Springfield City Council formally installed at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera for another year-long term as the body’s president before a chamber filled with department heads, supporters and family. The new term begins a year after Ferrera started his first term off on the wrong foot while important decisions still lay ahead.

Monday also marked Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards’s triumphant return after a traumatic double knee injury in August. While his return was not announced during the meeting by Ferrera, Edwards was warmly greeted by his colleagues.

The vote itself was without much, if any suspense. Only at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh opted to vote for Ferrera rather than repeat her “present” from before. Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, did however cast “present” votes leading to a 10-2 vote for Ferrera. At-large Councilor Tim Rooke did not attend.

Councilor Bud Williams (WMassP&I)

Councilor Bud Williams, 2012 Chair of Planning & Econ. Dev. (WMassP&I)

At-large Councilor Bud Williams was elected Vice-President unanimously.

Former Springfield Police Chief and Casino Site Committee Co-Chair Paula Meara spoke, saying no councilor had done more to unite the Council than Ferrera. During a brief interview after the ceremony, Meara was asked what she had observed that led to her words of praise. “I just see the way he works with the individual Councilors to come to consensus,” she said. Pressed for an example, she said she would rather not say.

But by the time Ferrera was sworn in as President by District Court Judge William Boyle, how he got there was the stuff of political intrigue, not tangible consequence. After the invocation, Ferrera gave a speech outlining his goals for the upcoming session, which focusing on casinos and school safety, a reference to the Newtown, Conn. shooting.

Councilors Filing into the Chamber Monday (WMassP&I)

Councilors Filing into the Chamber Monday (WMassP&I)

With the voting done, however, perhaps the most relevant power of the president is the assignment of committees and appointment of their chairs. Last year, Ferrera caused a stir when he shafted Allen and Fenton with one committee assignment each. Fenton received no standing committee assignment. Instead, Ferrera loaded up appointments of early supporters of his presidency vote in what he called “not a political process.”

Whatever Ferrera’s intentions, it had an impact on Council committee operations. Council records show several committees were effectively dormant last year meeting sparingly if at all. Others appeared to pick up the slack meeting on issues that fit the committee’s mission, but might have been better suited elsewhere.

For example, Maintenance and Development (a not particularly active committee itself), chaired by Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion picked up slack from the School Building committee.

Councilor John Lysak, 2012 Chair of General Government (WMassP&I)

Councilor John Lysak, 2012 Chair of General Government (WMassP&I)

Three committees stand out for frequent meetings. General Government, chaired by Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak, met 17 times. Finance, chaired by Rooke, met 19 times and Planning and Economic Development, chaired by Williams, met 28 times. Some of the included meetings may be repeats on an issue. These numbers do not include joint meetings of committees or annual meetings held on the budget and tax rates.

According to Council records, the Human Services, Intergovernmental/Federal-State Relations, Audit, School Building, Permit Review, Ad Hoc School/Council and Green committees met once or less last year. At-large Councilor Tom Ashe, the Council co-chair of the joint ad hoc schools committee pointed out in an email that the School Committee never organized its half of that group, making meetings impossible.

Councilor Thomas Ashe, 2012 Chair of Public Health & Safety (WMassP&I)

Councilor Thomas Ashe, 2012 Chair of Public Health & Safety (WMassP&I)

Ashe is also the chair of Public Health and Safety, whose jurisdiction includes the Police and Fire Departments. That committee met eight times last year, mostly clustered around the late-night entertainment issues and the fire commissioner ordinance revisions.

Ashe said in his email that the number of meetings does not mean he is not active. He said he is in “frequent contact” with public safety officials. Given Ashe’s connections to public safety groups in the area, such a situation is plausible. The only irony may be that if meetings are wanting, one victim may be Ashe, who might have benefited from greater visibility on the committee while campaigning for Clerk of Courts last year.

Chairs of other committees that were contacted did not reply. There may be some wisdom to glean, nonetheless.

Councilor Zaida Luna, 2012 Chair of Human Services (WMassP&I)

Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, a social worker and chair of Human Services, did not hold meetings regularly or on subjects that would affect her ward particularly. Helen Caulton-Harris and her Health and Human Services Department are prodigious grant writers and greater public debate on the interaction between Luna’s ward and programs working in her community would only benefit both.

But there is also an angle that goes back to Ferrera’s committee-stacking last January. Luna was one of the beneficiaries of Ferrera’s committee-doling largesse. Yet the four seats on committees Luna received is a lot of ground to cover and easily overwhelming. To be fair, Human Services was not particularly active in 2011, either.

Notably, the Green Special Committee, the chair of which Ferrera kept for himself, even though Council rules make him a member of all committees, was mostly inactive.  It only held one meeting in 2012, down from eight in 2011, despite Ferrera’s professed interest in environmental issues in the past.

Councilor Clodo Concepcion, Chair of Maintenance & Dev. & Special Cmte on Elder Affairs (WMassP&I)

Councilor Clodo Concepcion, Chair of Maintenance & Dev. & Special Cmte on Elder Affairs (WMassP&I)

The variation in activity is partly due to the number of items referred from the full Council. Still, a referral is not needed to hold a meeting. Concepcion has used his Elder Affairs Special Committee to host seminars on city government, often in his ward, possibly contributing to his continued and/or perceived local support. In other words, Chairs have latitude in utilizing committees.

No clearer example of this may be in the Finance Committee. In 2012, that committee almost only met before Council meetings with few exceptions like budget and tax rate-setting season. But even budget and tax rate meetings were spare in comparison to 2011. That year, under Fenton, the committee met often to monitor the status of city financial issues such as tornado deficit-spending to name on example, without any direction or item from the full Council.

Councilor Tim Rooke, Chair of Finance, Special Cmte on Audit, & Special Cmte on School Building (Linked In)

What makes the relative downshift in Finance’s activity all the more strange is that Rooke, chair of Audit in 2011, convened that committee seven times. In 2012 with Rooke still chair, no record exists of any meeting. Like other chairs contacted, Rooke did not reply to an email before posting time either about committees or his absence Monday.

Comparing the committee activity between 2011 and 2012 is difficult because there were demonstrably more joint committee meetings in 2011. Whether this implies more synergy and work or not, it certainly showed more cooperation, and possibly consensus.

For example, Planning & Economic Development under Allen in 2011 did not necessarily meet more than in 2012 under Williams. It did meet frequently with other committees.

Councilor Michael Fenton, 2011 Chair of Finance (WMassP&I)

Councilor Michael Fenton, 2011 Chair of Finance (WMassP&I)

However, counting joint meetings would inflate the number of meetings further, too. Without joint meetings for example, Finance met about 24 times in 2011. Adding in joint meetings, but still excluding budget/tax rate meetings, Finance met as many as 40 times.

Other committees like General Government and Maintenance and Development did not show a significant change in activity between 2011 and 2012.  Maintenance and Development met seven times under both Walsh in 2011 and Concepcion in 2012.  General Government met three more times under Ferrera in 2011, than 2012’s 17 meetings under Lysak, both years being fueled by high-profile issues.  Neither 2011 number includes joint committee meetings.

The power of committees can be overstated, however. Under Council rules, items sent to committee can be returned to the floor after a certain period of time even without the consent of the chair of the committee of cognizance.

This leaves Ferrera with a great deal to think about as he appoints committees. The 2012 session appeared less productive, in terms of Council-originated work than the session before it. This was not for want of issues. Residency and the zoning ordinance bounced in and around committee, the latter dying rather ignominiously without any hearings in committee. Ferrera did not return an email requesting comment and the date he planned to announce assignments.

The Springfield City Council on Inauguration Day, 2012 (WMassP&I)

The Springfield City Council on Inauguration Day, 2012 (WMassP&I)

That committee assignments place too much burden on some councilors or that some councilors simply decided to work less is not the issue. The functionality of the Council is the responsibility of the President. Council watchers have observed that before the committee structure began to balloon, meetings were regularly scheduled. Committees did not always meet, but they were ready for items referred from the Council or to maintain oversight of city government.

Ferrera won another term as council president, in part due to fears and intrigue that may be unrelated to him directly. Last year was a chance for him to earn respect and sources say Ferrera wanted the presidency for another year to bolster reelection chances. With neighborhood groups still sore at Ferrera after last year’s fiasco, another year as presidency could prove deleterious, too. That is, unless Ferrera shows some leadership in exercising the power of his position rather than throw his weight around the Council Chamber.