Take My Council, Please: When the Opposition is Resi-dense…
SPRINGFIELD—The Springfield City Council opened its meeting on a high note with effusive praise of the tornado-damaged Cathedral High School, but quickly descended into acrimony and a display of dysfunctional government.
Councilor Tim Rooke was absent from the meeting.
The meeting was technically two. The first was a special meeting to attend to some business left in the gap between the July and September meetings. The second was a regularly scheduled permit hearing. At that permit hearing, all of the permits were approved with only a bit of dissent for a car lot in Indian Orchard.
The resolve urging the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield to rebuilt Cathedral in the city took up a substantial time as many councilors recalled memories and emphasized the importance of the school both to the city and to the East Forest Park neighborhood in which the school was located.
In 2011 the tornado that struck Springfield heavily damaged the school, particularly its auditorium, gymnasium and science wing. Both the President of the school, Ann Southworth and Principal John Miller thanked the Council for its support of the school and said that they were eager to come back to their home on Surrey Road. Southworth did say that the Diocese is currently awaiting a response from their insurer before they can contemplate construction, which would likely take two years.
Also approved were eminent domain takings necessary to begin a reconstruction of Boston Road in the Eastfield area. Other items went to committee including revisions to rules governing purchasing and contracts and Chapter 90 money for road repairs. The Council also killed a move to allow a permit at a property on Liberty Street.
But where the Council came off the rails was during debate of strengthening for the residency ordinance. Although, first step on a proposal to revise the definition of compliance, was passed, an effort to override the mayor’s veto of a limitation of the use of waivers for residency was not.
In some ways the problem was not really the final action, but rather the way at which it arrive there. At-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera, who has demagogued the issue with an uncompromising posture that is both untenable and illegal, took the opportunity attack the Human Resources Director with gotcha questions and mean-spirited rhetoric.
Most of the debate took place during the revision compliance. That proposal, which was discussed at Friday’s Residency Committee meeting, would eliminate the need for a waiver for applicants that are not residents of the city, but agree to move in to take the position. Under current law, those non-resident applicants need to get a waivers to buy time to move into the city, if agreeable to move into the city they usually get one.
Ferrera began with some innocuous if terribly familiar queries about the impact the proposal would have on waivers. Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton, who chairs the Special Committee on Residency, which incidentally Ferrera appointed, answered Ferrera’s questions without complaint.
When Ferrera turned his questioning to Human Resources Director Bill Mahoney, it traipsed beyond political posturing. He asked Mahoney whether waivers were for period of time or forever, Mahoney said both, but that the current proposal would make the former unnecessary. The exchange shifted to whether the city recruited from within the city to fill positions. Mahoney explained that his department’s tools were limited to the city website and national job search sites due to budget cuts.
Ferrera raised the heat, talking over Mahoney, insisting that no community outreach had been done, although Mahoney had said otherwise, and badgering him for not requesting money from the city council to advertise jobs. Then Ferrera attacked Mahoney residency and integrity. Mahoney, a Ludlow resident (and former Select Board member) has a waiver, having been hired at the tail end of the Control Board era.
“Was your job advertised?” Ferrera demanded. Mahoney, trying to answer, said that it was, to which Ferrera roared that that was a lie. Mahoney did allow that his position was not advertised, but there was a reason: the position he had applied for was advertised, but was merged to form his current one. Unsatisfied Ferrera continued to berate Mahoney.
Based on what Mahoney said, or could be heard over the crosstalk, Mahoney had applied for a Labor Relations position with the city. That position was advertised, but the Control Board decided to merge that position with Personnel Director, a position last held by Marilyn Montagna. Instead of advertising the position, the Control Board simply lumped Montagna’s into the position for which Mahoney applied.
On the proposal itself, Ferrera who insisted the 12 month grace period was a weakening of the residency ordinance. Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea rebutted that saying that part of the ordinance’s purpose is to encourage people to move into the city. “Part of the whole structure is to bring families in. This change gives people a chance to move in,” Shea said.
Ferrera was unmoved, failing to grasp how the current ordinance did nothing to stop non-residents from getting jobs, but only added a bureaucratic step of getting a waiver to have time to move in. First step passed the council, but only after Ferrera demanded a roll call. Only Ferrera and Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion recorded nays.
The Council then switched over to the override of Mayor Domenic Sarno’s veto of an ordinance that would limit the use of future waivers. Sarno had vetoed it claiming, on specious grounds to be an infringement of his powers and unconstitutional. It would not, as Ferrera harped, cancel previous waivers. Such a move would violate the US constitution or at least violate the terms of employment of employees granted waivers. Demagoguing the issue further, Ferrera said that city residents would be denied opportunities as long as the old waivers were not rescinded. He did not explain how this could be done without violating the Constitution.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs said that Ferrera’s complaint notwithstanding, there was no opportunity to amend this proposal. Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen said that every move the council makes strengthens the ordinance. At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, speaking to the veto itself, asserted the Council has “the authority to regulate waivers.”
The override failed, however, 8-4. At-large Councilors Tom Ashe and Bud Williams had voted for and against the ordinance respectively in July, but each flipped their position Monday. Ferrera, Concepcion and Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna voted against override. The issue did not die, however, as Twiggs moved to reconsider the matter in September.
An email sent to Ferrera requesting comment was unreturned as of posting time.
The only other marginally controversial item was an administrative home rule matter that would allow vacancies in ward seats to be filled by election. When Springfield instituted ward representation, neither the city nor the Massachusetts legislature contemplated what would happen when one of those ward seats were vacated.
Instead, the mechanism that the city adopted in 1965 and revised in 1992 in which the next highest vote-getter in the prior election would fill a vacancy also applied to ward seat. The rule made sense for an at-large council, but in a one-on-one ward race that means the loser wins. This actually happened in ward representation’s first year when Ward 6 Councilor Keith Wright resigned and the man he defeated, Amaad Rivera, replaced him.
The proposed fix would order an election for any vacancy that occurs in a ward seat more than 210 before the end of the council term. The change would need approval from Beacon Hill and, as written, approval from city voters in a referendum. Some councilors however worried about election fatigue and the cost of holding an election. Most of those councilors, however, did seem to recognize that the “second place” winner in a ward race was not ideal. The concern was especially high since a vacated ward seat could be won by a write-in candidate or, less democratically, by the Council itself.
Concepcion, the Ward 5 Councilor, offered the only support for the current system, saying that the next highest vote-getter, i.e. the defeated candidate, worked hard too. Concepcion, who is one of only four ward councilors with an opponent this year, did not say whether he would be comfortable if any of his current opponents would replace him.
The item went to committee for now. In order to make the November ballot, Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola has she usually needs about six weeks lead time to order ballots. Thus the Council and Legislature would need to approve it by late September.
Overall the results of Monday night were not horrid. The Council can and will vote again on the override and if the skepticism wins the day on reforming ward succession, the city and its leaders will learn again soon enough what the consequences are. However, what is troubling remains the tone of the meeting. The manner in which some councilors spoke to officials, often purely for political gain, is worrisome. It could serve to give qualified individuals pause, whether resident or not, before serving the city.
It is all the more disheartening that after all the praise and accolades given to Cathedral a few councilors show little of the values of tolerance and respect for the dignity of every human being the school’s education is supposed to instill.res