Take My Council, Please: Long Meeting’s Journey (almost) into Midnight…
SPRINGFIELD—During a marathon session Monday night that was largely driven by the sheer weight of the agenda and not the outsized volume of councilors’ egos, the Council digested a massive list of financial orders and considered several ordinances.
The meeting opened with a Audit Committee from Chair and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs report that looked into the Springfield Parking Authority control of on-street parking. It followed the first of many schedule rearrangements that were largely for financial matters.
Some financial matters drew scrutiny like a move to transfer $250,000 among various city accounts to a demolition project and bid to hire an attorney on contract for labor relations. Both items were sent to committee. The latter drew questions from at-large Councilor Tim Rooke who asked why an outside bid was being solicited, when he rightly noted that the purpose of reconstituting the position that became HR/Labor Relations Director was to eliminate the need for outside counsel in labor negotiations.
Other orders were almost all grants. They includes moneys for: the Fire Department, libraries, Health and Human Services, Domenic Sarno’s hair care products (kidding, just checking if you were paying attention) repairs to the Old First Church, and Elder Affairs.
Non financial orders included adopting a state law that allows the Retirement Board to Defend its members if sued in their official capacity; deeds for properties under redevelopment; a lease for DPW equipment, declaring the Elias Brookings building surplus. The Council scrutinized an order to allow the city to deficit spend and remove the fire-ravaged former Chestnut Middle School. The Council permitted immediate costs to be paid, but held off on approving spending for future needs for the site for now.
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh also introduced a resolution welcoming Forest Park Middle School back online after several months of renovation. The Council also gave some ministerial approval to permit next week‘s preliminary election sin Wards 1 and 5.
Also in election related news, the City Council unanimously approved a Home Rule petition sponsored by Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton that would fill vacancies in the Council ward and School Committee district seats by a special election. The measure still requires the mayor’s signatures, approval by all of the parties in Boston and finally voter approval in 2014.
The measure, as amended during the meeting, would only hold an election if the seat was vacated more than 210 days before the expiration of the term. Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola told WMassP&I a special election automatically trigger the other election mechanisms. Under current rules, the loser in that ward’s last election takes the seat.
Aside from final approval for storm water and drain laws and first step on electronic cigarettes, the real action of the meeting was on ordinances.
Measures proposed by at-large Councilor Tom Ashe to regulate pawnbrokers faced headwinds presaged by pawn shop owners inundated public speak out earlier in the meeting. One would extend from 10 days to 23 days the holding time pawnbrokers must keep an item before reselling it. The other would mandate bookkeeping requirements, which to some applied to almost any seller of previously owned merchandise.
The items has been cycling from the Council floor to the Public Safety Committee meeting for months as pawn brokers faced off against police and victims of theft. A visibly frustrated Ashe urged that vote be taken tonight on first step and that whatever the outcome he would accept it, but that the back and forth had gone on long enough.
At-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera, taking a much softer tone after more alarmist opposition that earned him an angry rebuke in the hallway from a theft victim simply argued requirements would kill business. He pointed to a letter of opposition from NAACP. Ashe replied, “I don’t buy that buy that 30 day hold would put anybody out of business” and rattled off a lengthy list of neighborhood organizations that supported the changes.
The measure ended up failing to advance on a 10-3 vote. In end only Ashe, Fenton and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen voted for it. The other measure, about which some had raised Constitutional questions, was tabled after Ferrera invoked the increasingly over-used Rule 20 as a means to unilaterally force it back to committee.
Another ordinance sent to committee was a proposal to allow seniors to volunteer part time for the city at minimum wage and rather than being paid, the funds would come off their property tax bills. Officials include Elder Affairs Director Janet Denney and City Assessor Chair Richard Allen urged that the program, which is permitted under state law, be introduced with a maximum benefit of $500.
Walsh noted that with all of the other restrictions this would affect no more than 20 households. Allen and Denney acknowledged this, but said the details of the introductory proposal were based on what other communities like Holyoke and Worcester had done when they first instituted the program. Allen also noted that unlike most local tax abatements for seniors, which get state reimbursement, this program is fully funded out of the city’s overlay account. The overlay account is established every year after the state Revenue Department certifies the city’s tax rates whether they can sufficiently fund city expenses. It becomes a reserve from which abatements, exemptions and possibly tax appeals are paid.
Walsh and other councilors seemed insistent and moved to have the item go to committee, where more discussions will occur. Count on further action before Election Day, where turnout will be dominated by seniors.
The Council then took up Ferrera’s residency proposal that had been dubbed by some in City Hall as the “fire everybody” ordinance. Almost timid in comparison to the blustering theater Ferrera commonly offers on the subject, Ferrera himself offered to send the proposal, which would almost assuredly spur an expensive lawsuit the city could not win, to committee. The Residency Committee, chaired by Fenton had voted Friday to request referral so that it could have more time to review the language and dangers of the ordinance, which the Law Department refused to approve as to form because of the risk of litigation.
Also sent to committee was a measure to exempt Springfield from a state law that bars municipalities from enforcing residency requirements on school department employees. The measure would almost certainly face defeat in the legislature.
Another item that was approved changed the conditions of employment with respect to residency such that new employees would automatically be given a window to move into the city. Under current practice, to the extent the ordinance is enforced at all, non-resident employees that agree to become residents must get a waiver to begin work while preparing to move into the city. Thus waivers for such employees would be unnecessary.
After a few moments of incoherent debate, the Council approved second step and moved onto the final roll call approval of the ordinance. Ferrera, Rooke and at-large Councilor Bud Williams requested to be recorded as No votes for second step even though the measure was approved on a voice vote.
Because Ferrera had stepped down to engage in debate on that item, as he had done with many others Monday, Williams, as Vice President, was presiding over the meeting at this point. From the podium Williams objected to moving to third step questioning whether it had been properly advertised and then if the council approved moving to third step. Williams argued that there were objections to taking third step to which City Clerk Wayman Lee replied with an epic smackdown, “You object by voting no.”
A motion to committee failed on 8-5 vote with Ferrera, Rooke, Williams, Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna and Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion the only councilors in support. The vote to approve the measure was a narrower 7-6 margin, with Ashe joining the councilors supporting the committee motion to unsuccessfully stop the ordinance.
The final item was reconsideration on an override of Sarno’s veto of an ordinance that would have tightened the availability of waivers for city employees. Sarno vetoed on specious grounds in July. Ferrera again recycled complaints about how the ordinance did not include language, like his proposal that would cancel existing waiver and get the city sued. This prompted Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea to invoke a point of order, saying Ferrera was off-topic by re-litigate issues, that Ferrera himself had sent to committee.
An initial attempt to override failed in August, but Monday’s failed too on an 8-5 vote. As before Ashe and Williams flipped their votes from July, when Ashe supported the ordinance and Williams opposed. Rooke, who was absent from the August meeting, also flipped his vote from supporting the ordinance in July to opposing the override Monday. In a brief interview after Monday’s meeting, Rooke said he had consistently opposed the residency rule as it limits the city’s pool of qualified applicants. He attributed his yes vote in July to a misunderstanding on his part.
Despite the heat of subjects like residency which have migrated from serious policy to outright political campaigning in the chamber, the meeting as fairly orderly and civil. It truly owed its length to the size of the agenda, reflected in the fading fight Councils on both sides seemed to give on the items settled last.