Take My Council, Please: On Biomass, Voting Pro Bono Publico…
SPRINGFIELD—Facing almost no resistance in either votes or oratory, the City Council voted Monday night, in effect, to continue its role in the battle against the proposed biomass power plant on Page Boulevard. Former City Councilor and City Solicitor Patrick Markey made an offer to represent the Council at no charge as it appeals a summer court decision that reinstated the plant’s building permit.
The need for outside Council was necessitated by Mayor Domenic Sarno’s decision to deny funding for an attorney for counsel before the Massachusetts Appeals Court. The Council, being a corporate body, must have an attorney to pursue its appeal and its usual legal representation, the City Law Department, was conflicted due to opposing the Council’s position before the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The vote to accept Markey’s offer was not even close. The Council voted 11-1 with only at-large Councilor Tim Rooke in dissent. Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea was absent and sent word through Council President and Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton that he could not attend.
The vote was identical to the one taken last month when the Council voted to stay in the process. The body’s co-appellants, Michaelann Bewsee, executive director of Arise for Social Justice, and a family abutting the proposed facility, opted to appeal on their own as well. The day after the Council vote, partly citing Bewsee’s own notice of appeal, Sarno said he would not authorize the expenditure of city funds for an appellate attorney.
Fenton, who had acted as the Council’s attorney for the singular purpose of filing the notice of appeal, staunchly defended the Council’s right to remain active in the process, castigating the mayor for trying to pull the plug. As previously reported, the Callahan family, who are behind the biomass project, have been generous contributors to the mayor and others.
Asked why the Council’s role in the process matter, Fenton said it is the city’s duty to act on residents’ behalf. “The government, not the abutters, is supposed the protect [residents].”
The debate consisted only of Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen’s recap of the situation and brief introduction of Markey. No one else, including Rooke, who has argued a philosophical case against the Council reversing the permit, spoke on the measure itself.
Rooke’s opinion notwithstanding the politics of biomass are immense. While improbably powerful enough to fell a mayor, it reverberates throughout all eight wards and five at-large seats. When the Council voted to overturn the permit in 2011, the vote was 10-3. All three in dissent were at-large councilors, including Rooke, Jimmy Ferrera and Kateri Walsh. Ferrera was booted in 2013 from the Council and Walsh has more nimbly kept up residents’ opinion on the issue since.
Markey himself has opposed the plant from the beginning. He was a member of the Council when the original permit was approved. Of the then-9 member Council, only he and Rosemarie Mazza-Moriarty voted against the permit. He served one term, but as the biomass fight reignited in succeeding years, he became an opponent of the plant, often serving as informal legal counsel for opponents.
“He’s been committed to this issue for a long time,” Bewsee told WMassP&I after the vote.
Bewsee’s attorney, Joseph Berman, and Markey will work in concert as needed depending on how the legal issues differ for her and the Council. The order the Council passed also formally releases Fenton of any role as an attorney, while empowering him to sign an engagement letter with Markey. The Council will hold executive sessions to get updates of the appeal as it moves forward.