Take My Council, Please: What Has Been Will Be Again…
SPRINGFIELD—An agenda of some consequence confronted the City Council last night, as it echoed past debates and issues. From lobbying the PVTA to police oversight, these matters have been before the Council several times in recent years. A hint of frustration with Beacon Hill was in the air as well.
The Big Ticket items were a home rule petition ordering the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority clear snow from bus stops in the city and a new police oversight ordinance. The former went to committee while the latter passed first step, but its fate uncertain beyond that.
Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs was absent from Monday’s meeting.
The regular meeting bric-a-brac of grants and reports were approved without much fuss. The police department accepted its annual appropriation Shannon Grant and additional money for youth programs. Donations to the Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control Center were also approved. Funds were transferred to the facilities department for snow removal.
Mario Mazza of Public Works sought approval to enter into leases for vehicles lasting longer than three years. State law requires council authorization for such leases. Mazza briefly noted that DPW is working to fill potholes and even got some permanent repairs done during last week’s warm weather.
The Council approved a resolve opposing the rate hike proposed by Eversource, formerly Western Massachusetts Electric Company. Specifically, it backed Rep. Jose Tosado’s efforts to oppose it.
The Council authorized bonding to jumpstart the renovation of 50 East Street and construction of a new senior center and new South End Community Center. The East Street building will be used to augment police operations. The authorization allows the city to use its cash flow to finance pre-construction work, to be repaid through bond anticipation notes. Bonding for actual construction will require another Council vote. FEMA will reimburse most of these project as part of the 2011 tornado recovery.
The East Street bond passed unanimously, but the other two passed 11-1 with Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton in dissent. Fenton said in a statement that those two projects were good, but unnecessary especially since the city has yet to lay out plans for the impending revenue from MGM.
“I’m apprehensive to spend on luxuries before coming with a strategic plan for how we allocate funds between infrastructure, capital improvements, property tax relief and build of reserves,” he continued.
The Council approved the transfer of two properties. Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen asked why one, 120 Mill Street, was sold for $1000 despite being assessed at over $200,000. Tina Quagliato, a project manager with housing and neighborhood services, cited the property’s poor condition. She added that a reverter deed would allow the city to retake the property if the developer failed to meet his obligations.
The home rule petition requiring the PVTA to clear snow from stops was somewhat contentious. At-large Councilor Bud Williams, the chief sponsor, said residents complained to him about snowed in bus stops and shelters, inhibiting the disabled and the elderly particularly.
The law, as a home rule measure, only would require the PVTA to clean stops in Springfield. Assistant city solicitor Anthony Wilson told councilors sidewalk snow removal is the responsibility of the adjacent property owner, but PVTA does not actually own anything where its stops are located.
Mary McGinnis, the administrator of the PVTA, countered that the structure of the authority would make such a bill difficult to execute. The budget of the authority is controlled through state funding and assessments on communities served as measured primarily by route-miles. Actually utilizing funds to comply with such a law, would require other communities to agree, in essence, to pay to clear only Springfield’s stops—an unlikely scenario. The alternative implication might be service cuts.
McGinnis said efforts were underway to find a collaborative solution to remove snow between the PVTA and communities it services. She urged the Council wait on that before turning to Boston for relief.
Unstated, but very much in the ether was whether Boston would respond to this measure. Hundreds of home rule petitions flood Beacon Hill annually, but many, if not most, end up in the legislative ash heap.
Williams’s comments in light of this reality, however sincere, thus seemed mostly rhetorical. “We still have to respect our citizens,” he said. “Send this Boston and let Boston look at it,” and whether PVTA’s 40 year-old legislation needed revising.
At-large Kateri Walsh chimed in, “I don’t disagree with Councilor Williams and I don’t disagree with the PVTA, but I would interested in what that collaborative effort would be.” The Council voted to send the bill to the State & Federal Relations Committee, which Williams chairs.
Allen, the Ward 7 councilor, introduced the police oversight ordinance. Mayor Domenic Sarno created a police oversight board by executive order and Allen’s proposal etches it into ordinance, but retitled as the “Civilian Police Review Board.”
Final authority for police discipline would remain with the Police Commissioner John Barbieri per his employment contract. However, Allen’s proposal would allow the Council to appoint three members to the board. This could be legally difficult as, generally, appointments to city boards by entities other than the mayor is forbidden under the city charter.
Allen said his proposal would establish training programs for commission members and encourage more administrative support for the commission. City Solicitor Ed Pikula and Denise Jordan, Sarno’s chief of staff, have been the commission’s only real staff since its inception in 2010.
A similar proposal failed four years ago on narrow 7-6 vote, since then restoring the Police Commission has been in vogue. Reviving a police commission is not feasible under Barbieri’s contract, but codifying what already exists might be more palatable now than it was in 2011. At the same time, rank and file officers historically have opposed a setup lacking a venue for them to air internal department grievances.
Saying there were no “sour grapes” behind this proposal, Allen explained, “I think the benefit here is that it would put us all on the same page on police oversight.” Perhaps trying not to appear down on the police, Allen highlighted the department’s expanded C3 program and a new crime prevention initiative.
Some councilors like at-large councilor Thomas Ashe were skeptical of the proposal and others like Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea urged a committee hearing before first step passed. Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos praised the review of the matter given recent costly civil rights suits. Allen said he expected his proposal to be amended and receive additional scrutiny in committee.
The final major item was a nonbinding question for November’s ballot on whether the City Council should have a four year term coterminous with the mayor. Voter approval would change nothing immediately. New legislation would still be needed and it would require language realigning the School Committee’s terms in order to achieve one of the alleged selling points: savings through fewer elections.
Walsh called it “an idea whose time has come,” something she had said during previous attempts to lengthen the Council term. She and Twiggs pushed a home rule petition on this matter in 2013. That bill died in a Beacon Hill legislative committee.
Some councilors, like Ramos, said he would vote to put the issue to the people, but opposed the idea. “A two year term is an opportunity for people to vote out those not doing a good job,” he said.
Concepcion, of Ward 5, was even more forceful, implying the idea was undemocratic, “The city does not belong to us!” The Council sent the nonbinding referendum to the November ballot on a 10-2 vote with Concepcion and Rooke in dissent.
The fate of many of these items is indeterminate. Even if the PVTA bill goes on to Boston, the legislature is unlikely to act unless it decides to address the problem across all regional transit agencies. Rank and file police have yet to render a public opinion on the police oversight board. As for the nonbinding Council term referendum, it will finally see the light of a ballot. But will voters approve less democracy on the basis of cost savings? Regardless of the result, legislative approval could still prove elusive.