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Take My Council, Please: One Rule to Block Them All…

UPDATED 9/22/15 6:06PM: To reflect a correction. A previous version of this post misspelled the police grants officer’s name. It is Sgt. Brian Elliot, not Eliot.



SPRINGFIELD—Monday night saw the revival of the infamous Rule 20, the filibuster-esque parliamentary rule that halt debates in the City Council. Typical of its invocation, it came about on an item that would otherwise earn prompt and eager approval from councilors.

Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos, who chaired an Economic Development committee meeting in the Council chamber immediately before the full council meeting, invoked the rule on a tax incremental financing agreement with Chinese railcar manufacturer CRRC (ChangChun). The move came after the Council voted against sending agreement, which would save CRRC $10 million over ten years, back to committee.

The agenda was particularly lengthy because the Council had not held a full meeting since July due to its annual summer hiatus. Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna was absent for Monday’s meeting.

Aside from revenue and expenditures reports, much of the 49 item agenda was dispensed with after the CRRC TIF. City Comptroller Pat Burns told councilors the city could expect a $4 million surplus form FY2015, which ended June 30, depending on Massachusetts School Building Authority reimbursements.

The Council considered and passed changes to parking and signage on several streets. It approved utility reports and grants across several city departments. There was some notable police funds, including the annual Shannon Grant, which grants officer Sgt. Brian Elliot said came in higher than expected. The Council also accepted donated labor and materials to restore the city police memorial.

Falvey Linen is based in Cranston, R.I. (via Facebook/Falvey Linen & Uniform Supply)

The CRRC TIF debate was early went on for some time, but it was not the only tax agreement on the agenda. The first was for Falvey Linen company, which is relocating to Brookdale Drive.

Perhaps setting the stage for the CRRC discord, councilors began asking questions about how to require those jobs to go to Springfield residents. Assistant city solicitor Anthony Wilson told councilors that nobody was aware of TIF’s being used in the commonwealth to mandate hiring residents to build and staff the new facility, but only TIF’s including “best efforts” clauses.

That prompted the company’s attorney, Stephen Krevalin of Bacon/Wilson, to warn the construction was very specialized. A mandate for local construction workers and contractors could prove impossible to meet. Falvey, did, however, intend to employ locals in the facility itself.

“We ask not to tie Falvey’s hands in this particular way,” Krevalin said. Best efforts language to fill 50% of work with city residents was approved instead.

Councilor Orlando Ramos (via Facebook/non-campaign)

On CRRC, Ramos and others appeared most concerned that the TIF was being offered for approval after the factory’s groundbreaking early this month where the former Westinghouse factory once stood. The plant, on the of the city’s most consequential developments, will build MBTA railcars as part of its entry into the North American market.

Although Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy spoke on both TIF’s, he largely deferred to organized labor on CRRC. Union leaders highlighted the job potential of the factory’s construction and operation.

Dan D’Alma, head of the Pioneer Valley building trades, observed his unions have 515 members in Springfield, a third of which are unemployed. The project would put many of them back to work, he said.

“These are good paying jobs and they need to be trained well and we can do that,” D’Alma explained.

John Scavatto of Sheet Metal Workers, Local 63 said the CRRC had pledged to sign a project labor agreement and would remain neutral should labor try to organize the plant. He also said CRRC had already begun reaching out to establish apprenticeship programs.

Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, backing labor, said, “They didn’t just present an argument, they are pleading with us to be sure this project moves forward.” Shea, while not dismissing Ramos and others’ process concern, urged, “We need to put substance over form…and not put a cloud over” the project.

Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, himself a former union worker, called the delays mere “election year politics.” If that were a dig against Ramos, it was inapt as he is unopposed this year.

Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, in Ward 4, backed more review declaring, “That ain’t playing politics, it is doing due diligence.”

Ramos added that passage of the TIF was not even needed until December, plenty of time to order more review and then return TIF to the Council for a vote.

After some banter about appending a “best efforts” clause for resident hiring, the motion to committee failed on a four to eight vote. Ramos, Twiggs, Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton and Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen voted in the affirmative. Ramos then dropped Rule 20.

Fenton, the Council president, though seemingly anticipating the move, paused at the invocation. Traditionally, Rule 20 halted proceedings on the item at issue, until the comptroller issued a report on that item’s potential cost. The rule had been subject to abuse, invoked when costs were patent, but the rule’s termination of debate left no room to overcome frivolous usage.

However, Fenton himself had amended the rule to empower the president to overrule an invocation if, only if, the cost is apparent on its face.  Councilors were divided as to the rule’s applicability, but after reading the rule in its entirety, Fenton decided that the rule was properly invoked.

With that matter put off, the bulk of the agenda resumed. Little attracted attention. The Council authorized the fire and school departments to solicit leases for fire trucks and computer respectively.

The Council approved a new collective bargaining agreement with the city’s public health nurses. The pact runs from July 1, 2014 through June 30 2016 and includes a 2% raise each year and residency provisions.

There was some debate about authorizing bonds for the new South End Community Center due to the moving of the basketball courts. The city’s capital asset director, Peter Garvey, explained that topography and a police request to maintain visibility prompted the relocation.

Although a member of the public—Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards’s opponent this November—protested to courts’ move, the Council the authorization passed unanimously. Construction, excluding design, is expected to cost $9.5 million. Federal disaster aid will cover $6 million.

The Council approved a memorandum of understanding with surrounding communities for a bike share program as well as an energy saving project with Bay State Health. Authorization for an easement and payment of last year’s bills was also granted.

Submitted by Shea at the request of residents, the Council considered placing a nonbinding question on the ballot regarding Common Core education standards. Common Core has become a flashpoint in education circles, especially after US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan enthusiastically embraced it.

About five Common Core opponents, some holding signs continuously, waited throughout the meeting for the item to come up. They noted the program had opponents across the spectrum and emphasized the Council was merely letting residents weigh in, but some arguments had a unique tone.

Richard Blodgett, referencing the use of federal funds to induce participation, said, “This is just fundamentally un-American.” His eyes bulging at times, he implored the Council to “have some courage” and approve the question.

Another supporter of the referendum, Joanne Abel, said Common Core was all about money, before saying the curriculum threated “moral standards” in society.

At-large Councilor Justin Hurst wanted to hear from School Superintendent Daniel Warwick, but a motion to committee failed four to eight. Doing so might have kept the question off the ballot. Nonbinding referenda must be approved no later than 35 days before the election. On the final vote to place it on the ballot, only Hurst dissented.

The only other item was a resolution urging the mayor to put the city’s group insurance program out to bid to ascertain whether the city could save money by exiting the state employee insurance pool. The Council agreed to some technical changes, but approved the resolve on a voice vote.

The delay on the CRRC TIF roiled the political establishment and became fodder in the mayoral election—challenger Salvatore Circosta came out against the TIF—but Ramos’ delay likely won’t change much. His concerns aside, a clear majority supports the TIF and even councilors upset about the process will probably vote for approval.