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Analysis: Toward a Stronger Springfield City Council?…

UPDATED: 1:29PM: For grammar and clarity.

Might the Council dare show its strength this term? (created via WMassP&I, Wikipidia, and Google image search)

Might the Council dare show its strength this term? (created via WMassP&I, Wikipedia, and Google image search)

As a rule, Massachusetts city councils are weak bodies. Whether a city (or city masquerading as a town) has a mayor or a manager, councils’ powers are considerably weaker than those of their communities’ executive branch. There is a spectrum of council strength in the commonwealth, but many cities like Springfield are undeniably strong-mayor governments.

But strong mayor is not all-powerful mayor and the Springfield City Council has more might than even some of its members acknowledge. Whether due to indifference, ignorance or political fear the Council sometimes believes it has little power. That might be changing, though.

Perhaps stirred by a mix of legitimate concerns, election year promises and getting rolled on significant items this year, the Council could become particularly assertive in 2016. On several issues, the stage is set for the body to have greater influence on city governance.

Some arcane city charters like Chicopee and Holyoke’s grant their councils significant power to the consternation of mayors there. Boston and Worcester’s councils seem particularly weak on first blush (though Worcester’s council hires the manager who has much of the power). General laws can bigfoot local charters varying the balance of powers in cities in either direction.

A weak bunch? Maybe only by choice. (WMassP&I)

A weak bunch? Maybe only by choice. (WMassP&I)

Springfield’s modified Plan A charter, hardly establishes the commonwealth’s weakest city council, however. To the contrary, because the charter is so skeletal, city government can be defined and built by council-passed ordinance. That is on top of powers over zoning, rules of the road and select confirmations, which state law grants to the body.

With Domenic Sarno beginning a new four-year term, an active, robust Council is critical to ensure city policy receives a proper second look and fresh ideas are added to the discussion.

Though a lack of independent advisors and years of mayoral dominance are partly responsible for the body whiffing on this, councilors share blame for fortifying their own weakness.

Two of the longest-serving councilors, Timothy Rooke and Bud Williams have called the Council essentially a “land-use body.” That is factually and demonstrably false. In addition to granting special permits—a power the Council gave itself via its state-endowed zoning powers—it oversees executive operations and writes city ordinances.

Third time's a charm. (WMassP&I)

Fenton has dropped hints of the Council asserting its power before, but the politics to make it happen may be there in 2016. (WMassP&I)

“Absolutely there is an opportunity to play a more active role than we have in the past across all areas of municipal government,” Council President Michael Fenton told WMassP&I in a recent interview.

Ordinance-writing is the single greatest source of Council power. With it, the body can shape the face and rules of municipal departments. The mayor runs the city, but the Council can set the terms. Such changes can be made even if the mayor balks, provided 2/3 of the Council override a mayoral veto.

While ordinance powers are crucial and remains a reservoir for Council power, the most imminent and significant show of force concerns the casino.

Fenton had been planning thorough reviews of MGM’s site plan and what were then minor revisions to the host community agreement. However, councilors backing the leviathan project would not have scrutinized this to the point that the gaming company would be inconvenienced in any meaningful way.

That changed after MGM deleted its tower and shrunk the size of the project, if, as it claims, only on the back of the house side. Councilors, in a show of pre-election force, denounced the changes and promised to leave no stone unturned during its review.

After the alarm councilors raised in recent, a thorough review of MGM's redesigns may be a political imperative. (via Springfield City Hall)

After the alarm councilors raised recently, a thorough review of MGM’s redesigns may be a political imperative. (via Springfield City Hall)

After such a display, councilors will have to follow through on those warnings, lest a diminished project be built for all voters to see come election time in 2017.

Sarno’s decision to boot three veteran historical commissioners presents the Council with another opportunity. State law grants the Council confirmation power and permits commissioners to serve until their replacements receive council approval. Many councilors were perturbed by Sarno’s dismissal of commissioners Marjorie Guess, Robert McCarroll and Ralph Slate and could keep them in place or negotiate some other outcome by refusing confirmation for Sarno’s nominees.

Some City Hall suggest the Council may prune the budget this year, too.

These actions, however important, are inherently reactive aside from Fenton’s rigorous planning for the casino review. The Council only has a role because MGM or the mayor needs its votes. Moreover, one of these is exactly within what some councilors think is the body’s sole exclusive prerogative: land use.

Some Springfield Council policies fell in Boston courts, but plenty of other potential initiatives would stand on legal terra firma. (WMassP&I)

Some Springfield Council policies fell in Boston courts, but plenty of other potential Council initiatives would stand on legal terra firma. (WMassP&I)

History has shown that when the Council has been proactive, resident engagement ratchets up and policymaking spills out into the public arena.

Though both quashed by the courts, prior examples include the foreclosure ordinance and revoking the biomass plant permit—technically a land use issue, too. Restructuring city government to make it fairer, more responsive and more effective would not face similar legal impediments.

Fenton suggested that since ward representation was instituted—and nine new members joined the Council—he and his colleagues “have then been endeavoring to define our role.” The implication being that six years on, councilors could be more willing to assert themselves.

Utilizing these powers has complications. Other than its administrative staff, the Council has no independent advisors or experts. Passage of ordinances can be laborious. Even when councilors agree, ordinances require two meetings before final approval. Items can languish in committee for months. Overriding mayoral vetoes can add weeks more.

The Open Meeting Law adds complexity. The Springfield City Council, a public board under the law, cannot conduct any business outside formal meetings, including, in theory, councilors lobbying each other for votes. Such lobbying happens anyway in all communities, but opponents of a new policy might inflate trivial or marginal violations to stain an initiative.

The Council needed surrender its charter-defined power to Mayor Sarno, center. (WMassP&I)

The Council need not surrender its charter-defined power to Mayor Sarno, center. (WMassP&I)

None of this means councilors should not experiment with its power. While there has been progress on many fronts in Springfield, it is still falling behind relative to the commonwealth as a whole. Countless challenges remain and they are unlikely to be solved by a unitary executive.

Rather than allowing the mayor and political conventions to neuter it, the Council could take its rightful place at Springfield’s table.

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