Take My Council, Please: Firefighters Now Residing with Compliance…
SPRINGFIELD—Last Monday the City Council dispatched two big issues that had been hovering over it for weeks and even months. A revised version of a public safety measure aimed at reassuring undocumented immigrants passed unanimously. Meanwhile, the Council approved the first public safety labor contract with operative residency language since the first George Bush was president.
A May Day attempt to pass a similar resolution failed amid procedural—not ideological—unease. Its return and passage was a massive win for its lead sponsor Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez. Another fire contract saga, with district chiefs, also seemed on the cusp of conclusion.
All councilors were present for most votes, though Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs did depart shortly after the labor contract debates.
Styled “Safe Springfield” to emphasize undocumented immigrants’ comfort when interacting with city police, the resolution is nonbinding. The subject gained further salience given Donald Trump’s hard-line on immigration.
It urges Springfield’s Finest to not inquire into immigration matters while interacting with residents and engage in no immigration enforcement. One exception is detaining someone when served with a federal immigration warrant.
Activists hoped to pass the resolution on May 1, but a procedural error slowed it down. Gomez’s colleagues, reluctant to approve new language on such short notice, balked at his attempts to correct the error. It went to committee.
Councilors easily passed Gomez’s new resolve last Monday.
“It gives these residents clarity,” Gomez said referring to undocumented residents. “It gives these residents hope.”
Gomez said he spoke with officials including Police Commissioner John Barbieri and altered the wording. Rather than urge a change, the resolve acknowledges Pearl Street already avoids immigration questions and enforcement.
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, who opposed the May 1 amendments, said the reassurance to Springfield’s undocumented population reflected the city’s values.
“Springfield is a caring community. It has a history,” he said. “You can see example in the way citizens participate.”
Fiscal Year-End Loose Ends
Besides the resolution and labor pacts, which dominated the meeting, other items included utility reports and grants for traffic enforcement, animal care & control, mental health and libraries.
Without dissent, the Council greenlit an agreement with the Hampden Sheriff’s Department. Under a program Hampden Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi instituted, the Ludlow jail now offeres municipalities space to hold people pending arraignment.
Deputy City Solicitor Kathy Breck explained the city would mostly only transfer people unlikely post bail. It would also free up space in Pearl Street’s lockup.
With the fiscal year ending this month, the meeting featured several financial transfers. All passed unanimously, unless otherwise stated, with some sporadic absences among councilors.
Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Timothy Plante presented free cash transfers of $494,794, $244,000 and $111,875. They went to the retiree health accounts, an assessors’ scanning project and Public Works software respectively.
Word is Their (Downtown) Bond?
The Council authorized bonding for the Thomas Balliet Elementary School and Balliet Middle School as well as downtown and City Hall improvements. The Massachusetts School Building Authority will be reimbursing the city for much of the $3.8 million in renovations for the Balliet schools.
Of the $3 million heading downtown, $1.5 million is for infrastructure upgrades around Union Station and MGM. Another $500,000 will go toward the new police substation. A previously rejected $1 million authorization to repair City Hall’s steps (and the Clerk’s record vault below), passed with councilors Michael Fenton and Orlando Ramos’ dissent.
Councilors approved payment a bill from last year, $120,000 for Marble Street traffic improvements and related land takings. Abutting lot sales on Stebbins and Union Street also received councilors’ support.
After some debate, the Council agreed to the sale of the former Elias Brookings School to Better Homes, Inc for $215,000. The group will convert the school, which was damage by the June 2011 tornado, to 45 mixed income apartments. Councilors Fenton and Gomez abstained.
Further financial orders were transfers within the Comptroller and Law departments and a transfer of excess bond proceeds to Chestnut Middle School repairs. All votes were unanimous.
The Council unanimously reaffirmed its then-10-2 vote to pass the food truck ordinance after Councilor Timothy Rooke sought reconsideration. Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams, the item’s lead sponsor, said he had assured abutting property owners they would be included in ongoing meetings on the subject.
Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards requested the clean air ordinance he sponsored return to committee. Councilors granted first step approval to changes to the city’s taxi and livery ordinance to bring it in compliance with the state’s new ride-sharing law.
The Resident Fire Fighters Next Time
The significance of the contract between the city and the International Association of Firefighter, Local 648 cannot be understated.
State labor law allows local governments and workers to bargain over and overrule local employment rules like residency. Whereas the city can and did press other bargaining units to accept residency, police and firefighters can move for interest arbitration, which impose a deal, barring Council rejection of the pact.
This very process ended the last operative residency language for a public safety bargaining unit. Interest arbitration struck residency from the patrolmen’s contract in 1990. An arbitration ruling on firefighters’ contract itself excused them from residency in 1987.
The contract with Local 648 requires new firefighters to remain residents for ten years after being hired. This mirrors Boston’s 10-year residency requirement for police and firefighters.
HR/Labor Relations Director William Mahoney said other provisions including changes the grade structure, elimination of the obsolete alarm division, and flexibility to reassign firefighters to different stations. The contract runs from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2020 with annual 2% raises.
City Solicitor Ed Pikula told councilors the Local 648 pact had no bearing on the pending 10 citizen suit against the district chiefs. “The reason [Local 648] intervened is because it affected their promotional opportunities,” Pikula explained.
Noting firefighter residency had not been required since the year of his birth, Councilor Fenton waxed triumphant. “I rise in support of this contract, having spent a great deal of time over the course of the last eight years working on the residency issue,” he said.
At-large Councilor Justin Hurst reported the General Government Committee he chairs also endorsed the agreement.
There was a late effort to derail the contract. Before the meeting began, resident Richard Greenberg spoke on behalf of opponents to both Fire Department labor pacts. He argued the existing Local 648 contract, like the district fire chiefs’, already included residency ordinance compliance. Thus, letting firefighters move out after 10 years gave away something for nothing.
Mahoney quickly poured cold water on that. His staff dug into the archives and found the 1987 arbitration ruling, which said only the state’s 10 mile (from the employing municipality’s border) rule applied. Absent a judge overturning the 30 year-old award—not bloody likely—only a new contract can end firefighters’ exemption.
Councilors approved the Local 648 contract unanimously.
After two failed attempts, the Council also narrowly ratified district chiefs’ pact 7-6. As councilors did not waive a rule requiring two readings for financial orders, another vote is necessary to cement ratification.
The district fire chiefs’ pact proved more fraught given the pending lawsuit over the old contract’s explicit, but unenforced residency language.
The lead plaintiff in a 10-citizen suit, a resident firefighter, claims nonresidents improperly received promotions to district chief. Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney ruled in February the suit can proceed but she struck, for now, any remedy that compels the city to act if it loses.
Third Time a Charm?
Mahoney said the revised contract removes both a grandfather clause for all current Fire Department employees and a pay bump. That did not convince some councilors.
“The main takeaway for me is that these five district chiefs are currently in violation of the residency ordinance,” Hurst said referencing the first district chiefs that do not live in Springfield. “Nothing has essentially changed.”
Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen, who opposed the chiefs’ contract last month, asked if other contracts implemented residency prospectively, “Is it in line with this point forward?” Mahoney said it was.
Hurst returned that those employees were not violating existing residency contract language.
Still, opposition to the district chief’s deal was cracking, not solidifying. Fenton, a top residency hawk, said there was noncompliance in other contracts.
“I don’t like that we have to do it, but we do and we have,” Fenton said pointing to labor contracts that only applied residency to future hires. “And I think we should continue to until we get this problem fixed once and for all.”
“I would just to impress on my colleagues, we don’t know what the result of that litigation will be,” Fenton added. “I’m not sure we’re going to get any better than this in this deal.”
Solicitor Pikula demurred when councilors asked if ratifying this pact would affect the lawsuit.
Councilors Allen, Thomas Ashe, Fenton, Rooke, Shea, Twiggs and Kateri Walsh voted for the pact. Councilors Edwards, Gomez, Hurst, Ramos, Bud Williams and Marcus Williams dissented.
The Resident Fire Fighters Next Time
The narrowness of the vote last Monday puts the fate of the district fire chiefs’ contract in some doubt. Should it fail again, the deal probably won’t get much better unless a court orders Springfield to initiate termination proceedings, a still unlikely outcome.
Nevertheless, the Local 648 contract is a gamechanger. The city could point to the pact if it and patrolmen go to interest arbitration over residency. Though, City Hall sources have said inclusion of residency in cops’ contracts looks possible anyway.
Teachers remain exempt under a statewide law. Yet, subjecting firefighters and, in time, police to residency, would animate the ordinance after decades of dormancy. This would also take to its fullest extent possible under current state law Perhaps more importantly, it buys time to make Springfield livable enough that city workers will stay on their own accord.