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Politics as Usual or Broader Shift in Ramos Assignments…?

What a difference a year makes. Orlando Ramos in December 2016. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—Eight days after beginning his second term as Council President, Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos made clear 2018 would be different. Some councilors were uprooted from longtime committee assignments and whole committees were dissolved and their duties reassigned.

The list of assignments was released quietly on January 9. With new colleagues elected last November, Ramos had to make accommodations. Rewards for those who supported him—a typical part of the assignment process—ensured further changes. Ultimately, the assignments could represent a restructuring that reflects a political reality that has grown over the last year.

“I tried to match everyone’s experience,” Ramos told WMassP&I. “One of my goal is to make the committees more productive and to meet more frequently.

Councilor Justin Hurst in 2013. (via Facebook/Justin Hurst campaign)

Ramos removed at-large councilor Thomas Ashe from the Public Safety, which he has chaired since joining the Council in 2010, and replaced him with Justin Hurst.

Once and again councilor at-large Timothy Ryan was tapped to lead Finance, displacing Ward 7 councilor Timothy Allen. Others, like Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs and Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea chair no committees.

Beyond the musical chairs, Ramos abolished the Civil Rights, Elder Affairs, Permitting and Audit committees. Some were largely idle or, as Ramos, suggested held portfolios other committees once managed. Unlike other committees, Audit exists under ordinance. Ramos said he cleared moving its responsibilities to Finance with the City Clerk.

It is easy to overstate committees’ power. Chairmanships carry no additional salary or benefits and Council rules explicitly allow members to pull items languishing in committee after a time. Yet chairs run meetings that oversee items the Council refers to committee. Chairs can also call oversight meetings at their discretion.

Ramos’ choices pale in comparison to the clumsy ones then-Council President Jimmy Ferrera ordered in 2012. That year he punished Allen and Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton with minimal and degrading council assignments. The ensuing outcry led Ferrera to change course the following year, but voters evacuated him from the Council anyway.

Ramos ostensibly did not mismatch councilors to appointments either. For example, though technically a freshman, Ryan as former councilor fits on Finance and Public.

Tim Ryan finds himself in familiar territory–Springfield’s finances. (via Facebook/Ryan campaign)

“I know that Tim Allen did a wonderful leading [the Finance] Committee,” Ryan wrote in an email, noting former Councilor Timothy Rooke’s work there, too. “Moving forward, I just hope to continue their work and focus on the City’s finances,” he said.

Though Ramos’ denied it was a major factor, multiple sources close to the Council connect the assignments to the Council’s presidential election.

The last three Council presidents served multiple consecutive terms, a practice that had been rare before. Still second (or third) years went did not go uncontested. Shea had sought the post for 2018, backed by councilors bearing undisclosed gripes. While he came up short, some detected a whiff of unfairness in the challenge to Ramos.

Ramos announced the day after the November election he had the support of Hurst, ward councilors Adam Gomez, Melvin Edwards and Marcus Williams, both new councilors—Ryan and Jesse Lederman—and, obviously, himself. Those councilors came out ahead in the committee race.

The others did not. In addition to Allen and Ashe, at-large councilor Kateri Walsh was pulled off Maintenance & Development, which Williams now chairs. Fenton lost his seat on Finance. Special Permits, which Shea had chaired, was abolished entirely.

Shea did not respond to an email requesting comment.

The presidential contest played out behind the scenes and ended with Ramos’ victory declaration. He was formally nominated and elected unanimously on January 1 and Ramos downplayed the earlier jockeying for votes.

“I can’t say that it had no effect,” he said. “That issue did not play a big role in my committee assignments. I think that we’re bigger than that.”

Thomas Ashe in 2016. (via Facebook/Ashe campaign)

Ending Ashe’s Public Safety chairmanship after eight years surprised few. However Ramos’ removing him completely will begin a dramatic shift.

Notably, those familiar with the matter say a public safety issue contributed to Ramos’ tight margin. Councilors that had backed Shea—or at least not backed Ramos—were miffed a district fire chief contract vote went forward despite Allen’s absence due to a funeral. Without him, the contract failed 6-6. Grossly insensitive Facebook comments attributed to some chiefs derailed the pact thereafter.

In an email, Ashe expressed no outward bitterness and said he was “honored” to have served as chair. Among the accomplishments he listed were the hawkers and peddlers ordinance and an increase in the size and diversity of the Police Department’s ranks.

“I have worked very hard during that time to address the needs of the public as it relates to safety of our residents,” he wrote.

Although he could not halt efforts the mayor opposed, Ashe is a reliable ally of Domenic Sarno’s. That and Ashe’s closeness to patrolmen and firefighters have raised doubts among those who favor aggressive police reform.

Even so, Ashe’s successor praised his tenure.

Councilor Hurst suggested he would like Cmn’r Barbieri to be a regular guest of the Public Safety Committee. (WMassP&I)

“I think Tom did a great job during the time in which he served,” Hurst said in an interview. He added he would seek Ashe’s advice in the future.

In Hurst, Ramos selected a rising figure in city politics. Now the body’s only at-large member of color, he has increasingly focused on policing and city employment issues. Though he denied requesting Public Safety’s chair, it is an opportunity to channel that outspokenness into policy.

Hurst said he wants to use the committee to add transparency to the public safety. “I think the first thing I would like to do is get some standing meetings with the [police] commissioner,” he said.

Ramos added that he hoped Hurst would also work on a renewed push to revive the Police Commission.

Not all cool to a Ramos redux lost completely. Allen remains on Finance and Fenton still chairs the ad hoc Casino Oversight Committee, a crucial post given MGM’s impending opening.

Indeed, some Ramos allies even stated he was too generous toward some who did not support him.

Ramos’ decision to abolish certain committees, whatever the virtues in efficiency, left him with fewer seats to distribute. Past presidents have used them to maximize deniability about political motivations. Nevertheless, the assignments’ politics will cool relatively quickly, but there may be scars.

Orlando Ramos being sworn in in 2017. He intimated an interest in an ambitious agenda even then. (WMassP&I)

Ramos may find this most true when it comes to his own agenda. He has telegraphed policy ambitions since last year, but enacting that platform may require supermajorities to overcome mayoral objections.

Councilors dinged by the assignments but who support Ramos’ priorities will still vote for them, but that may be all they do. They may not push back on the administration as much or help him override vetoes.

Ramos must also maneuver his inaugural speech’s emphasis on women in leadership roles and not appointing the Council’s only women to chair any committees. He told WMassP&I he wanted to engage Councilor Walsh and find her a role in expanding women’s numbers in Springfield elective office.

It is easy to overstate the impact of these changes both substantively and politically. Smart councilors know the committees cannot incarcerate items. They also know the president’s power has limits.

Whatever the fallout of Ramos’ decisions, return to Ferrera-era turmoil is unlikely.

The assignments are clearly a show of strength, but Ramos was adamant retaliation was not his point.

“All of my colleagues that something to offer,” he said. “I would not want to prevent anyone, I wouldn’t want to hinder anyone from contributing to the best of their ability.”

That sentiment does fit Ramos’ nature and disrupting the status quo is not always bad. Of course, it can have unintended consequences, too.