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Springfield City Council Prepares to Test Its Strength…

Do they know their own strength? (created via WMassP&I, Wikipidia, and Google image search)

Over the last few years, the Springfield City Council has expressed increasing boldness in its lawmaking power. Discarding the long-believed and largely false trope that the Council is principally a land use body, councilors have now put forward legislation regarding diversity, police management, and the Community Preservation Act.

The Council’s Monday agenda expands on these previous efforts, highlighting the body’s growing lawmaking confidence. A plastic bag ban highlights the growing eco-consciousness among councilors. Other measures like a renewed push to revive the Police Commission and to limit the city’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement are different. They represent direct challenges to authority Mayor Domenic Sarno has asserted for himself.

Six ordinances are on the agenda for Monday, each at varying stages of passages. Two will be up for final passage if the Council opts to take second and third step jointly. They are a series of marijuana rules for marijuana usage within Springfield’s borders. The other regulates the Treasurer-Collector’s distribution of lists of tax scofflaws to permit-issuing bodies of the city.

However, the other four exemplify the Council’s increasing willingness to flex its muscles. The Council has already acted to revive the Police Commission, but the item on Monday’s agenda goes further.

The new ordinance would take immediate effect, but no change in authority is likely until next year. (WMassP&I)

The previously approved Police Commission ordinance does not take effect until 2019. This accounts for Police Commissioner John Barbieri’s employment contract, which lets him govern Pearl Street.

The 2016 ordinance essentially reversed the Finance Control Board’s abolition of the Police Commission. A chief would become the department’s day-to-day leader. Yet, the new Police Commission, all mayoral appointments, are subject to Council confirmation. The city charter does not permit such confirmations.

The new ordinance jettisons the confirmation language. It ostensibly takes immediate effect, placing Barbieri under the Commission’s oversight. This echoes a proposal at-large Councilor Timothy Ryan, a cosponsor, made during last year‘s campaign.

As a practical matter, this cannot happen during Barbieri’s contract. But upon its expiration, if he is willing, the new Commission could probably appoint Barbieri chief and sign a new contract with him, consistent with state and city law.

Sarno vetoed the 2016 ordinance arguing it infringed on his powers. Without the confirmation clause, it should be charter-compliant. The mayor has argued that the ordinance runs afoul of his right to appoint heads of departments, but in fact both the prior Commission ordinance and the new one still grant him appointment power. Rather, both merely change the “department head” to a multimember commission.

The Welcoming Community Trust ordinance wittily turns the mayor’s actions against him. Earlier this year, in an embarrassing display of hubris and autocracy, Sarno tried to bully a church sheltering a woman facing deportation. The standoff ended after no serious code violations were found. The City Council later voted to block city funds from being used to remove Gisella Collazo from South Congregational Church.

Sarno dressed for the Battle of South Congregational Church. (created via Business West & Hyacinthe Rigauld’s Louis XIV images)

Because Sarno injected the city into standoff between South Congregational and ICE where it had no role, the move rankled many inside and outside City Hall. Sarno either failed to grasp the city wasn’t a party to the dispute or simply could not countenance defiance of his will.

Councilors are proposing a policy that forbids city employees from inquiring into people’s immigration status unless required under law. The ordinance essentially adopts Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rulings that found law enforcement cannot enforce immigration law or honor non-mandatory immigration detainers.

Pearl Street largely follows this practice already. Yet, the proposed ordinance covers all city employees, not just police.

The plastic bag ban is a significant policy move, but less likely to yield an intergovernmental spat. The bill would mandate that plastic bags retailers give to customer either be recyclable, compostable, marine degradable, or of the reusable variety. It also imposes a 10-cent price per bag retainable by the store.

Although environmental awareness has grown among councilors since the biomass wars began, the body taken growing notice more recently. At-large Councilor Jesse Lederman, who once worked on environmental issues for Arise for Social Justice, sponsored this and other eco-measure since his election last year.

After climate change, plastic bags may be one of the most pervasive man-made environmental threats. They can render other recyclables unusable when mixed together, leach chemicals into soil and trap animals. Many end up in the ocean, where they can aggregate garbage into massive seaborne pods of waste.

Council President Orlando Ramos in 2016.

The last ordinance on Monday’s agenda increases pay for councilors and the mayor. Talk of pay hikes have gurgled around 36 Court Street for months. Yet, the item’s sudden appearance is somewhat jarring. Only this month, Councilor President Orlando Ramos announced he had appointed a group to look at remuneration for the mayor, Council and School Committee.

As of posting time, Ramos had not returned an email inquiring about the group’s findings.

The ordinance raises councilors’ salary approximately 50% to $29,500 for councilors. The Council president receives an additional $500 a year. They mayor’s salary would rise to $160,000 from $135,000.

Raises are always fraught territory. The Council last upped its pay five years ago after going over a decade without any raise. Still it is not clear what led Ramos to appoint his salary group when he did or why the bill is before the Council now.

The Council’s power over its salary and that of the mayor is explicit in the City Charter.

In addition to these ordinances, the Council will consider appropriations the Community Preservation Committee recommended. The mere fact of the CPC is another example of the Council’s assertion of authority. In 2016, it put the Community Preservation Act on the ballot and voters accepted it, despite Sarno’s opposition. The adoption and subsequent Community Preservation Ordinance created a new revenue stream for various city needs—beyond the prerogative of the mayor.