Take My Council, Please: Turkeys & a Civics Smorgasbord…
SPRINGFIELD—Days before Thanksgiving, the City Council ingested parts of its massive agenda Monday night while leaving some leftovers for later. Although the sprawling to-do list included myriad financial items and orders, the legislative prerogatives had the most attention. Some were continuation of prior approvals while others freshly revisited older Springfield battles.
However, not all bills advanced Monday. A few were referred to committee for additional review while others advanced. Beyond legislation, the Council greenlit nearly every Community Preservation Committee (CPC) grant. Though relatively inexpensive, these monies will fund a panoply of projects to improve quality of life in Springfield.
At-large Councilor Justin Hurst was absent from the meeting. Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez departed shortly after the Welcoming Communities Ordinance vote.
That bill, which passed first step on a voice vote, would distance the city from Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). The chamber was packed with activists who supported the initiative, many of whom spoke on its behalf.
The ordinance essentially forbids city employees, including cops, from inquiring into the immigration status of anybody with whom they interact. Exceptions are limited to those required by law. In short, Springfield and its various organs would give ICE a cold shoulder absent a judicial order. Furthermore, it bars any immigration status-based discrimination on the part of city officials.
Gomez noted that the Council had urged the city stay out of immigration before. The issue flared up after Mayor Domenic Sarno sicced code enforcement on South Congregational Church for granting sanctuary to Gisela Collazo. The City Council ordered the city to stand down after no violations were found. The feds have since granted Collazo a reprieve.
Gomez clarified the ordinance threatened no federal funding. Police Commissioner John Barbieri has said his department does not inquire into immigration status. This ordinance would make that policy law.
“Why can’t we codify [it] to make sure it is law within our municipality?” Gomez said.
At-large Councilor Timothy Ryan said the ordinance was appropriate for the Thanksgiving season. At-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield expressed solidarity with ordinance supporters after some reservations.
“I’m black,” she said. “I know exactly how it feels to be targeted. Not all immigrants are targeted like black and brown immigrants.”
Whitfield added that she worries her son, 19, might not come home from an encounter with law enforcement.
Final approval could next month at the next regular meeting.
Gomez, chair of Economic Development, updated councilors on the continuing drama with Silverbrick. The city has moved to rescind tax breaks the developer received after multiple code violations were unearthed.
At-large councilor Jesse Lederman, chair of Health & Human Services, announced his plastic bag ordinance was on ice pending more input from the business community.
The Council confirmed the nominations of David Finn and Byran James McFarland to the Historical Commission. Sarno nominated Finn, an Atwater Park resident, as an alternate. McFarland, a McKnight resident, is the commissioner the Springfield Preservation Trust (SPT) has the authority to recommend.
The Council also accepted additional Chapter 90 road funds, nearly $38,000 from fees charged to Lyft and Uber rides under a new law. Other grants included funds for Elder Affairs, the evening gym program, repairs to the Swan Pond culvert in Forest Park, and for homelessness programs.
Councilors also gave the nod to utility reports, but it sent a revision to the Rules of the Road to committee. DPW czar Chris Cignoli said the changes would update the city’s arcane roadways code, which is still identified by its year of adoption, 1936. Councilors are also seeking revisions.
The Council the moved on to the CPC recommendation. Springfield voters accepted the Community Preservation Act in 2016. The law imposes a small surcharge on real estate bill matched with some state funds. The Council later created the CPC, consistent with state law. Springfield’s CPC consists of representatives from several city boards, the SPT, and three neighborhood reps the Council President appoints.
Robert McCarroll, a former Historical Commissioner and the SPT’s CPC designee, offered an explainer on the CPC and CPA. He also presented the grants and announced the CPC had actually collected $200,000 more than anticipated. That required a reallocation of CPA funds to conform with state law.
All but two grants passed. Those two would go into revolving funds that councilors wanted to review further first.
Among those approved were $250,000 toward a study on how to restore the Campanile. McCarroll said the city would find the other $200,000 needed for the study out of other accounts. The clocktower has been in disrepair for decades. A renovation will likely cost tens of millions of dollars.
Other projects funded partially or completely include restoration of the Gunn block at the corner of Walnut and State streets, restoration of small parks throughout the city, Riverfront Park signage, outdoor gardens at the new East Forest Park branch library, and trail restoration. The CPC also recommended funds for studies of building a rail trail along the Highland rail line that cuts across southern Springfield.
According to McCarroll, the northern half from about Armory Street to at least Mason Square actually has state funds for construction. However, it has been waiting for an engineering study, which CPA funds will now finance. CPA will also fund a feasibility study for the southern half to the East Longmeadow line near to former Diamond Match property, including the old bridge over Watershops Pond.
After allowing a series of quitclaim deeds—mostly side yards—and budget transfers within departments, the Council authorized the school department to seek a five-year school bus contract. State law requires Council authorization before the city awards contract term longer than three years. The bus contract, which expires next summer, is a costly expense on the non-school side of the city budget.
The authorization troubled several councilors who pointed out that Springfield has roughly the same student population as Worcester, but twice the busing costs. Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton said Springfield was overdue for a comprehensive review of busing costs. While he didn’t dispute the notion the potential efficiency of a five-year contract, he questioned granting authorization before even bids went out.
“The spirit is so that we can see the contracts,” Fenton said.
Officials said there was data to justify Springfield’s busing costs in comparison to the Heart of the Commonwealth. Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Timothy Plante told councilors they hoped to have more bidders this time. Councilor Ryan noted there was only one, First Student, last time.
Fenton focused on cost, observing busing costs more than what Springfield gets from MGM.
“We spent five years working on that,” he said of the host community agreement with the gaming goliath.
Fenton and Deputy City Solicitor Kathy Breck jousted over Chapter 30B, the state’s uniform procurement law. He noted that the relevant section only requires legislative approval for lengthy agreements prior to awarding, not before bidding begins.
Breck countered that the state Inspector General’s office discouraged putting out bids for multiple periods of time. She did not dispute the language on its face required approval before bidding. City Solicitor Ed Pikula later chimed in saying that the bidding process would become inefficient if bidders had to put effort into bidding on such a contract only to have a Council reject it.
The administration’s arguments won the day as the authorization passed 9-2. Fenton and Lederman were in dissent.
The Council passed a tax collection ordinance that standardized when permit-granting bodies may check for delinquency.
The body did not advance additional marijuana regulations. Council President Orlando Ramos said Councilor Hurst, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, had requested a pause until he could attend.
Councilors also sidelined a pay increase bill for city electeds. The ordinance would have raised Council pay nearly 50% to $29,500. The mayor would have gotten a $25,000 increase to $160,000. Both would take effect January 1, 2019, in seeming conflict with state ethics law.
Hours before the meeting, The Republican reported that a panel Ramos appointed to review pay recommend much lower pay hikes. Councilor Lederman abstained from the motion to committee. Lederman told WMassP&I he abstained because the item had an effective date before the next election.
The final item is an attempt to breathe life into the Police Commission ordinance passed a few years ago. It would amend a prior ordinance that revived the Commission to take immediate effect. The new ordinance would also remove language requiring Council confirmation of commissioners, which the City Charter forbids.
Councilor Ryan said putting distance between the mayor’s office and the department’s top sworn official made sense.
“This is a country that celebrations the separation of powers,” Ryan said.
Ryan downplayed concerns the ordinance conflict with Commissioner Barbieri’s contract. The commissioner would retain the core of his power and his contract expires next year anyway. “I don’t think there is enough there for the commissioner there to run to Superior Court and bring suit.”
The ordinance passed first step on a voice vote.
Though the Police Commission and Welcoming Communities ordinances may face mayoral vetoes, their ultimate passage seems secure for now.
The CPA funding may be more significant, though. Sarno—who opposed CPA’s adoption—and his administration are just in line with other applicants. That’s not the significant part. As the CPC recommendations showed, many are small ball projects. However, the city cannot solve many of its challenges on its own. Tiny investments in quality of life could go a long to making Springfield more livable and indeed desirable.