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As Year Ends, Hurst Prepares to Lead City Council in 2019…

Council President-designate Justin Hurst in February. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—Earlier this month, at-large city councilor Justin Hurst announced he had the votes to become City Council President in 2019. The news was widely expected and Hurst had no serious behind the scenes opposition. By comparison, Orlando Ramos only had the votes for another year as president after last year’s election brought installed two new members.

Ever since his election in 2013 when he unexpectedly placed first in the at-large, pundits have watched the young, pol from a prominent black family with interest. Speculation ratcheted up further this year when Ramos appointed him chair of the Public Safety Committee. But Hurst will lead the Council amid increased relevance and profile for Springfield’s legislature in this with a strong-mayor government.

“You need to have both branches of government working together in other to really achieve what it’s in the best interest for the citizens,” Hurst said.

Hurst entered the Council following the 2013 election, becoming the first challenger to dethrone an incumbent at-large councilor in 12 years. Arguably, in pushing out Jimmy Ferrera that year, Hurst set in a motion a restructuring that has allowed the Council’s recent legislative activism.

The 2014-2015 Council on which Hurst served as a freshman. (WMassP&I)

Hurst’s role in that activism is subject to debate. However, while chairing Public Safety—he replaced one-time mayoral ally and current chief of staff Thomas Ashe—Hurst has taken a prominent place on the Council. As lawsuits and indictments aimed at Pearl Streets and its denizens have piled up, he has become increasingly vocal on policing issues.

Every president leaves a mark on the body. Committee appointments are the most obvious way, but presidents also steer the Council’s course.

Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, who served for a rare three one-year terms, encouraged more activist legislation and asserted the Council’s independent authority. For example, Fenton’s successfully pushed the mayor to submit amendments to the MGM host community agreement to the full Council.

Other presidents provide stability and continuity. Former at-large councilor Jose Tosado helped bridge the transition to ward representation. Although the Council split on Ramos reelection behind closed doors, infighting never really consumed the body. He presided over continued rebalancing of city power in the Council’s favor.

Hurst, in an interview after the Council’s December 17 meeting, indicated he was willing to go further than his predecessors, to force the mayor to cooperate with the Council.

Mayor Domenic Sarno in 2017. (WMassP&I)

“It certainly will be my priority to get the mayor to the table. How we do that might be interesting and unique,” he said.

Hurst has an interesting relationship with Sarno, too. The mayor backed the incoming council president in his unsuccessful Council bid in 2011 and his successful one in 2013. This was long before Hurst evolved into one of the administration’s more outspoken critics.

As with council presidents before him, city politicos have speculated about Hurst’s ambitions.

But for now, Hurst is focusing on the Council presidency. In addition to overseeing city public safety agencies, Hurst has also shepherded marijuana legislation this year. Both will be priorities in 2019, he said.

“We have the recreational marijuana industry coming to Springfield and we need to make sure we have a good grasp on that,” Hurst explained. “The real process is still yet to come.”

As for public safety, Hurst has supported the restoration of the five-member Police Commissioner and has criticized Police Commissioner John Barbieri. However, speaking to WMassP&I he emphasized accountability above all else for Pearl Street.

Council President-designate Justin Hurst (via Springfield City Hall)

“My hope is that we can begin to hold people in the police department accountable for their actions,” Hurst explained. “Now whether that it is in the form of the Police Commission or we just get better production out of our police commissioner, something has to happen.”

Hurst was coy about other proposals, but an early taste is an ordinance to start Council meetings earlier. If approved, the regular Monday meetings would begin at 6:30pm instead of 7pm. Hurst observed that meetings featuring issues like the Welcoming Communities Trust ordinance ran until 10pm or later. Earlier start times would accommodate those with younger children and encourage greater participation overall. That bill passed first step at the December 17 meeting.

Hurst indicated more of his agenda will become clear after his January 7 swearing-in. Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams will be installed as Council Vice-President the same day.

Although the Council has flexed its muscles of late, the mayor remains an indispensable figure in city government. As of the interview, Hurst had yet to discuss his 2019 agenda with Sarno. Yet, the incoming president recognizes the system works best with give and take even if the mayor has only paid lip service to that reality.

“There are lot of things that are sitting on his desk that he hasn’t acted on,” Hurst said. “I fully expect us to work together so he can act on our issues and we can act on his.”