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Briefings: Hurst Takes Council Helm Noting City’s Complications…

Council President Justin Hurst moments after his swearing-in. (still via Focus Springfield)

In a late-morning ceremony Monday, at-large City Councilor Justin Hurst took the oath of office as President of the Springfield City Council. Five years after joining the body, the significance goes beyond the office itself. It grants him a more prominent platform after a high-profile year chairing the Public Safety Committee.

Historically, the Council Presidency has been important, but it has not been a particularly decisive position. That has changed somewhat over the last five to 10 years. Presidents increasingly give voice to the Council, particularly in defense of its authority vis-à-vis the mayor.

“I strongly believe that in order to achieve many of these priorities it is incumbent upon this legislative body to work together with the executive branch,” Hurst said in prepared remarks.

Hurst cited a recent example of compromise—a neighborhood stabilization fund derived from taxes on recreational reefer. However, Hurst noted several disagreements with Mayor Domenic Sarno, who attended Monday’s event, including the revival of the Police Commission.

Hurst did not argue that restoring the five-member panel to oversee Pearl Street was a panacea. But as he has in council meetings last year, Hurst stressed that something needed to change.

Pearl Street did not have a good 2018. (via Twitter/@spd_hq)

“It is not that complicated to see that a change is needed when the FBI and State Attorney General are investigating our Police Department because rogue police officers are acting with impunity,” Hurst said. Meanwhile, “your average tax payer bears the brunt of their actions and last year it was to the tune of over a million dollars in victim settlements.”

Hurst was clearly signaling he was not stepping back from the posture his immediate predecessors had maintained. Though Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos and Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton had very different temperaments, they both shepherded or at least oversaw an uptick in legislation—often in defiance of the mayor’s vetoes.

Hurst also released his committee assignments Monday. Although he did shuffle councilors among committees, he eschewed playing musical chairs with committee leadership Ramos had installed last year.

The chair changes were in Public Safety—which Hurst held in 2018—and State/Federal Relations, a mostly dormant committee. Last year Thomas Ashe chaired State/Federal Relations, but he resigned in September to become Sarno’s chief of staff. Hurst appointed Ramos the chair of both committees in 2019.

Among more significant changes was the creation of an ostensibly permanent Sustainability and Environment Committee. At-large Councilor Jesse Lederman will chair that. Ward 5 Councilor Marcus Williams, now Council Vice-President, has been apportioned a seat on a Diversity Committee. Fenton still chairs the special Casino Oversight Committee and takes over Hurst’s chair of the special Marijuana Regulation Committee.

Mayor Domenic Sarno, above in 2017, attended Monday’s ceremony. (WMassP&I)

As President, Hurst serves ex officio on all committees.

Appointing Ramos to lead Public Safety is proof Hurst intends to maintain pressure on Pearl Street and mayor’s office. Ramos, who joined the Council alongside Hurst in 2014, has also been especially vocal about allegation of police misconduct and attempts to counter it.

In his speech Monday, Hurst reflected on a recent trip to Israel he and Massachusetts public officials took late last year. He was struck by his tour guide’s response when asked about segregation and disparities among Israelis, particularly Jewish and Arab ones. “It’s complicated,” he said.

In the course of his speech, Hurst tried to apply the same thinking to Springfield and its disparities and inequities. Yet many city issues do not fit into “complicated.”

Council President Justin Hurst
last February. (WMassP&I)

It was not complicated, Hurst said, to see the need for revised police oversight or that the city needed to do better diversifying its workforce. Nor should securing professional development funds—a reference to Hurst and his colleagues’ trip to Colorado—be complicated.

Incidentally, these examples sprung from clashes with the mayor. Perhaps councilors could have done more to find compromise, although Sarno had fostered these confrontations.

But Hurst did commit to finding compromise with the mayor. Yet, as his predecessors had learned, “I must admit, it might be a little complicated.”