Take My Council, Please: Learning from Historical Precedent…
SPRINGFIELD—The legislative sausage-making continued for another meeting of the City Council Monday. A veto override, regulations for vehicles of all shapes and sizes, and historic preservation were all on the menu. Virtually all went by without incident or political indigestion, even the much-awaited Election Notification ordinance.
The bill, sponsored by at-large Councilor Jesse Lederman, returned after Mayor Domenic Sarno vetoed it. His reasons somewhat incomprehensible, the override vote was unanimous, although some councilors queasy about the issue were absent. Accompanying that ordinance was a phalanx of legislation, resolutions and financial orders.
Councilors Michael Fenton, Timothy Ryan, and Kateri Walsh were absent Monday.
In addition to money items and resolves, the Council confirmed Vanessa Otero for another term on the Water & Sewer Commission. The Council also greenlit an agreement with the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority to make improvements along Cottage Street and Robbins Road. The PVTA is slated to open a new depot on Cottage Street, which will affect traffic in the area.
The Council considered three resolutions. All passed on voice votes.
The resolution with the most attention related to the availability of housing attorneys. Although some public dollars go to indigent parties in civil cases, a Constitutional guarantee to an attorney exists only in criminal matters.
The resolution, which the Council passed on a voice vote, demanded action on bills that would ensure tenants facing eviction could get a lawyer. Supporters, local housing attorneys and activists groups like No One Leaves filled the gallery. Many offered remarks during public speak-out before the meeting.
Another resolution urged the legislature to enact same-day voter registration. The bill has the backing of Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin.
The final resolution urged Congressional passage of the Territory Health Revitalization Act (THRA).
Ward 8 Councilor Orlando Ramos spoke on the THRA. Puerto Rico’s delegate to Congress, Jennifer Gonzalez, and Springfield Congressman and Ways & Means Chairman Richard Neal sponsored THRA. It would set aside funds under the Social Security Act—under which all major federal health programs fall—to resuscitate the healthcare infrastructure on Puerto Rico. The island is still reeling from the damage Hurricanes Maria and Irma inflicted. Other territories of the United States recovering from storms would be eligible, too.
The Council received the revenue and expenditure report for June. It also approved an agreement between the city and the state transportation department for a project at Bay Street and Berkshire Avenue. It also accepted several reports for utility work on city streets.
A bevy of grants were also on the agenda. Among them was a parks and rec grant to finance design work on the McKnight Community Trail slated for the old Highland rail line that used to cut through the city. The design work grants will come in this fiscal year and next. An additional $200,000 in Community Preservation funds will also go toward design.
Nearly $900,000 between two grants was accepted for the city’s 911 programs. Health & Human Services took in $270,000 for anti-drug programs, anti-opiate abuse programs and spot checks for age restrictions on tobacco sales. Another $85,000 will finance health programs in schools. The city took in $99,000 for the mayor’s office of consumer affairs.
The last significant grant was about $68,000. It came from ride-hailing fees on Lyft or Uber rides. The city will use the money for sidewalks and bike lanes.
The remaining grants for the Elder Affairs, Parks and Police departments were small.
When the Council turned to the Election Notification Ordinance, its sponsor, Lederman, again addressed his colleagues. He cited a Reminder column wherein its managing editor G. Michael Dobbs wrote, “The issue with local elections is this is where decisions are made that affects our lives first.”
Lederman noted that the city drops as much as $182,000 per election—the amount is double if there is a preliminary. The cost for the postcard to voter households is estimated to be $13,000 per election. The bill’s added signage near polling stations would have a minimal cost.
Sarno had vetoed the measure, arguing that it would lead to public funding of elections. The ordinance expressly forbids mention of candidates or parties, although city elections are already nonpartisan.
“I am dumbfounded that the mayor would not approve such a low amount that could represent an increase in the number of people voting,” Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs said.
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea inquired about which elections this would cover. Lederman assured it would only be in effect for city elections.
After some additional debate, the Council voted to override the mayor 10-0.
“It shouldn’t be this complicated,” Ramos said shortly before the vote “We’re talking about increasing voter turnout for about the same amount as the mayor’s office spends on office supplies and postage.”
Although the ordinance’s signage provisions could go into effect for the September 10 preliminary, the postcards likely will not. The mayor did not include sufficient funds in the Election Commission budget. There is probably insufficient time for the Council to twist arms. However, Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola is receptive and negotiations to activate the program by November could happen.
Two of the ordinance’s skeptics were absent Monday, easing its override. Councilors Ryan and Walsh had focused on the cost, namely the lack of specific funding.
Another point came up outside the Council. Some in the commentariat have argued the city should not spend money to remind people about something they should know is already happening. If anything, they argue, it is campaign’s responsibility, although virtually no Council campaign has the resources to reach beyond its universe of definite yes-votes.
This perspective is reasonable, but it presumes all residents’ lives are oriented in a way that would notice when a city election happens.
By comparison, presidential elections are so pervasive, they bleed into the channels, social media, and conversations of nearly everyone. Following a boost during Barack Obama’s 2008 election, Springfield has enjoyed relatively robust presidential turnout. Municipal elections are not as all-consuming. In addition, the decline of legacy media—newspapers and television stations—has robbed them of a convening force that once raised awareness of city elections.
Two other ordinances received final approval. One added mechanically assisted bike to a list of vehicles allowed on city streets. Another regulated scooters. Both passed unanimously. A third ordinance modified a technology fund for the schools, also becoming law unanimously.
The final three ordinances were up for consideration of first step only. Two were new historical districts. Bryan James McFarland from the Historical Commission presented the new districts.
The first was for the Munson House on Byers Street. After a 1953 in reconstruction, following a fire, the structure became a rare example of the Frank Lloyd Wright-esque International Style in Springfield. The Historical Commission report says past surveys skipped the house’s historical features because of the reconstruction.
McFarland said the owner had sought historic preservation status so that he could utilize a historical preservation trust fund MGM had set up. The Commission agreed that the architecture had historic value. After some questions about the intended use—McFarland said he believed the owner would live there—the Council passed first step.
The second district was the Trinity Block. It is now home to Valley Venture Mentors among other tenants. McFarland noted the Art Deco flourishes and history. This building’s owners, too, sought the designation to access the preservation funds. The Historical Commission report notes that the building had been surveyed over the decades, but had received no historic district recommendations.
The Council advanced this district, too. Final votes on both could come at the Council’s next regular meeting.
The final item codifies DPW policy to require approve before construction moves forward on private ways or unpaved roads. It passed first step as well.
The legislative feast Monday engendered little controversy, Election Notification aside. But that ordinance’s passage over the mayor’s veto, a frequent event these days, could mark a turning point in the legislative battles. The mayor outright ignored the Police Commission ordinance, but has generally implemented ordinances passed over his veto. The Election Notification ordinance differs because it can be legally, if unreasonably, thwarted through underfunding.
As the Council increasingly flexes its legislative muscles, it must consider this limitation—and what tools are available to overcome it.