Take My Council, Please: Consider the Wards of the City…
SPRINGFIELD—The wards were the highlight of Monday’s City Council virtual meeting. Early on, the Council considered a crush of utility petitions that received an unusual amount of scrutiny. Oddly most of these items happened to fall within Ward 2. Its councilor, Michael Fenton, raised the concerns.
However, the main ward-centric event was passage of a home rule petition to set special elections for vacant ward seats. A quirk in the charter allows the loser in the previous ward election—or the Council if no such loser exists—to fill a vacancy. This problem is not new and the proposal is only the latest effort to correct it. However, question about a hypothetically vacant at-large seat nearly derailed its prompt passage.
At-large councilor Kateri Walsh was absent from Monday’s meeting.
The Council began its meeting by quickly amending a special permit for a multi-dwelling building on Quincy Street. Thereafter the Council received reports of committee.
Fenton, who also chairs the Casino Oversight Subcommittee, briefed councilors on online betting and MGM’s progress on Court Square.
Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen discussed the city’s pension system on behalf of the Audit Committee. Allen said the city was on pace to fully fund the pension system six years before the state’s 2040 deadline. However, the system is still among the least funded in the commonwealth.
One area that cannot assist the pension fund is the American Rescue Plan. Finance Committee chair and at-large councilor Tracye Whitfield said officials made this clear at recent meeting of her committee. Officials await guidance on where ARP money Springfield will receive can go, however.
The Council’s coronavirus oversight chair, at-large councilor Jesse Lederman, suggested aid could go to small businesses in the city. On the pandemic in Springfield, he echoed recent observation that infections are overwhelmingly among the young now.
The home rule petitions debate happened late in the meeting, but it first came up during General Government Committee Chair and Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards’s report. He said the Council would be moving forward only on changing the process for filling its ward vacancies. The School Committee, Edwards was told, can seek its own remedy to change vacancy-filling. It was not clear under which power the Committee can so amend the city charter.
Right now, a council vacancy goes to the runner-up with the most votes in the last election. This structures dates to a 1965 change, when the Council had only at-large members. Voters select however many candidates there are seats to elect councilors. Thus runners-up enjoyed some imprimatur of democratic approval. If no such also-ran exists, the charter does default to its original 1961 language that lets the Council fill its vacancies.
When Springfield revived ward representation, the enacting law had no provision for ward vacancies. Because general elections for ward seats are one-on-one, the next highest vote-recipient is necessarily a loser. As Fenton noted, this happened in 2010 just after ward representation returned. Keith Wright, the Ward 6 councilor, resigned. His rival from the 2009 election, Amaad Rivera, filled Wright’s seat.
It almost happened in 2019. E. Henry Twiggs died weeks before he was to retire. The man Twiggs defeated in 2017, Robert Kelly, had a right to serve out the term. The Council took no action to seat Kelly. This left the seat vacant until Malo Brown, Twiggs’s elected successor, took office in January.
When Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez resigned to focus on his new gig as State Senator in February, there was a problem. Gomez won reelection in 2019 unopposed. Uncomfortably, he Council had to choose a successor, settling of Gomez’s father, Gumersindo.
During debate, lead sponsors Fenton and Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila explained its provisions.
The change would order special elections for the vacancy if more than 210 days remain in the term. It somewhat mirrors a 1993 change to Boston’s city charter to allow for district seat special elections.
Under Springfield’s proposed charter change, after the Council and Election Commission learn of the vacancy, a special preliminary would occur on a Tuesday between 62 and 76 days thereafter. A general election would follow four weeks later. If two or fewer candidates file to run, no preliminary would occur. If less than 210 days remain, the seat would remain vacant until the regular election. The language might allow the winner taking office to serve out the term.
Councilor Whitfield questioned the lack of change to at-large vacancies. She did not explicitly suggest the runner-up system should get the heave-ho. Rather she cited a hypothetical where were no runners-up existed. Whitfield joined the Council in 2018 following an at-large vacancy.
The Council would fill a vacancy if no runners-up existed, but Fenton countered the possibility is remote. No at-large councilor has been replaced in this way in the last 30 years, if ever. By comparison, three ward seats over 11 years have utilized this awkward replacement process.
Still, Whitfield argued it deserved attention. Davila warned that sending the item to committee could kill it. Edwards noted the threat of a vacancy and an undemocratic outcome existed until this became law.
“The most urgent thing we can do is to put in place what is before us tonight,” he said.
At-large Councilor Justin Hurst suggest the Council consider a separate bill rather than tack any at-large changed onto the ward vacancy petition.
A motion to committee failed. Due to a streaming problem. The exact roll call was unclear, but it needed seven votes and only received six. Whitfield said she still supported the item and Davila said he would look into further legislation. The home rule petition passed unanimously. Brown and Councilor Orlando Ramos abstained. Ramos is also a state rep and Brown works for State Rep Bud Williams. If the petition reaches Beacon Hill, sources say Ramos could steer the bill through the Massachusetts House.
As of posting time, it was not clear whether Mayor Domenic Sarno had signed the bill. Yet, he has signed similar home rule petitions before.
Back at the top of the meeting, the Council approved its minutes and received the March revenue and expenditure report. Fenton dissented on the minutes.
When the subject of utility petitions came up three were held for further consideration. Eversource’s petitions for a pump station on York Street and a pole reinforcement on Trafton Road passed. A Comcast petition to bring Internet service to a McDonald’s on State Street also received Council approval.
Eversource also wants to replace underground gas meters with aboveground cabinets. Many locations are in Fenton’s ward, who aired concerns about safety. Councilors referred the item to committee.
Two more petitions were also in Ward 2. Eversource has a project on Chapin Street. However, Fenton noted that construction at Baystate could conflict with such a move. As part of its Hospital of the Future project, Baystate will temporarily close its Springfield Street entrance and use its Chapin Terrace entry instead. The Council continued the item to give the parties time to coordinate.
Comcast also saw a petition to install new utility cabinets on Springfield Street—also in Fenton’s ward—put on ice. These votes were all unanimous.
Beyond these, the Council cruised through its agenda.
The body accepted $296,000 from the state for COVID vaccination. Councilors also accepted small grants for the Fire, Library and Police departments. It took no action on an agreement with the Parking Authority, ordinances on speed humps and wage theft, and a resolution recognizing a retiring cop.
Councilors greenlit transfer of mostly inaccessible tax-foreclosed land to the Conservation Commission.
The Council gave final approval to an ordinance establishing a historic district around the Gunn Block. Historians say the structure is the city’s oldest commercial building. The Council also gave final approval to an ordinance establishing a youth poet laureate position. Councilor Lederman, the bill’s lead sponsor, said it echoes the adult poet laureate position Springfield already has.
“The voices of our city’s youth are the voices of the future. The establishment of a Youth Poet Laureate will ensure that their voices are lifted up and celebrated through the arts for generations to come,” he said in a statement after the vote.
The Council also unanimously passed first step on a bill adding Juneteenth to the city’s paid holidays. June 19 commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The date draws off of the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas after the Civil War.
It has already become a state holiday. The ordinance would ensure city workers enjoy this observance and line Springfield up with state policy. The Council made technical amendments to the bill. Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Timothy Plante said the city would need to amend collective bargaining agreements to effect the ordinance. However, Plante predicated city unions would have no problem.
The ordinance requires two more votes to go to the mayor’s desk.
The only other item of note was a request for a financial report from the Finance Department about the mayor’s litigation expenses. Councilors sued Sarno last year to enforce the Police Commission ordinance. Councilors Hurst and Whitfield introduced the request pursuant to Council rules.
Last month, a Hampden Superior Court judge ruled the Council’s revival of the Police Commission was valid. Thus, the mayor’s abrogation of the ordinance was improper. Because the Law Department was conflicted out, Sarno hired a Worcester firm, Bowditch Dewey, to represent him. The mayor has also promised to appeal the lower court ruling.
The request seeks an accounting of funds the city has spent or will spend on litigation and appeal and an inventory of city resources that assisted the mayor’s defense. Councilor Fenton wondered if that last part was practical. However Planted said it should be as the city allocation of resources is likely minimal. The request passed unanimously.
It may be trite to link the ward vacancy legislation to councilors’ lawsuit. However, the two are chapters in the body’s broader journey in the last decade. Ward representation itself became an engine for the body’s legislative activity. Critical to ward representation, however, is keeping succession on the Council as democratic as possible.
It is true that squabbles among councilors have been growing in recent years. That does not change one key truth, however. The Springfield City Council is no longer an afterthought.