Take My Council, Please: Aux Barricades de Fort Street, Conseillers!
Although meetings have become much more fluid since going hybrid last year, the Springfield City Council’s outing hit a snag on Monday. The body trudged through a permit for the Student Prince to close Fort Street during summers. In the end, councilors split on a successful motion to send the item to committee.
The rest of the agenda was simpler. Thus, the meeting did not become an all-nighter of old, which the Council occasionally experienced even well before virtual meetings became a thing. Indeed, the remainder was mostly financial housekeeping ahead of the fiscal year’s close on June 30. The meeting even got to conclude happily with another resolution supporting a song.
Councilors Justin Hurst, Maria Perez, Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield participated remotely.
The meeting began with reports from the Elder Affairs, Finance and Planning & Economic Development (P&ED) committees. Of note among them was word from P&ED that a few tax incentives were working their way toward the Council.
Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, who chairs P&ED, said that Loophole Brewery was looking to redevelop a Taylor Street building downtown. It will be seeking tax incremental financing. Edwards said this will only affect new growth, that is added value Loophole puts into the building. The structure had been a church and its sale in March had already returned it to the tax rolls. The other project was a housing development incentive program tax break for a High Street building.
Edwards did not say when the two projects would come to the Council for review. But if the proposals have advanced far enough for previews before P&ED, a debut at the Council is likely imminent.
Comptroller Pat Burns presented the April revenue and expenditures report. He said income and outcome were at expected levels.
Councilors accepted a series of utility reports, mostly for gas main replacements. At one point, Ward 1 Councilor Maria Perez queried Public Works and an Eversource representative if this work was the same as the new pipeline the gas company has pushed. After some back and forth, it became clear that this is routine maintenance and not the controversial megaproject.
Grants of $279,000 for public health and $243,000 for enforcement of age requirements for tobacco purchases passed the Council. Smaller grants for the Animal Control, Elder Affairs and Health & Human Services departments passed with one vote.
The Council greenlit two land transfers for abutting lots. One was Quincy Street and the other on Pine Street. A $120,000 transfer within Public Works received approval. It will cover a deficit in the equipment line using unused overtime funds. The Library Department received $17,500 in donations and the Parks Department received a $1,000 donation.
Also receiving Council approval was a $10,000 transfer to the advertising budget for the City Clerk and $8,000 for the Election Office. Deputy Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Lindsey Hackett told councilors that Election funds would pay for an acting deputy election clerk. The final financial item was authorization to pay $183 in travel expenses form last fiscal year.
All of the above passed without dissent. But before any had an airing, the Council spent a considerable amount of time on a permit for Fort Street. The Student Prince, like many eateries, jumped at the chance to expand dining outdoors after the shroud of the coronavirus fell upon Massachusetts. It expanded out onto Fort Street, which the city effectively closed for the storied Springfield icon.
On Monday, the restaurant was before the Council requesting a closure. However, circumstances appear to be different. There is no COVID-19 public health emergency and applications just via the Springfield licensing office are now ostensibly insufficient.
However, the true reason for this process was not terribly clear. The representative from the restaurant did not know why he had been referred to a full Council meeting. Nor was the City Council’s attorney, Ken Shea, briefed on the matter. The item was lumped with authorizations to open streets for utility work. While echoing such occupations of public ways, the Student Prince’s request strikes a different chord.
Councilor Hurst expressed support for the closure, but questioned why the Council was only learning about it now. He highlighted the Council’s power over public ways and wondered why councilors had not been approached before the Student Prince took over Fort Street last month.
Hurst, also a mayoral candidate, noted that the Student Prince had been among those businesses that received American Rescue Plan Act funds. Last week, he slammed that disbursement of outdoor dining grants as evidence Mayor Domenic Sarno had used ARPA funds as a “slush fund.”
He made a motion to send the item to Committee. Other councilors, include Whitfield and Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila echoed these sentiments. Davila asked if this permit would allow the restaurant to add more seats than it currently has outside. The restaurant did not have a direct answer.
What followed, however, was a cul-de-sac of the same objections which other councilors, include Malo Brown and Sean Curran countered. To them, the Council could obtain more answers later, but not leave the Student Prince in the lurch. The rounds of discussion frustrated still other councilors.
After over 30 minutes of debate concluded with a 8-5 vote to punt. Councilors Davila, Hurst, Walsh, Whitfield, Tim Allen, Lavar Click-Bruce, Zaida Govan and Jesse Lederman supported referral to committee. Councilors Brown, Curran, Edwards, Perez and Michael Fenton opposed it.
Although not at all apparent from the order itself, it is possible the administration could no longer act unilaterally as virtually all COVID-19 emergency measures have expired. The legislature extended simplified outdoor dining procedures into 2024. The rules originated as a gubernatorial COVID-19 order, which Springfield adopted. However, the Student Prince was seemingly looking beyond that. The order before the Council would have allowed the Student Prince to take up Fort Street from May to September until further notice.
The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the permit.
The meeting wrapped with final action on an extension of a moratorium on new pawn shops until June 30, 2025. The legislation otherwise makes no substantive change to pawn shop regulations.
The final item was a resolution supporting a Juneteenth song by Brothers United of Springfield. Juneteenth, originally a Texas holiday, commemorates emancipation from slavery. Massachusetts adopted it as a state holiday in 2020. The resolution, which Ward 5 Councilor Click-Bruce introduced, would urge the legislature to adopt the tune as the state’s official Juneteenth song.
After a round of huzzahs from his colleagues, Click-Bruce played a clip from the song. The resolution passed without dissent.
On balance, the delay of the Student Prince’s permit and the RETVRN of merry-go-round debates was minor. Moreover, the root causes were a misunderstanding and, ultimately, a lack of explanation from the administration. The questions about the ARPA funds haunt this item, too.
Still, exhaustion and exasperation have been percolating within the Council for a while now. To the casual observer, the brewing mayoral contest looks responsible. That would be wrong. The cracks were apparent before the pandemic, which papered over many of them—for a time. Now they are bare enough to drag out even the simplest agenda as in the days before the Council supermajority that had briefly kept Sarno somewhat in check.