Take My Council, Please: Matters of Historic Proportions…
Was the defining issue at the October 16 meeting of the Springfield City Council for naught? It certainly seems possible. The Council approved an order to direct the Historical Commission to restart the historic district process for the former Isolation Hospital on State Street. The debate collapsed into confusion and hand-wringing until its lead sponsor, Council President Jesse Lederman untied all the knots.
The concern about the failure to follow the process arose because the owner had been hostile to the district. Later in the week, the city announced its purchase of the hospital from Vibra, which had ran a behavioral health facility on the campus (if less so in the historic structure itself). While this result may be for the best, the episode could be a warning light for deteriorating communications between the Council and administration.
Councilors Sean Curran, Justin Hurst, Maria Perez, Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield participated remotely. Councilors Malo Brown and Victor Davila began participating remotely, but later arrived in-person.
Much of the meeting moved without much debate. The Council set aside the confirmation of Walter Kroll’s reappointment to the Springfield Historical Commission as he could not attend. However, the body did confirm Vincent Calcasola as an alternate to the body. The Commission has in recent years occasionally had quorum problems and alternates can vote when full members are absent.
The Council greenlit a $180,000 grant from the Springfield Library foundation for library materials. Another library item that received library approval was an appropriation order of $150,000 needed for the city to apply for state funds to renovate the East Springfield branch. Library Director Molly Fogarty said that the branch is the only one to not receive upgrades in several decades. A smaller $11,984 grant will pay for technology.
The body approved a supplemental $80,733 grant to the Elder Affairs Department as well as $71,500 for the Public Works Department’s recycling program. A donation to the K9 unit of the Police Department also received Council acceptance.
Councilors also passed a couple of amendments to the budget thanks to additional funding from the state. The first $2.7 million will go to the School Department for charter school reimbursement. Another adjustment of $701,656 arises from higher unrestricted government aid from the state. Of that $500,000 shall go toward management of urban forest, particularly near residences.
The remainder supplements the Law Department’s outside counsel budget. Deputy City Solicitor Kathy Breck explained that several major cases are approaching trial. The department, she acknowledged, has had difficulty filling out staff. However, on a practical level, even if the department were awash in lawyers, it may still need outside help.
Both supplemental orders passed.
The Council also approved payment of $8,125 in bills from a prior fiscal year.
Where the body slowed down at the meeting was an order directing the Historical Commission to order a new study for proposed Historic District around the ex-Insolation Hospital at 1441 State Street. Attempts to erect a historic district have reached a fever pitch as Vibra Hospital of Western Massachusetts began to wind down its operations there and market the building.
Vibra had opposed the designation throughout, often saber-rattling over litigation. The City Council’s lawyer (and former councilor) Ken Shea explained last Monday that the administration reached the conclusion that the study the Historical Commission may be legally defective under the state Historic Districts Act. The order would essentially direct the Commission to get a new study and reissue the ordinance creating the Historic District.
In the past, Shea said, the Historic Commission had a line item in the budget to fund studies. In the Isolation Hospital case, the advocates for the district supplied their own study.
This prompted a round of questions from councilors. While confusion and bafflement among councilors is hardly new, it was somewhat reasonable here. The administration was essentially asking the Council to order the Springfield Historical Commission to restart its process, something it should be able to do on its own. However, the error in the process also triggered fears, which at-large Councilor Justin Hurst raised, that several historic district the city has created in recent years could be vulnerable to legal attack.
Shea suggested the statute of limitations had run on such risks, but the questions only continued until President Lederman ceded the gavel to Vice-president Melvin Edwards and fully explained the item. He noted that the Council had passed first step on the ordinance to show legislative support in the body. Lederman also observed that the Council, through ordinance, has assigned the Historical Commission the power to order studies on its own.
For Isolation Hospital, the Historical Commission initiated a district at the public’s suggestion, but that suggestion did not carry any legal weight on its own. The Commission agreed to accept a study from an outside group, but city staff edited it and the Commission approved it. City lawyers and staff were present throughout. It subsequently got a green light from state historic preservation authorities.
“As I said in the Economic Development committee meeting, I do not actually agree with the assertion of the Law Department or the administration that that study somehow lacked the independent information and factual information necessary,” Lederman said. Mass Historic did not have a problem either.
“If we seem to agree that there is no immediate threat to this historic structure”—due to the demolition delay ordinance—”and if the administration is representing there is a liability in the creation of that report, then we should consider put this process in motion,” he continued.
While some councilors would still oppose the order, Lederman’s explanation calmed things considerably.
A motion to continue the order failed 4-9. Councilors Davila, Walsh, Whitfield, and Lavar Click-Bruce backed the continuance. The order passed 11-2 with Davila and Whitfield in dissent.
It was not clear how broadly known the city’s plans for the structure were. However, on Thursday, Mayor Domenic Sarno announced that the city would acquire the historic building for $1 from Vibra. Despite the effervescent promise of jobs, Sarno announced no development plan for the site at the time.
The Council passed first step on a couple of additional ordinances. The first would revise the Community Preservation Committee ordinance to allow members to hold their seats until successors replace them. The CPC recommends spending outside the normal budget process. Residents approved the surcharge on tax bills in 2016 and the Council subsequently advanced an ordinance creating the Committee. Various boards and city officials, including the Council President name members to the body.
Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, the bill’s sponsor, accepted an amendment to limit this to a year. However, he noted that in a few weeks he would be introducing another amendment that would remove term limits on the Committee. Fenton suspected that bill would receive more scrutiny, but the other should be straightforward.
It was. Councilors passed first step without dissent.
The second ordinance raises the illegal dumping fee to $500. There was some discussion about how this order would enforce provisions against drivers licenses and vehicle registration. Yet, it passed unanimously, too.
The hullabaloo on the study and Lederman’s subsequent comments do signal some breakdown in communication between city’s branches of government. Even as the Council supermajority holding Sarno to account has sagged and collapsed, bewildering situations like the study are more infrequent than a decade ago.
With or without the city’s purchase of the building, the practical impact of the confusion was minimal. As Lederman noted, the building faces no imminent threat of demolition from the current owner (or the city). Still, it is worth contemplating whether the signal between the Council and mayor could degrade into noise again. There is historical precedent for this concern if Sarno wins reelection. Yet, even if Hurst were to unseat the mayor, a major challenge will be keeping interbranch relations untangled.
Moreover, whether it is Hurst or Sarno in the corner office, who on the Council’s end will take the lead in keeping the lines of communication clear?