Take My Council, Please: All Quiet on the Court Street Front…
SPRINGFIELD—The final City Council meeting of 2023 and of the current term ended with the usual goodbyes and acknowledgements. The agenda was spare, with only a handful of queries and a lone committee referral. However, the year’s final meeting also includes an unofficial selection of the council president. That yielded some drama if not suspense.
The incumbent Council President, Jesse Lederman, is retiring from the Council after an unsuccessful mayoral bid. Some weeks ago, Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton announced he had the votes to become President. While not without precedent, at-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield pressed a challenge and rallied supporters until the math made real what had been inevitable. Still, the ordeal perturbed some.
Councilor Maria Perez was remote during the meeting. Councilors Lavar Click-Bruce and Sean Curran were absent, save a brief appearance by Curran toward the end.
Monday’s meeting came weeks after the Afro-American Point-of-View, a newsmagazine aimed at Black residents in Springfield, published an incendiary 3400+ word editorial. In it, the publisher Frederick Hurst blasted prominent members of the Black community for not backing his son in the mayoral race.
The air of that article hung in chamber Monday. Among the targets was Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, whom it called “white-loving.” Edwards was seeking a second one-year term as Council Vice-president. He invoked the publication and its accusation during his nomination of Fenton.
Public speak-out before the meeting mostly, if not exclusively consisted of supporters for Whitfield and Zaida Govan. Govan, who begins her second term next month, ran on a ticket, of sorts, with Whitfield. Speakers cited the rising toll of gun violence on communities of color in the city. Whitfield has been outspoken on the issue. Less clear was how that would move any of Fenton’s 11 votes to Whitfield.
The agenda itself had little controversy.
Whitfield’s report from the American Rescue Plan Act ad hoc committee had a very positive reception. She outlined the city’s numerous failings distributing cash to residents from Springfield’s allocation under the 2021 law.
“I want an audit done on the whole process,” she said at one point during her presentation.
After committee reports, first up was confirming Walter Kroll to the city Historical Commission. Kroll, a McKnight neighborhood luminary had been an alternate for the body. On Monday, he was on hand to answer questions. Yet, he is no stranger to the Council, which approved his nomination without dissent.
The body provided additional approval for the Library Department to spend a grant to renovate the East Springfield branch. The department is seeking a competitive grant from the state for the money.
On another unanimous vote, the Council approved a nearly $165,000 increase for the Byrne Justice Assistance grant. A nearly $75,000 grant to support senior center likewise passed without dissent.
Smaller grants to the Library and Emergency Management departments passed on one unanimous vote. Likewise, a donation of $150 to the Elder Affairs Department passed without dissent.
Councilors sent the city’s $1.5 million opioid settlement money for this year to committee. Like other municipalities, Springfield is receiving funds from drugs companies that manufacture opiates. Deputy Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Lindsay Hackett said payments will continue until fiscal year 2039.
But, the city has identified only $400,000 of spending. Councilors wanted more information about where the rest will go. Nobody opposed the referral.
The body approved a new agreement with the University of Massachusetts Medical Center to process Medicaid claims. Under the agreement the Worcester-based hospital processes claims for healthcare Springfield schools provide student. UMass retains 2.5% of the reimbursements for its trouble.
The final formal action of the night—and of 2023—was final approval of a change to the Community Preservation Act ordinance. In 2016, city voters approved a surcharge on property tax bills to finance projects for housing, historic preservation and open space. Councilor Fenton took the lead on the original enacting ordinance for the Community Preservation Committee.
That ordinance set term limits, however. This ordinance would allow CPC members to remain on the body pending their replacements’ appointment. Echoing remarks from the bill’s first appearance, Fenton said it had become important to maintain continuity on the CPC. He confirmed he was still seeking to repeal term limits, too. This would allow figures like Robert McCarroll, the CPC’s chair, to retain their position.
The ordinance and a final vote to finalize the ordinance passed without dissent.
The vote for president and vice-president lacked such acclimation.
Speak-out had presaged some of what was to come. Many had simply plugged Whitfield, and to some extend Govan. A few offered bitter criticisms of Fenton and Black pols backing him. Charles Stokes, an activist who ran for Council this year, took aim at several figures in the Black community. That earned a rebuke from Whitfield, who defended some of the people Stokes blasted.
During the nominations for council vice-president, Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown nominated Edwards with Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen’s second. Whitfield nominated Govan with Govan seconding herself.
Defending her machinations, Whitfield condemned the process that elects the Council Presidency.
“I’m not here to call out any of my colleagues but I’m here to discuss a very divisive process on how the city council president and vice-president is selected,” she said.
Aware she would fail, Whitfield suggested potential votes for her shied away once victory appeared impossible. She also panned calls for unanimity once the math was apparent (but before any votes were cast).
There was something to her observation that Council newbies facing lobbying for presidential vote before attending a single meeting. More controversially, Whitfield suggested that “nationality” and “race” played a role in who voted for whom.
Edwards secured the votes of eight of his colleagues in the next Council. Only Govan, Whitfield and councilor-elect Jose Delgado voted for Govan to be Veep.
In an passionate acceptance speech, Edwards thanked his colleagues and looked ahead to a less divided 2024. Still, The Afro-American Point of View’s shot at him clearly on his mind.
“I’m proud of my first wife I’m proud of my second wife and I’m proud of my six children regardless of the shade which they look,” Edwards continued. (His second wife is white).
When the time came to nominate president, Edwards put Fenton’s name forward. Apparently addressing remarks from earlier, Edwards noted that a few years ago, three councilors of color—Edwards, then-Council President Hurst, and since-retired Councilor Marcus Williams—vied for the body’s top job. Williams prevailed then, but Edwards believed he could succeed this year. He decided against seeking the post after considering Williams’s experience.
“I believe that the shortness of his service was in part because of how he was treated and how difficult it was to do this job as the president,” Edwards said.
Turning to Fenton, Edwards cited their 14 years of concurrent service and backed his nomination “without reservation.”
Govan, nominating Whitfield as president, recalled her own experience being lobbied to vote for president. She spoke about equity and justice and spoke about a glass ceiling for women. The Ward 8 Councilor was more reserved, even resigned, than Whitfield had been. Yet, Govan also struck an unexpectedly direct chord.
“I know that Councilor Whitfield doesn’t always use her diplomacy,” she said. Still, Govan continued, “she truly cares about the community. You know I care about the community. That’s not that’s not to say that the other councilors don’t.”
Indeed, Govan assured Fenton would make a great Council President.
Whitfield only had her own and Govan’s support in the 10-2 vote. Fenton’s votes including both incoming councilors. Councilor Curran, who had been absent for much of the meeting, made a late appearance remotely to back Fenton.
Fenton took the rostrum to speak, but waited for Govan and Whtifield’s supporters to file out. He thanked his colleagues and promised a fruitful 2024. He added that he had arranged for the Councils’ first formal portrait in decades. However, he quickly turned to recognizing the departing councilors.
Nearly all councilors feted Hurst and Lederman, if to varying if always polite degrees. Whitfield, offering enthusiastic praise to both councilors, also welcome Fenton to the job. Edwards wished Hurst luck in his future endeavors. He was quite emotional about Lederman, saying he was “saddened” he would no longer be in chambers.
Councilor Allen recalled Hurst’s management of the Council early in the pandemic, bringing the body back online, indeed online. For his other colleague, Allen invoked biomass, which is practically Lederman’s origin story.
Hurst and Lederman spoke briefly, thanking colleagues for support and encouragement over the years.
“One of the things that you can expect is that you’re going to build great relationships with great people,” Hurst said. “You’re not always going to agree and the idea that you can not agree and do so in a fashion that is diplomatic for the most part just speaks volume of the very body that we’re serving on.”
There has been chatter about what Hurst’s next electoral move might be. By contrast, Lederman’s remarks suggested it may be some time before he runs for something else.
“I’m leaving behind a group of people with whom we did real, tangible things,” he said. “We really restored the Springfield Police Commission, we really stopped that biomass waste incinerator. We passed real laws that have a real effect on people’s everyday lives in Springfield and hopefully make them better.”
And with that, the meeting concluded.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of Monday’s discord was much of what Govan, Whitfield and their backers said has merit. Not enough women, including those of color, hold positions of power. Gun violence is a plague that harms non-white Springfield most of all. Moreover, there is nothing remarkable about Whitfield pursuing a hopeless vote. It has happened before.
These facts did not prompt frustration present Monday. The issue is politics still reigns and politics is a game of addition. Only a fool would say bigotry does not exist in Springfield, but voting for council president is the rawest political vote councilors make. Nothing racially sinister was afoot. Politics—and, as Govan alluded to, diplomacy—underpinned the political discomfort that rippled through City Hall Monday and across the city for many weeks before.