Take My Council, Please: A Most Deliberative Body in the New Year…
SPRINGFIELD—The City Council’s first meeting of 2024 quickly morphed into an opportunity for councilors to quench their inquisitive thirst for a wide range of departmental libations. Although in attendance for fairly mundane items, department representatives faced a barrage of questions. In at least case, a police gang suppression grant, it was councilors first chance to raise the record homicide count last year.
The new(ish) Council President, Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton, previewed his procedural plans for 2024, too. The announcement that he would let all councilors attending in-person speak on an item before those attending virtually rankled Monday’s remote councilors.
Ward 1 Councilor Maria Perez was absent from the meeting. Councilors Malo Brown, Lavar Click-Bruce, Zaida Govan, Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield were remote.
After a technology delay, Fenton explained his plans. Much of it was highly technical like summary review of smaller grants and elimination of defunct ordinance committees. Neither have been appointed for decades and do not appear to be statutorily required.
The president also announced filing changes for special permits and reminded councilors that each of them has an annual $500 professional development budget the city funds.
More controversially, Fenton said councilors who wished to speak on an item and were in-person would get to speak before those Zooming in. While subject when a councilor seeks recognition, the goal would be to let virtual councilors speak before in-person councilors spoke a second time.
Two of the virtual councilors Monday, Walsh and Whitfield, poo-poohed this announcement. The plan is not a rule, but rather a prerogative of the presiding officer. Thus, it did not face a vote.
Fenton also confirmed that rules changes councilors approved last week bar a councilor could no longer move to call a question after speaking. They would need to wait for their next opportunity to receive recognition to make that mtion.
The Council also voted Monday to amend the rules further to replace a reference to a defunct city agency with DevelopSpringfield.
The Council accepted an unremarkable Revenue & Expenditure report for November from acting Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Patrick Burns. The body greenlit conversion of Elaine Circle from a private to a public way. Plans are underway to build additional homes on the Pine Point neighborhood street. About $27,000 in funds, mostly donations, for the animal shelter received approval as did $2.5 million for the Fire Department personnel budget.
Fire Commissioner B.J. Calvi explained that overtime and raises from a recent contract had put a strain on his department’s budget. Calvi said the the contract concluded just after the administration finalized the budget. Therefore the spending document did not account for the added costs. The funds will come from free cash.
The Council allowed the School Department seek a five-year contract for fiber-optic services. City departments, including the schools, need Council authorization to enter into contracts longer than three years. The approval passed 11-1 with Fenton in dissent.
The first sign that councilors had a hankering for a meaty meeting came when police Lieutenant Matthew Benoit appeared to present the annual Shannon grant for the Community Safety Initiative. A familiar grant, it aims to reduce gang activity. With half of the city’s 33 homicides in 2023 attributed to gangs, councilors interrogated Benoit and even questioned this program’s efficacy.
Ward 7 Councilor Timohty Allen kicked things off by inquiring about how Pearl Street evaluates the partners it contracts with. Benoit said that there are regular reports, a final report and site visits. In response to Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila, the lieutenant said the process has opened up and become more transparent.
At-large Councilor Brian Santaniello asked what becomes of the final report. Benoit said it goes to the state, but it can be shared with the Council (a formal request to do this was made later in the meeting). Santaniello also asked whether the vendors change much.
“A lot of them are legacy partners. They have been re-funded every few years,” Benoit said.
However, the questions grew in urgency. Ward 8 Councilor Zaida Govan noted the homicide rate in 2023 and asked about gun violence.
“We see the outcome,” she said. “Is there anything you guys are planning to do to have some different outcomes?”
Benoit pointed to efforts of the Detective Bureau and the Firearms Investigation Unit.
Councilor Whitfield indicated she was concerned both how Pearl Street chooses vendors and what good they do once they receive funding.
“There needs to be more clarity, more oversight,” she said.
The grant ultimately received Council approval 10-0. At-large Councilor Jose Delgado announced his recusal and excused himself during the debate. He works for the state agency that issues the grant. Ward 5 Councilor Lavar Click-Bruce abstained but did not give a reason.
The next barnburner was a tax incremental financing (TIF) agreement with Performance Food Group. The food services supply company on Roosevelt Avenue, a successor to a business with a long history in the city, is planning a major expansion. Deputy Director of Economic Development Brian Connors told councilors PFG’s expansion would lead to 350 new jobs with an average salary of $74,000. PFG currently employs about 560 at its Springfield facility. The 10-year TIF only affects the taxes on the expansion.
“This does not affect taxes we are collecting today,” Connors assured.
In recent years, TIFs have faced additional scrutiny in recent years. The Council has cracked down on developers that violate worker safety rules and incorporated diversity benchmarks into construction. Connors confirmed that these rules were built into the TIF.
Tammy Gardner, a corporate vice-president for PFG, told councilors that PFG had customers large and small from Antonio’s and Frigo’s to the University of Massachusetts and the Big E.
“We are just at capacity,” she said. “This expansion would give us 50% more capacity.”
Under questioning from councilors, PFG said about 25% of its current workforce live in Springfield. Councilors Delgado and Santaniello pressed officials to hire more residents. Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown queried how local contractors could seek bids for construction. Gardner said she could provide contact information for their construction department.
Jeff Derick, President of PFG Springfield said the workforce reflected the area community. Gardner had said employees at the facility speak six languages. However, Whitfield also urged the PFG to bring that level of diversity to the executive level.
The TIF passed 12-0.
The talker of the night was acceptance of $1,642,228 in funds from the state. The money comes from the Fair Share state constitutional amendment voters approved in 2022. It imposes a four percent surcharge on income over $1 million to finance education and transportation spending. The Healey administration decided to allocate $100 million through Chapter 90 and other road maintenance formulas. Springfield’s share was before the Council Monday.
Public Works czar Chris Cignoli said the funds would go to street paving. However, he did not have a list of streets as he expected to pair Fair Share funds with the city’s regular Chapter 90 allocation. That formal notice is due in the coming weeks.
Under questioning from councilors, Cignoli said the city inspects about 1/3 of streets a year and compiles a list of worst to best. The list of streets in need of most repair go out to utilities to avoid tearing up a road with new pavement.
Cignoli predicted the city would complete about nine miles of paving this year. He noted inbound federal money for safety projects although many required additional design work. The exception was the State Street reconstruction at the Central Library, which was been the site of several fatal pedestrian collisions. The city largely relies on bonding or state and federal grants for road repaving as it does with sidewalks.
Perhaps because Cignoli mentioned sidewalks, at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh raised a new report from the Forest Park Civic Association that pans the use of asphalt for sidewalk repairs. Cignoli said he was familiar with the report, which alleges, among other things, that asphalt on sidewalk depresses home values. However, asphalt patches are inevitable as the sheer number of broken sidewalks far outstrips funding to repair them.
This problem is not unique to Springfield. However, a great deal of city infrastructure is simply old making the challenge larger. This includes sidewalks and streets. While discussing streets, Cignoli said Columbus Avenue had received a repave for the first time this century.
The FPCA declined to share the report prior to its Tuesday meeting at which it will unveil the document.
Still, as expected, the $1.6 million in Fair Share funds received approval without dissent.
After a dizzying round of debate, the Council continued an easement for the electric and telecom companies at Donna Blake Park. Nobody from the administration was on hand to explain it.
The Council went into executive session to discuss pending litigation. Lisa DeSousa who manages litigation in the Law Department, had sat patiently throughout the rest of the meeting. Indeed, whatever she said in private with councilors, it convinced them to authorize a $750,000 transfer from free cash to the legal settlement account. The vote was 9-2. Councilors Govan and Whitfield dissented. Councilor Brown did not vote.
At the risk of drinking the Kool-Aid, this crop of city councilors—and indeed most recent crops—are a diligent bunch. Thus, the eager questioning Monday was not terribly surprising. Whether it was the best forum to go that far afield is another matter.
The technical challenges and objections to managing debate between remote and in-person councilors preview challenges Fenton may face this year. Critiques of the methods notwithstanding, the opposition he faced to becoming president are not new. But the aftereffects of the pandemic make this a different Council than the one he presided over in 2016. Whether they will define this once-and-again presidency remains to be seen.