Thursday, October 07, 2010

A Library of Their Own...

The Springfield City Council.  A body informal by style, but governed by procedure, the Council experienced a paramount shift in the way that it is composed and by extension how it operates.  City Council President Jose Tosado, announced changes in the structure of committees earlier this year to accommodate the Council's growth to five at-large councilors and eight ward councilors from nine at-large councilors.  A spirited debate on the city's budget, headed by the Council's fiscal watchdogs, added an abnormal amount of flavor to the traditionally unremarkable hearings and votes.  Although their efforts failed, it put the mayor on notice that things had changed, if only a little at 36 Court Street.  Still, even an appearance by Stephen Colbert at the Council Chambers would be unlikely to boost the average Council meeting up to C-SPAN 1.

The meeting this past Monday was both the same and different.  Bustling with all the thrill and pizazz of any government hearing, this past meeting reflected concerns growing over the status of the Mason Square Branch library.  Cancer screenings and Springfield College also made cameo appearances.

Although public speak outs can be on virtually any topic, the council had on its agenda formal acceptance of money from the Springfield Library Foundation, a trust left by the late Annie Curran for the Mason Square Branch library.  The Mason Square Branch Library, located at 765 State Street, was sold by the building's then-owner the Springfield Museum and Library Association.  The outrage at that sale and the extreme reduction of library hours at other branches led to the city takeover of library services from the private, but publicly financed organization.

Although a generously termed mini-library continued to operate at the building, available services at the Mason Square branch, centered in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods were inadequate.  However, Urban League president Henry Thomas refused to consider any offers for sale.  That was until an agreement between the Association and the Urban League, apparently with the involvement of the Massachusetts Attorney General's office, came to light.  It said that that should the city want to take the library back, it could do so and the League could only receive the value of the building it bought it for adjusted for inflation.  Prevailing real estate values were irrelevant.

Seizing upon that revelation and following a commitment of funds from Curran's Library Foundation, the City Council voted to condemn (seize by eminent domain) the building at the request of the Springfield Library Department.  The city is required to pay to relocate the Urban League per state eminent domain statutes.  The Urban League had promised a fight, but instead seemed to opt for delaying tactics.  The City formally announced the League was to vacate this past June.  A September move-out was scheduled.  However, as City Solicitor Ed Pikula stated before the Council Monday, by late August, he was concerned that more information was not forthcoming from the League. Before Pikula addressed the Council, residents gave them an ear full, peppering in some complaints that all councilors were not present for the speak-out.  Some speakers pressured the Council to issue an eviction order that the City Solicitor could submit to Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe.  Others, like former library commissioner Sheila MacElwaine made note of the long time table, but supported Pikula's "incremental" approach to assure the best possible legal outcome.  After the speak out, Council President Tosado made a somewhat rare statement about the library situation.  While not really making any definitive statement one way or another, except for supporting the Mason Square branch's full reopening, the speech may be tied to Tosado's political aspirations.  Tosado is mulling a run for Mayor next year.

Solicitor Pikula advised the Council that he had been in touch with the League and that that though negotiations were ongoing, November 15 looked like the latest date.  He also said that prior to his most recent contact with the League and its lawyers, he had planned to come before the Council and ask for the eviction vote.  For now, he urged patience, but stated that putting it on the agenda for the meeting of November 8th, would be appropriate.  Some councilors, clearly reacting to public pressure, asked why wait?

Councilor E. Henry Twiggs of Ward 4, which includes Mason Square, and Councilor John Lysak of Ward 8 (pictured right), seemed the most interested in an early eviction vote.  Twiggs denied that Urban League president Thomas had any political influence over the Council (as some speakers intimated), but asked when the vote should take place.  Lysak asked why the council could not authorize eviction this meeting and leave it Pikula's back pocket.   Pikula stated that the city would need to have a temporary place to move the Urban League until its new location (a slot at STCC Technology Park) became available.  It would also pay for both moves.  Moreover, a premature vote may undermine the city's case, if an eviction notice is challenged in court.  The councilors appeared to accept that for now while Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen moved to immediately put the issue on the agenda for November 8th.

The passion of some councilors for the library issue is understandable, but it may point to some of the problems of the politics that drive councilors and politicians elsewhere to make the hasty decisions that they do.  In the instance of the Mason Square Library, a pressing issue that has had material impact on the fabric of the neighborhood, the Council seemed willing to listen to reason and take Solicitor Pikula's advice. Such would not be the case for other matters.

Before the council was also a resolution to sell some property to Springfield College for $20,000.  The property had been condemned (it is unclear whether it was due to tax title or eminent domain).  Some councilors questioned why the property should be sold to Springfield College, a tax-exempt entity.  According to John Judge, the city's economic development director, the property was derelict and badly in need of cleanup.  While Springfield College did not know what it would do with the Watershops Pond fronted property on Hickory Street, they had committed to a $300,000 remediation of the property.  Councilors persisted, though, questioning the wisdom of turning over another property to a tax-exempt entity.  There is a problem both in Springfield and in countless other communities with properties increasingly falling into municipal or other non-property tax paying hands.  However, in the case of the Springfield College deal, the college is essentially performing a public service.  Nobody in this economic climate and few in a better one, would spend that much money in Springfield just to bring that lot back to square one.  Ignored by dissenting councilors was the proviso that if the college did not develop the land for its own needs, the property would revert to the city again.  It appears that some councilors remain bullishly unaware of the gap between the city's investment-attracting qualities and the expensive, real problems that remain an economic impediment.  Ultimately, the matter went to committee.

Finally, the Council voted for the third and final time on an ordinance that would provide all municipal workers with time off for cancer screenings.  The ordinance mimicked an order made by thankfully former mayor Michael Albano.  That order, however, only applied to non-union city workers (yes they do exist).  This ordinance covered everybody.  Again, City Solicitor Pikula was asked to give an opinion.  He advised that the matter be referred to committee and wait to hear from the city's labor negotiator.  While not certain, passage of the ordinance could push unions to file a grievance.  Why?  All but one or two unions already had this screening provision in their contracts and had given up things to the city to get it.  Those last unions that lacked the provision suddenly got the time off without giving anything up.  That could be a per se grievance.  Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton (pictured above) made a motion to refer the matter to committee.  Originally seconded by Ward 6 Councilor Keith Wright, the school teacher councilor withdrew his second and abstained from all votes on the subject as he is a municipal employee.  Councilor Allen ended up seconding the motion and joining Fenton as the sole votes to refer the matter to committee.

Councilors Clodo Concepcion (pictured left), Melvin Edwards, Jimmy Ferraro, and Kateri Walsh pounced on the issue as humane, necessary and appropriate, completely missing Pikula's point.  Ferraro announced that the unions will not complain because they are covered, inexplicably brushing aside that it was the already-covered unions about which Pikula was concerned.  Concepcion, the Ward 5 councilor, seemed aggravated that there was any debate at all—an essential part of governance in a republic—and annoyed by Fenton and Allen's motion for responsible caution.  Fenton attempted to reason with councilors insisting immediate passage of the ordinance, urging that legal and financial considerations be looked into before the ordinance is passed.  In short, should the employees already receiving cancer screening time file a grievance and win, the Council may find itself forced to vote an appropriation to pay a penalty it could have avoided.  The motion to move to committee failed while the ordinance itself and its baggage passed unanimously.

Like many issues that come before legislative bodies, the cancer screening vote can be summed as great politics, horrible policy.  No, the cancer screening ordinance itself, if it actually catches cancer early and saves health care costs, is not the problem.  The mad rush to pass it is the problem.  Representatives from the Service Employees International Union were on hand to support the ordinance.  Powerful political backers, check.  Then there are the heroics of fighting cancer.  Count on the support of families and friends of cancer victims.  Ta-da: Political Victory!  "We'll worry about the legal mess later" (not a quote).  The issue cut so deeply that the councilors who wanted legal reassurance that the city would not be held liable for a labor violation could not reasonably register a protest vote.

And that was Monday's meeting.  A check of the agenda a day before belied the hot potatoes that the Council would end up tossing among its members.  Yesterday's meeting highlighted some of the problems facing the city both within and without its government.  It is unfair to single out city officials.  They alone do not face such politically expedient, but potentially counterproductive votes.  Higher up the political food chain on Beacon and Capitol Hills, the reactionary response to some issues has yielded results more terrible than the Springfield City Council's Monday votes.  At the risk of being unpopular (but having the advantage of not being elected), part of the problem may lie with, again the people.

A New York Times piece recently explored how the problems in Washington, the media, and elsewhere may point to a wider decay in society.  That decay is difficult to pinpoint (although some sources are suggested), but it has permeated the society at large leaving an impression on civic officials, media, and business.  In Springfield, as elsewhere, the situation is no different.  While some Councilors may be especially good or especially bad at how they make decisions while in office, in many ways they are driven the mood and thoughts of the city's body politic.

Consider for example, the concept of the Paralysis of Nostalgia that this blog has described in Springfield.  That paralysis and its requisite nostalgia is present in many of the city's officials, since many remember the very things that residents of the Springfield area recall.  However, it is residents' calls, letters, and complaints about a host of transformations, usually unpleasant ones, that bring the conversation inevitably to attempts to turn the clock back.  That may fade with time, but the city cannot afford to wait until enough residents have left or died that those images of the past are confined only to the walls of the Museum of Springfield History.

There is a story of former New York mayor Ed Koch meeting an old woman on the Coney Island boardwalk.  She took his hand and said, "Mayor, make it like it was."  Koch remembers thinking, "It never was the way you think it was, but I'll try."  His sentiment is lovely, if "trying" means bringing the city toward a future based on the virtues if not the exact substance of the past.  Otherwise that attitude only serves to raise an elusive bar impossibly higher.

Pulling back, we see that in order for better function from our officials, we need a little bit more reason from our residents.  Solving that puzzle generally is much more difficult than overcoming the paralysis of nostalgia in particular.  But, like Mr. Koch, we must "try."

A note to our readers, due to technical difficulties, we cannot use captions.  All photos inside and out of City Hall are from WMassP&I;  Twiggs/Tosado photo from Tosado's website; Lysak photo from his website; Fenton photo from his Facebook page; Concepcion photo from Masslive.

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