Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Take My Council, Please: Everybody Gettin' Schooled...

The Springfield City Council’s special session held to settle the Forest Park Middle School renovation held tonight was not as raucous as last week’s meeting.  It was not without its tenser moments, but circumstance led to a setting that provided at least a modicum of entertainment.

When last we left Council-Land, Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera had invoked Rule 20. The parliamentary tactic suspended all action on the measure to transfer funds to take the necessary land for the renovation and by extension the order to authorize the use of eminent domain.

In the meantime, however, relations between the Forest Park Civic Association and their representative, Rivera, took a turn for the worst.  This past Sunday was the annual organizational meeting for the neighborhood group.  Newly elected officials including State Senator James Welch and District Attorney Mark Mastroianni headlined the event Rivera, himself recently designated and sworn in a councilor was likewise scheduled to attend.

Rivera, nevertheless did not attend.  His presence was almost nearly mandated as a result of his use of Rule 20, which could (emphasis on could) jeopardize the funding and more importantly the sensitive schedule crafted by the city and the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

Councilor Rivera (Facebook)
Although Rivera apparently did respond earnestly to some residents’ concerns by his absence was taken as a slight by the association.  In his place a representative, who was described as unfamiliar with the details, gave a statement which, while reading like a campaign pamphlet, called for better compensation to some of the property owners It also drew a parallel property takings from a business to support a project for former mayor Albano’s proposed Baseball  stadium at Northgate Shopping Center.  That parallel between the school project and the ill-fated, ill-conceived Albano boondoggle is bizarre coming from a advertised reformer.  Rivera’s mother also, reportedly made a plea to go easy on her son because he’s a good kid.

It should be noted that Rivera's absences are not new.  He  skipped  an association meeting once before and missed more than one meeting of the council finance committee on which Rivera sits.

The rumor around town and on Masslive forums (admittedly little more than the city’s politically incorrect watercooler) was the River was in Boston teaching a class on community organizing.  The veracity of this is not confirmed.  Although based on tweets from Sunday, Rivera, who was called a “@wmasspi [sic] superstar,” gave a speech/lecture at the New Leaders Council in Boston several hours before the end of the association meeting.  We assume that the tweet’s use of WMassP&I’s twitter screen name was a mistake, intended to represent Western Massachusetts as WMassP&I has not been mentioned by users with which we are not familiar before this.

In the tweets from the user @wedh, posted below, Rivera discusses progressivism, his campaign and the value of fundraising, which itself is not necessarily bad.  Rather the error is that he was giving this speech/lecture when he should have been allaying his constituents' concerns about the terribly necessary renovation project.  Still as a progressive, the implicit message in all of his tweeted quotes is one of outreach, something that Rivera only selectively does himself.

Glad to have @wmasspi superstar Spfld City Councilor Amaad Rivera joining @NLC_Boston #nlcinstitute to talk about fundraising #mapoli 13 Feb

"Mobilizing is great, but we must have elected officials who represent our progressive values - A. Rivera" @NLC_Boston #nlcinstitute #mapoli 13 Feb

"As a young progressive my candidacy was taken seriously because I broke fundraising records - A. Rivera" @NLC_Boston #nlcinstitute #mapoli 13 Feb

"Part of a successful fundraising for progressives is reaching out broadly to like minded funders A. Rivera" @NLC_Boston #nlcinstitute 13 Feb

"Getting over the 'culture of silence,' to the ask, is critical to supporting the progressive agenda - A. Rivera" @NLC_Boston #nlcinstitute 13 Feb

"Though I lost my first campaign, I now use the values based coalitions that were built to make positive change - A. Rivera" #nlcinstitute 13 Feb

"Using web-based outreach was critical to our fundraising effort by amplifying our outreach to like-minded people A. Rivera" #nlcinstitute 13 Feb

"Successful fundraising gives progressives the tools to break through traditional power structures - A. Rivera" @NLC_Boston #nlcinstittue 13 Feb

"I thank you for being a pragmatic progressive" @robbiesamuels to Spfld City Councilor Amaad Rivera @NLC_Boston #nlcinstitute 13 Feb

"If people believe in your message they WILL support it however they can. You have to believe it too - A. Rivera" @NLC_Boston #nlcinstitute 13 Feb

It is important to reiterate that the most important issue is not the substance of Rivera’s comments per se.  Rather it is a question of whether speaking at a session of the NLC about among other things, fundraising, is appropriate when his constituents are expecting his presence to explain his position.

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)
Tonight’s meeting was opened by Council Vice-President Kateri Walsh, who presided as Jose Tosado, along with Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, was unable to attend.  As such, the irony should be lost on nobody that the councilor that brought this meeting on was the lone vote that did not support the woman who, as VP, would moderate the meeting’s debate.  The comptroller’s reports was delivered unceremoniously and called the cost estimates conservative.

Rivera clearly did his homework and referred to a call he made to the Massachusetts School Building Authority which confirmed that the end of month deadline was not one set by the Authority.  However, Rita Coppola-Wallace, the city’s director of capital assets, stated that the schedule, though originally set by the city, was still tight and had been agreed to by the city and the MSBA.  Rivera pressed the point that exigent circumstances (like war and famine, maybe?) would allow the schedule to be pushed forward.  Still, maintaining the schedule was described by Coppola-Wallace as maintaining the financing, because unlike the new Putnam school, Forest Park‘s smaller budget allowed for less time for feasibility and design.

Rivera regurgitated numerous charges such as that labor had not been brought into the project, yet.  Specifically he cited carpenters whose local is across Oakland Street from the middle school.  However, as Coppola-Wallace explained, the project remains in the feasibility stage and is not ready for input from labor, whom officials assured would not be excluded.

Forest Park Middle School (Spfld School Dept.)
The final charge, which prompted a direct rebuke from Walsh, was that some owners had been offered a price for their property above their assessed values while others received less.  The stated reason?  Some of the property owners with offers at or above assessed value were contributors to city officials.  Several councilors including several that this blog thinks are above reproach on the issue of corruption of this kind were rightly upset at the accusation.

Rivera’s concerns about the property values did not necessarily fall on deaf ears.  Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen echoed concerns about these gaps.  The mayor requested an additional $132,000 to bridge the gap between the offers to property owners and the assessed values in order to give the law department flexibility according to Deputy City Solicitor Kathleen Breck.  Since the city had agreed to investigate this gap, the question that begs asking is why the inflammatory charge.  Perhaps even acknowledging that these gaps are usual, Kateri Walsh said the City Council “was not the proper forum” for Rivera’s accusations of preferential treatment.

The Crowd at Tuesday's meeting (WMassP&I)
Rivera persisted though talking about how assessments are the most important valuation, though misfired when he referred the present assessments being current as January 1 only a few weeks ago.  However, the assessments are in fact current as of January 1, 2010, as corrected by Allen.  Even so, state law on eminent domain refers to appraisals, not assessments.  The appraisals, which are more current and exact because they involve an on-site inspection are also more accurate as they reflect what the property could actually be sold for.  Even though the assessor uses recent sales to calculate valuations, it is possible that several of those properties may have lost value due to the foreclosure crisis’s glut of available properties since January 2010.

Bill Dusty noted in a comment on the Valley Advocate that Rivera's numbers for assessments are off as compared to the official valuations on the city website, further undercutting any proof of "conspiracy or scam."

Notably absent from much of this discussion was Sam’s Pizza the business that will be taken.  Rivera had said in the meeting last week that the owners would “lose their livelihood.”  However, Attorney Breck confirmed to WMassP&I that if the owners of the business wanted to relocate as opposed to close, the city was obligated to compensate them for the move.  Although they could not be compelled to remain in Springfield, state law puts the city on the hook for relocation within reason.

Committeewoman Pepe (Facebook)
All three votes passed 11-0.  Rivera did not leave before offering up alternative designs that would not include any takings.  How Rivera could afford to commission his own studies is oddly suspicious, but their practicality remains in question.  Antonette Pepe, an at-large School Committeewoman,  said residents told her they did not want the school moved and praised the gymnasium addition for the 100 year-old school, noting how little school children exercise.  It seems inconceivable how any design that did not take land could accomplish that.  Rivera further claimed to have gathered 250 signatures over the weekend that opposed relocating people from their homes.  However Rivera did this while being in Boston for at least most of Sunday.  Rivera did not return an email sent Tuesday night by time of publication.

For the moment, this story has a happy ending.  Councilor Walsh, who mentioned that her children all attended Forest Park Middle School, was “pleased with the vote.”  After years of neglect Forest Park Middle School will finally get the renovation it has long deserved.  As for Rivera, he has very probably all, but lost a sizeable and active block of voters in Forest Park.  Whatever he may think of these people, their voices are no less deserving of representation.

Rivera on C-SPAN (Springfield Intruder)
This blog questioned the need of ward representation in 2007, however, we now believe that it has been a positive change overall.  However, that positive development is undermined when officials use it to slam the very residents it is intended to serve, however influential they were under the old system.  Ward 6 and Forest Park in particular is not a neighborhood love fest.  However, any effort to improve the fortunes of all residents can only be achieved when all people, rich and poor actually work together. 

Rivera, in attempting to stand up for the little guy, narrowly avoided falling on the wrong side of every moral argument anyway.  Weighing school children against a business owner and even a few residents, the former will always win.  Rivera’s cleanup of the schedule’s facts and the charges of corruptions ring hollow.  These do not change the fact that the middle school is more evidence of a school system that cannot afford to properly maintain its buildings absent state help than it proves the affluent are clinging to power.

One of the tweets from Boston quoted another individual that called Rivera a “pragmatic progressive.”  Nothing in this political theater shows the pragmatism that progressivism needs to thrive.  There are voices throughout Forest Park including the Civic Association that would love to engage such progressive efforts that actually improve schools, housing, and health care for their ward’s neediest citizens.  However, resenting those people because they feel the electoral system failed them is neither pragmatic nor progressive.


Anonymous said...

I do not quite understand the last part of your blog.Did he usurp his place?

Matt S. said...

No, he usurped nothing. It is not Rivera's fault that the law is broken, quite literally.

Rather there is a popular sentiment in the ward that his designation and swearing in were wrong because he lost the original election.

There is a belief, heretofore unconfirmed, that Rivera resents those residents because they objected to the results of the defect of the law. There were some strident complaints when this became known as well as questions about his residency, which again, the suspicion is that he resents.

In sum, residents feel his placement on the council was illegitimate. It was not. Many feel that he resents them for this and otherwise objecting to his eligibility.