Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Insight: "Amaad" About You?...

Today we start a new series on WMassP&I called "The Insight" consisting of interviews of politicians, officials and other newsmakers within the Greater Springfield universe.

Councilor Rivera (Facebook)
Springfield, like many cities, has long been a place where politics is a contact sport.  Campaigns can be “messy,” especially as candidates scramble for elusive votes amidst low turnout.  Still, as the city stares into the abyss of a new budget problem (partly the work of rising costs and foreclosures) and suffers a weekend of homicides, the biggest political news this year has been the situation in Ward 6.  Keith Wright resigned his office citing family issues leaving Amaad Rivera, who lost the race (or placed second under municipal law) to ascend to his position.

While the volume of the uproar may be in dispute, its existence is undeniable.  Angry residents grumbled over the outcome brought on by a quirk in the law while others made more strident (and unsubstantiated) accusations that Rivera was not even a resident of Springfield.  Even as that furor died down, Rivera, however unintentionally, reignited it when he invoked a parliamentary maneuver intended to delay a vote for eminent domain as part of the renovation project at Forest Park Middle School.  That move prompted accusations in both directions and a torrent of criticism directed at Rivera from this and other blogs and several mainstream media outlets.

This blog sought comment from Rivera for some of these stories, but due to a desire for expediency, we did not hold off publication pending his reply.  An exchange of emails followed, which may be characterized as contentious, and ultimately culminated in an interview with the Ward 6 Councilor.  Western Mass Politics & Insight is based in Ward 6.

During the interview, Rivera appeared eager to cool temperatures walking back some of his complaints directed at WMassP&I, but not others.  Still, he and this blog were interested more in clearing the air then engaging in a dispute.  Rivera was fairly at ease and appeared less upset than concerned that a media institution, however self-important and self-appointed like WMassP&I (our tongue-in-cheek description), would fail, in his view, to relate the whole truth.

Forest Park Middle School (School Dept. Site)
By far this was among Rivera’s biggest concerns politically.  Media should work, Rivera said “to ensure people can make [informed] decisions for themselves.” He gave examples, which he felt failed to meet this standard: the omission of certain details of his stance on Forest Park Middle School; an allegation that public opposition to his council-designation in December was overblown (the election commission only received a few letters and councilors‘ constituent correspondences are not public record) and the Valley Advocate’s depiction of some of his endorsements as being largely from out-of-town.

Rivera also spoke about a source of friction between himself and the Forest Park Civic Association.  While he claims that he was added to the agenda of the civic association without his knowledge and on short notice, Rivera acknowledges the group’s complaint given his use of Rule 20, the delaying tactic.  That said, Rivera claimed while he had canceled other trips, the event in Boston on February 13, the tweets from which WMassP&I published, had been planned months in advance.

That friction, Rivera notes, is part of the divisions that run deep in Ward 6 and Forest Park generally, arguably among the city’s most diverse neighborhoods by any measure.  Rivera noted that these divisions are older than he.  While the civic association is by no means the sole voice of displeasure, they and their members have become his most outspoken critics not otherwise elected to something at 36 Court Street.  Still, Rivera maintains that “building bridges,” rather than burning them, is his mantra as he insists that he wants to engage all of his constituents.

A standing concern has been Rivera’s education at Brandeis University in Waltham.  Some have wondered whether he can adequately balance both commitments which are separated by about 80 miles.  Rivera was reluctant to go into details, but he appeared to imply that if anything his schoolwork has suffered more than his representation of Ward 6.  He hinted at the possibility of scaling back his studies.  Rivera also noted criticism of his absence at meetings adding that he is not the only councilor who misses some meetings (WMassP&I will try to spread the scrutiny around to all councilors).

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)
Rifts between Rivera and his colleagues on the council were not discussed very much but one notable transgression came up: Rivera’s “present” vote for at-large councilor Kateri Walsh as vice-president of the Council.  Rivera defended this vote—juxtaposed against his affirmative vote for Jose Tosado’s second term as Council President—by noting Walsh’s lack of outreach.  By comparison, Jose Tosado, apparently asked Rivera to support his second term soon after Wright‘s resignation was announced.  Still, against the din of the succession ordeal (Walsh was among those questioning the process), Rivera’s stated reasons seemed a bit strained and at best had more to do with Rivera’s past relationship with Tosado and lack thereof with Walsh.

Rivera was somewhat candid about the law that enabled him to gain his seat admitting that the outcry over the law’s defects are a “fair thing.”  However he noted that little if anything has been done in the city council to correct it.  Presently the responsibility for crafting such a new petition would come from the General Government Committee chaired by at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera.  Despite a charge to draft a petition from Tosado earlier this year, no hearings have been held on the matter in 2011.

Councilor Rivera (C-SPAN)
Rivera segued to the work one of his campaign backers, Oiste? (Spanish for “Are you heard?) did to bring ward representation to Springfield.  That group along with other civil rights organizations was behind a law suit earlier in the decade to compel the city to adopt ward representation.  The legal argument nonetheless had an impossibly high bar to clear.  Low voter turnout among minority groups and minimal irregularities were not sufficient evidence of minority voter suppression.

However, Rivera also attempted to claim that complaints about succession were ironic as they came from the very people that wrote the ward representation bill.  Rivera noted that a city council committee was responsible for writing the home rule petition that put the ward rep question on the 2007 ballot.  Rivera is correct that the council dropped the ball, as did the legislature when they passed the petition.  However, groups like Oiste and others, although focused on court battles and not legislative sausage-making, do share responsibility.  Rivera tried to push back on this theory, but the fact is that groups that supported ward representation, as advocates for a more representative government deserve some blame for the oversight that led to the legal snafu.

When asked about the city’s limited power to reshape its destiny, Rivera disagreed with that characterization.  He outlined numerous areas of policy from land use to efficiencies in budgeting where this was not true.  Rivera did say that the city and its residents were somewhat ineffective at getting the most out of its representatives in Boston and Washington.  He implied that a more proactive approach on the part of local officials and residents could secure more help and better public policy beneficial to the city.

For all of the public relations ordeals Rivera has been through, he remains downright ebullient commenting how he loves how “democracy is messy.”  Still even though he was thrown into city government somewhat suddenly, Rivera has called the whole process “exciting.”  He is “moving at warp speed” on many issues from the budget, to the police review board and mayoral pay.

Since much of the impetus for this interview was his treatment in the media, Rivera was asked what he felt was a fair criticism of him might be.  “Actions, I take,” Rivera said, in addition to his stance on issues are fair game.  In other words, criticism of his actions regarding Forest Park Middle School are fair.  However, “silly socialism” charges are not and attacks on his family are simply not appropriate.  Opponents, he said should “focus their energy on me.”  “I was ready,” Rivera said referring to his designation as Wright’s successor.  He was, however, “not expecting the negativity.” 

Councilor Rivera (Campaign Site)
Rivera speculated that having gained his position as he did, he is “not beholden to any one group” and that troubles some.  As such his “actual due diligence” and not just “political due diligence” may have been somewhat jarring to those in the establishment and even those outside of the establishment who are nonetheless used to operating around it.  When judging him or his actions, Rivera asks constituents and outside observers alike, “consider facts” and not just personal beliefs alone.  For now Rivera is looking ahead at the city’s challenges and his bid for a full term this November.

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