Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Take My Council, Please: Proceed to Police the Police...

While the Springfield City Council is usually known for at least being a good show, typically, the more controversial or in-depth the measures, the more entertainment is guaranteed.  Despite the presence of a volatile issue in the form of a Civilian Police Review Board ordinance, the evening was characterized less by passion (although it was there) and more by confusion and glib posturing by some councilors.

Let us get the less controversial stuff out of the way first.  Nearly all of the night's votes were passed unanimously or as unanimously as you can get.  The city accepted approximately $1,380,000 in grant money for the Health & Human Services Departments from its federal counterpart.  Ward 2 City Councilor Michael Fenton took a moment to recognize the city's health director, Helen Caulton-Harris for her department's work in securing the grants which cover a wide range of health services for the city's neediest residents.

Orlando Ramos (Facebook)
Two appointees to the License Commission, Orlando Ramos and Raymaond Berry, were confirmed by the Council to resounding applause.  The council gave the green light to move money around within the budget to pay for furnace upgrades, water/sewer payments, and a legal settlement.  Reports allowing utilities Verizon and Western Mass Electric were approved as were some property transfers.  Notable among the transfers was property to be conveyed to Springfield college to be used as open space.  While the city has a moratorium of sorts of conveying city property to tax-exempt entities, Springfield College's receipt of the property came along with promises for a PILOT (payment in-lieu-of taxes), which would make it the city's first college (as far as we have confirmed) to establish one such arrangement with the city.

Several home rule petitioners were thrown around, none particularly controversial (are you asleep yet?).  A refile on a bill to permit the city to tow cars for non-payment of excise tax and one about use of public ways, both passed in previous councils, passed without trouble.  One petition that was wisely withdrawn would have extended the term of city councilors to four years to match the mayors.  Councilors need a little more accountability than what four years of lethargy would yield.

Councilor Lysak (Facebook)
Among the more interesting items were Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak's proposal to adopt an ordinance that would ban the sale and use of substances called synthetic marijuana.  Unlike the real reefer, these substances, sold in convenience stores, produce more of a cocaine-like high with sometimes fatal results, Lysak explained.  As an ordinance, the proposal would need three votes, in between which it would go to committee without further study.

However, the ordinances eventual path to committee was made more winding by questions from councilors.  Perhaps councilors were simply trying to avoid having their name on a bill they mind some day on some planet oppose for some reason (odd given that these passed without a recorded vote).  Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera queried whether we should do this, particularly raising concerns about criminal records (the city cannot set statues that involve criminal statutes unless granted by special law or as a general power to municipalities from the legislature). Lysak's ordinance would be entirely civil in nature.  City Council President Jose Tosado, an at-large member, questioned whether the council had the authority, but a lawyer from the city solicitor's office assured them that given a temporary Drug Enforcement Administration ban on the substances (the effect of which was left ambiguous), the city was on sound legal footing.

Councilor Rivera (Facebook)
Also attracting attention was a resolve (a resolution expressing an opinion rather than an act that has any practical legal effect) that encouraged contractors, vendors and so on to adhere to the National Labor Relations Act.  Well, it was not quite that simple.  It specifically mentioned TV and Cable operators in the city of Springfield, which pretty much means Comcast (they are only cable company to have thus far secured a cable franchise in Springfield).  That less than oblique swipe at Comcast, admittedly one of America's somewhat bloodsucking corporations, drew a rebuke form Lysak. While Lysak encouraged adherence to labor law, he was uncomfortable with a resolution that clearly targeted one company.  Rivera, the measures lead sponsor, made light of a municipal contract that Comcast has with the city that is up for renewal, bemoaning the fact that another opportunity like this will not arrive for ten years.  Rivera refused offers of friendly amendments to make the resolve broad enough to simply encompass anybody doing business in the city.  At that point, an amendment could be offered without Rivera's consent, which it was by Fenton, also a sponsor of the resolve.  WMassP&I cannot confirm whether or not Comcast employees are unionized and we can believe that Comccast is somewhat "insistent" that it stay that way.  Still had the resolve remained as written, Comcast would have been no more likely to treat labor fairly and only more likely to reduce jobs in the city for retaliation.  Bloodsucking was not meant to be flattering, after all.

Police Comr. Fitchet (SPD website)
By far the meat and potatoes of the evening came at the end, however there was a taste at the beginning.  The long awaited report from the special police oversight committee was delivered to the city council.  It was clear that tensions were running high as several speakers during the pre-meeting speak out mentioned the unfortunate example of police brutality that occurred in 2009.  Melvin Jones III was allegedly beaten by Springfield police officer Jeffrey Asher in 2009 with a flashlight.  The encounter was caught on tape and became a flash point among the city's minority communities.  When Asher retired a day before Springfield Police Commissioner William Fitchet fired him, Asher retained his pension only exacerbating the tension.

Nobody will pretend that any one thing would make the Jones incident go away.  However, the city's minorities communities, especially its black community (Jones was black), felt that reestablishing a citizen review board would at least lend credibility to the city when it addresses complaints against police officers.  The problem is that under Fitchet's contract, he is the civil service authority empowered to dismiss police officers.  No amount of huffing and puffing, no matter how justified, can change that, absent a protracted, expensive and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle.  The Control Board had abolished the Police Commission after a scathing report former had ordered on the police department was released.  That report, if memory serves, laid most criticism at the feet of the department's brass.  The Control Board dismantled the commission, dumped then-chief Paula Meara and established a commissioner with the singular authority to hire and dismiss officers, which Fitchet holds to this day.

Although not absent, muted has been the opinion of the police union.  Odds are they like that Fitchet, a lifelong member of Springfield's finest, deciding who goes and who stays.  Even before Jones there was a push to reconstitute a civilian review board for complaints (the police commission did this before its disbandment) and Mayor Sarno created a board to address complaints after the 2009 incident.

Council Pres. Tosado (Facebook)
The case led Tosado to establish the special committee that presented recommendations last night.  While its recommendations and a competing proposal from at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe were only beginning their three vote path to passage, emotions ran high.  Tosado tried his best to keep the meeting under control and to some extent he was lucky what did happen was fairly tame.  As stated, several speakers denounced the Jones incident and eagerly awaited the committee's proposal.

During the customary debate time when a report is received, Tosado attempted to make clear to councilors how the process would work.  It put Tosado in the unenviable position of calming tempers on both sides without offending anybody.  Tosado drew a rebuke from Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, when the former announced the special committee would be disbanded as its task of writing a report was done.  Rivera, too, opined that disbandment was premature and that he wanted to hear from the committee members.  While the committee was disbanded, its members were not eliminated and will be on hand for future hearings on the ordinance.  However, he and to a lesser extent Twiggs seemed to question why anybody would want to change the reports recommendations at all.  At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh wondered whether sufficient input had come from police.

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)
Walsh's comments prompted heckling from the audience, particularly the imprudent quip that "Nobody likes to get arrested."  Tosado was forced to remind the audience to remain silent.  When the meeting shifted to the debate on the proposed ordinances themselves that would change the civilian review board's authority, Tosado made the mistake of trying to play Solomon.  While he favored the committee's reports over Ashe's proposal, he began to wax theoretical about the merits of both proposals and the need for something better than both, however impossible under Fitchet's current contract.

Given Fitchet's contract, the recommendations from the special committee reflected the reality that a change in final authority was impossible.  Still, it recommended that the mayor's board grow to nine from seven members.  Four will be drawn from neighborhood caucuses (whose boundaries match ward-based school committee seats), three will be appointed by the mayor and two from the city council.  All would have two year terms.  Theoretically, only the mayor can make appointments per the city charter, but it is doubtful the mayor would ignore the plot of the ordinance.  The board would sit in panels of three and be the finders of fact in complaints, could issue subpoenas and recommend action to Fitchet.  Any final decision as to police discipline would come from Fitchet.  Ashe's proposal would shrink the review board to five members and deprive it of subpoena power.  City Solicitor ed Pikula, in his description of the proposal called the plan to grow the board a formal establishment of the power the present board, but with greater community involvement.  Mayor Domenic Sarno established the original board by executive order last year, but he cannot grant it subpoena power.  The City Council can.

Councilor Twiggs (masslive)
Jose Tosado's peacemaking only drew complaints from Ashe who did not enjoy Tosado's public disapproval of his admittedly toothless proposal.  Twiggs, arguably the council's philosophical point man on reform was behind the committee recommendations.  Walsh, however made a motion to refer the matter and both proposal ordinances to committee before it got its initial vote.  Apparently aware of the ordinance process involving 3 separate votes with committee meeting sprinkled throughout, Twiggs pressed, in an impassioned speech for the first approval now, urging the council to "to give [the recommendations] a chance!"

Councilor Ferrera (Urban Compass)
The last act in the circus was at-large councilor Jimmy Ferrera's pronouncement that neither option was good enough and that we should be looking at giving full disciplinary powers to a civilian board.  While a majority of the council would like to consider something like that, everybody including Twiggs, know that cannot happen until Fitchet's contract is up.  Ferrera was simply pandering to a pool of voters whose very real concerns are done a disservice when addressed with disingenuous suggestions.  Some in the audience responded positively to Ferrera's comments, underscoring all the more, the danger in what the councilor said.

Both were sent to committee in the end and the council wrapped up a little after nine.

Overall, Fitchet is about as good anybody to have this disciplinary power.  The real question is not necessarily whether what he does is fair to all parties (which these situations must be under civil service law), but whether those actions have credibility.  Without it, citizens of all stripes, cannot trust the police and the negative feedback loop makes the police department unable to do its job of protecting ALL residents.  The one-dimensionality of Walsh's comment on getting arrested serves to diminish this reality which is paramount to all other concerns.

While this is not uncommon for politicians, much of the bluster at this long and yet dry meeting seemed like a bad case of electioneering. Whether right or wrong, Tosado, Ashe, Ferrera, Walsh, Rivera, and even Twiggs to a far lesser extent offered their positions as if Pete Goonan of the Republican was transcribing everything and as if the television news stations would likewise broadcast everything.  

While we are gearing up to an election season destined to be a doozy, city officials on any issue need to at least present an honest view of their concerns.  Kateri Walsh is entitled and correct to have concerns about how Fitchet and perhaps the police department more broadly feels about these change.  However she should not reduce residents' concerns to the inconvenience of arrest.  Tosado is probably right about Ashe's proposal being "weaker," but he undermines his own ability to navigate the council through its Byzantine processes by expressing an opinion so nakedly.  Rivera may very well want to chastise Comcast for their behavior, but a shout-out to organized labor from the City Council only agitates the beast.  Save the direct attacks for a rally or better yet couch it so it connects the issue to consumer complaints against Comcast

We could go on, but we have bantered long enough.  Bottom line is what it often is at 36 Court Street: To be continued.

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