Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Take My Council, Please: We Want More...

Monday was a night of stunning defeats and equally stunning chutzpah.  A dozen or so cops filled the council chamber ostensibly as a show of solidarity ahead of the civilian review vote.  Other measures up included the trash fee, a petition to extend council terms and other measures that were liberated from committee.

Lee Erdmann, the city’s Chief Administrative and Financial Officer briefed the council on finances first.  Essentially, the city projects, based on revenue estimates and expected state aid to have a $40 million deficit.  Erdmann told the council that he and others in the mayor’s administration had pared that down to about $16 million.  That reduction came through department reduction and changes to health and pensions.  It also assumed that there would be additional revenue from the trash fee.

As it stands now, the mayor’s office expects to request that roughly $13 million be used from stabilization funds to cover most of that gap.  Additional reductions and consolidations, thus far undetermined, unused overlay account money and would a 2% increase on the hotel tax would cover the rest.  The increase would put Springfield at the same rate as Cambridge and Worcester, but still under Boston’s rate.

Councilor Ferrera (Urban Compass)
Erdmann also indicated that the city would seek concessions from labor, but would do so primarily to avoid layoffs, which may become necessary absent concessions.  During the debate at-large councilor Jimmy Ferrera pressed Erdmann for the source of his projections.  Erdmann, apparently used to Ferrera’s theatrics, waved off his question, assuring him that he was using the best estimates available given the political and financial situation.

Erdmann also briefly discussed the city’s capital budget, which included replacing 20% of trash bins.  Ferrera also pressed the city on why it was spending money to buy new trash bins.  Allen Chwalek, the city’s Public Works head, anecdotally mentioned that his own trash bin wore out as all of them eventually will.  Chwalek also reminded Ferrera that the current bins were rolled out 12-13 years ago and have an expected life of about ten years.

Rendering of Holiday Inn as a La Quinta (WMassP&I)
From there the discussion switched to less controversial items.  Boilerplate votes were called on accepting grants for the library, fire, emergency management and elderly affairs departments.  A resolve was also passed to support more money from Beacon Hill for Shannon Grants and approval granted to other Shannon Grants, Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna sent to committee last time.  A report on the Biomass plant was also accepted by the council.  Blessings were also granted to a 5 year contract for school food service (after details as to the need were presented to a subcommittee) and to Community Block Development Grant loan guarantee for the renovation of the former Holiday Inn.

A report from the finance committee on the trash was given somewhat before the actual debate on the item itself.  Ward 2 City Councilor Mike Fenton, chairman of the finance committee explained how his amended ordinance would increase the discount for seniors, veterans and indigent homeowners to 33% from 25% (the base fee would remain $75).  Fenton noted that leaving an additional $3 million gap in the budget was unacceptable.

Councilor Fenton (Facebook)
The new fee ordinance also required trash pickup even if the bill went unpaid and instead place liens against the affected property. As a result tenants of two or three family homes would not lose trash pickup because of their landlord. Additionally, Fenton said, the ordinance included language that would mandate annual review, but rejected an immediate transition to any new system that would be “foreign to people.” Added at-large councilor Kateri Walsh, “People do not want bags."

Debate on the trash fee was muted as at-large councilor Tim Rooke brought up discrepancies in a trash report  Before a vote could be taken on fee ordinance, Rooke invoked Rule 20, yes that rule 20, and stopped all debate pending a financial report.

Reports from the Public Health & Safety and Civil Rights committees came up next intended to codify Mayor Domenic Sarno’s police oversight board.  Presently per Police Commission William Fitchet’s contract, he is the civil service authority that may order discipline for cops.  The oversight board makes recommendations that Fitchet typically follows.

Because that power is in Fitchet’s contract, the city cannot break it by ordinance or otherwise.  While City Solicitor Ed Pikula has articulated the argument on constitutionality grounds (states and their subdivisions are barred from breaking contracts), the reality is that municipalities, like Springfield are essentially corporations under the law.  In other words, even though it has “law-making” power, were the city to arbitrarily change its laws to override a contract, it would also be breaching that contract.

Councilor Twiggs (Facebook)
The main proposal, created by a council president appointed study committee and mindful of Fitchet’s contract, would give Sarno’s oversight board subpoena power. The ordinance, pushed by Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs would also create neighborhood caucuses that would nominate board members that the mayor would formally appoint. Twiggs thanked clergy, civic associations, and councilors (though not all of them) for participating in the process.

Unfortunately, from the there, the whole process went downhill.  Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak noted that the Boston Road neighborhood in his ward lacks a civic association, and therefore may be unable to nominate appointees.  Rooke announced his opposition, noting the police in his family while suggesting that this proposal would cause police to second guess themselves.  In reality, however, many neighborhood residents, especially minorities do not cooperate because they feel the police are unaccountable to residents.

Councilor Rivera (Facebook)
Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion, in a surprise of opposition, asserted that cops received proper training and should be trusted.  Largely, he echoed Rooke.  For  Concepcion, a Hispanic council member, this was truly odd, but it does go to show you that race and ethnicity are no guarantee of political sympathy.  Perhaps Concepcion was appealing to voters in 16 Acres, which occupies much of his ward.  Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera countered with his firsthand experience among the lower rungs of society. He added  that greater trust among the community would only empower the police when crime is "the only business hiring" (a quotable gem, huh?)

Jimmy Ferrera pandering again reiterated that full discipline powers should be returned to a civilian board immediately.  Ferrera, who is not a lawyer, rejected the legal analysis that city cannot legislate its way out of contracts and the civilian review board with it.

Jaws dropped (or at least they should have) when Jose Tosado, who appointed the study committee, announced his opposition to the ordinance.  While not being the same legal space shot as Ferrera with a demand for instantaneous change, Tosado announced his belief that the system should be changed back as soon as Fitchet’s contract ended.

Pres. Tosado (Facebook)
Twiggs made one final plea for passage noting that nothing in the ordinance curtails police activities.  Appealing to better police/community relations, he called for passage to ensure Springfield is a place “all of use can enjoy to live in…a city for all of us.”  But it was to no avail, the council voted it down 6-7.  Lysak, Concepcion, Rooke, Walsh, at-large councilor Tom Ashe, Ferrera and Tosado.  The others were in support. 

After some wrangling over parliamentary rules the council and clerk could not agree that immediate reconsideration could be called by a member that lost a vote), Twiggs’ called for a new vote at the next meeting.  An alternate proposal from Ashe was defeated after minimal debate. The police supporters in the audience filed out before Twiggs’ motion for immediate reconsideration was filed.

A petition pushed by Walsh, Twiggs, Luna, Concepcion and Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards to extend the city council term to four years was also debated.  An earlier incarnation of the petition would not have put the issue to voters, but this petition did.  To take effect, the petition would need to be signed by the mayor, passed by the legislature, signed by the governor and then voted on by residents in November.

However, were the city council to get a four year term, it would longer than that of any member of the Massachusetts legislature or members of the United States House of Representatives.  As Fenton noted, no council in a Massachusetts of 100,000 or more, including Boston, Worcester, Cambridge and Lowell have terms longer than two years.  Western Mass Politics & Insight called these cities’ council offices and confirmed this.

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)
Walsh and Twiggs tried to make the issue about input from people while noting that the mayor’s term was recently extended to four years as of next January.  Walsh claimed that having municipal elections only every four years would save money by having less elections (and democracy).  However, Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen deftly pointed out that school committee election would continue to occur on years that would have otherwise included council elections and thusly save nothing.

Rooke pointed to polls that showed support for a four year mayoral term gave a thumbs down to four year terms for councilors.  Rivera noted that the longer term had the effect of essentially distancing the public further from the process.

One way or another an extension of the council’s term to four years would be an invitation to further bad governance on the part of the city.  The mayor, by contrast can use the added breathing room because his position is full time.  The council, by comparison only works part time, and as Rivera noted, is not staffed to suddenly become full time, an implication of a longer term.  Furthermore, two year terms act as a democratic means to change course when city governance goes awry.

The claim that it should be up to voters is merely a fig leaf for the hubris behind this idea because the measures sponsors not the voters are behind it.  Twiggs, but especially Walsh, are using that as an excuse to justify a longer term during which most of they will not be accountable to voters.  Absent the fervor of a Wisconsin style recall (which Springfield does have), councilors would have no motivation to do their jobs, however part time, to the best of their ability.  Sadly, not all do now with two year terms and four years would only worsen the problem.  The petition went to committee for now.

The meeting closed shortly thereafter with votes to deed tax foreclosed properties to new home developers, which passed by significant majorities.  Tosado’s opposition remain politically bewildering.  As a Hispanic candidate for mayor, the smart move would be to support codifying the review board with an eye to change in 2013.  

Instead, he alienated both police and minorities by announcing support for full civilian review (of which the rank and file of Springfield’s finest would be suspicious) while opposing a loan of credibility to the interim solution.  To add insult to injury, a growing split is materializing between Tosado and Luna, who, up until recently, usually voted together.

The trash fee, which had six cosponsors, is simply waiting in the wings.  By far the saddest vote was the civilian review board.  Sources close to city hall suggest that Twiggs had failed to whip his votes appropriately and that led to the defeat.  To succeed on immediate reconsideration will be Herculean task for Twiggs and his allies to change the minds of obstinate councilors.

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