Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Take My Council, Please: Greenwash Backwash...

Monday's City Council Meeting was a snooze.  After months of meetings, finally the council succeeded in being as boring as the grainy Public Access footage suggested.  However there were a few nuggets worth reporting on, some of which emphasize previous screeds against past councilors.

The main event of the night was expected to be the reconsideration on the Police Oversight Commission.  The ordinance, if passed, would have codified Mayor Domenic Sarno's Review board created by executive order.  It would not have changed Police Commissioner William Fitchet's status as the "civil service" authority charged with doling out discipline.  Still, the oversight board encountered increasing opposition from police organizations, arguably because of its neighborhood caucus provision, which would appoint neighborhood residents from all eight wards.  The old police commission, although also composed of citizens was appointed solely at the discretion of the mayor.

Councilor Twiggs (Facebook)
However, facing the possibility of less, not more votes than last time and a Council Chamber packed with police supporters, ward 4 City Councilor E. Henry Twiggs withdrew the reconsideration.  The procedure of the withdrawal and the Republican story linked below implies that Twiggs could bring the measure up again at a later date.  The Republican did a fairly in-depth story on the withdrawal and consequently we have little more to add.

The public speak out consisted of residents concerned about traffic at SABIS Charter School and new parking bans affecting businesses along State Street near Mason Square.

The council's boilerplate consisted of monetary transfers to pay for snow removal, formal receipt of committee reports and acceptance of numerous grants including a new cache of HHS money.  The quarterly finance report was also presented to the council.  Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Lee Erdmann told the council he still expects the city to end the fiscal year with a $2 million surplus, one of the lowest in years.  Later on in the meeting Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton, also chair of the Finance Committee, presaged the upcoming fight on the budget.  He noted how millions more were spent in this budget, particularly from the stabilization funds, than the budget passed last year originally called for.  Among the items he listed were snow removal, veterans affairs, and changes to busing.  Fenton further urged councilors to consider these as budget season approached.

The city's language access ordinance also passed its first step Monday evening.  The Language Access Ordinance has been pushed by Pioneer Valley Project, a non-profit advocacy group based in Springfield.  As PVP told WMassP&I last year, many residents find it difficult to communicate with 911 operators because English is not their first language or their language at all.  Consequently minority and immigrant residents are also less likely to report crimes or cooperate with the police.  Making this all the more troubling is the commonwealth offers free translation services to municipalities for 911 calls.  Say what you will about people not speaking English (by some estimates 32 languages OTHER than Spanish are spoken at home in Springfield), but a true failure to communicate benefits nobody and only exacerbates the social ills experienced by the city's poor.  Needless to say the ordinance enjoys broad support.

Councilor Ferrera (Urban Compass)
However, predictably, during debate to accept money for renovations to the city's dispatch department, at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrrera had questions.  Specifically, he wanted to know why none of the $663,261 in grant money could be used to pay for $9,300 in training called for the language access ordinance.  The presenter on the grant tried to explain, quite clearly in fact, that the state had spelled out in some detail what could and could not be done with the money.  Ferrera's interrogation took many forms, but the answer did not change.  It was not permitted under the terms of the grant.

Ferrera chairs the council's Green Committee and also takes the role as the council's eco-cop (other than Biomass the council has not seen anything big in the environmental category recently).  However, his shtick on Monday may have served to undercut the legitimacy of that image.

Ford Escape Hybrid (wikipedia)
Item 18 on the council's agenda was authorization to accept a grant for city's Office of Emergency Preparedness.  Chris Kuczarski, the office's Metropolitan Medical Response System Planner presented the intended uses for the grant including a van that would be used on the scenes of emergencies.  In what seemed like an innocuous question, Ferrera asked what type of vehicle would be purchased.  Kuczarski replied that a van would be the most likely candidate.  Ferrera then asked why a hybrid would not be purchased and Kuczarski explained that the vehicle would not be used to transport staff but equipment and possibly double as a mobile operations unit.  Unsatisfied with that answer, Ferrera protested to the council that the city should be purchasing hybrid vehicles, which use less gas, a cost Ferrera said threatens the budget.  Although the city's budget is affected by the increase in petroleum like anything else, the impact is not as grave as it is to the average family.  Incidentally, crude oil fell by two dollars today.

Unfortunately, Ferrera's complaint is terribly misplaced and shows less commitment to the environment than the appearance of that commitment.  The term often used is greenwashing (green + whitewash).  Greenwashing is associated with false advertising, but it can be more broadly thought of as giving an impression of eco-friendliness without anything to really back it up.  Ferrera's point on buying fuel efficient vehicles was diminished by the fact that the city cannot purchase a hybrid and have a vehicle to meet its needs in the Emergency Management office.

DC Police E-350 (wikipedia)
Kuczarkski explained to WMassP&I that it would most likely purchase a Ford E-Series (also known as Econoline) or a like model.  The E-Series is often the chassis used for ambulances, particularly those in the Fire Department's fleet (Kuczarski's office falls under the Fire Department).  The Emergency Management office needs a utility van that can carry skeds to free trapped disaster victims, computers and other equipment.  Additionally, to keep sticky fingers and their prying eyes at bay, the vehicle cannot have windows that face into its storage area.  The largest hybrid vehicles on the American market to date is the Ford Escape and its variants.  Kuczarski said that the Escape, a compact SUV, could not meet the needs of his office.

Ferrera's point that the city should try to be economical and environmentally sensitive is something we can all agree upon.  However, if the councilor wants to translate that into action that benefits the city's wallet and protects the earth, it would behoove him to pursue policies that actually do that rather than thrusting his frustration upon department heads any chance he gets.  Instead it makes his Green-ness look like a charade.

Politics is filled with similar one-man (or woman) shows on a wide range of topics.  However, for a part-time legislature that has to struggle to make it through meetings (awake) as is, Ferrera's theatrics end up taking valuable time away from other issues.

At the end of the meeting, Council President Jose Tosado called for a resolve to encourage the University of Massachusetts-Amherst consider Springfield as it looks for a new football stadium.  The resolve passed without objection leaving the council close on a happy, if an unrealistically hopeful note.


Anonymous said...

Dear Matt,
I disagree about Jim Ferrera. I know he is proud of working for a green city and in the end on the police money they did concede after much prodding they would find the money ...and actually Tosado did commend him on a fine job.
After the combined disgraceful
actions of the Riveras last meeting this was boring.

Matt S. said...

Yes, you are right. Erdmann did say that they would find the money, but Ferrera seemed unnecessarily insistent about why we could not use the grant for this purpose.

The broader point, was about the green initiative. Councilor Ferrera's questions for the emergency management director, were however, counterproductive. Mr. Kuczarski told the council that a van would be purchased because it fulfilled their needs. Hybrids are not a panacea for everything and though the fuel efficiency point Ferrera was making should not be lost, it is undercut when he throws it out every opportunity he gets. If he really believes in this then he should press for an ordinance that requires hybrid purchases except where funding or need make such a purchase impossible. I will get behind such an ordinance, but I will not get behind browbeating hapless bureaucrats.

As for the boring nature, that was purely rhetorical flourish. I am unsure which "disgraceful actions" you are referring to, but I assume they are from earlier this year and the council has had plenty of smackdown since Forest Park Middle School.