Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Take My Council, Please: REVOKED!...

After all of the drama, all the testimony, all the passion, the Springfield City Council voted this evening to deny a permit for a used car dealership on Newhouse Street in the City’s Outer Belt Neighborhood.  Yes, the tension and the anxiety over what may be among the council’s most important votes this year gave way as councilors accepted the concerns of neighbors about the impact the dealership would have.

No, there really was a vote on a car dealership, but it by far overshadowed by the vote of the city council to revoke the permit for Palmer Renewable Energy’s proposed biomass plant on Cadwell Drive and Page Boulevard just off I-291.  Although the chamber was not as packed as it was for last week’s testimony phase, there was a significant showing of plant opponents and a few supporters, mostly craft union members.

Councilor Fenton (Facebook)
Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton read into the record a report from City Solicitor Ed Pikula which said that the council had sufficient evidence upon which it could base its decision to revoke the permit.  The City Solicitor stated the changes from the original project may deviate from the permit, could have a profound impact on the neighborhood, environment and public health and may justify the council’s revocation.

Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs announced his support for revocation in remarks which outlined the council’s role as a regulatory body.  In that spirit, Twiggs noted that he resisted efforts to broadcast his position.  “We are here to be neutral,” Twiggs said explaining that he felt the contradictions and changes to the biomass proposal led him to oppose the plan

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)
At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh opened the debate for those in support of sustaining the permit.  Walsh said that her own research and calls to state environmental officials had led her to conclude that the impact of this project would not be different from the original plans (WMassP&I’s twitter feed misidentified Walsh’s position as saying it was different).  Absent that difference, Walsh said the city council should not revoke the permit and that she would vote likewise.

Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera reminded the council that they were sitting in a regulatory setting and that their job was to make a judgment as to the status of the permit based on the evidence before them.  It was the council’s duty, Rivera argued, to determine whether the current project was different from the project originally approved, but to do so without being swayed by the prospect of job creation alone.

At-large Councilor Tim Rooke took a similar, but more forceful stand than Walsh.  He suggested that there was “no just cause” for the city to revoke the permit.  He also implied that the council was on a “dangerously reckless path” by voting to revoke.  Rooke appeared to argue that the city was acting out of turn.  Although it is rare for the council to so revoke a permit, it has with time practically become a reserve power of the council, in part because of misunderstanding or indifference to the council’s functions.  In that way, Rooke may have missed the mark in his broad admonition to the council.

Councilor Lysak (Official Site)
Undaunted, Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak, whose district include the site of the plant, replied “no amount of money was worth the risk” to to the health and safety of his constituents and others throughout the Springfield area.  Council President Jose Tosado also reminded Rooke of the posture of the council with regard to the permit.  The council was not acting as a legislative body, but a regulatory one, however elected.  Walsh attempted a parliamentary maneuver to get Tosado to step down to speak (which would have yielded her the dais), but he resisted.  After some additional comments from councilors, the vote was taken.

As the vote proceeded, it became increasingly clear where the result would come down.  Some of the biomass supporters could be heard during the meeting muttering that it was over.  Revocation required nine votes, consistent with special permit actions.  At-large councilor Jimmy Ferrera was absent due to a family emergency, but it clear that by the time City Clerk Wayman Lee had made his way to councilor Amaad Rivera, jubilation was pulsing through the crowd.  With the ninth vote cast for revocation (it happened to be Fenton), the crowd burst out in cheers nearly drowning out the recording of Tosado’s vote.

Council in Recess Before the Vote (WMassP&I)
The final tally was 10-2, with at-large councilors Rooke and Walsh being the sole votes in to revoke the permit.

After the vote, Sue Reid, Massachusetts director for the Conservation Law Foundation took note of the risk of litigation, but said that Palmer Renewable and its agents had engaged in an “odd” amount of posturing about the specter of litigation.  She noted that the city council had a “multitude of grounds” to revoke the permit, including the plant's recycling license for what was clearly now an incinerator.

When asked about the vote’s impact to biomass more broadly, Reid cautioned not to read too much into the vote.  In other words, this was a vote about this particular plant and may not necessarily be instructive or precedent for other biomass plants.  However, it does, Reid noted, raise questions about putting such plants in dense neighborhoods like along Page Boulevard.  She also noted that the revocation highlights the “consideration of the public health impact” of biomass plants.  Still, she called it a “tremendous decision.”

Reid also said that her organization looks forward to “participating in defending the city” through amicus brief or the like as this process inevitably moves toward litigation.  One of Palmer Renewable’s lawyers alleged last week that the environmental groups opposing the plant would not help the city when it is sued.

Pres. Tosado (Facebook)
President Tosado, who voted for the original permit in 2008 and voted for revocation tonight, spoke to the blurring of the council’s dual role as regulator/legislature.  “I still think we’re evolving as a body,” Tosado told reporters.  He noted that the council made an important distinction between its legislative and regulatory roles tonight.

While he did not consider the vote a surprise, Tosado said that many councilors had not “telegraphed” their vote to him.  He was also happy to see that both sides had presented compelling arguments and for that reason he was certain that councilors—on both sides—took their votes based on their “own conscience.”

In response to a question about Mayor Domenic Sarno’s support for the project conditioned on compliance with all laws and assurances of public health, Tosado was a bit cagey.  Tosado said he did not give much thought to the mayor’s position.  However he did say Sarno’s “silence is deafening,” and said the mayor showed no leadership on the issue.  He refused to criticize the mayor’s position, but felt that the mayor should have been more visible and not relied on statements from his spokesman.

Early media reports suggest litigation on the issue is inevitable, although some appear to suggest that the city could be on the hook for millions of dollars.  Those media accounts have appeared on television ledes, but Masslive confined it to a quote from Palmer Renewable’s attorney Frank Fitzgerald.  However, if in fact, the city was sitting as a regulatory body, the worst result is probably Palmer Renewable gets its permit back.

Some of Rooke’s alarm may be legitimate, if confined to the precedent about revoking a permit under political pressure alone.  However, there do remain open questions about the reach of the Callahan family’s political contributions and Atty. Fitzgerald, himself a big fundraiser, was trolling for votes last week.

It would be prudent to accept Tosado’s position that we should not question the motives of Rooke and Walsh for voting against the revocation at this time.  Questions deserve asking, but the biomass opponents won this round and did so by a comfortable margin.  It was a victory for grassroots politics and more responsive politics in a city that has grown too used to far less in its civic discourse.

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