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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Take My Council, Please: Trash Fee Lives...Biomass Looms...

 **Programming Note** WMassP&I will be live-tweeting today's BioMass Meeting.  Check out Hashtag #Biomass or visit our Facebook page or Twitter Feed.

(WMassP&I)
Yesterday's City Council meeting in Springfield had some wind taken out of its sails when three potentially contentious issues were unceremoniously withdrawn from the agenda.  Home rule petitions on the Council's succession and term were sent back to committee while the Tax Incremental Financing Plan for F.W. Webb was also withdrawn as questions arose about the fairness of the deal.  Left on the table were plenty of scraps worth digesting, but in many ways the victories of the night were overshadowed by the looming monster of tonight's Biomass Permit hearing.

The speakout was only attended by Springfield Education Association President Tim Collins, who called upon the council to minimize or even reverse declines in spending for the schools and reject suggestions that money allocated for schools be redistributed to the city side of the budget.  The School Department budget typically makes up more than half of the city's overall budget and is almost entirely financed by the state, save for a mandatory 10% contribution from city funds.  With unrestricted local aide in context, it could be argued that the school department is completely funded by the state.

(The Second Speaker was your Editor-at-Large.  Not knowing if the home rule petition to disastrously expand the Council's tenure to four years was withdrawn, I made a plea to not limit Democracy by means of extending the term.  Specifically, the concern rests with the possibility of laziness or inertia that could otherwise check overreach by the Mayor.  Comparisons were drawn between anti-voter bills in Wisconsin and Florida.  Because I did not have prepared remarks I have nothing to post, but when this issue resurfaces, I will again advocate against it.  For now it has again returned to the back burner.)

Councilor Ferrera (Urban Compass)
Boilerplate approvals were granted to transfer funds among departments.  Transfers included funding for advertisements in the newspaper for sales of property (as required under state law) and snow removal.  There were some questions from at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs as to the source of additional money needed by the law department.  However, the Law Department urged the council not to worry, but that they would provide more details in a less public setting to satisfy privacy concerns.  Approval was granted to accept a grant as well.

The F.W. Webb proposal drew scrutiny at a recent Finance/Economic Development Committee meeting.  That meeting, according to minutes collected by the City Council office, generated skepticism from councilors in attendance.  The company's proposal includes a minimum promise of less than 40 jobs over the 20 year life of the agreement.  Additionally many of these jobs would probably pay wages topping out at $18/hour.  The city would receive full market value for property on the Smith & Wesson Industrial Park, but the net job creation seems minimal. 

Additionally, the long term tax revenue, when the incremental financing is included, would amount to about $3 million over 20 years.    During the first ten years, the tax incremental financing would save F.W. Webb on average about $50,000 annually.  Perhaps if the job numbers were better this may seem like a deal.  Needless to say the TIF has been postponed.  The property's sale, controlled by the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, is contingent on Council Approval of the TIF.

Councilor Rivera (Facebook)
The home rule petitions on the Council were also withdrawn.  Because we have discussed the Four year term in the past and above (cough, power grab! cough, cough), we will set aside that debate to move onto the other.  Council President Jose Tosado somewhat improvidently called the petition the "Amaad Rivera bill." It was spurred by the resignation of Keith Wright and seating of Ward 6 Councilor Amaad Rivera as the next highest vote getter.  The succession touched off a maelstrom of chatter and outrage among many Forest Park residents (where Ward 6 is principally based) and some councilors.  However, the determination by the City Solicitor and Election Commissioner was correct.

Councilor Ferrera, as the chair of the General Government Committee was charged by Tosado to seek a solution for this.  However, the initial document produced by his committee, obtained by WMassP&I, does little if anything to change the situation.  If we take resident complaints at face value over the Rivera row, the central complaint was that somebody who clearly lost the election ascended to the seat.  All of the complaints may not have been this pure, but another point, largely devoid of the same implications was also raised.  If Rivera were to suddenly depart, who would ascend then?  Would it be Tom Walsh, the mayor's communications director, for whom a meager write-in campaign was attempted?  While he would likely decline, it illustrates how the next highest vote-getter process utterly fails in one-on-one elections.  Still this initial language restates the existing, flawed process.
Section 3: Notwithstanding the provisions of section fifty A of chapter forty-three of the General Laws or any other general or special law to the contrary, if a vacancy occurs on the city council of the city of Springfield for any cause during the term of office of a city councilor who was elected ward representative...[the] board of election commissioners shall certify, in writing, to the city clerk the person with the next highest number of votes who ran for election within the effected ward at the most recent municipal election...
Chuck Turner (WBUR)
Under generic state law, the city council appoints vacancies and indeed this remains a backup under the next highest vote-getter under current law and the petition.  Most communities that have ward elections have special elections to fill such vacancies.  Boston has had several since the 2009 election, including most recently Tito Jackson's election to succeed expelled Boston Councilor Chuck Turner, who definitively lost his seat when he was sent to federal prison for taking a bribe.  Springfield should do likewise and have special elections to fill ward vacancies.  Furthermore, the petition calls for the measure to be put to voters.  With the petition as is, it is a waste to put it  to voters.  Binding passage or failure by the electorate would change nothing.  However, if the petition called for elections for vacancies instead, it should be effected immediately pending a referendum, which would likely pass.

Finally the meat and potatoes of last night was the trash fee and language access ordinance.  The extension of the trash fee passed on an 8-5 vote.  Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak, Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, and at-large Councilors Tosado, Ferrera and Tim Rooke all voted no.  There was relatively little debate on the issue and since an identical vote last meeting, there was little if any drama.  Even Ferrera, who had attempted to drum up opposition to the fee, appeared resigned to its passage as he read his and Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton's report of a meeting at Central High School.  Ferrera reported only two individuals at that meeting expressed opposition while "several" showed support.  Fenton, for his part, was relieved to "put the matter to bed."  The money was needed to plug the city's yawning budget gap.

(WMassP&I)
Finally Pioneer Valley Project scored a major victory by achieving final passage of the Language Access Ordinance on a 13-0 vote.  The law requires training of emergency personnel and other public safety employees to better communicate with the 1/3 of Springfield households where English is not spoken at home.  The total costs is estimated at about $10,000.  WFCR reported yesterday that Springfield would be the first community in the state to have such a law.  Others may follow.

A resolve passed urging Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint a Springfield official or resident to a committee studying how local aide is distributed while another was sent to committee regarding the city's contribution to the school budget.

(WMassP&I)
Even as the relative victories of the night became apparent and the council chamber drained of supporters, the headline meeting of the week will undoubtedly be tonight's Biomass meeting.  The Council is seeking to repeal the special permit it granted  in 2008 to Palmer Renewable Energy, the company controlled by the politically influential Callahan family.  Only two councilors opposed the permit then and only Jose Tosado, among those still on the council, has repudiated his vote.  Yesterday it was reported that several area businesses have joined to oppose the plant.

Sources close to the council say agents of the Callahans are counting their votes among the council.  Nine votes are needed to rescind the permit, the same number needed to grant a special permit.  PRE is threatening legal action if the city revokes the permit and the city's law department seems convinced that revocation just invites a losing legal battle.  However, supporters of the revocation are looking to judicial options if war breaks out among the branches of city government.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

From sunny Florida....
I agree on the ward 6 issue. I feel law dept dropped the ball when we went to ward rep. and should have called for a special election as other cities do in such a case... I find it wrong not to plan ahead for such issues to occur ..seem to reactive instead of pro-active which in my opinion caused problems which could have been avoided. Our law dept. could use some new life!
Nicky

Matt S. said...

I am afraid the law department did not drop the ball, the council and the legislature did when they passed the ward rep bill that ultimately landed on the ballot. If you go back to my piece around the time Rivera was seated, I think I linked to the special acts that spell out how the process works. Generally speaking, municipalities are not governed by things like Constitutions that require some heavy lifting to change. We have charters which have an arduous process if we do everything ourselves, but special acts from the legislature are the most expedient process. They often leave things out though, because they are focused on one issue. They also tend to play around with the general laws that we all technically operate under. For example, Springfield is a type "A" city, but type "A" cities have all at-large councils. However, like many other cities, we have a special act that changes the law only with respect to us. Holyoke, by comparison uses none of the city plans, but instead a specially written charter dating back to the late nineteenth century. That is the source of all the talk about changing the council there, you may have heard about.

I suppose the quick and dirty way to look at it is that the only restriction the legislature has is that it cannot usually legislate with respect to only one community unless asked to. Other than that, between home rule petitions and laws that affect communities generally, they can do whatever they want. We (that is Springfield and the other 350 communities) exist at the Commonwealth's discretion. In this case, both the council and the legislature failed to remember the past special acts both passed with respect to succession when writing our ward statute.

Anonymous said...

Thanks