Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Take My Council, Please: Non-Resident Evils...

Fresh from the tension and consternation brewing up from the less than stellar appointments Council President Jimmy Ferrera gave to Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen, the City Council met to face its first agenda of 2012.  Consequently, with a fresh, unflattering Republican article and the admonition of the city's three major political blogs (including this one), Ferrera came to the lectern to preside over his first council meeting.  Lucky for Ferrera the agenda consisted of mostly non-controversial items or ones destined for further debate in committee.  Although that was part of the problem with one of them.

Surprisingly little routine business was before the council Monday night.  Leftover expenses needing payment was the only common item and a $1.2 million grant was accepted for improvements to the Hollywood section of the South End

However, nine like items were bundled early on and voted on en masse.  Assistant School Superintendent Daniel Warwick presented the council with an authorization permitting the school superintendent to seek funding to repair schools.  While councilors wished they had more information, namely how much money these projects could be, Warwick explained that that data is not available.  Rather, he explained, this was merely authorization to request funding, it would not, itself obligate the city.  These projects are unique because until now the Massachusetts School Building Authority only funded new building projects.  Now the MSBA covers repairs and these projects, if approved by the authority, would receive state funding at an 80/20 ratio.  The authorizations were approved on a voice vote.

Pres. Ferrera (Michael Beswick)
On the next item, however, Ferrera, due to either inexperience or personality allowed something slip by that should not have.  An $800,000 grant for a police youth intervention program required approval from the council before it could be spent.  This type of formal acceptance by the council should be one of those routine measures, but Monday it was sent to committee at the request of at-large Councilor Bud Williams.  Grants Director Cheryn Wojcik tried to warn the council against that action, but Ferrera accepted the motion to committee before she could explain.  Fenton rose in between items to find out what Wojcik wanted to say, but Ferrera, donning a scowl, ordered the Ward 2 Councilor to sit down because, in his estimate, the subject was closed.  By contrast, former Councilor Tosado as president frequently entertained inter-item debate by members.

Wojcik told WMassP&I that the problem lay in the structure of the grant.  Being a 12 month grant, that is operating on a calendar year, its immediate acceptance was necessary in order to ensure a funding continuity from last year to this year.  Wojcik warned that the time between Monday's meeting, a committee hearing and the next meeting could "jeopardize implemenation"  of the Police Department's at-risk youth program due to a funding gap.

Another routine item, albeit an annual one, was the acceptance of the rules and orders of the council.  However, Ward 5 Clodo Concepcion and others wanted committee work on the rules.  Concepcion wanted work on Rule 33, that is Reconsideration.  That rule had caused problems for the council last year as members attempted to use the rule to change a vote on a special permit in contravention of state law (the state law in question prohibits revisiting a special permit after denial for two years, which reconsideration technically is).  That confusion over when the rule can and cannot be applied appeared to be the impetus for the move to committee.  The motion was passed on a voice vote, but there were several dissents.  The unsureness of the chair should have forced a recorded vote, and one was requested from the floor, but Ferrera again said he had already accepted the motion.

Councilor Fenton (Facebook)
After that little number, the council turned toward acceptance of a series of tax abatements.  The abatements included property tax reductions for national guardsmen/reservists, small businesses and additions necessary to care for elderly relatives.  Changes were also made to income requirements for certain abatements.  The National Guard/Reserve abatement was sent to committee to discuss the process of developing an ordinance to properly implement the abatement.  The others had clear statutory language in state law.  All were authorized from M.G.L. ch. 59 Sec. 5.

The main event of the night was a residency ordinance.  In 1995 Springfield passed a residency ordinance that mandated all employees of the city live in the city or, upon hiring, move to the city within six months.  The ordinance calls for a compliance commission to find employees not in compliance.  While theoretically unionized city employees are covered too, it is possible under the commonwealth's collective bargaining law for cities and towns to bargain away any of their ordinances.  Waivers to the law are permitted, but have been issued with seemingly little rhyme or reason.  Nevertheless over the past decade the human resources department has not sent out residency certificates to employees and the compliance commission has gone without any appointments.

The new ordinance, crafted by Fenton and Allen, would set firm penalties on employees that do not comply.  The intent of the new ordinance is to clamp down on the exceptions to the ordinance and establish a stronger regulatory regime to ensure city employees remain residents.  Councilors, in introducing their ordinance stressed that there is no plan to terminate any employees, which is allowed under the 1995 ordinance.

Councilor Allen (Facebook)
While the ordinance is working its way through, however, the Human Resources department has begun the process of enforcing the existing ordinance.  Certificates of residency will be sent out this year and the results of which will be compiled in a report expected before the council by March.  The mayor is also expected to appoint a compliance commission.  Indeed, enforcement of the current ordinance should at limit non-resident employees to those with waiver; those hired before 1995; and those excused due to collective bargaining.

Williams, who remembered the earlier fight for the original residency ordinance stood in support of strengthening the law and noted that the council must not allow the ordinance to be bargained away either.  He and Allen both noted that Boston has a solid residency ordinance that terminates violators.  Most of the councilors were supportive of a stronger and better enforced ordinance, but appeared most vehement about ensuring deputies and directors live in the city.

Counilor Twiggs (Facebook)
The debate took an odd turn, when Concepcion went on a tirade against Allen and Fenton for proposing an ordinance and forming their own committee on the subject.  No such committee existed or ever met.  Rather, Fenton and Allen proposed their ordinance as is the right of any councilor.  Concepcion's bizarre tirade was largely dismissed by other councilors.

Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs offered the best defense of a a strong residency law saying, "Anybody here [on the council] opposed to residency ought to resign!"  The measure was approved for first step on a voice vote, but sent to committee where tweaks and changes are expected.

The final item before the council was an amendment to its historic preservation ordinance to provide tax incentive to those that renovate or develop historic properties.  Springfield has a large number of historic homes and buildings that have suffered mightily due to neglect and blight.  Several more were damaged in the tornado.  That ordinance, too, passed first step on a voice vote.

All in all, the meeting, which was largely driven by items brought up by councilors Fenton and Allen proved two things.  Ferrera's decision to exile those two from committees did not minimize their productivity as much of the agenda was nevertheless driven by their items.  Second, it also showed that Ferrera's control over the meeting did not stifle the two except on the Police Department youth program.  That may come back to bite Ferrera if the program does face a temporary suspension as he enjoys some support from law enforcement.

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