I Go To City Council Meetings #5

A Resolutionary Council


JULES MARSH

On March 15, the Northampton City Council held its fifth meeting of the year. Approximately 70 people attended. Reporters from the Gazette and MassLive were present. The meeting lasted for just shy of five hours, clocking in at 4 hours and 49 minutes long. Public comment lasted one hour and thirty one minutes.

Public Comment

Robert Wronski commented on the treatment of the poor and houseless in Northampton, saying, “Northampton provides for these people in one hand, but in the other hand they are often trying to push them back away because they are very unsightly and they make tourism look bad.” He continued, “Poor people have a right to exist in this town.” He criticized Northampton Connects, an upcoming community discussion to be facilitated in part by Councilor Dennis Bidwell. He criticized the meeting saying it did not care to involve poor and homeless voices based on the time and location of the meeting. “Poor people would be penalized or inconvenienced to be able to go to those meetings. It is not a meeting for all voices.”

Many immigrants shared their stories and spoke out in support of the resolution to support TPS and DACA.

Veronica, a TPS recipient from El Salvador, wore a shirt that said, “Another world is possible,” and asked the Council to pass the resolution. “I have a 15 year old daughter, she is a U.S. Citizen. We want to be able to work and live in dignity and peace.”

Her daughter, Catherine, a student at Amherst High School, also spoke. She asked that the resolution be passed so that she could pursue her dreams of becoming a surgeon. “I want everyone to be treated fairly with the respect they want and deserve.”

Flor, a TPS recipient from El Salvador, and a senior at Northampton High School shared, “I did not know about the word ‘racism’ until I got here. I did not know that my skin color mattered to people. Some people help you out, but others are scared of you. Because of my skin color, they label me as a criminal. What if I’m at school and immigration is there? If my dad is deported, my mom will have to work harder than she already does.”

Carlos, from Guatemala, shared, “It is hard to live in Guatemala because of all the violence. We experience a lot of suffering and humiliation because of our status. I want to ask each of you a question, would you like to be in my shoes? No, right? Due to the humiliation, the rejection, due to the wage theft we experience.”

Marta, who was born in El Salvador, and has lived in the U.S. for 17 years, shared that she was afraid to return to El Salvador with her two daughters because of the high crime rate there.

Eduardo Samaniego, who recently walked 250 miles to Washington D.C. in support of a Clean Dream Act asked that the Council pass the resolution to begin a process for a path to citizenship for immigrants. He asked that immigrants, “be able to enjoy a full and meaningful life.” He shared that he discovered on his way to D.C. that, “the people who support immigrants are there. What we need is courageous leaders who can actually make our voices and the voice of the great majority of Americans into policy.”

In some instances members spoke out in support of the resolution and against the militarization of the NPD.

Rose Bookbinder, an organizer at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and Jobs with Justice noted that protection for immigrants and demilitarizing our police force are part of the same agenda. “We need to align our values. If we are here to vote unanimously on a resolution to support immigrants in our community, then I would hope that the vote would be unanimous to demilitarize our police. If you truly, truly believe that you are supporting this resolution, then you need to recognize that those that would be most impacted by militarization… These folks fled violence by police, by military forces, to come to a community where they want to feel safer.”

Former City Councilor Pamela Schwartz asked the Council to pause the appropriation, saying that it was the Council’s duty to address the concerns of the community regarding police equipment in the same way it was addressing concerns regarding the protection of immigrants. “In addition to protecting people with TPS, we can communicate to our city at large, we hear you and and we are going to attend in a way with the nuance that this requires in this time in our political life.We should be figuring out a way to navigate this. And hold the police accountable while also protecting our public safety.”

Many people suggested that the $75,000 NPD appropriation be spent on other services and activities that would keep the community safe.

Dori Midnight suggested a departure from the status quo saying, “I believe being more connected, knowing our neighbors, and caring for each other builds more safety. What if this funding was used to train individuals in restorative and transformational justice practices? What if it was used to support those who are most vulnerable in the community? Who are most impacted by these police practices?”

Amelia Box suggested, “That money should go toward public transportation which actually makes people safe, which protects people from the cold, it gets them to their job. It gets them to their community center, it gets them to their school.”

Samantha Reedle asked, “How many people can be housed and clothed for $75,000? How many people could have access to addiction programs and childcare?” She shared her personal experience of police bias, “As a transgender woman, they are infrequently at best on my side and rarely if ever on the side of my sisters and brothers and siblings of color. The use their force in defense of people who own property and against those who do not.”

Sarah Field argued that our inability to envision other forms of community service instead of policing was due to a “lack of imagination.” She turned from the Council to the public and said, “I’d like to use my time to imagine other ways we could imagine conflict and challenges in our community that are not rooted in violence and coercion. I would like to talk about where the power is in this room and I believe the power is with everyone here in this room so I’d like to invite people to share their visions.” Someone  shared that we need to invest in additional education for the police force in latino and people of color spaces. Another person suggested following in the footsteps of Palante Youth Leadership and Organizing Project at Holyoke High School and their use of restorative justice models.

Some encouraged the Council to not be afraid of a change in the ways we seek to keep our communities safe.

Rachel Weber asked Councilors to, “see this challenge as an invitation to move forward.” She continued, “governments change their mind about the principles deciding their decision making all the time…they assess what they’ve been doing, they assess the tactics, the values, assess the strategies, and taking that time to assess where we’ve been going and why, that is part of what we should all be doing.”

Kayla Sevisky acknowledged that change is difficult, “it is really difficult to change one’s mind and it is really difficult to step out of a set of actions that one has begun to take.”  She continued, “I’m a middle school teacher, I teach students of color and this type of gear and the dangers that occur with a militarized police force are going to disproportionately affect them. I am much more worried about that than I am gun violence in schools.”

Jenny Landen argued against the violence inherent in the military structure of police forces. “An armed military is authoritarian, valuing obedience over innovation, and focused on identifying threats rather than building strengths. It accepts violence as a way of life.” She continued, “I’m not saying there is no use for an armed paramilitary in society necessarily, but we are overusing it. It is expensive, and dangerous and just not built for what we are asking it to do.”

Some insisted that the money not be approved until a more transparent process was available.

ACLU representative Bill Newman said, “With regards to the question about the equipment for the Northampton police, this gets to a different question that the ACLU is concerned about that has to do with militarization of policing. I’m not talking issue with regard to any specific piece of equipment because we don’t know what it is. This process is actually deficient.”

Dana Goldblatt demanded transparency saying, “I don’t think it is appropriate for an armed paramilitary group to basically have a weapons slush fund.”

Elizabeth Humphrey also asked the Council to consider its fiscal responsibility.  “$75,000 to the city might seem like peanuts, but it is quite a bit of money and it could be used in so many other positive ways. You are passing this without the knowledge of what the police already have. In every single job, even my retail job, I had to prove why I needed something and I had to prove that I was going to use it before it would be purchased for me. That is even white out and pencils.” She continued, “We have a responsibility to know what they have in their arsenal.”

Jess Johnson read a number of messages by those who did not feel comfortable speaking to the Council. One message read, “This will only serve to worsen police / community relations.” Another said, “The people of The Valley will organize and police the police if we have to.”

One person spoke in favor of the appropriation. Andrew Smith stressed that Northampton police officers are different than officers elsewhere, “I grew up cutting my teeth chasing police on skateboards so I’m not someone who is crazy about the police. The Northampton Police are not like the average police force you encounter.” He continued, “I think we can chew and walk gum at the same time. I don’t think the $75,000 is a budget breaker.”

Laura Baluski, a resident of Michael’s House, a low income house for seniors and others, spoke out against an increase in the insurance rate of Northampton taxi cabs. She expressed her concern that it would raise the rates for those who used local services like Cosmic Cab. She shared, “Residents at Michael’s House live on a limited income. If we have to pay more for taxi cabs, we aren’t going to call taxi cabs.”

PVTA update

Despite the public being eager for information and solutions to the defunding of the PVTA, the Mayor deferred his PVTA update to the next meeting due to what he felt was a time constraint. This decision contrasts his decision at the last City Council meeting to read the Police Chief’s memo in its entirety for 16 full minutes. He did not ask the room full of community members if they would have liked to hear the update. The financial orders on the agenda were all addressed and were not delayed until the next meeting.

TPS Resolution

On its second reading, the Council unanimously passed the Resolution calling for President Trump and his administration to preserve DACA and to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for all nationals who cannot safely return to their home countries. A resolution calling for protection of TPS was originally written without the input of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center (PVWC). It is important to note that when the original resolution was introduced without the input of the PVWC, Councilor Nash (Ward 3) referenced only natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes as the reasons why people left their homes in Latin America to come to the U.S. That resolution was withdrawn to incorporate this new resolution that was co-drafted with the PVWC and includes protection for Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.

Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) introduced the resolution saying, “Today the document has a lot more detail present, a lot more substance than our original.” He went on to thank the Community Resources Committee, Councilor Alisa Klein (Ward 7), and PVWC organizers Diana Sierra and Rose Bookbinder for taking the time to create a more thorough resolution. The resolution was then read in both English and Spanish.

Before the resolution was voted on, Diana Sierra, also a professor of Latin American history at Smith College, gave a presentation on the impact that U.S. foreign policy has had on migration. She noted the rape, torture, and murders that took place under U.S. backed military coups in Latin America that caused people to flee their countries. She emphasized the disaster of U.S. foreign economic policy as well. “U.S. foreign policy militarily and economically has contributed to the conditions that force people to migrate. Free trade agreements give U.S. corporations access to cheap labor and cheap resources.” In conclusion, she made clear to the Council that the militarization of law enforcement was not in the interest of TPS and DACA recipients. Regarding the current state of U.S. foreign policy: “But military intervention is not off the table as we saw in the 2009 U.S. backed military coup in Honduras. Given this history, the U.S. has an obligation to the people of Latin America. We must recognize that militarization is a tool to silence dissent and we must stand in solidarity with immigrants. And as we stand for protections for immigrants, we must also denounce the policies that force them to migrate in the first place.” Her full presentation can be seen here.

Councilor Marianne LaBarge (Ward 6) emphasized her commitment to protect immigrants, “I said it right after Trump became president, he is not my president. My father came from Greece. My mother and her father from Portugal. No one should be separated from their families. Our city, Northampton, won’t let that happen. You are protected here and we’ll make sure you will be protected. We work together as a community.” She continued, “We’ll be right there on the front line to protect every immigrant in this city.”

Emphasizing the fact that City Council resolutions are not legally binding documents, Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) replied, “I regretfully have to refute some of that on some level. We don’t have the authority, and I wish we did, to grant these protections. What we are offering is our support.”

City Council President Ryan O’Donnell clarified that a resolution is simply a “strong statement of where the City of Northampton stands on this policy.”

Councilor Dennis Bidwell (Ward 2) thanked Sierra for “the very important history lesson to put it all in context.”

$75,000 appropriation for Police Protective Equipment and Training (including riot gear)

In the last City Council meeting, Police Chief Jody Kasper’s request for $75,000 for tactical equipment and training which includes protective helmets, face shield visors, and so-called “less lethal weapons,” all of which is also known as riot gear, was separated from the financial order it was originally buried in so that it could be discussed separately. In doing this, the Council acknowledged that this type of request is inherently different than buying a food delivery van for Northampton schools. (See pg 172 of the Capital Improvement Plan for the request.)

Councilor Maureen Carney (Ward 1) was not present at the first reading and clarified her position as to why she would vote yes to grant Chief Kasper this appropriation. She first acknowledged the militarization of our culture. “I agree that we need to look for connections between even the [TPS and DACA] resolution that we just passed and especially the history we learned from Diana in understanding the issues that place us in conflict when we have a militarized culture. We have a military and we have a paramilitary organization in this city.” However, Carney, a Rapid Response Coordinator for the AFL-CIO, felt the need to address this request as primarily an issue of safe working conditions for police officers in their roles as employees of the state. “Getting to know those people who become our employees. They are our workers. And I am an advocate of workers and I have been all my life. I take the concern of supplying our employees, our city staff, a safe workplace, a safe environment, proper protection very seriously. I’m satisfied with the letter I received from Chief Kasper.” She quoted the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)  and said noted that police officers come into contact with toxic chemicals and hazardous materials. “I don’t want our workers to be unprotected on the job.”

It is important to note that police unions notoriously lobby for more weapons and tactical gear under the premise that it creates safe working conditions for their members. This issue is a growing debate within the labor movement. In 2015, United Auto Workers Local 2865 called on the AFL-CIO to end its affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations, stating, “Historically and contemporarily, police unions serve the interests of police forces as an arm of the state, and not the interests of police as laborers.”

Councilor Klein thanked community members for speaking out and advocated for transparency, “It is indeed the public that should have access to information about how our police department is achieving public safety.” She called on her fellow Councilors to be fiscally responsible, “As elected officials it is our job to know what every tax payer cent is going towards,” she continued,” and the policies and procedures around their deployment.” In response to Mayor Narkewicz’s claim that a citizen oversight committee was unnecessary because police oversight was one of his duties, Klein said, “but we do have mayoral commissions for all kinds of things in the city, the Human Rights Commission, the Transportation and Parking Commission, and the Energy and Sustainability Commission.” Her comments were met with a loud round of applause. Though attendees had applauded in response to many comments throughout the meeting, this particular public expression of approval caused Councilor President Ryan O’Donnell to issue a stern request to not applaud while Councilors were debating, but to wait until after the vote, when public involvement would be less impactful to the discussion.

Councilor Labarge strongly supported a citizen oversight committee, “The  Mayor needs to form an advisory committee. There is no question about it.” She favored a committee of members that would be appointed by the Mayor.

Though the city government is the only mechanism through which police funding can be denied, Councilor Dwight disagreed with Councilor LaBarge and restated his position that city government should not be the place in which these issues are discussed. On the idea of further discussion that would include the legislative actors in our community, he passed the buck back to the public, who do not hold the power of the purse. “I don’t want it to come to a point where we are charged with making a decision at any point, that is relevant to the budget or any particular law that is pending. I ask the public to preside over that forum.”

Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra (Ward 4) thanked community members for their comments saying, “I share concerns about misused equipment and power throughout the country, and the world. There is a lot for us to be rightfully skeptical about in our world.” Though she felt that public commenters had dismissed her experiences as skewed due to her privileged relationship with the NPD as a City Councillor, she shared an experience in which the NPD needed hazmat suits to enter a drug lab in her neighborhood. No one in public comment at this meeting or the last expressed any concerns about hazmat suits. She also asserted that the riot gear that the NPD already possesses, has not been used on crowds. It has however been used on Eric Matlock, Jonas Correia, and to issue warrants, incidents that Councilor Sciarra failed to acknowledge.

After discussion, Councillor Klein moved to halt the vote until more questions had been answered regarding the specific purchases that would be made. Citing a great example of questions to ask, Councilor Klein referenced a list of questions attorney Dana Goldblatt had issued to the Council earlier in the meeting. Councilor Dwight supported the motion of continuance, but only if Alisa did not use the questions submitted by a non-City Council member, or in other words, a community member. The Shoestring is not sure how this differs from the collaboration between Councilor Dwight and the PVWC on the TPS and DACA resolution.

Councilor Dennis Bidwell opposed a continuance and in the process insulted 99% percent of those who spoke in favor of itemized detail of purchases at the meeting during public comment. “I would not be in favor of asking the NPD to provide all expiration dates of hazmat suits used by the PD. That isn’t granular, that is nuts, I think.”

President O’Donnell reprimanded him saying, “Did you just say nuts? I think we should stay away from that kind of language.” Bidwell then invited everyone in the room to a community discussion that he would be facilitating.

Councilor Klein stressed the connection between the policies of the city and the material conditions it creates for its inhabitants, “The budget is the mechanism by which we express those values. We make decisions about funding, that is our job”

Councilor Carney asked, “Would the mayor be willing to work with the chief to respond to this request for information?” Despite his recent ominous silence and then last minute veto on the resolution to restrict surveillance cameras and numerous unanswered requests by community members and Councilors to meet with him, the Mayor responded, “I’m always happy to respond to any request for information.” He referenced Open Checkbook, an information database that lists city expenditures, which does not disclose the source and nature of training provided to NPD members. He also failed to acknowledge that Police Chief Jody Kasper refuses to be transparent about the complete inventory of the NPDs arsenal of weapons.

In response to Councilor Klein’s push for more details, the Mayor said, “The question is what are the questions?” Though Councilor David Murphy (Ward 5) visibly slept for at least 6 minutes of the Council’s discussion, he perked up to support the Mayor in saying that the request for more information was unnecessary.

Councilor Dwight expressed concern and suspicion about Councilor Klein’s true motives, comparing the process of being transparent about all NPD purchases to mutilating a frog until it is unrecognizable. “You can dissect a frog to know how it works. But at some point you dissect it until its a pile of green mush, and no one knows what it is. I am honoring Councilor Klein’s request with the understanding that it is a genuine pursuit for more information, that’s all.”

Though Councilor LaBarge, Councilor Klein, and Councilor Dwight voted in favor of a continuance which would have allowed for a process by which Jody Kasper could have provided the public with answers to their questions about the $75,000 request, the majority of the Council voted against it and everyone except Councilor Klein voted to fulfill the $75,000 request by the NPD.

The Abolition of Private Property on Garfield Ave Extension

The Council then discussed a long list of financial orders including a request for Garfield Ave extension to convert private property into a public way. Though this sounds communist in nature, it is simply standard procedure for a Habitat for Humanity projects. The nature of this process was clarified by a public official, “This was land donated to Habitat for Humanity, so they full expected after building the extension it would come back to the city. They got the road for free, but had to build an extension.” It is important to note that this request for private property to become public property was supported by a petition.

In that vein, Here is a new petition I created.

Google

Though Councilor Dwight did not ask the Mayor any questions about riot gear, he did ask him  many questions about Google’s infiltration into classrooms through Smith College’s $150,000 donation for Chromebooks. They both acknowledged Google’s world domination. The Mayor pointed out that Northampton students will need to know how to use Google apps in their college education and in the workforce. When Councilor Carney asked how much each Chromebook costs, the Mayor wasn’t sure. Councilor Jim Nash suggested that he “google it.”

Insurance Rates for Taxis

Local taxi companies are facing raised insurance rates due to a new ordinance that will update taxi operations in Northampton. Councilor O’Donnell refused to lower insurance for Northampton taxi cabs without a more thorough discussion.

I left this meeting with a two questions:

  1. If Councilors had the power to legally protect immigrants, would they?
  2. If Councilors sleep through a debate, are they still allowed to vote on that issue?

 


Jules Marsh is a co-editor of The Shoestring. They are alive in Northampton, MA.

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