I Go To City Council Meetings #8

Leaf Blowers, the role of Newspapers, Teenage Voting, and a new director of Senior Services


JULES MARSH

On May 3, the Northampton City Council held its eighth meeting of the year. Councilor Murphy was present, but left early. Approximately 15 people attended. A reporter from The Gazette and MassLive were there. The publisher of The Gazette was also present.

Public Comment

As he did in the last City Council meeting, Michael Rifanburg, publisher of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, The Recorder, Amherst Bulletin, the Valley Advocate, and Chamber of Commerce board member spoke against two ordinances which would eliminate the requirement to place legal notices in the newspaper for site plan review projects and projects that need central business architecture review. He reiterated his argument that the ordinances would limit the access of information to people who need it. In response to the notion that newspapers are anachronistic, he disagreed and invited the councilors to take a tour of The Gazette’s operations.

Margot Schocket-Greene, chair of the Mayor’s Youth Commission, spoke in support of a resolution, co-authored by the Mayor’s Youth Commission and Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large), that would lower the voting age to from 18 to 16 for voting in Northampton municipal elections. She shared that the resolution is a result of two years of efforts by the Youth Commission and argued, “We could positively impact every decision that people older than us are able to make. We have opinions that deserve to be heard.”

Katherine Marsh asked the Council to make gasoline fueled leaf blowers illegal. She commented on the air pollution and noise pollution caused by these devices which use a two stroke engine design. “The exhaust from gas leaf blower is high in nitrous oxide and emits as much as 50 time the hydrocarbons as a sedan.” She continued, “The noise is horrific. One leaf blower will produce 100 decibels at close range. The quality of life would be improved here if they were banned, as they have been in all of California.” She asked the Council, “Help protect our health and hearing.” This is an issue that is being raised in many communities.

New Director of Senior Services

Mayor Narkewicz introduced Marie Westberg, his candidate for the new director of Senior Services, who was unanimously confirmed by the Council. Westberg’s nomination has caused backlash among many volunteers and members of the Council on Aging who felt that long time Senior Center employee and twice interim director, Heather Cahillane, should have been given the position. Council President Ryan O’Donnell (At-Large) clarified the Council’s role in the process saying, the Council is required to give an, “up or down assessment to the Mayor’s nominee.” He added, “It is not possible to make substitutes, changes, or amendments.”  Westberg shared, “I had a good week at the Senior Center, people have been very welcoming. I am excited about the future.

Teenage Voting
The Resolution to Lower the Voting Age for Northampton Municipal Elections highlights the fact 16 year olds are legally allowed to engage in activities that acknowledge their ability to be responsible to the state, but that they are not considered responsible enough by the state to vote. The resolutions states, “sixteen-year-olds have been deemed able to consent to sexual intercourse, obtain a learner’s permit and driver’s license, get married with parental consent, work a full-time job, and pay taxes.” Councilor Dwight, a sponsor of the resolution, commented on the arguments he had heard against lowering the voting age, “They aren’t mature enough, they don’t own property, the will vote the way their parents do, and this is means by which liberals are trying to stack the deck.” He remarked, “a lot of these arguments were used to deny suffrage to African Americans and women.”

Councilor Alisa Klein (Ward 7) commented, “The most sophisticated and robust political discussions I have are with my 15 year old and 17 year old nieces.” Councilor LaBarge supported the resolution saying that 16 year olds deserve to be able to vote because they work full time. Councilor Bidwell who earlier this year, in response to a resolution to support the $15 minimum wage, suggested a two tier wage system that would allow teenagers to be paid less than minimum wage, said he supported the resolution and would be proud if Northampton were to become the first city in Massachusetts to enact such a law.

Ultimately, the Council does not have the authority to lower the voting age. Councilor Dwight acknowledged the legal and political challenges facing the measure, “We have some critical issues. We have lost our representative and our senator. That is more than problematic. We would have to strategize.” In order to move the process forward, the city charter may need to be altered or the Council could create a stand alone home rule petition that could result in the State requiring that the issue become a ballot measure.

In another voting matter, the Council approved the funding of new voting machines as the current voting machines are over 20 years old. Councilor O’Donnell asked that the Mayor’s office report back about whether the new machines could support ranked voting which could be necessary for special elections. Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice, a process that can help elect a candidate that better reflects the support of a majority of voters.

Ordinance to Eliminate Legal Notice

In a reversal of its decision in the last City Council meeting, the Council voted against the two ordinances that would stop the requirement for the city to post public notices for site plan review projects and projects that need central business architecture review in the newspaper. Councilor Bidwell who was absent last meeting said, “I frankly was not persuaded that removal of newspaper legal notice requirements is anachronistic. Dollar savings are minimal, even if there are only a few people who need these notices, it is worth sticking with it.”  He referenced the report issued by the 2016 Re-energizing Democracy campaign in Northampton which aimed to increase participation in local government and recommended that there be more outreach to lower-income voters. Upon asking the city planner about the money spent on the public notices specified in the ordinances, the city planner revealed that if the public notices were no longer required, that would not necessarily mean that fees for certain building permits would be eliminated or decreased. This fact played a role in reversing many of the Councillors votes as they did not understand how the City would lose money if the fee requirement to community members who requested planning projects stayed in place.

I left the meeting with a few  of questions:

How many leaves will get pointlessly relocated before we can say it makes no sense?

And How many hydrocarbons will get released into the air before we go back to rakes?

(The answer my friend is blowing in the air stream of a leaf blower, the answer is blowing in the air stream of a leaf blower.)

Does Councilor Bidwell know that if 16 year olds can vote, they will likely vote for candidates who won’t try to deny them a full minimum wage?


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

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