I Go To City Council Meetings #23

The EMPOWER Act, charter review review, and 5G infestation

By Brian Z. Zayatz

 

On Thursday, March 5, the Northampton City Council held its 6th meeting of the year. Approximately 10 people were in attendance, including five members of the city’s Charter Review Committee.

The EMPOWER Act

City Council opened, after public comment and announcements, with a resolution in support of the EMPOWER (Ensuring Municipal Participation Of the Widest Eligible Range) Act, which would enable municipalities to set the voting age to 16 for municipal elections, that is currently making its way through the Statehouse. The resolution was co-sponsored by Councilors Dwight, Jarrett, and Quinlan, who all spoke of the dedicated young people on the city’s Youth Commission (including Quinlan’s children) who have pushed for this, and the politically engaged young people of the area in general. The resolution is coming in addition to seeking special permission from the state to lower the voting age in the city’s charter renewal process. Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra said she was happy to see the Council using the tool of the resolution, which she claims is powerful in sending a message to the state legislature. There was no dissent during discussion, which lasted about half an hour, or the first reading vote.

Reviewing the Charter Review Committee’s recommendations

The bulk of the meeting (pushing three hours, though I did not get an exact count) was spent reviewing recommended amendments to the city’s charter from the Charter Review Committee, which has been meeting over the last year. Councilor Dwight introduced this part of the meeting by announcing that they would vote on each individual amendment, rather than on the draft as a whole, and that this would certainly take more than one meeting. This meeting the councilors tackled “the easy stuff,” the most notable of which included dealing with vacancies or absences of the Mayor, the appointment of city clerks, removing the term ‘incumbent’ from ballots for any municipal office, and removing the last of the gendered language from the document. The more hot button issues, including whether to expand the franchise in the city to residents between the ages of 16 and 18 and residents without immigration status, will be taken up at the next meeting on March 19th.

Councilor Dwight introduced discussion on dealing with absences of the Mayor by saying that the charter was changing to reflect and streamline the processes that have been de facto in place already. Instead of the Mayor coming to City Council to inform them of an upcoming absence so that the City Council President, who would normally take the mayor’s place for this time, could prepare, the changes to the charter would allow the mayor to name a city employee of their choosing to perform the duties of the office during absences of 10 business days or less. Councilor Dwight, who formerly served as City Council President, liked the idea because he had always been reluctant to take up the Mayor’s office when it was his responsibility, and this system will be less disruptive to the City Council.

This same section of the charter determines protocol when the Mayor is “incapacitated,” a word which hadn’t been in the charter before. The proposed protocol in the event of incapacitation is not different from what has been the protocol for all absences of the mayor: an affirmative vote of seven City Councilors that the mayor is unable to perform their duties that would then appoint the City Council President to the office temporarily. There was some concern among councilors that this could open the doors for a mutiny (this word was never used) if the City Council simply wanted to replace the mayor with one of their own, though Councilor Dwight pointed out that “incapacitated” is a term with a lot of legal precedent that prevents this.

The charter draft also includes new protocols for when special elections in the event of a vacancy in the mayor’s office would take place. The language is confusing, but essentially if the vacancy begins sometime within 3 months of a regular city election, the special election will take place with the city election; if not, then it will take place within 90 days of the vacancy. Mayor Narkewicz said, “We’re gonna do a Schoolhouse Rock video about it.”

There was some discussion on the “unanimity” among city officials that the city clerk should no longer be an elected office. Councilor Dwight introduced the topic by arguing that it is “far too important” an office to be left to the electorate to decide, and needed to be a professional position. Current law provides little in the way of required qualifications and Northampton is in the small minority of Massachusetts cities that still elects its city clerk, according to Mayor Narkewicz. The councilors also expressed some discomfort with the idea of a city clerk overseeing the election that they are running in, which is what currently occurs when the city clerk runs for reelection. Councilor Labarge was the only nay vote on this change.

5G Regulations: probably too little, hopefully not too late

After 10 PM, the charter review review wrapped up and the councilors tended to its last bit of business for the night, including a second vote on an act regulating wireless antennas in the city. A small addition was made since the last meeting that would make the relevant companies liable for any damage to city property during removal of equipment, as well as installation in maintenance. Councilor Dwight said that, for the moment, Northampton is at low risk of “infestation” by 5G because it cannot penetrate walls, curtains, or even leaves. The current sites being targeted by companies are schools like Smith and the high school where large groups might be gathered in outdoor spaces. Councilor Jarrett, having done some more research, found that ordinances like some in California that limit proximity to schools or homes could not be implemented by City Council because they are health issues (whether there has been any communication with the Board of Health, which can’t seem to get past tobacco regulations, was not mentioned). The ordinance passed its second reading unanimously.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

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