I Go to City Council Meetings #27

COVID updates, anti-racist resolution, expanding absentee voting

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On Thursday, May 7th, the Northampton City Council held its 10th meeting of the year, and 4th via Zoom. All councilors were present.

Updates

Early in the meeting, Mayor Narkewicz gave his customary update, which has lately consisted largely of COVID related information. The city’s police have been tasked with enforcing the governor’s orders, including the recent guideline that anyone out in public should have a mask, and the city has tried to allocate some masks for police to have on hand to distribute to anyone not adhering to the governor’s order. Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) asked for clarification of exactly what the governor’s order advises, to which the Mayor responded that the guideline is “clear as mud.” He advised that all Northampton residents at the very least have a mask on their person when out in public, because even if one anticipates being able to maintain proper social distance for their entire venture into public (which is where some of the confusing language in the governor’s order emerges), it may not always be possible.

Mayor Narkewicz also announced that the Department of Health has reopened certain parks and recreational areas, a complete list of which can be found at the department’s website. He added that while Health Department Director Merridith O’Leary did not want this to lead to everyone rushing out to the open parks, the decision was made in recognition that not everyone has equal access to recreational spaces, and that reports had been coming in that the bike trail had been crowded. The city has also extended the suspension of parking fees.

Speaking to Governor Baker’s recently established Reopening Advisory Board, Narkewicz noted that Easthampton mayor Nicole LaChappelle is serving on the board and meeting almost daily. She has helped lead conference calls to hear concerns from other Western MA cities and towns to bring to the advisory board.

“We don’t want to reopen too quickly,” said Narkewicz, “but there’s obvious concern in the business community about how long they can sustain.” Adding again,“but obviously it has to align with public safety and the numbers.”

Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) asked whether there might be any modifications to emergency regulations around curbside service for recreational marijuana dispensaries, which are “such a big revenue stream for cities like ourselves.” Narkewicz responded that the state’s cannabis commission has requested an audience with the advisory board, and that he is one of a group of mayors who are signing on to a letter to the commission in favor of relaxed regulations. Medical dispensaries have shown that curbside service can be done safely, he said, and expressed concern for the entrepreneurs who have put their whole lives into these dispensaries and are ineligible for federal aid due to marijuana’s continued federal illegality, and for veterans, many of whom decline to get a medical card for fear that it would affect their federal benefits.

Other councilors also gave updates, notably Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5), who noted that last weekend was the Census digital action weekend. As of May 5, 66% of Northampton residents had self-responded to the census. Self-responding is especially important during the pandemic, since more self-responding means that fewer census workers will have to go door to door in violation of shelter-in-place orders. Councilor Jarrett also noted that each person who responds represents over $2,000 in additional resources for the city as well as state and federal representation.

Anti-racist resolution

R20.045, A Resolution Denouncing Anti-Asian, Anti-Asian American and Xenophobic Discrimination, which passed its first reading last month, came up for its second reading at Thursday’s meeting. The resolution was praised by Megan Paik of the city’s Human Rights Commission during public comment, who urged not only its passage but also that councilors work with members of the Amherst Town Council who are interested in introducing a similar resolution.

During discussion, Councilors Maiore and Foster, and authors of the resolution, both cited a study that found that 1 in 3 Americans had heard rhetoric blaming the virus on China or Asian and Asian-American people. Councilors Maiore and Quinlan (Ward 1) expressed disappointment that the reopening rally that had taken place the previous week had used language that was specifically denounced in the resolution, and that the local media had given such language a platform. Councilor Jarrett echoed this sentiment, and noted that while resolutions are important, they do need to be followed up with action, and that he looked forward to working with the Human Rights Commission when it is allowed to meet again.

Councilor Bill Dwight (at large) mused that, “unfortunately, I don’t think there’s going to be any coverage of this,” noting that “only when there’s some sense of controversy is when [City Council] get[s] airplay,” but that if there’s any consolation, it’s that the resolution is not considered controversial. The resolution passed its second reading unanimously.

Expanding Absentee Voting and Vote by Mail

City Council also considered a resolution introduced by Councilor Quinlan and Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (at large) that endorsed bills in the state legislature that would allow anyone to access mail-in absentee ballots during the pandemic and expand future access to vote-by-mail, respectively. State Representative Lindsey Sabadosa encouraged the councilors to support the resolution during public comment.

Councilor Sciarra said in her introduction of the resolution that it was intended to protect both the public and poll workers, and that while she supported Secretary of State Galvin’s expansion of early voting to reduce crowds, it could not yet be known if even that would be safe by the time of the September primaries. The bill would have to pass by early June if ballots are to be printed in time, and the election laws committee is set to have a virtual open meeting on the matter on Thursday, May 14th, though no further details were given as to how to attend.

All councilors spoke in favor of the resolution during discussion, with Councilor Dwight mentioning that the city’s charter committee had actually unanimously approved a similar resolution during its meeting last year. The first reading of the bill passed unanimously, and rules were suspended to hold a second reading immediately after, which was again unanimous (although Councilor Foster’s computer lost connection and she was not able to cast her vote).

Budget transfers

The Mayor briefly detailed proposed budget transfers that would reallocate money towards snow and ice removal costs from the winter, for which it is not uncommon for the city to run a deficit, and towards overtime pay for city employees. The latter cost was greatly inflated due to the pandemic. The transfers totalled $354,662 and were allocated from interest on city-held debt, medical insurance, and veterans benefits. Mayor Narkewicz mentioned that anything COVID related is eligible for up to 75% reimbursement from FEMA or MEMA, and the city has kept detailed records of these expenditures. The matter passed with little discussion.

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

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