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I Go to City Council Meetings #29

Police budget, preparing for Governor Baker’s reopening

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On Thursday, June 4th, the Northampton City Council held its 12th meeting of the year, and 6th via Zoom. All councilors were present and approximately 400 members of the public attended.

Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-large) opened the meeting, as she did the previous  night, with an acknowledgement of the historical moment. “I deeply believe in protest, I also give a heartfelt plea to be safe and peaceful.” She had participants take a moment of silence, in which to consider, “not just the names, but the actual people ruthlessly murdered, and the many many before them, and what we can do to bring about change.”

The meeting opened as usual with public comment, which Sciarra made clear was not the public hearing on the budget and that comments made then would not be included in the record on the budget hearings. The hearing was set to take place directly after public comment, but many chose to speak during public comment anyway, some saying they had children to get to bed, others perhaps remembering the nearly four-hour wait for public testimony on the hearing the night before.

16 people spoke to defunding the police during public comment, with two having also spoken the previous night. Notably, Eric Matlock, who is currently suing the city for $700,000 after being wrongfully arrested and brutalized, spoke and argued that, after a ranking officer’s controversial hamburger comments, perhaps the NPD should make fast food wages. Matlock, who has also experienced houselessness in Northampton, said the police try to drive them out, and so he and others are left to look after their own community, for free. 

Also speaking on the matter was former city councilor Alisa Klein, who argued that the newly proposed “Resolution in Response to the Most Recent Killings of African-Americans” was not enough and that concrete steps must be taken. She suggested defunding the police department and putting the money towards an exploratory committee on alternatives.

Two people also spoke on an ordinance that would allow restaurants to use public outdoor spaces for socially distanced dining in. Amy Cahillane, director of the Downtown Northampton Association, said the ordinance would not necessarily be a lifesaver for businesses, but would allow them to “hang on.” Ian Busher of Deerfield spoke against reopening, saying that it wasn’t worth the health risk. He suggested instead giving aid directly to workers.

Following public comment, the budget hearing began, which lasted until 10:20PM. 53 people spoke to defunding the police, with many of the same arguments from last night emerging. Several people brought up the news that Los Angeles is considering slashing their police budget, and that Minneapolis is considering disbanding their police altogether. Oriana Reilly of Ward 3 noted that the City Council does not have the power to appropriate funds as many people were asking them to do; she suggested adopting a practice of participatory budgeting to give residents a greater say in building a budget, a practice which, when implemented, often leads to reduced police budgets. Shira Breen of Northampton offered to fight for laid off officers to find new jobs, something they posited was possible while bringing back those killed by police was not.

Additionally, two members of the Pedal People cooperative spoke to ask if it was really necessary for the security line item in the solid waste budget to jump from $10,000 to $120,000 so that a police officer could be on site at the transfer station.

Budget discussion

The council opened deliberations on the budget with the discussion of the solid waste budget. Mayor Narkewicz started by assuring the council that the security officers at the transfer station are off duty police, not police being taken away from regular work or being paid overtime. “They are needed to enforce social distancing,” he said, and stated that even before COVID there had been a lot of behavior issues from residents, many of them getting verbally abusive towards the gatekeepers causing a couple of them to quit and leading to the use of restraining orders. He alleged that the gatekeepers have been grateful to have a police officer on site.

“For whatever reason having that [police officer] there seems to keep things flowing better and people’s behavior seems to be improved, for whatever reason,” said the Mayor.

The solid waste budget was ultimately recommended out of the finance committee and passed a first reading in city council.

During the finance committee the council also discussed  an order to approve gift fund expenditures for “street and transportation sharing”—essentially, allocating donated patio furniture for restaurants to transition to outdoor seating so they may reopen under Phase 2 of Governor Baker’s reopening plan.

Councilor Dwight expressed reservations at offering public space to private businesses. “I’m a little concerned about how this would impact the public conflicts we’ve experienced for generations where some people feel they have primacy over the public space and try to deny other citizens who they find conflict with their businesses,” he said, concluding that he would be reluctant to support any changes. Later, during full council, Mayor Narkewicz said that the city has chairs and umbrellas they can’t use unless city council approves. Rules were suspended to vote twice, and the measure passed unanimously.

Back in full council, discussion on the police budget started. Nearly every councilor spoke on the issue.

Councilor Jarrett (Ward 5) called the descriptions of mistreatment at the hands of NPD heartbreaking, and wondered how many of those situations would have gone better if it wasn’t the NPD responding to the call. He suggested leveling the funding with last year and creating a body to look into alternatives to policing, as well as a civilian oversight board. He also noted that the mayor made clear he would not reallocate funds cut from the police budget, and would instead return them to the fiscal stability fund.

Councilor Quinlan (Ward 1) said that the council heard testimony of the police department dehumanizing people, but also heard “testimony dehumanizing our police force.” Quinlan also suggested leveling funding, but when he asked Mayor Narkewicz for some more clarity about the “supplies” line item, the Mayor responded opaquely.

Councilor Foster (Ward 2) said that it was clear from the volume of emails and calls that there was real pain and a real call for change from the community. However, as a supporter of unions, she believes the city needs to honor its commitment to step raises for the police, and believes that the hybrid cruisers will be important in reducing the city’s carbon footprint. She said she has a deep appreciation for Chief Kasper saying, “she is listening, I’ve seen her be willing to consider these issues.” Ultimately, she did not feel good about reducing the police budget without an alternative.

Councilor Maiorie (Ward 7) reiterated that she was looking into alternatives, but that something like a civilian review board would need to be independent and funded. She asked about the vacancy for the assistant sergeant position, the salary for which would be $74,000. Mayor Narkewicz reiterated that if they cut the budget, there will have to be staffing cuts, since the city is contractually obligated to provide step raises. Around this time, the local UAW chapter began tweeting that this is not true, and that if the budget was cut the union would go into impact bargaining.

Councilor Labarge (Ward 6) said that she has never received so much communication from constituents in 21 years. She has only had good interactions with the NPD, but has a nephew of color who hasn’t, and shared, “you don’t forget things like that.” She said that buying new vehicles for the police was not a necessity, and that she doesn’t think the police should be involved with houseless people or people in mental health crises. “We’d like to use this money, Mayor, for items we think are of importance to the people in this community.”

Mayor Narkewicz took this opportunity to double down on his budget for senior services. Councilor Labarge then asked if the money could be put towards the schools. “Why are these four or five vehicles so critical right now when we know the schools need money?”

The Mayor reminded Councilor Labarge that schools were receiving the single largest expenditure increase in the budget. He objected to the fact that he felt some people were acting as if he proposed this budget in response to Minneapolis and that he was “just as upset as everyone else” about what happened, acknowledging that obviously we are in a different place now. He then doubled down yet again on the budget, saying this is not an increase in policing, but maintaining level services.

Councilor Dwight noted that, “we are in the midst of a zeitgeist, I’ve called it ‘the great recalibration.’” He said that some of the comments were designed to hurt, and they do hurt, but he encouraged anyone who wanted to run for city council to run. (With the exception of the council president who receives $10,000/year and the two At-large councilors who receive $9,500/year, ward councilors currently get paid $9,000 per year for their service.)  “It seems like the budget will be level funded, and I am in favor of that.”

Councilor Nash (Ward 3) noted the “mission creep” of the police department, quoting Chief Kasper’s admission that “we get called for everything,” and that he wonders if many of these issues are not criminal justice issues, and that he thinks the NPD would be open to the discussion of removing some things from their purview.

There followed some discussion of specific line items to cut and pushing for reallocation. The Mayor again insisted that level funding would mean personnel cuts. Several councilors also started to address the fact that it was 2 in the morning and they did not think they were doing the issue justice and suggested continuing to a special meeting. In addition  Councilor Sciarra and the mayor reminding the council that they had other business that they absolutely had to address that night, Councilors continued to ask Mayor Narkewicz questions about what to cut, even though the Mayor had clearly stated multiple times that such a decision was for him and Chief Kasper to make. “I’ve been offering all kinds of helpful suggestions, but I support the budget that I put forward, as does Chief Kasper,” he said. “We’re not going to come up with cuts for you.”

Finally, at 2:15, a motion was put forward to continue the funding question, to which all councilors voted yes except Councilor Maiorie who voted no.

The rest of the financial orders passed first reading, including the establishment of a municipal light plant that is a first step towards establishing a municipal internet option to Northampton.

The important business that the Council had to get to was the ordinance allowing the use of outdoor public space for dining. Councilor Dwight reiterated his reservations, arguing that it could give business owners more leeway to call the police on people, but concluding that he was prepared to vote for it. He did, however, suggest continuing this discussion as well, to which the Mayor and Wayne Fieden, the director of planning and sustainability, objected. Mayor Narkewicz said that the ordinance was not just to support restaurants, but to bring people back into downtown, to go to retail stores and other establishments, and that he was worried if they waited that people would start going to other towns that had a head start on reopening.

Councilor Nash attested that New Hampshire and Vermont already have outdoor seating, and that he was “up there” last week, “probably illegally,” and it was really nice to dine at a restaurant again. 

Councilor Jarrett noted that the council was putting a lot of trust in the Mayor to ensure that downtown would be accessible to everyone, and he would appreciate some assurance that the Mayor would take that seriously. The council then suspended rules twice, once to negate the needed referral from the Legislative Matters committee, the other to take two votes in the same meeting (a change of process from usually voting a second time at the next scheduled council meeting), and passed the ordinance at 3 in the morning.

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

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