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City Council

I Go to City Council Meetings #31

The Council voted to cut the police budget by 10%. The Mayor and Councilor Sciarra unveiled a proposal to create a police reform commission.

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On Thursday, June 18th, the Northampton City Council held its 13th regularly scheduled meeting of the year and its 7th via Zoom. All councilors, the Mayor and several other city officials, and approximately 335 members of the public were present.

To begin the meeting, Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) rearranged the agenda so that the public hearing on a National Grid pole petition would go first, rather than public comment as is customary. The hearing had already been continued from a previous meeting because the usual National Grid representative had not been able to attend. A brief discussion ensued in which the representative assured Mimi Odgers, who lives near the affected area, that any public shade trees that had to be cut down would be replaced.

Public comment

Councilor Sciarra suggested limiting public comment, claiming she had received some messages from councilors about this beforehand. Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) said he thought public comment should be at least three hours; Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) suggested a show of (virtual) hands to see how many people wanted to comment. Approximately 50 people expressed interest. Councilor Nash then made a motion for a two hour public comment period, which was seconded by Councilor John Thorpe (Ward 4). Councilor Jarrett pushed back and insisted on at least two and a half hours so everyone could get a chance to speak, when Councilor Nash replied that the comments could be limited to two minutes apiece instead of three, to allow more people to speak. A vote was taken, which passed 6-3: Councilors Jarrett, Rachel Maiore (Ward 7), and Bill Dwight (At-Large) voted no. Public comment began at about 5:40pm. Before opening the floor to the public, Councilor Sciarra chided, “we, and I know you, are most interested in hearing the voices of black and indigenous people,” ask that those who have already spoken at previous meetings, or emailed comments, make the space for that.

58 people spoke in favor of defunding the police, with many asking specifically for a 50% cut. Five people spoke against defunding. A few of note:

As if in response to Councilor Sciarra, the first speaker was Jose Alberto Adostra of Ward 7, who identified himself as Puerto Rican with mixed black, white, and indigenous heritage. Adostra called for defunding and reallocating into healthcare, homeless services, and other more pressing needs. He also said he was appalled that Captain Powers had not yet been asked to step down given all the evidence of his racism. He claimed that he moved from Holyoke to Northampton because he knew the city’s police would not be able to tell a light skinned Puerto Rican from a white person, but that the darker skinned people in his family were “battered, bruised, brutalized, and jailed—all of them.”

Chris Landry of Ward 3 spoke to the resolution scheduled to be discussed regarding the “most recent killings of African-Americans,” pointing directly to a line reading “we will not sanction oppression done in Northampton’s name.” Landry asked how this was possible when a known racist, Captain Powers, was in charge of hiring at NPD. He suggested The Council postpone voting on the resolution until they had voted on the police budget, and several other commenters echoed this call.

Rebecca Steinquist asked why we would defund the police when they have shown dedication to hiring a diverse force. The whole point of the defund campaign, she said, was to reallocate money to black communities, but Northampton only has 775 black residents, which she argued was “not because of the police.” (She was later told to go fuck herself by a black commenter).

Christina Ruggiero-Corliss pointed out that the protests of the last few days had had street medics and people directing traffic, and that the community is full of people like this willing to put in the work to take care of each other. She reiterated that we’d heard again and again that the police were not doing this.

Ashwin Ravikumar, an Amherst College professor, showed a graph that plotted police department size compared to city population. Northampton was above average in per capita police, and Ravikumar pointed to one corner of the graph that showed there are many cities with much larger populations but significantly smaller police forces. A 50% cut, he argued, would bring us into this zone for which there is precedent.

Defense attorney Rachel Weber countered a suggestion from an earlier commenter that the public go for a ride-along with police, instead arguing that members of the public go sit in court for a day and see if the racial makeup of the people in court lines up with the racial makeup of the city. She said study after study shows that every step of the way in the criminal justice system, people of color are treated more harshly and that begins with the police.

Richard Hendrick of Ward 3 said he was so touched to keep on learning from all the people who spoke. A 77-year-old clinical social worker, he said he’s been horrified by the things he’s seen in this country. He thanked the young people on the call, saying “this is the future, this is the way it’s gonna go.” He went on: “when you cut 50%, get the brown paper out, get everyone together and figure it out, but cut it first.”

Ya-Ping Douglass read excerpts from the New York Times’s 1970s coverage of school integration in the north, in which white speakers said they were “all for integration, but [did]n’t think bussing is the right way,” and that cross-district bussing would be “disastrous.” An expert was quoted pointing out that while white southerners were open about their hostility to integration, northerners hid behind policy, and the failure of integration in the North was largely due to a “lack of will [and] lack of imagination” on the part of school authorities.

Councilor Sciarra ended the public comment at 7:40pm, saying she knew people were upset, but she “asked the councilors what they wanted to do, and they voted, and I have to honor that,” seemingly forgetting that she also voted to limit public comment.

Police reform and review plan

At last week’s meeting, Mayor Narkewicz said he would work with Councilor Sciarra to take in all the information from the public, and then offered to work with Councilor Sciarra to create a reform proposal seemingly in response to a stalemate in discussions on the police budget. He opened his presentation of his and the Council President’s plan, which would create a commission to study the role of police in Northampton, by stating that this was what the Council had asked them to do, which does not appear to be true unless that will was communicated privately.

According to the plan, the scope of this commission will include, but is not limited to, department size, structure, services, and budget; use of force policies; citizen complaint processes; recruitment and diversity policies; training and equipment; data collection and reporting transparency; body worn cameras; union contracts; civilian oversight/review models; transitioning 911 calls for mental health, houselessness, substance abuse disorder, and other non-criminal services to civilian responders or social service agencies; and an examination of alternatives to current policing practices. The commission would start meeting in September and issue a final report early next year, in time to be considered in the FY2022 budgeting process.

The commission would have 15 members, with the Mayor appointing six members and city council appointing nine, including up to two of its own members. The Mayor must appoint one member of the city’s Human Rights Commission, and a minimum of eight commission members must be people of color. Candidates will be chosen by demonstrated interest, experience, or expertise.

Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6) opened discussion to ask why the rest of the councilors were not included in the creation of the plan. Councilor Sciarra responded that it would have been against open meeting law for them all to have been a part of the discussions if they were not public, and that the councilors did not ask to be a part of it.

Speaking of open meeting law, city council went on to discuss the matter for nearly an hour even though it did not have its own agenda item. The discussion seemed to veer into deliberation territory, even though the presentation was just that, a presentation, which is not something that would normally be voted on. Several councilors expressed interest in having more time to look over the document and make edits, and a special meeting was scheduled for Tuesday to do just that.

Councilor Labarge expressed frustration several times at being presented with something for the first time and then being asked to deliberate it, and Councilor Sciarra again repeated the line that “this is what you asked us to do.”

Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) remarked that a lot of what she was looking for was in the plan. She said she’d gotten a lot of feedback from people that “we need to work without the Mayor,” but she wanted to say publicly that she thought “real change comes when we have the buy-in from people who can effect that change.”

After more discussion, Councilor Maiore finally pointed out that the discussion sounded like deliberation, and for that reason and because they had a full agenda, she asked they continue discussion to a special meeting. Councilor Nash concurred, saying he knew he took some heat earlier for voting to limit public comment, but that he thought public input on the plan was important.

Police budget

Around 9pm, Councilor Sciarra suggested moving the question of the general fund budget, which includes the police budget, up in the agenda, to which there were no objections.

Councilor Jarrett opened discussion by reading a statement he had written on his website announcing his support for an immediate 15% cut to the police budget and an eventual 35% cut. Off-script, he said he thought if there was a significant cut now and “something happened,” it would be blamed on the cut and would kill the defund movement.

Councilor Labarge and City Solicitor Alan Seewald got into a lengthy and repetitive exchange about the city’s obligations to the police union. Seewald repeatedly explained that city councilors only have the power to cut line items and after that it would be up to the Mayor and Chief Kasper what to do with those cuts afterwards. The confusion emerged from an email exchange in which Seewald explained to Councilor Labarge that a defense of financial duress would not fare well with the Department of Labor Relations if step raises were cut only for the police department, because the police department is not solely responsible for the city’s financial hardship.

Councilor Quinlan spoke to note the general period of economic hardship the city was in, and that it didn’t sit well with him that one department, the police, didn’t propose any cuts. He said he thought the shows of force at the city’s protests were “disgusting,” but did not believe that’s why you cut a budget. He then referenced an op-ed in the Gazette written by a NPD officer saying they would love to have other professionals to help with their calls. “Well, let’s do it,” said Quinlan, saying the police need more transparency and a clear code of conduct and making reference to the code of conduct his sons are held to for their college athletics teams.

Councilor Labarge said she supported the Mayor in his move to quickly create an oversight board, which he has not done.

Councilor Foster said she understands people are not calling for reform from the inside, and said a police review board is the first step in “reform from outside.” She also said she’s heard from people, including people of color, who have wanted to speak (in support of police, she implied) but have been afraid to speak out. This is important to note, she said, because people are claiming this is a community that cares about each other. She noted the commenter who was sworn at earlier, and went on that she was one of the councilors to whose house protestors came, that this scared her children, and that people say, “well, good.” She had debated whether or not to bring this up, because she “get[s] the level of privilege” that her children don’t have to be scared (of police or racial terror, presumably). She concluded that she agrees with the goals of the protestors, but noted that one unintended consequence was that the newest hires, who are more diverse, would be the first to get cut. She announced support for Jarrett’s proposed 15% cut.

Councilor Nash said he was uncomfortable voting for any cut because there was no plan. “Where I would like to see [the public] step up is in this commission,” he said.

Councilor Dwight spoke at great length. In what could perhaps be described as “projecting,” he mused that “the one thing that struck me and always made me feel a little uncomfortable, we who aspire to be white allies or anti-racist, tend to give ourselves a pass.” He continued: “Just explaining to other people about their privilege without acknowledging or recognizing your own privilege—and I stew in my own privilege… we have to go beyond just [that].” He appreciated the offers of support from constituents, but said he is required to make his decisions whether he has support or not. As one of the older members of the council, he said he’s lived through a number of periods of dramatic political and cultural upheaval, and that “the most frustrating thing, of course, is when white men are no longer threatened, those movements start to diminish in power and intensity,” referencing the end of the draft during the Vietnam War. He also referenced a conversation with one protester, who claimed to have shut down the surveillance expansion several years ago. “Not for nothing, but I did that,” said Dwight, referring to his collaboration with then-Council President Ryan O’Donnell to craft and pass an anti-surveillance ordinance. “If every one of you voted in municipal elections, it would alter the face of [the city],” he concluded.

Councilor Maiore said she thought the fact that this was a year of financial hardship made it a perfect time to cut the police budget, given the strong likelihood of having to make more cuts later on. “I take these potential layoffs that might happen very seriously,” she said. “I’m uncomfortable and it’s not easy.” She reminded her colleagues that it was their job to make difficult decisions, and that ultimately it was not their money, but the people’s money. She also asked what evidence they had that the current level of funding was making Northampton safer.

After Councilor Thorpe chimed in to say he likes to have a plan and the commission seemed like the perfect venue for articulating such a plan, Councilor Sciarra said the commission was “the commitment that I am making,” and that it would work towards “not just reform, but change.” She then quoted a recent interview with Alex Vitale, author of the book The End of Policing that many proponents of defunding have cited in communications with the councilors, who said “I’m certainly not talking about any kind of scenario where someone flips a switch and there are no police.” In a different interview for The Nation, Vitale said, “The only leverage that remains is to starve the beast [cut police funding]. That is a language they can understand, and it has the benefit of reducing their scope and power at the same time.”

After more discussion, during which Councilor Labarge railed against the purchasing of new police cruisers and Councilor Maiore urged other councilors to give a number they were comfortable cutting, naming 20% for herself, members of the public turned on their video and held up signs asking “which side are you on?” This happened to coincide with a proposal from Councilor Jarrett to cut the police budget by 15%, which led to some number crunching that seemed to prevent most councilors from noticing the change to the crowd in Zoom. Councilor Sciarra asked some minutes later for people to turn their video off so she could see the other councilors, and promised things would “go faster” if she could see them.

Discussing this motion, Councilor Dwight pointed out that the way the police union works, it would be the most junior officers who would be cut, which included three “remarkable” candidates of color. Eventually Chief Kasper was called into the conversation, who said a 15% cut would be the equivalent of 12.6 officers with an average salary of $60,000 (The highest paid cop in Northampton, Alan Borowski, grossed $160,744.57 in FY19, including overtime). She said the city has 45 patrol officers, but with one vacancy and five at the academy, there are effectively only 39 at the moment. Cutting 12 officers would represent “significant change to how policing works in the city.” She continued: “I always feel like Northampton has been a city that’s excellent at collaborating… [this] feels very sudden without thoughtfully recognizing what impact that’s going to have on how we’re going to be able to provide services to this city.”

Shortly thereafter, Councilor Jarrett withdrew his motion. Councilor Maiore again noted that there is no evidence that that 15% percent of the budget makes the city safer, noting additionally that the Mayor is always able to come back and request more money and that she felt they should make a change while they had the opportunity.

Mayor Narkewicz responded to this point, saying he “wholeheartedly agrees” with Chief Kasper that it would be unwise to make a cut of this significance with twelve days left in the fiscal year. “I know people are poo-pooing the idea that we need to have a plan,” said the Mayor, adding that he was “committed to having a conversation, that’s why you leave the time to do that.” He also seemed to argue that the public, and by extension Councilors Maiore and Jarrett, were “just picking percentage numbers and then backing them into the budget.” He concluded that he didn’t know how he could come back and ask for more money to hire back people who were laid off by the initial cuts.

Councilor Foster spoke against the “cavalier attitude that, ‘other people have lost jobs, cops can, too,’” and worried what this would mean for the city’s reputation as an employer. “Meaningful substantive change has the buy-in of the community, and the buy-in of the people who are implementing our meaningful and substantive change… There are many stakeholders, many voices, and my conscience is telling me all need to be heard.”

Councilor Maiore addressed Chief Kasper to say that this was not about her or her department in particular, and that she recognized it was an unfair position they were putting her in. However, the decision was ultimately the Council’s. Around this time, some members of the public changed their signs or Zoom backgrounds to read “we deserve a vote.”

Councilor Jarrett said he was running the numbers on a 5% cut, and Councilor Maiore said she wanted to move for 10%. Councilor Jarrett ran the numbers, which came out to $146,252 from Other than Ordinary Maintenance (representing the two remaining hybrid police cruisers the Mayor still proposed to purchase), $48,279 from Ordinary Maintenance, and $475,426 from Personal Services (personnel). This would mean a cut of about eight officers. Councilor Maiore made the motion and Councilor Jarrett seconded.

Councilor Nash said he did not feel comfortable approving this cut without a plan. “If the Mayor were coming to us, saying state funding just dropped and we have to cut, I would confidently do that and say to Chief Kasper, you’re gonna have to make a plan and deal.” He worried, though, that cutting now would create unnecessary tension.

The Council then voted on Councilor Maiore’s amendment to cut the police budget by 10%.  Councilors Jarrett and Labarge passed, Councilors Nash and Thorpe voted no, and the rest yes. When the vote came back around, Jarrett voted yes and Labarge no. The amendment passed. Councilor Jarrett immediately moved to reconsider, as he didn’t think the budget would pass once he recused himself again due to his conflict of interest of the Pedal People’s contract with the city, and if the budget was voted down, the Mayor’s revised proposal would automatically take effect on July 1st. Councilor Dwight said he did not think Councilor Jarrett should be sure this would be the case. Councilor Jarrett expressed interest in reconsidering with a smaller percentage cut, but Councilor Dwight argued that he didn’t think that would speak to the concerns of the ‘no’ voters. Councilor Jarrett then withdrew his reconsideration.

The Council then voted to adopt the general fund budget as amended (with the Pedal People contract removed in a separate item). All voted yes except Councilor Nash. Councilor Jarrett then recused himself again and the rest of the councilors voted unanimously to adopt the general fund budget. Councilor Labarge commented afterward that she thought 10% was low.

Highlights from the remaining two hours

The public hearing on the Capital Improvements Plan, which was scheduled to begin at 7:05pm, began at 12:21am. Mayor Narkwicz began by reminding councilors that the resolution is not the actual approval of the funds, but just the program outlining the various projects. The plan includes 104 different projects totaling $96 million, and the Mayor also noted that it was scaled back by $2.5 million due to the pandemic.

During discussion, Councilor Quinlan noted that estimates for PPE expenses for the reopening of the city’s schools were as high as $1.5 million, and he asked if that was included in the CIP. The Mayor responded that the city would likely be able to cover much of the costs with grants from the CARES Act.

Councilors Foster and Jarrett both voiced concerns over the lack of spending on sidewalk repairs and other projects to make the city more walkable or friendly to diverse types of transportation. The Mayor responded that DPW Director Donna Lascaleia felt that the money that would go towards these efforts as parts of larger projects was sufficient, and that funding for these projects was not reflected in the CIP.

The Mayor also noted that the CIP includes $120,000 for studies of converting city buildings to net-zero greenhouse gas consumption. “We moved from oil to gas and we thought we were so great when we did that seven or eight years ago,” he said, “but obviously now we know that we need to move fully away from fossil fuels.”

Other resolutions included Councilor Thorpe’s resolution in recognition of the most recent killings of African-Americans, and a resolution establishing a select committee on public safety, which was introduced by Councilors Maiore and Jarrett and was written before they had seen the Mayor and Councilor Sciarra’s proposal for a joint commission. Both resolutions had their first readings pushed back to the Council’s July meeting, the former in light of new information that might be included, the latter to allow for the special meeting regarding the Mayor and Councilor Sciarra’s proposal to take place first.

After the recess for financial committee, the Council heard a series of orders reappropriating extra money from the FY2020 budget towards capital improvements. One order permitted the city to borrow $640,000 by issuing bonds in order to purchase a new fire truck, though the Mayor noted this would likely not take place until next year. Another allocated leftover funds from roof maintenance at the Leeds and Bridge Street schools totaling $75,000 towards new gym lockers for Smith Vocational, whose lockers are currently from the 1970s.

Finally, the Councilors took second reading votes on the enterprise funds for water, sewer, and solid waste. Councilor Quinlan took issue again with the increase in security funding for the transfer station from $10,000 to $120,000, and laid out some numbers: the station previously was costing the city $35 per hour being open to the public, just to pay gatekeepers and for security on Saturdays. Now, despite cutting back hours, the transfer station costs over $100 per hour. Finance Director Susan Wright reiterated that the station was running much more smoothly with the police detail, and that if the need were reduced should social distancing measures be lifted, they could reduce the detail which would save some of the $120,000. It strikes this reporter that the gatekeepers and security detail ostensibly do very similar work, yet the gatekeepers make under $14/hour according to Wright, as opposed to, if we are to trust Councilor Quinlan’s math, over $65/hr for the security detail. All councilors voted to approve except Councilor Quinlan, and the meeting adjourned at 3:20am.

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

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