Two special meetings on the Policing Review Commission and open meeting law complaints, respectively
By Brian Z. Zayatz
On Tuesday, June 23rd, the Northampton City Council held a special meeting to discuss Mayor Narkewicz and Council President Sciarra’s proposal for a Policing Review Commission. On Thursday, June 25th, the Council held another special meeting to discuss two open meeting law complaints filed by members of the New England Police Benevolent Association, the police union that represents the NPD. This column will cover both meetings.
The Tuesday meeting had all councilors, the Mayor, and roughly 170 members of the public attend. City Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) opened the meeting by stating that special meetings were not required to have public comment sessions, but that she had decided to allot up to two hours for public comment.
Fifty members of the public spoke on Tuesday, with only one being vocally in support of the police. Though most commenters expressed opposition to the commission, others expressed a range of ideas regarding how it could be most effective. The following are some highlights:
Adriana Piantedosi of Ward 7 set the tone for many of the comments, saying that the commission seemed geared towards placating the public. She argued that the commission should exist separately from the Mayor’s partiality towards the police department.
Attorney Dana Goldblatt of Ward 3 echoed this sentiment, saying the commission assumes all parties are on the same page when this has been shown to be untrue. The commission would only move the fight out of the public eye, she continued, and argued that the Councilors should write their own report staking out their position. “Do you think we should have a police department in Northampton?” she asked. How many officers should there be, and what should they do? If the Mayor wants to defund the police, she concluded, he should say so.
Veronica Douglass of Ward 3 said she was not in support of the commission, and asked what could a commission tell the Council that wasn’t covered in the hours of personal and researched testimony over the last several weeks. She also spoke against the $26,000 invoice the police department sent the city for the presence of other police departments at the June 6th protest.
Ashwin Ravikumar of Amherst read a letter, dated from the near future, to Karen Foster’s children, describing an “evil” man named Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who kept families in cages because of their race. The letter says that Chief Kasper sent officers to train with Arpaio, and that “when we asked to defund the police, to stop this madness, the chief of police said that it would be impossible; that it would make us less safe.” Ravikumar read, in an incredulous voice, about how when protestors came to the children’s house to ask their mother to stand with them, she said she couldn’t, and that “part of why she did that is because you, the children, were afraid of us,” peaceful protestors with nothing but instruments. He also said there was another version of this letter, that describes how the children’s mother was brave and stood up for justice.
Jake Carroll of Ward 3 called the commission ultimately pointless, and the attitude of the Councilors trying to take things slowly as “the curse of liberalism.” They continued: “when the right wants to take away people’s rights and put them in cages, they don’t form a commission about it, they just do it.” They also said he does not know how Councilor Thorpe can be a part of this conversation when he is a parole officer and his career is thus dependent on policing.
Jasmine Sinclair of Northampton urged the Council to “think critically” about how they will be wasting the time and money of Northampton residents with this commission. She suggested that they make the commission’s focus be on “planning and reenvisioning what our city will look like without police,” since they were so concerned about having a plan in place.
Elliot Olberholzer self-identified as an “evaluations specialist,” and told the Council that “people think if you get enough data in one place, it will magically grow solutions, and it’s not actually true.” Without structures in place, all the commission would do is put a lot of data in one place. “It’s not going to get you what you want, unless what you want is a report that no one reads.”
Will Meyer of Easthampton (and co-editor of The Shoestring) addressed the suggested topics for study listed in the proposal for the commission one by one. Meyer noted: the strong use of force policy in the city and said the next step should be taking away guns and other weapons; that the citizen complaint process shouldn’t be run by Captain Robert Powers; that putting body cameras on the list was “insulting to our intelligence” given the glut of data on their lack of efficacy in stopping abuse; that experiments have been done on alternatives and we should begin implementing non-punitive responses to issues like homelessness and addiction.
Council’s discussion of the Commission
The establishment of a joint commission is not something that the Council would normally vote on—it’s something the Mayor and Council President have the power to do themselves. Councilor Jarrett (Ward 5) asked to confirm this at the beginning of discussion, and Councilor Sciarra responded that the Council can make recommendations. Mayor Narkewicz again offered that the Council asked him and Councilor Sciarra to come up with this plan (which, as I have previously noted, is not exactly true), and that it’s not unprecedented that a Mayor and Council President would create an ad-hoc committee.
Councilor Jarrett pushed back on the Mayor’s insistence that this is what the Council asked for, pointing out that it was never voted on. “We said, ‘oh, that sounds like a good idea,” but it was not like the process for establishing a select committee, which requires a resolution.
Councilor Sciarra responded to this point directly: “This is not something the Mayor is creating under his power, this is something being jointly proposed,” she said. “You all asked me to do it.” The Mayor, for his part, would make a much more accurate statement later on in the meeting, saying that he “extended the offer” at the same meeting he proposed his revised budget.
The gaslighting on the part of the Mayor and Council President that has spanned two meetings now appears to have worked, however. Councilor Foster (Ward 2) spoke next, opening with “I do remember our asking you for this.” The Councilor rebutted several points from the public commenters, speaking to mistrust towards the Mayor that she “notice[s] the Council has more appointees than the Mayor.” Saying she’s “heard talk of, ‘well, the research is out there,’” Councilor Foster said the work of the commission is to “take what’s out there and distill it” to be relevant to Northampton. She noted the “real potential to make recommendations” and added that “research doesn’t translate into action without someone to do the action,” despite the fact that the body tasked with issuing a report cannot take action.
Mayor Narkewicz, seemingly responding in advance to a possible rebuttal of this last point, said that, under state law, neither he nor the Council could give another board independent authority. “We’re the folks who stood elections for these positions,” he said. “I know you didn’t ask me that, but I’ve heard it come up a number of times tonight.” The Mayor again, later on after further insistence from Councilor Jarrett that they vote on the commission: “The idea that somehow I don’t represent all the residents of Northampton, I just don’t understand that concept.”
The meeting, on the whole, was fairly jumbled, given that it was never leading up to any vote and was merely for discussion purposes. The discussion moved away from more direct skepticism of the commission, mostly from Councilors Jarrett and Maiore (Ward 7), who presented their own resolution to establish a select committee independent from the Mayor last week, towards debate on the minutiae of how the commission could be most ethical and effective.
Councilor Dwight (At-Large) offered one of his signature monologues early on to expand upon his point from the last meeting that he didn’t feel public commenters were recognizing their own privilege. Though he was unable to see many speakers who did not use the video function on Zoom nor privy to the entirety of their life experiences, he noted a “distinct blindness” in many of the remarks, and “heard many people, many white people, describing the experiences of POC, queer people, disabled people.” Councilor Dwight took particular offense to the fact that only three speakers referenced Councilor Thorpe (Ward 4), the only black councilor, directly, and two of these were calling to “neutralize him,” while many others lectured the Council, and by extension Councilor Thorpe, on the black experience. He concluded by once again offering unsolicited advice to those who threatened the Councilors’ positions to “by all means, run for office,” but advised them not just to run against people or things, but for something. (Councilor Thorpe thanked Counselor Dwight and said he’s heard a wide variety of views on the Commission, that whatever everyone’s view it’s important we all be respectful to each other, and that the Council “really has to be mindful to include everyone’s views.” This was the only time he spoke during the meeting.)
The other major interaction worth detailing occurred between Councilor Jarrett and the Mayor. Councilor Jarrett, after touching on Councilor Dwight’s comments, noted that the city has a “strong mayor” government structure, and while some people wish it was different, the reality is that the executive would need to be included if substantial change were to be enacted. He also spoke in favor of his proposed select committee as a body that would be independent of the executive and could advise the City Council on specifically legislative approaches to the issue of policing. If the commission’s report is not to their liking when it comes out, he noted that City Council always has the power of the purse. Councilor Jarrett finished with a question for the Mayor, asking him to “talk about [his] commitment to moving money from policing to alternatives,” and to holding officers accountable for poor conduct. “It’s related to this topic because I need to know you’re really with us.”
In a roughly seven minute, pronoun-heavy response, Mayor Narkewicz repeated his line about being in a very different place than when he submitted the budget in May. “We are at a place now where we have to look at these issues on a fundamental level,” he said, and, in a particularly dense passage where it was unclear if he was referring to defunding the police: “I am committed to that… if that is where the community wants us to move… I will carry out that and I will work on that.” He went on to list his credentials: “call me a wonk, or call me whatever, I am someone who has spent the better part of my life working on public policy,” noting his major in college and time working as an aide in DC. “I think it’s one of the reasons people trusted me with the role of Mayor. I listen to all sides, I don’t take serious decisions lightly.” Councilor Jarrett responded that he was hearing what sounded like reformist language in the Mayor’s response, and asked if he would support alternatives to policing if that was the direction the Council decided to go. The Mayor responded in the positive, and added that he didn’t think the two were mutually exclusive, arguing that his administration has already been “leaders” on affordable housing and noting his moving forward with a feasibility study for a new “resiliency hub” for the city, which he alleged “everyone we’ve talked to, including people on the streets, has said this is the number one need.”
From there, the conversation got into the details of the plan. Councilor Maiore said that she hoped representatives of the queer and trans communities, as well as domestic violence survivors, would be included, and objected to the language of “transform[ing] how the city delivers policing services.” She also noted that a lot of agencies that might be tasked with replacing the police also can uphold oppressive systems, and she hoped to see a new department of public safety emerge from this. “We don’t want police-lite,” she said. Councilor Dwight responded that he agreed with everything, and that these recommendations should be submitted in the form of a letter, since the commission has the power to define its own scope.
Councilor Jarrett also brought up the issue of pay, since many members of the most impacted groups would not be able to commit large swaths of their time to the Commission without compensation. Though the matter came up multiple times in discussion from there, there was little word from the Mayor of Councilor Sciarra on the topic.
Councilor Quinlan also brought up that he thought it might be worthwhile for the Commission not to disband after issuing its report, which Councilor Sciarra said she supported. By the end of the meeting, it was unclear what would happen with the points brought up—presumably, it is on the Mayor and Councilor Sciarra to include these recommendations or not before the application process begins in July.
Open Meeting Law complaint review
Thursday’s meeting saw roughly 100 members of the public attend, some having changed their Zoom profile photos to a graphic that read “UNITED AGAINST POLICE INTIMIDATION. City Council: stand by us and we’ll stand by you.”
Both complaints were filed by members of the New England Police Benevolent Association, the police union that represents the NPD. The first alleges specifically that, during the recess following Councilor Jarrett’s motion to reconsider the vote that initially cut the NPD’s budget by 10%, he called Councilor Labarge, who could be seen on Zoom answering a phone call before her video and audio were cut, and convinced her to change her vote when it came to adopting the budget as a whole. The second alleges a more general conspiracy to influence councilors’ decisions on the second vote and implicates all the councilors. Both request that the vote be nullified.
Councilor Sciarra opened the meeting by explaining that the complaints necessitated a response within fourteen days, and that the Council needed to file a response with the complainants and the state Attorney General’s office. City Solicitor Alan Seewald explained further that City Council could either self-disclose or conduct an independent investigation. He also noted that, in this new age of virtual government meetings, there is still little precedent for how open meeting laws will be interpreted and enforced. The Division of Open Government at the AG’s office has not yet taken a stance on the particular issue at hand, nor has the Assistant AG with whom he was in contact.
The Council discussed in some detail what would and wouldn’t, under normal circumstances, constitute a violation. Councilor Dwight pointed out that two councilors simply having an in-person conversation during a recess would not be a violation, but Seewald pointed out that what’s being alleged is more like several councilors going into a separate room to deliberate. Even still, as Councilor Maiore pointed out, there would need to be a quorum for this to count as a violation. Councilor Jarrett noted that the AG’s website’s FAQ section states that even electronic communication between councilors during a meeting is not forbidden, only discouraged. Still, Seewald continued to warn without substantial grounding in Mass General Law that “we’re in a brave new world” where it’s unclear what the closest analogy to this situation would be. The governor’s order is quite clear that the definition of deliberation as delineated in G.L. c. 30A, § 18 has not changed and still requires a quorum, which in City Council’s case would be five members.
Councilor Labarge (Ward 6) spoke definitively that she did not deliberate during the recess, and rather that it was her brother in Georgia who called, and had already called twice during the meeting and was concerned because he had heard from another family member that a banner had been placed on top of her car during a protest the night of Wednesday, June 17th. She said she had submitted a letter from her brother and another relative she lives with regarding the matter.
Councilor Dwight asked if a show of hands would clear things up, and Seewald noted that it would, but if any Councilors were communicating, they would need to divulge what and to whom. He also noted the AG’s office has great investigative powers and can subpoena, but the Division of Open Government tends to take people at their word.
After putting the first complaint to rest, Councilor Dwight divulged that he did communicate with Councilor Sciarra during the recess to note that it sounded like Councilor Labarge was on a personal phone call and that she should be muted. Councilors Quinlan, Foster, and Thorpe all said they had no communication with other councilors during the recess, meaning that a quorum could not have been reached if there had been any communication.
Councilor Maiore noted that the complainants were directly impacted by the vote, and that this should affect how much “air time and oxygen” they give to it. (Councilor Jarret had also said earlier he saw this as an attempt to intimidate.) She moved to adjourn, but Councilor Sciarra intervened before it could be seconded to say that they had not decided how they would respond. Councilor Dwight moved to ask Solicitor Seewald to draft their response and all voted yes, and the meeting adjourned in under an hour.
Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. Photo courtesy of Facebook.