I Go to City Council Meetings #33

I Go to City Council Meetings #33

Public comment, police review commission, financial orders

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On Thursday, July 9th, the Northampton City Council held its 14th regularly scheduled meeting of the year via Zoom. All councilors were present, as well as Mayor Narkewicz and about 75 members of the public.

Public comment

Public comment for Thursday’s meeting clocked in at under an hour, the shortest since nationwide uprisings started in late May, and covered a number of topics.

Laurie Loisel of Ward 3 went first and said she thought the campaign to defund the police misses the mark of dismantling white supremacy. If the police were defunding tomorrow, she argued, the city would still be very white and segregated. “To focus on police and police only is myopic… [and] also lets the rest of us off the hook,” she said, and praised Councilor Jim Nash of her own ward for his vote against the amendment that reduced police funding by 10%, claiming it was “not because he supports the status quo.” Instead of defunding, she suggested painting “Black Lives Matter” on the street, like in other cities, to serve as a daily reminder that dismantling white supremacy is everyone’s responsibility. Loisel is the director of community outreach and education for District Attorney Dave Sullivan and a former Gazette reporter.

Shortly thereafter, Karen Sullivan, who spoke at a previous meeting in support of the police, and this time she came armed with some math. The NPD received 40,040 calls last year, she said, and of those only 84 resulted in use of force. Of the use of force instances, 59 of these were against white people. Therefore, she concluded, only “0.29%” of these instances resulted in use of force against a person of color, the implication seeming to be that this is the acceptable amount of force to be directed at people of color (It is worth pointing out that, despite being spoken with gusto, Sullivan’s math is off by a factor of 100). Later, Jesse Hassenger spoke to rebut these numbers, pointing out that 15.5% of use of force cases were against black people, who make up only 3% of the city’s population—in other words, black people are overrepresented in use of force cases in Northampton by a factor of five.

Jonathan Wright, Mark Devlin of River Valley Coop, Greg Skibiski, and John Skibiski all spoke against a construction project at the intersection of North King St. and Hatfield St. that would allegedly destroy a 10,000 year old “undisturbed ancient village,” according to an online petition made by Greg that now has over 50,000 signatures. The four men called on City Council to halt construction at the site and pursue less invasive plans that would preserve the site. 

Elliot Olberholzer read excerpts from a statement by the Nipmuc Nation, a state- and federally-recognized tribe indigenous to the area, which refuted many of the claims made by the Skibiski petition. The Nipmuc statement argues that the site is not sacred to them, the archaeological process would not “preserve” the site and instead any artifacts uncovered should be returned to the earth, as they belong to ancestors. The statement also points out that John Skibiski called for financial remunerations for artifacts uncovered on land that was owned by him before it was taken by eminent domain. The Nipmuc Nation says it will monitor construction at the site as it develops, but does not seek to halt it.

Natalia Muñoz, former chair of the Northampton Human Rights Commission, said she was disappointed in the recent protests, which blindly urged the City Council to “defund the police to show you are woke.” She encouraged local protestors to focus on “reforming police where murderous police officers remain free,” in cities like Minneapolis or Louisville. “Let’s be real, Northampton is not one of those cities,” she concluded. 

Other speakers continued to urge for further defunding. One asked the Councilors to consider why the police budget had expanded from $4.4 million in 2013 to a proposal of nearly $7 million this year, and argued that defunding needed to happen first, then alternatives could be built. Gillian Love condemned the Councilors for listening to hours of testimony about defunding the police, and then chose to speak instead for constituents who allegedly support the police who have not put in the time or effort to organize. Oriana Reilly expressed frustration that the Commission was moving forward even though nobody had asked for it, and that Councilors continued to pat themselves on the back for it. She suggested that no one with law enforcement affiliations be allowed to serve on the commission.

Police review commission

Before addressing a new resolution approving of the Mayor and Council President’s Policing Review Commission, Councilors Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) and Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) spoke to the withdrawal of their resolution to create a select committee, which would have studied possibilities for police reform legislation in the city. The Policing Review Commission came out of an offer by Mayor Narkewicz and Council President Gina Louise Sciarra (At-Large) during a stalemate in initial discussions around defunding the NPD that they would come back to the Council with a proposal speaking to the public’s concerns. Councilors Maiore and Jarrett, before seeing the proposal for the Commission, drafted a resolution to form a select committee for similar purposes, which many members of the public continued to support given the lack of transparency and public input around the proposal for the Commission. Speaking at Thursday’s meeting, Councilor Jarrett emphasized that they did not plan to move forward with their resolution at this time, but that he and Councilor Maiore would be asking one or more standing committees to look into legislative options around issues of policing, noting that the select committee on pesticide reduction has made clear that there is some precedent for the legislature directing or setting policy for the executive.

Councilor Sciarra introduced the new resolution, which was to have two readings since the Council only meets once during the month of July, and once again repeated the half-truth that City Council asked her and Mayor Narkewicz to come up with this commission—this time baked into the text of the resolution. Discussion of the resolution centered largely around the application process. Councilor Sciarra noted in her opening remarks that she and the Mayor had amended the application process to be quite all-encompassing, now considering personal written or verbal communications with individual councilors or the Mayor to be sufficient.

The biggest sticking point, however, was that it was unclear whether Councilor Sciarra plus the two councilors who get appointed to the commission would be subject to meeting law. Councilor Sciarra said she was waiting to hear back from the Attorney General’s office on the matter. At the time, this seemed merely like extra precaution given the police union’s proclivity for filing open meeting complaints. However, Councilor Sciarra confirmed via email this week that an AG representative had told her that if she were to meet with the two councilors chosen for the committee, it would constitute a subcommittee and be subject to open meeting law. Councilor Sciarra did not respond when asked how deliberations would proceed.

Councilor Jarrett asked about deliberating as a group, which would have to be public, and Councilor Sciarra responded that she did not want deliberation to be public, as they would likely be discussing very personal experiences of applicants. Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) opined that the other councilors would have to have some degree of trust in the process, and that if they held deliberation publicly they would never make their already ambitious timeline.

The question of ward representation came up (the Council has nine appointees on the commission: two councilors and seven others, hypothetically one for each ward). Councilor Sciarra said she did not want to have to stick to representing each ward if someone came in with a POC applicant with “amazing lived experience,” leaving many spectators wondering if she was referring to incidents of traumatic violence at the hands of police, or something more like whatever experience has driven Natalia Muñoz to vocally support the police so much.

Councilor Maiore said she did not think the Commission should be a place for police officers to serve, but did not directly ask a question about it. Councilor Sciarra said she couldn’t speak to that point, though the Mayor did chime in to say it was not his intention to appoint any police officers.

After Councilor Dwight read a selection from the city charter saying that it is the Council President’s power to appoint committee members (even though the topic at hand was a commission, not a committee), the Council got around to voting on the matter. Councilor Jarrett said he would support it, because Northampton’s strong-executive-branch form of government necessitated collaboration between the two branches, though he noted that commissions do not have a good record of leading to substantive change in the city. The Council voted, and all councilors voted twice in favor of the commission, except Councilor Maiore, who abstained.

Financial orders

The Council also heard a number of financial orders. One permitted the city to refinance its debt bonds to take advantage of lower interest rates, which could save an estimated $230,000 over nine years. Another established new intermunicipal agreements with surrounding towns and cities, including veterans’ services, public health emergency preparedness, several regarding the sharing of resources and data to combat the opioid epidemic, and mosquito control. The order also recapped continuing intermunicipal agreements. Councilor Jarrett remarked that some of these agreements could be good for the Policing Review Commission to consider, since many (particularly related to the opioid epidemic) involve law enforcement collaboration.

Another order approved spending of a deposit on a development at Village Hill to contain rapid erosion due to rainwater now that construction has stopped due to the developer’s bankruptcy. A public commenter read a letter signed by twenty-two neighbors supporting this measure, and it passed in two readings.

Several orders also pertained to gift and maintenance expenditures to restore the graves of several formerly enslaved residents of Florence. Another allocated $90,000 from the capital stabilization fund towards improving health and safety at the treasurer collector’s office, and was withdrawn to allow for finding ways to make it more cost effective. Mayor Narkewicz noted that this is not the same stabilization fund that covers year-to-year gaps in operating expenses, seeming to anticipate criticism that money from the stabilization fund would not be used to build policing alternatives.

All orders on first-reading that were not withdrawn passed, as well as all second reading items, including new gym lockers at Smith Vocational School, cemetery restoration, new point of sale systems for the school cafeterias, and borrowing $640,000 for a new fire truck; among other things.

Open meeting law violation?

When discussing a donation of up to $100,000 for a new fence at the Bridge Street Cemetery, Councilor Nash likened the anonymity of the donor to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” in that he couldn’t stop wondering who the donor was, or who the song was about. Mayor Narkewicz informed him that the song is about Warren Beaty. Pop culture trivia, however, was not listed on the agenda. The Shoestring expects that the police union has likely already filed another open meeting law complaint about the matter.

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

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