I Go to City Council Meetings #35

By Brian Z. Zayatz

Ordinance regarding single-use plastics in restaurants, announcement of policing commission members, anti-racist and other resolutions, land for housing development

On Thursday, September 3rd, Northampton City Council held its 16th regularly scheduled meeting of the year via Zoom. All councilors were present. 

The meeting opened with a robust public comment session, with fifteen members of the public speaking on a resolution and ordinance that would ban certain types of plastics from Northampton restaurants starting in August 2021. All but one of these speakers (Amy Cahillane of the Downtown Northampton Association) supported the measures, including members of the Youth Commission, which helped draft them, and representatives from a number of different environmental groups.

Several other members of the public spoke on other issues, including a resolution supporting public outreach for the 2020 census. Peter Kerantzas of Haven Body Arts spoke against the new shared spaces initiative, which has narrowed the streets downtown to make room for outdoor seating and bike lanes, claiming that the new arrangement is not actually helpful to the area’s businesses. He said an overwhelming number of businesses he has personally surveyed are against the changes, and over 1,000 people have signed an online petition he started against the changes, which has received no response from the Mayor’s office yet. The petition additionally alleges that the new traffic pattern slows traffic and reduces air quality, impedes access of delivery trucks and ambulances to the downtown area, and asks why the resources for these changes were not allocated to people in need.

Robert Eastman and Daniel Cannity spoke on the policing commission, with Eastman calling for a response to petitions demanding the removal of specific NPD officers with histories of misconduct complaints, as well as the digitization of personnel records, which he argued should be publicly available as they are in other municipalities and should not cost $10,000 to access, as the NPD has attempted to charge citizens requesting the documents. Cannity said that he is in favor of the policing commission, but that the city’s work does not begin or end there, and he asked the Council to support the commission and private citizens in accessing the NPD’s ‘public’ records.

Announcement of Policing Commission members

Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) announced the members of the policing review commission that she and Mayor Narkewicz proposed in response to calls from the public for the defunding of the Northampton Police Department. Following communications with the state Attorney General’s office that advised that deliberation over applicants by herself and the Council’s representatives on the commission would be subject to open meeting law, Councilor Sciarra decided she would deliberate alone to protect the privacy of the applicants. As noted in August, the Council’s representatives will be Councilors Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) and Michael Quinlan (Ward 1).

Councilor Sciarra’s additional appointees include Lois Ahrens and Daniel Cannity, who have both been outspoken proponents of defunding the police at City Council meetings earlier in the spring and summer, as well as Carmen Lopez, Javier Luengo-Garrido of the ACLU, Nnamdi Pole, and Larissa Rivera-Gonzalez. The Mayor’s appointees include Booker Bush of the city’s Human Rights Commission, Nick Fleisher, David Hoose, Josey Rosales, and Cynthia Suopis of the Board of Health (who The Shoestring reported last year had a very difficult time grasping why having police enforce a tobacco ban was a bad idea). Councilor Sciarra attested that the commission will have nine members of color, exceeding the agreed upon requirement, and four members who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. 

Shortly thereafter, Councilor Sciarra also announced the members of a new ordinance review committee, which has been in the works since the beginning of the year but has recently been championed by Councilor Jarrett in discussion of the Council’s anti-racist resolution. This committee will review the city’s ordinances to evaluate their impact, with a particular eye towards whether any of them disproportionately impact people of color or other marginalized groups in the city. The appointees from the Council include Councilors Jim Nash (Ward 3), John Thorpe (Ward 4), and Marianne Labarge (Ward 6), as well as Megan Peck and Jeff Napolitano of the Resistance Center.

Resolutions

The Council spent the better part of an hour discussing a resolution declaring racism a public health emergency, which has been revised heavily from its original form introduced in the Spring. The resolution calls on federal and state legislators to support the MA Black and Latino Legislative Caucus’s ten-point proposal for police reform in Massachusetts, which includes increased resources for oversight, investigations, and training of police, and no mention of redirecting resources from policing to communities in need. Councilors Jarrett, Quinlan, and Maiore (Ward 7) suggested amendments that further expand racism’s impact on public health, and call for additional changes on the local level.

Councilor Jarrett’s first amendment, regarding the ordinance review committee, passed quickly. The Council then considered Councilor Quinlan’s amendment, which urges Mayor Narkewicz to create an Office of Equity and Human Rights. Councilor Labarge asked why the city should pursue this when it already has a Human Rights Commission, to which Councilor Quinlan responded that the city also has both a Health Department and Board of Health, and that the Office would be funded whereas the Commission is not. Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) remarked that he didn’t see them as mutually exclusive, and Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) chimed in that “in order for progress to happen, there needs to be city resources dedicated to it.” Councilor Quinlan concluded discussion by saying that “how the Mayor chooses to get there is his privilege and not ours,” whereas the Council’s privilege is to vote on funding. This amendment also passed. Councilors Maiore and Jarrett’s amendment, focusing on the language of public health, also passed quickly.

Councilor Jarrett then moved to make another amendment, which supported redirecting resources from punitive to restorative approaches towards justice. Councilor Jarrett also cited the potential for a progressive tax structure, reparations, and housing reforms that allow marginalized groups to build wealth through property ownership, rather than being forced to remain renters. This amendment also passed, and the resolution passed its second reading unanimously.

Three other resolutions were on the agenda as well: one calling on state legislators to adopt stricter light pollution laws, another to complement the plastics ordinance, and another in support of outreach for the 2020 census. The first passed in first reading; the second was withdrawn by its sponsors, Councilors Maiore and Dwight, for the reason that it precluded further public input on the ordinance, which had still yet to be referred to relevant committees; and the third passed in two readings given its time sensitive nature.

Land for housing development

The Council then heard a financial order and an order that related to different plots where the city is hoping to develop or promote affordable housing. The first related to a parcel at Laurel Street and Burt’s Pit Road, which Mayor Narkewicz explained was formerly part of the state hospital property. When the hospital was decommissioned in 1994, some parcels of land were designated for public housing, though not all of them were able to be developed due to a lack of state funding. This financial order works in conjunction with state legislation that formally transfers the land to the city and zones it in accordance with Smart Growth guidelines, allowing the city to develop public housing. The financial order was recommended positively out of committee and passed its first reading.

The Council then considered an order waiving the city’s right of first refusal for land at Turkey Hill Road. The 13-acre parcel was created through the office of Planning and Sustainability as part of a land preservation acquisition that preserves 150 acres for conservation. The plan allows for the construction of four condominiums, which the Mayor noted had already occurred, and a higher-end single family dwelling. Councilor Jarrett asked if it wasn’t possible for the parcel to be dedicated entirely to affordable housing, and the Mayor responded that the parcel was prohibitively expensive at $200,000 for the city to purchase for that purpose. Councilor Dwight offered that the plan’s balancing of affordable and market-rate housing helps offset the blow to the property tax base that the conservation project incurred, assuring Councilor Jarrett that “there is a method to the madness.” This order also passed in first reading.

Finally, the Council referred the plastics ordinance to the appropriate committees, but not before Councilor Labarge offered an impassioned plea for “massive outreach to the business community” to seek feedback on the matter, noting that she agreed with Amy Cahillane as well as much of the language in the ordinance. Councilor Sciarra attempted to interject that there shouldn’t be deliberation on a referral to committee, and Labarge responded that the “[business community’s] voices needed to be heard, and it’s our job.” Councilor Dwight noted that there has been outreach for two years now on the matter, and that business owners will continue to have opportunities to voice their thoughts in the Community Resources and Legislative Matters committee meetings, as well as at City Council or in writing, and that the process has been no more or less intensive than on the plastic bag ban to which Councilor Labarge referred.

In conclusion…

It is this reporter’s opinion that the Council acted rather hastily passing the anti-racist resolution. In order to pass effective resolutions, you need a plan. I call on City Council to create a commission to study whether resolutions are effective in expressing the will of the Council to not accomplish anything. What if something concretely beneficial to marginalized communities accidentally comes from this resolution? Looking to the future, the Mayor should establish a city department to ensure these decisions are not rushed, and to further drain the city’s money into inane bureaucracies rather than actual services.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. 

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