I Go to City Council Meetings #36

Charter Review Commission recommendations, financial orders, long term parking

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On September 17th, the Northampton City Council held their 17th regularly scheduled meeting of the year via Zoom. All councilors were present.

The meeting opened as usual with public comment, at which three members of the public spoke, respectively in favor of the dark sky resolution, the policing commission, and the charter review recommendations around voting.

Following this, the Council approved the warrant for November’s election, including state and local offices, electors for the federal election, and two ballot measures around customers’ rights for automotive repairs and ranked choice voting. It was not an unusual vote, but City Clerk Pam Powers was present to answer questions anyway, and ended up giving the Council information about how this year’s elections have compared to others. According to Powers, 53% of registered voters in Northampton voted in the September 1st primary, compared to 35% in 2016. Approximately 7,900 of these votes were cast early, with over 7,000 of those being by mail; for November’s election, the city has already logged over 10,000 requests for early ballots. Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) remarked that the turnout gives him some hope for the future, and Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) asked if the city needed more election workers. Powers replied that she thought they were all set for poll workers, but may need workers to help count ballots.

Charter review commission recommendations

The Council then resumed its discussion of the recommendations of the Charter Review Commission, which met throughout last year to review and suggest changes to the city’s charter. City Council last addressed these recommendations in March in the final meeting before the pandemic hit, covering specific tweaks to language regarding temporary vacancies in the Mayor’s office, among other things.

The Councilors voted quickly to clarify the name of the Smith Vocational school in the charter, which had led to some confusion, and to adopt a recommendation that would change the mayoral election cycle should the mayor leave office in the first half of their term (e.g., if a mayor resigned one year into a four year term, the interim mayor would only serve one year instead of three before the next election, and the following election would be four years after that).

The Council then addressed two of four recommendations regarding voting, which unlike other recommendations were not given specific language by the commission. The two considered on Thursday were ranked choice voting and expanding the franchise to non-citizen residents of Northampton for municipal elections; the other two being lowering the voting age to sixteen and implementing a universal mail-in ballot system.

On ranked choice voting, commission-member Bob Boulrice spoke to explain the recommendation, noting that 4 million Americans already vote this way; that Easthampton, Amherst, and New York City have all recently voted to adopt the system as well; and that it has a number of benefits including the elimination of spoiler candidates and lesser-evil voting, and making it more likely that more people will run for office.

Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) noted that the state’s ranked choice voting bill does not apply to elections in which more than one candidate will be elected, and asked whether the city’s language would be the same. Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) replied that they could draft the city charter however they wanted, and after some discussion, the Council decided not to make exceptions for those types of races. The Council voted unanimously in favor, and will now draft language on the matter for the city’s charter.

The Council then turned to non-citizen voting, which commission-member Stan Moulton introduced, saying it was time for action and not aspirations. Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) asked why the language should specifically refer to non-citizens and not simply “all residents.” Moulton responded that the language was meant to specifically identify a disenfranchised class of residents; to which Councilor Dwight concurred and noted that the politicization of the definition of “resident” was exactly the issue at hand. City Solicitor Alan Seewald also offered from the legal perspective that while someone could be a resident of many places, the idea pertained specifically to domiciliaries, or people whose primary residence is in the city. City law already states that all domiciliaries over 18 are allowed to register to vote, and the change in language is meant to include a specific group that has been excluded under the current system, according to Seewald. This measure also passed, and the Council will now also work on drafting language for the change, and address the other two voting-related issues at the next meeting.

Financial orders

The Council heard a number of financial orders on first reading. The first allocated $54,000 from community preservation funds towards the conservation of an area of farmland on West Farms Road. The allocation essentially buys off the development rights to the land with a matching grant from the state of over $500,000, ensuring that, though the land is still privately owned, it cannot be developed. Two other orders rearranged money within departments. Another, on recommendation from the Mayor, allocated $25,000 for a part-time staff position for the policing review commission, and the final related to an easement for a drainage project on North Farms Road. All passed first reading, and the latter two both passed second readings, as well, due to their time sensitive natures.

Long Term Parking

The meeting concluded with the Council hearing a series of orders that would alter parking patterns on Bridge St, Pleasant St, and Middle St, respectively. Councilor Nash spoke to the first, giving some background about the city’s renegotiation of its agreement with the depot lot two years ago, which eliminated a number of spaces where downtown employees could park long term for relatively cheap. Since then, employees and customers have vied for the same parking spots, which Nash attested was not ideal for any party involved. The new order establishes longer term parking along Bridge Street east of Hawley and Market Streets; the second establishes similar parking on Pleasant Street near Holyoke Street. The final order eliminated one spot on Middle Street that made for a dangerous corner in the winter.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. 

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