I Go to City Council Meetings #38

By Brian Z. Zayatz

First quarter financial report, Public Shade Tree Commission restructuring

On Thursday, October 15th, Northampton City Council held its 19th regularly scheduled meeting of the year. All councilors were present. The majority of the meeting was spent on a public hearing and subsequent discussion of an administrative order written by Mayor Narkewicz that would rename the Public Shade Tree Commission as the Urban Forestry Commission, as well as change its composition from seven resident members to six resident members and the city’s Tree Warden, who would serve as the ex-officio chair. The commission is an advisory to the Mayor charged with “researching and developing plans, programs and policies for achieving a tree canopy that supports Northampton’s goals of public health, beautification, economic and environmental sustainability, and resilience in the face of climate change,” and also engages the public in tree-planting events.

The agenda was otherwise fairly modest, and included the approval of a pole petition; the appointment of Marc Dautreuil, formerly the city’s Deputy Assessor, to Principal Assessor; and the second-reading approval of several parking ordinances previously covered in this column. Two financial orders were heard, one permitting Trident Realty to repair a section of sidewalk in front of First Church and another permitting funds held in escrow by the city to be used to make necessary adjustments to the Beaver Brook Estates development to provide adequate stormwater drainage; the former passed in two readings and the latter passed its first.

First quarter financial report

Financial Director Susan Wright joined the call to present a summary of the city’s FY2021 first quarter finances. The city’s FY2021 budget, which was completed during the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, contained a fair amount of guesswork as to how the pandemic would affect certain revenues and expenses. Wright’s summary focused largely on these areas of uncertainty.

The city’s hotel/motel excise tax came in at $66,000 for Q1, about $160,000 behind Q1 last year; the meal tax produced $126,000 in revenue compared to $189,000 last year. Marijuana revenue was down over $200,000, bringing in $307,000. These numbers were not terribly unexpected, and in fact the meal tax produced more revenue than expected. Property taxes came in as expected. The most persistently lagging revenue source has been parking: whereas it would normally bring in around $500,000 in a first quarter, this year it raised only $88,000, well below even the city’s adjusted expectations. Consequently, parking ticket revenue was also down, but ambulance revenue has almost completely rebounded, and overall, Wright assured, the general fund “big picture” was not terribly concerning. Water and sewer usage were both down, due to reduced business and college use, which could affect pricing going forward.

Public Shade Tree Commission restructuring

The meeting opened, following a brief public comment, with a hearing on the Mayor’s proposed changes to the Public Shade Tree Commission. Mayor Narkewicz introduced the order, saying that it would broaden the commission’s scope beyond public shade trees, which has a specific definition under state law, to the entire urban canopy—essentially aligning the name of the group with what it has already been doing. He also credited the idea with permanently installing the Tree Warden as ex-officio chair to DPW Director Donna LaScaleia and the Tree Warden himself, Rich Parasiliti.

As is customary, speakers in favor of the change spoke first, among them Susan Lofthouse, the current chair of the commission, and Robert Postel, a co-founder of the commission. Lofthouse argued that the changes would better connect the commission to the DPW, which is essential to enacting policy, and that she didn’t think it would take their voice away to have an expert in their midst. Celeste Paladino also spoke during this section, though she noted she was “neutral” on the change to the structure of the commission.

Lilly Lombard, another co-founder and long time chair of the commission, spoke at length against the proposed changes. She characterized the changes as “a solution looking for a problem,” noting that the commission has already maintained a strong relationship with the Tree Warden, and is generally an accomplished, award-winning commission. She went on to name this move as part of a concerning trend toward greater executive control of commissions, calling it unprecedented in the state and telling the Councilors that she hoped they would ask what other commissions he planned to alter this way. With a staff person as chair, she feared the commission would become more of an echo chamber, losing the tempering effects that these commissions can have on aggressive executive agendas. Additionally, she noted that three current members of the commission are also opposed. Ezekiel Baskin spoke after Lombard, echoing many of her points.

Later in the meeting, discussion on the topic opened with Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) suggesting the Tree Warden could be an ex-officio member with the opportunity to be chair if so elected by the commission. Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6) spoke next, saying that Lombard’s comments “really opened [her] eyes.” Mayor Narkewicz responded that he was “a little shocked by [his] friend Lilly Lombard, usually she wants the city to be out front and be a trailblazer,” saying he wasn’t sure why no one having done this before made it a bad thing. He went on to speculate further about what Lombard usually wants before finally noting that commissions don’t form and make decisions about themselves, and that the chair of a multi-member body doesn’t have extra power.

Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) chimed in that these commissions exist and serve at the will of the Mayor, and that Lombard’s argument was “discouraging.” “These changes are not part of a power grab,” he said, continuing, “the commissions are advisers to the Mayor and don’t have to be yes men…The Mayor’s not going to sabotage a committee that advises him, it makes no sense.” Towards the end of the discussion, Councilor Dwight spoke more frankly, pointing out, for some reason, that the Council was exercising a check on the Mayor that the Mayor did not have on the Council, and claiming that the next Mayor could come in and decide to disband all the commissions, and that that would reflect the will of the people because the Mayor is an elected office. He went on to say that he was “deeply offended” by the implication that something nefarious was going on. An intentionally cultivated cynicism “has taken seed here in Northampton,” he said. “Once you’ve taken an oath, you are sinister, you are an authority that needs to be challenged… this has always sort of bugged me in my entire tenure as a Councilor.”

Before that sombre conclusion, however, a lively discussion ensued. Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) echoed some of Councilor Dwight’s earlier comments, claiming that he hasn’t seen any issues with other commissions that run this way. “I try to show up to Bike and Ped[estrian Subcommittee],” he said, “which Wayne [Feiden] holds at 7:30 in the morning, I guess to keep numbers down,” seemingly missing the irony.

Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) also spoke at length, asking “if there’s nothing special about the chair, then why are we here?” She said she’s heard complaints about commissions with permanent chairs, and echoed Councilor Jarrett that there was no reason for them to make these changes if the commission had the power to choose to do it of their own volition. “When we prioritize perceived efficiency and professionalism over equitable access to positions of power in our city, are we encouraging residents from underrepresented groups to get involved and serve?” Councilor Maiore asked. “What message are we sending our residents about our faith in them?”

Councilor John Thorpe (Ward 4) spoke up briefly in typical fashion, offering little of substance but concluding, “however I vote, realize that I’ve heard everyone.” Similarly, Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) offered that “the more I serve in Northampton, the more I see good intentions all around.”

After Councilor Dwight’s diatribe, Councilor Jarrett rebutted that he did not think there was a nefarious plot, but that he preferred to come down on the side of greater self-determination, and believed the commission should have the right to choose their own chair. Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) concluded discussion by saying that the commission will still have six resident members to one chair, and can change their rules if the chair is wielding power concerningly.

As an administrative order, the changes needed only one reading to pass. At roll call, Councilors Jarrett, Labarge, Maiore, and Foster voted no, and Councilors Nash, Sciarra, Thorpe, and Dwight voted yes. Councilor Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) passed the first time around, and as the tie-breaking vote, voted yes, enacting the Mayor’s proposed changes.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. 

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