I Go to City Council Meetings #39

ROE Act resolution, Children’s Advocacy Center property, budget transfers

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On November 5th, 2020, the Northampton City Council held its 20th regularly scheduled meeting of the year. All councilors were present.

The meeting opened as always with public comment, during which six members of the public, including state representative Lindsay Sabadosa, spoke in favor of a resolution supporting the passage of the ROE Act, a bill in the State House which would secure and expand abortion rights in Massachusetts in the event the federal government reverses course on the issue. Four members of the public also spoke in favor of a financial order that would permit Mayor Narkewicz to sell a property on Elm St. currently occupied by the Children’s Advocacy Center to that group so they may permanently occupy that location.

Following public comment, Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) announced that, at the next City Council meeting on November 19th, there will be a public hearing about the FY2021 municipal tax levy, which will take place via Zoom following public comment at 7:05pm. She also announced that due to ongoing litigation, the minutes of two executive session meetings from September of last year and November 2017 will not yet be publicly released.

ROE Act Resolution

City Council discussed “A Resolution Urging Action on the ROE Act,” which was introduced by Councilors Sciarra, Bill Dwight (At-Large), and Rachel Maiore (Ward 7). Several of the Councilors noted their frustration with the state legislature, which has not taken any action on the ROE Act since a similar resolution was passed last year. The sponsors felt the new resolution was warranted given the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and the perceived likelihood that the court could now overturn Roe v. Wade. The ROE Act would not only shore up current levels of access in Massachusetts, which would default back to pre-Roe levels were the case overturned, but also removes medically unnecessary restrictions, such as a 24-hour waiting period and a ban on late-term abortions. The Council passed the resolution unanimously in two readings, in order to send the resolution to relevant lawmakers with greater speed.

Financial orders

During the recess for the Finance Committee meeting, Councilors heard a number of financial orders on first reading. The first authorizes the Mayor to sell to the Children’s Advocacy Center, which provides support to child survivors of physical and sexual abuse or exploitation, the property which they currently occupy. The property, which has historically been owned by the Smith Vocational school, was recently declared surplus to the school’s needs, and thus passed on to the city to either claim for its own needs or surplus. Following Councilor John Thorpe’s recusal (he is a board member at the CAC), the Finance Committee positively recommended an order authorizing the property’s sale at market rate with the stipulation that it is always used for its current purposes. The order later passed its first reading in full Council.

Mayor Narkewicz recommended a number of budget transfers to make up for revenue shortfalls beyond those projected during the Spring’s budgeting process. This included drawing $350,000 from the city’s fiscal stability fund to make up for a slow recovery in parking revenue, bringing the total drawn from this fund over $410,000. Another transfer draws $600,000 from the water stabilization fund, or roughly 22% of the fund, and a similar amount from the sewer stabilization fund. These transfers, the Mayor prefaced, are in order to prevent hikes in taxes or utility prices during the pandemic. All three received a positive recommendation and later approval by the full Council.

Further orders allocated a $10,000 gift from D.A. Sullivan and Sons towards a technology lending service for seniors, as well as $65,000 for a study on water recreation improvements. Funding for the latter came from the Community Preservation Act budgeted reserves, and the idea was put forward by the Office of Planning and Sustainability following a season of heavy water recreation due to the pandemic. Councilor Maiore, who represents Leeds, where recreational use of waterways became the subject of racist backlash, said that she hopes to see a plan put forward that includes “culturally-informed” river stewardship. She also asked for more details as to where this money would go, to which Director of Sustainability Wayne Feiden replied that it would be used by landscape architects to develop enough of a plan to apply for state or federal grants. Both of these orders received positive recommendations and later approval by the full council.

Beaver Brook Estates escrow fund

The Council then considered an order on second reading which would authorize the DPW to use funds held in escrow due to the failure of the developer of Beaver Brook Estates in Leeds to provide sufficient documentation of compliance to state standards of stormwater drainage. Pat Melnik, who identified himself as a lifelong Northampton resident during public comment, argued that the DPW was trying to use City Council as cover for taking his money when they did not have the right to do so. Mayor Narkewicz rebutted to the Councilors that Melnik has not produced the “actual engineer stamped certified responses to the things we need to understand,” and DPW Director Donna Lascalia said that it was not something the DPW wanted to handle, but preferred Melnik to handle it himself. Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) asked if the issue might be continued, and the Mayor replied that it would take a long time for the DPW to use the funds. The order was eventually passed in its second reading.

Suspension of rules for plastics ordinance

The meeting ended with a discussion of a request from the Community Resources Committee to extend a deadline for a recommendation on a new plastics ordinance in order to have a public forum on the issue. Councilor Dwight explained that the move was unprecedented: the city requires recommendations from committees within 60 days of referral in order that ordinances do not just go to committee to die (as they often do in the State House; Councilor Dwight also noted that he wished the state legislature would follow Northampton’s lead on this rule). Councilor Nash, who sits on the committee, gave a summary of the extensive outreach that has already been done to the business community, largely by the Youth Commission, which has been working on the ordinance for over a year. According to Nash, the Youth Commission has held five zoom meetings, gone door-to-door, flyered, and stayed consistently in touch with Amy Cahillane of the Downtown Northampton Association. “When it comes to Council, there will be no surprises,” said Nash. “I don’t expect people coming into the room saying ‘I didn’t know this was going on.’”

The Council approved the request for the extended deadline, giving the committee until November 16th, the day of their forum, to issue their recommendation. This reporter hopes that his left-wing readers will take note that, should they prefer not to take such uncivil measures as chanting and playing music outside the Councilors’ houses to get them to pay attention to their issues, they can always become entrepreneurs to get the Council’s ear.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. 

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