I Go to City Council Meetings #43

Policing Review Commission presentation, plastics reduction ordinance, financial orders, expanding the franchise

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On January 7th, the Northampton City Council held its first meeting of the new year. On January 21st, City Council held its second meeting of the year. All councilors were present at both meetings, as well as a few dozen members of the public at each. The latter meeting consisted mostly of second readings of orders and ordinances from the first.

Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra opened the first meeting saying it felt “absurd” to wish a happy new year after the prior day’s events at the Capitol, calling it a display of “privilege of ideology and skin color” and “sick devotion to the current administration.”

Thirty-eight members of the public spoke during public comment, including twenty-one in favor of a new ordinance that would limit the types of plastic materials which may be used by Northampton restaurants and retail businesses. Among those in favor were representatives of Climate Action Now, the Sierra Club, River Valley Co-op, Sunrise Franklin County, Woodstar Cafe, and Belly of the Beast. 

No commenters spoke explicitly against the ordinance. Amy Cahillane of the Downtown Northampton Association expressed concerns over its timing, implementation, and ability to achieve its desired ends. She asked whether the city would have to meet the same criteria in schools, and whether the city is prepared to educate consumers. She claimed the burden of the ordinance falls on small businesses, and that Berkeley, CA’s similar ordinance had a lengthy phase-in period and was not passed during a pandemic. She also asked about plans to recycle compostable plastics. “If you don’t have answers to these questions,” she concluded, “I don’t think you’re ready to pass this.” Vincent Jackson of the Chamber of Commerce asked for a delay outright, saying businesses should have a chance to work through existing inventory and “get on the road to recovery.”

Judy Herrell of Herrell’s Ice Cream claimed that the business community was supportive of the ordinance, but that compostable replacements for some inventory items simply aren’t on the market, and that there is a shortage of plastic composting facilities. She did not recommend any particular course of action. Rebecca Robbins, the owner of Woodstar Cafe who supported the ordinance, raised similar concerns, and suggested that the ordinance could require the city to handle the compostable plastics.

Fourteen speakers addressed issues of policing in light of the Policing Review Commission’s first report. Several speakers urged the Council to reallocate the funds that were cut from the police budget in the spring towards housing. “I would like to say the city really stepped up,” said Jose Adastra of Leeds. “I would love to write that [the Mayor] didn’t really get it, and then he got it… instead of what I’m gonna say now, which is that you’ve for the most part ignored people… We have the money to provide for every homeless person in town,” he concluded. Sean Donovan, a Ward 3 resident and member of the Western Mass Recovery Learning Center, noted that Olympia, Washington, a similarly sized city to Northampton, created a peer-led mental health crisis response team with a similar amount of money to that which was cut from the police budget in the spring. Others spoke towards further defunding and abolition, and shared that they hoped the city acted on the Commission’s strong recommendations.

Policing Review Commission presentation

A summary of the Policing Review Commission’s first report was presented to City Council by Commission Chair Dan Cannity. For coverage and analysis of the contents of the report, click here. This column will concern itself with the questions and discussion of City Councilors following the presentation.

During discussion, Councilor Michael Quinlan (Ward 1), who is on the Policing Review Commission, echoed a previous comment from Councilor Dwight in praise of their process, and specifically singled out Commissioner Cannity for his dedication to the work. He called it a “thorn” that the commission had lost three of four women of color, but said that he is still hopeful for the work to come. “This isn’t about tearing something down, it’s about building something,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about police when you start talking about alternatives, it’s about putting the right person in the right response situation.”

Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) said she was interested in the idea of a phased approach towards reducing police presence in the city, and was wondering if there would be more concrete figures about this in the final report. She also noted that, while it may be “efficient” to transfer more responsibility to existing organizations, there would have to be some sort of accountability mechanism in place in order not to simply create a “police lite.” Cannity responded that the commission has been looking into whether existing organizations already have a commitment towards the values they’re looking for. In cases where these values are not present, Cannity said it would be better to start a new department.

Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6) asked about reducing the amount of money going towards overtime and detail work, wondering why Northampton still uses police officers for detail work. Councilor Dwight responded that Massachusetts has one of the strongest police unions in the country and that state law still requires flaggers to be police officers (who he called “very expensive traffic cones”). Councilor Jarrett responded that this is actually not true, but that civilian flaggers are required to be paid almost as much as police officers, so municipalities often don’t bother moving towards this option because the savings are minimal.

Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) spoke up to name that while many of the proposed changes were likely to save money in the long run, there could be start-up costs involved with creating new departments. “We’re going to need to spend more to create the changes we want to see,” she said, also implying that pay for new positions would be competitive with that of police. Cannity responded that some cities do see savings within the first year of a new program, citing Denver’s DASHER program. Councilor Jarrett chimed in to note that many of the costs of policing, like incarceration, are borne primarily by the state, and he wondered if there could be some kind of reimbursement for municipalities that save the state money on such costs.

Councilor Sciarra concluded discussion by pointing to the report’s “very rich qualitative data” from the community and “voluminous quantitative data” from the NPD, “but little qualitative.” She asked if the Commission planned on interviewing NPD officers, saying that “differences [between policy and reality] are discoverable when asking about them. Though it would seemingly be obvious why asking police officers to detail the ways in which they don’t follow policy would not be a fruitful line of inquiry, Commissioner Cannity responded diplomatically, saying the Commissioners “want to be very careful about what we ask because [the format of the question] informs what you get back.” He also cited “lively debates about when and how to reach out to the police department,” considering allegations of retaliation from the public. “We left it up to subcommittees to decide who they’re bringing in and for what purpose,” he said, noting the Policies and Services subcommittee was bringing in Chief Kasper.

Plastics ordinance

Councilor Sciarra then moved the plastics ordinance up on the agenda, since most of the legislation’s citizen sponsors, including the Youth Commissioners, were still on the call. Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3), who has worked extensively with the Youth Commission on the ordinance, spoke about the outreach he’d done to local businesses on the matter. He cited four common concerns: the use of plastic straws for people with disabilities (which had already been addressed by an amendment),  the start date (which had already been pushed back to January 2022), the supply chain for compostable materials, and the timing, for which another amendment had already submitted that would allow for up to two six-month hardship exemptions. Councilor Nash said that if the pandemic was still a factor in 2022, he would bring a delay to the floor. He also asked Mayor Narkewicz if the Mayor’s designee for implementing these changes would give the Council feedback, to which the Mayor responded in the positive.

Councilor Dwight offered a 15 minute speech about the climate crisis, calling the ordinance “our commitment not to be complicit” in ongoing environmental destruction. He pointed to Westfield, “a much more conservative community” that has already implemented similar changes. “We have a real obligation not to come off as hypocrites, or feel-good liberals,” he said. He also pointed out that as electric cars replace gas-powered vehicles, the fossil-fuel industry will push plastics with more fervor to offset the drop in gasoline consumption. He also spoke to Amy Cahillane’s question about whether the city would be held to the same standards, saying he believed the ordinance’s language would apply at least to the Smith Vocational school.

Councilor Maiore, who is a cosponsor of the ordinance, pointed out that the more municipalities pass these types of ordinances, the more of a market there will be for compostable containers. “It’s a fast moving market that’s changing all the time,” she said, “I don’t think we can wait til we get to some stable place.” Renna Pye, a local activist who was recognized for comment to speak to amendments to the ordinance, also pointed out that in 2022, state law will require any businesses producing over half a ton of organic waste to compost, making demand for the service much higher at the time the ordinance will take effect. Other councilors also spoke in favor of the ordinance.

Noah Kassis, the chair of the Youth Commission, introduced two amendments that had already been reviewed by City Solicitor Seewald, one regarding “accessories” such as plastic utensils and condiment packets that would make them only available upon request, and another adding a ten cent charge for paper takeout and retail bags. Kassis said of the amendments that “we’re trying to reduce single use altogether, not just shift from plastic to compostable,” pointing out that both were likely to save businesses money as well. Councilor Dwight affirmed the culture shift, and also noted the amendments had no fines towards their enforcement. Councilor Nash asked to table the second amendment, but Councilor Dwight countered that it made more sense to pass it and strike it later if necessary, since this would give the public more opportunity to review it. Both amendments passed, and the whole ordinance passed its first reading unanimously.

At the following meeting, Councilor Maiore moved to rescind the bag fee amendment to the ordinance, saying that she thought it would be a good idea but that she wanted to continue to uphold the strong standard for outreach that had been set by the Council and Youth Commission in drafting the original ordinance. She concluded that she was confident they could have either a new ordinance or an amendment to this one in place by the time it takes effect in January 2022.

Once the amendment passed, the usual round of thank-yous ensued. Councilors Dwight and Nash specifically thanked Rich Cooper, owner of Cooper’s Corner and State Street Fruit Store, for a letter in the Gazette praising the Councilors’ outreach around the ordinance, which Councilor Nash called “the kindest letter anyone’s written to our work.” Noah Kassis and Councilor Maiore both spoke as well, and Councilor Dwight praised the Youth Commission’s work on this ordinance and the initiative to lower the voting age, which were the biggest items on the agenda for the meeting of the 21st. The ordinance passed its second reading unanimously.

On the 21st, Councilors also heard a resolution in support of the ordinance, the first reading of which had been postponed until after the ordinance passed since it could preclude discussion of the ordinance itself. Councilor Dwight noted that it was unusual, and had only been done once before for the anti-surveillance ordinance. “This is essentially a preamble,” he said, adding that it was an act of advocacy, and “since ordinances don’t have advocacy built into them, the Youth Commission wanted this commemorated with a resolution.” He later said that resolutions provide something that ordinances don’t, which is the “will of the Council,” though he conceded that they could be criticized as “gilding the lily.” Councilors Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) and Karen Foster (Ward 2) thanked Councilor Dwight for his explanation, as they often heard criticism of how much time the Council spends on resolutions. The Council suspended rules to pass the resolution in two readings.

Financial orders

The Council then heard three new financial orders. The first raised a personal property tax exemption from $1000 to $2500 in order to provide relief to small businesses. Personal property (confusingly) is property owned by a business like tools or a computer, or warehouse space. Mayor Narkewicz explained that the change represented a very small amount of revenue, totaling only $6800, and affected 240 businesses. The Mayor is allowed to set the minimum at $10,000. During discussion, Councilor Jarrett said he researched that there are 58 possible municipal tax exemptions, and he would be interested in learning more about which ones the city has enacted and why. Finance Director Susan Wright said they haven’t changed much in several years, and she thinks the Assessors’ presentation from several years ago is still available. The financial order was positively recommended by the finance committee and passed its first reading in full council. 

The second financial order authorized borrowing $1.5 million via bonds and notes in order to place bids early on this year’s paving projects. Mayor Narkewicz said this saves the city money by getting favorable rates early in the season. He named some of the projects he hoped to take on in 2021, including Winter St, Atwood Dr, Loudville Rd, Pine St, Strong Ave, Pearl St, and Summer St. The third financial order moved $1.5 million in free cash towards the stabilization funds. The general stabilization fund, capital stabilization fund, and fiscal stability stabilization fund each received $500,000, bringing their totals up to $5.7 million, $4.1 million, and $3 million, respectively. Wright noted that while these numbers sound high, this is because the city rolled over $2 million from FY2020 because of the pandemic, and that this year’s contributions are actually down. Both measures passed first reading, and all three passed their second reading on the 21st. The slew of CPA fund allocations from December’s second meeting all passed their second readings on the 7th, as well.

Voting-related charter changes

The councilors also heard the language drafted by City Solicitor Alan Seewald for all of the charter changes related to voting that the Council approved previously, except for Ranked Choice Voting, which will take longer to draft due to its complexity. The amendments heard included provisions to mail ballots to all municipal voters (or, no-reason vote-by-mail), non-citizen voting, and lowering the voting age to 16. Councilor Dwight spoke on the first measure, noting the historic occasion following objections in Congress the night before from Republican representatives who objected to the legitimacy of vote by mail. “I’m preaching to the choir,” he said, “I just want to go on record with particular pride.” All of these changes passed first reading with little discussion. At the meeting on the 21st, Solicitor Seewald explained some minor amendments he had been advised to make by MA House of Representatives counsel that allowed the changes to be combined into one section should they all be approved by the House. The amended drafts passed their second reading and await approval by the state legislature.

The meeting of the 7th concluded shortly thereafter following referral of new draft ordinances and the second-reading passage of traffic and parking ordinance. The councilors got giggly towards the end, in part because of the accuracy of Council Secretary Laura Krutzler’s prediction of the meeting’s end time (1:30am).

Additional notes from January 21st

The Council’s meeting on January 21st lasted only two hours, with 40 minutes of this taken up by public comment. Five speakers, including two youth commissioners, spoke in favor of the plastics ordinance, and nine individuals spoke towards defunding the police and reallocating those resources to better city services. 

Lili P. of Ward 6 identified herself as a Northampton High School student who had recently experienced a mental health crisis and ensuing domestic dispute with her mother, which had led to another family member threatening to call the police. The police were not called, but Lili lamented that there was no other city service that her family member could have called in that scenario. 

Jose Adastra of Leeds called it “violating and insulting” that the Council’s priorities had been “all over the place” over the last few months instead of focusing on providing for the needs of vulnerable residents. He noted that he appreciated the sentiment of the plastics ordinance, but asserted that he was more likely to be killed by police than by climate change, and concluded by encouraging councilors to “disrupt the process” and prioritize basic human needs in the city.

Ashwin Ravikumar, who serves on the town of Amherst’s Energy and Climate Action Committee, spoke in support of the plastics ban, and also urged councilors to see the connection between climate action and defunding the police. Ravikumar pointed to statistics from Amherst that police cars used hundreds of dollars worth of gasoline per day, far more than any other municipal vehicle. “If we want to build the political coalition to help you pass bolder climate legislation, we need everyone to feel safe,” he said, and suggested reallocating police funds towards paid staff to help city residents green their houses.

Lemy Coffin spoke about recent comments made by the Mayor and police chief in the Gazette. Regarding the Mayor, Coffin objected to his characterization of financial prudence, and said they feel like he’s “playing a shell game with our money” rather than “ween[ing] us off this institution of punishment.” Coffin relayed a story that took place after the last meeting, when they received a crisis call in the wee hours of the morning involving a 12-year-old child. Coffin was unable to obtain a crisis evaluation appointment for the child until the following afternoon, and the only other option was to go to the ER. Coffin also objected to what they described as Chief Kasper’s “straw-manning” arguments made in the Policing Review Commission report, and concluded that they “hate when people don’t use their power to do good things.”

Shanna Fishel of Ward 7 also spoke, noting her support for defunding police and reallocating funds, but used most of her time to describe the city’s need for a community fridge. According to Fishel, food insecurity has been higher in Massachusetts over the last year than in any other state, and while unhoused people often know where to get food, people experiencing food insecurity for the first time often do not. She said she is not seeking financial support, but community support, and hopes that businesses and individuals will step up to support the project by providing electricity, offering regular cleaning, or building a small structure. Fishel suggested the bike path in Florence as a location, and said she had been in touch with Councilors Maiore and Jarrett regarding the matter and invited interested parties to ask them for her email.

Following public comment, Councilor Nash announced a joint meeting on Wednesday, January 27th at 5pm between the Community Resources and City Services committees on the topic of housing security. The committees would hear four presenters from Eliot Community Human Services; from ServiceNet regarding the city’s new shelter; from Community Action regarding supports for renting and eviction; and from the Mass Network to End Homelessness. Councilor Nash said that “the public is invited to interact with folks” at the meeting.

Councilor Dwight announced that a public hearing held jointly by the Planning Board and Legislative Matters committee regarding two-family dwellings had been postponed to February 8th at 7pm. Councilor Sciarra announced (though she forgot until the meeting was ending) that on Thursday, January 28th at 7pm the City Council would hold its annual joint meeting with the School Committee.

Mayor Narkewicz also communicated that city Finance Director Susan Wright had announced her retirement set for June 29th, and spoke of her career. Councilors Dwight, Nash, and Labarge praised her work for the city.

On January 7th, the Northampton City Council held its first meeting of the new year. On January 21st, City Council held its second meeting of the year. All councilors were present at both meetings, as well as a few dozen members of the public at each. The latter meeting consisted mostly of second readings of orders and ordinances from the first.

Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra opened the first meeting saying it felt “absurd” to wish a happy new year after the prior day’s events at the Capitol, calling it a display of “privilege of ideology and skin color” and “sick devotion to the current administration.”

Thirty-eight members of the public spoke during public comment, including twenty-one in favor of a new ordinance that would limit the types of plastic materials which may be used by Northampton restaurants and retail businesses. Among those in favor were representatives of Climate Action Now, the Sierra Club, River Valley Co-op, Sunrise Franklin County, Woodstar Cafe, and Belly of the Beast. 

No commenters spoke explicitly against the ordinance. Amy Cahillane of the Downtown Northampton Association expressed concerns over its timing, implementation, and ability to achieve its desired ends. She asked whether the city would have to meet the same criteria in schools, and whether the city is prepared to educate consumers. She claimed the burden of the ordinance falls on small businesses, and that Berkeley, CA’s similar ordinance had a lengthy phase-in period and was not passed during a pandemic. She also asked about plans to recycle compostable plastics. “If you don’t have answers to these questions,” she concluded, “I don’t think you’re ready to pass this.” Vincent Jackson of the Chamber of Commerce asked for a delay outright, saying businesses should have a chance to work through existing inventory and “get on the road to recovery.”

Judy Herrell of Herrell’s Ice Cream claimed that the business community was supportive of the ordinance, but that compostable replacements for some inventory items simply aren’t on the market, and that there is a shortage of plastic composting facilities. She did not recommend any particular course of action. Rebecca Robbins, the owner of Woodstar Cafe who supported the ordinance, raised similar concerns, and suggested that the ordinance could require the city to handle the compostable plastics.

Fourteen speakers addressed issues of policing in light of the Policing Review Commission’s first report. Several speakers urged the Council to reallocate the funds that were cut from the police budget in the spring towards housing. “I would like to say the city really stepped up,” said Jose Adastra of Leeds. “I would love to write that [the Mayor] didn’t really get it, and then he got it… instead of what I’m gonna say now, which is that you’ve for the most part ignored people… We have the money to provide for every homeless person in town,” he concluded. Sean Donovan, a Ward 3 resident and member of the Western Mass Recovery Learning Center, noted that Olympia, Washington, a similarly sized city to Northampton, created a peer-led mental health crisis response team with a similar amount of money to that which was cut from the police budget in the spring. Others spoke towards further defunding and abolition, and shared that they hoped the city acted on the Commission’s strong recommendations.

Policing Review Commission presentation

A summary of the Policing Review Commission’s first report was presented to City Council by Commission Chair Dan Cannity. For coverage and analysis of the contents of the report, click here. This column will concern itself with the questions and discussion of City Councilors following the presentation.

During discussion, Councilor Michael Quinlan (Ward 1), who is on the Policing Review Commission, echoed a previous comment from Councilor Dwight in praise of their process, and specifically singled out Commissioner Cannity for his dedication to the work. He called it a “thorn” that the commission had lost three of four women of color, but said that he is still hopeful for the work to come. “This isn’t about tearing something down, it’s about building something,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about police when you start talking about alternatives, it’s about putting the right person in the right response situation.”

Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) said she was interested in the idea of a phased approach towards reducing police presence in the city, and was wondering if there would be more concrete figures about this in the final report. She also noted that, while it may be “efficient” to transfer more responsibility to existing organizations, there would have to be some sort of accountability mechanism in place in order not to simply create a “police lite.” Cannity responded that the commission has been looking into whether existing organizations already have a commitment towards the values they’re looking for. In cases where these values are not present, Cannity said it would be better to start a new department.

Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6) asked about reducing the amount of money going towards overtime and detail work, wondering why Northampton still uses police officers for detail work. Councilor Dwight responded that Massachusetts has one of the strongest police unions in the country and that state law still requires flaggers to be police officers (who he called “very expensive traffic cones”). Councilor Jarrett responded that this is actually not true, but that civilian flaggers are required to be paid almost as much as police officers, so municipalities often don’t bother moving towards this option because the savings are minimal.

Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) spoke up to name that while many of the proposed changes were likely to save money in the long run, there could be start-up costs involved with creating new departments. “We’re going to need to spend more to create the changes we want to see,” she said, also implying that pay for new positions would be competitive with that of police. Cannity responded that some cities do see savings within the first year of a new program, citing Denver’s DASHER program. Councilor Jarrett chimed in to note that many of the costs of policing, like incarceration, are borne primarily by the state, and he wondered if there could be some kind of reimbursement for municipalities that save the state money on such costs.

Councilor Sciarra concluded discussion by pointing to the report’s “very rich qualitative data” from the community and “voluminous quantitative data” from the NPD, “but little qualitative.” She asked if the Commission planned on interviewing NPD officers, saying that “differences [between policy and reality] are discoverable when asking about them. Though it would seemingly be obvious why asking police officers to detail the ways in which they don’t follow policy would not be a fruitful line of inquiry, Commissioner Cannity responded diplomatically, saying the Commissioners “want to be very careful about what we ask because [the format of the question] informs what you get back.” He also cited “lively debates about when and how to reach out to the police department,” considering allegations of retaliation from the public. “We left it up to subcommittees to decide who they’re bringing in and for what purpose,” he said, noting the Policies and Services subcommittee was bringing in Chief Kasper.

Plastics ordinance

Councilor Sciarra then moved the plastics ordinance up on the agenda, since most of the legislation’s citizen sponsors, including the Youth Commissioners, were still on the call. Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3), who has worked extensively with the Youth Commission on the ordinance, spoke about the outreach he’d done to local businesses on the matter. He cited four common concerns: the use of plastic straws for people with disabilities (which had already been addressed by an amendment),  the start date (which had already been pushed back to January 2022), the supply chain for compostable materials, and the timing, for which another amendment had already submitted that would allow for up to two six-month hardship exemptions. Councilor Nash said that if the pandemic was still a factor in 2022, he would bring a delay to the floor. He also asked Mayor Narkewicz if the Mayor’s designee for implementing these changes would give the Council feedback, to which the Mayor responded in the positive.

Councilor Dwight offered a 15 minute speech about the climate crisis, calling the ordinance “our commitment not to be complicit” in ongoing environmental destruction. He pointed to Westfield, “a much more conservative community” that has already implemented similar changes. “We have a real obligation not to come off as hypocrites, or feel-good liberals,” he said. He also pointed out that as electric cars replace gas-powered vehicles, the fossil-fuel industry will push plastics with more fervor to offset the drop in gasoline consumption. He also spoke to Amy Cahillane’s question about whether the city would be held to the same standards, saying he believed the ordinance’s language would apply at least to the Smith Vocational school.

Councilor Maiore, who is a cosponsor of the ordinance, pointed out that the more municipalities pass these types of ordinances, the more of a market there will be for compostable containers. “It’s a fast moving market that’s changing all the time,” she said, “I don’t think we can wait til we get to some stable place.” Renna Pye, a local activist who was recognized for comment to speak to amendments to the ordinance, also pointed out that in 2022, state law will require any businesses producing over half a ton of organic waste to compost, making demand for the service much higher at the time the ordinance will take effect. Other councilors also spoke in favor of the ordinance.

Noah Kassis, the chair of the Youth Commission, introduced two amendments that had already been reviewed by City Solicitor Seewald, one regarding “accessories” such as plastic utensils and condiment packets that would make them only available upon request, and another adding a ten cent charge for paper takeout and retail bags. Kassis said of the amendments that “we’re trying to reduce single use altogether, not just shift from plastic to compostable,” pointing out that both were likely to save businesses money as well. Councilor Dwight affirmed the culture shift, and also noted the amendments had no fines towards their enforcement. Councilor Nash asked to table the second amendment, but Councilor Dwight countered that it made more sense to pass it and strike it later if necessary, since this would give the public more opportunity to review it. Both amendments passed, and the whole ordinance passed its first reading unanimously.

At the following meeting, Councilor Maiore moved to rescind the bag fee amendment to the ordinance, saying that she thought it would be a good idea but that she wanted to continue to uphold the strong standard for outreach that had been set by the Council and Youth Commission in drafting the original ordinance. She concluded that she was confident they could have either a new ordinance or an amendment to this one in place by the time it takes effect in January 2022.

Once the amendment passed, the usual round of thank-yous ensued. Councilors Dwight and Nash specifically thanked Rich Cooper, owner of Cooper’s Corner and State Street Fruit Store, for a letter in the Gazette praising the Councilors’ outreach around the ordinance, which Councilor Nash called “the kindest letter anyone’s written to our work.” Noah Kassis and Councilor Maiore both spoke as well, and Councilor Dwight praised the Youth Commission’s work on this ordinance and the initiative to lower the voting age, which were the biggest items on the agenda for the meeting of the 21st. The ordinance passed its second reading unanimously.

On the 21st, Councilors also heard a resolution in support of the ordinance, the first reading of which had been postponed until after the ordinance passed since it could preclude discussion of the ordinance itself. Councilor Dwight noted that it was unusual, and had only been done once before for the anti-surveillance ordinance. “This is essentially a preamble,” he said, adding that it was an act of advocacy, and “since ordinances don’t have advocacy built into them, the Youth Commission wanted this commemorated with a resolution.” He later said that resolutions provide something that ordinances don’t, which is the “will of the Council,” though he conceded that they could be criticized as “gilding the lily.” Councilors Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) and Karen Foster (Ward 2) thanked Councilor Dwight for his explanation, as they often heard criticism of how much time the Council spends on resolutions. The Council suspended rules to pass the resolution in two readings.

Financial orders

The Council then heard three new financial orders. The first raised a personal property tax exemption from $1000 to $2500 in order to provide relief to small businesses. Personal property (confusingly) is property owned by a business like tools or a computer, or warehouse space. Mayor Narkewicz explained that the change represented a very small amount of revenue, totaling only $6800, and affected 240 businesses. The Mayor is allowed to set the minimum at $10,000. During discussion, Councilor Jarrett said he researched that there are 58 possible municipal tax exemptions, and he would be interested in learning more about which ones the city has enacted and why. Finance Director Susan Wright said they haven’t changed much in several years, and she thinks the Assessors’ presentation from several years ago is still available. The financial order was positively recommended by the finance committee and passed its first reading in full council. 

The second financial order authorized borrowing $1.5 million via bonds and notes in order to place bids early on this year’s paving projects. Mayor Narkewicz said this saves the city money by getting favorable rates early in the season. He named some of the projects he hoped to take on in 2021, including Winter St, Atwood Dr, Loudville Rd, Pine St, Strong Ave, Pearl St, and Summer St. The third financial order moved $1.5 million in free cash towards the stabilization funds. The general stabilization fund, capital stabilization fund, and fiscal stability stabilization fund each received $500,000, bringing their totals up to $5.7 million, $4.1 million, and $3 million, respectively. Wright noted that while these numbers sound high, this is because the city rolled over $2 million from FY2020 because of the pandemic, and that this year’s contributions are actually down. Both measures passed first reading, and all three passed their second reading on the 21st. The slew of CPA fund allocations from December’s second meeting all passed their second readings on the 7th, as well.

Voting-related charter changes

The councilors also heard the language drafted by City Solicitor Alan Seewald for all of the charter changes related to voting that the Council approved previously, except for Ranked Choice Voting, which will take longer to draft due to its complexity. The amendments heard included provisions to mail ballots to all municipal voters (or, no-reason vote-by-mail), non-citizen voting, and lowering the voting age to 16. Councilor Dwight spoke on the first measure, noting the historic occasion following objections in Congress the night before from Republican representatives who objected to the legitimacy of vote by mail. “I’m preaching to the choir,” he said, “I just want to go on record with particular pride.” All of these changes passed first reading with little discussion. At the meeting on the 21st, Solicitor Seewald explained some minor amendments he had been advised to make by MA House of Representatives counsel that allowed the changes to be combined into one section should they all be approved by the House. The amended drafts passed their second reading and await approval by the state legislature.

The meeting of the 7th concluded shortly thereafter following referral of new draft ordinances and the second-reading passage of traffic and parking ordinance. The councilors got giggly towards the end, in part because of the accuracy of Council Secretary Laura Krutzler’s prediction of the meeting’s end time (1:30am).

Additional notes from January 21st

The Council’s meeting on January 21st lasted only two hours, with 40 minutes of this taken up by public comment. Five speakers, including two youth commissioners, spoke in favor of the plastics ordinance, and nine individuals spoke towards defunding the police and reallocating those resources to better city services. 

Lili P. of Ward 6 identified herself as a Northampton High School student who had recently experienced a mental health crisis and ensuing domestic dispute with her mother, which had led to another family member threatening to call the police. The police were not called, but Lili lamented that there was no other city service that her family member could have called in that scenario. 

Jose Adastra of Leeds called it “violating and insulting” that the Council’s priorities had been “all over the place” over the last few months instead of focusing on providing for the needs of vulnerable residents. He noted that he appreciated the sentiment of the plastics ordinance, but asserted that he was more likely to be killed by police than by climate change, and concluded by encouraging councilors to “disrupt the process” and prioritize basic human needs in the city.

Ashwin Ravikumar, who serves on the town of Amherst’s Energy and Climate Action Committee, spoke in support of the plastics ban, and also urged councilors to see the connection between climate action and defunding the police. Ravikumar pointed to statistics from Amherst that police cars used hundreds of dollars worth of gasoline per day, far more than any other municipal vehicle. “If we want to build the political coalition to help you pass bolder climate legislation, we need everyone to feel safe,” he said, and suggested reallocating police funds towards paid staff to help city residents green their houses.

Lemy Coffin spoke about recent comments made by the Mayor and police chief in the Gazette. Regarding the Mayor, Coffin objected to his characterization of financial prudence, and said they feel like he’s “playing a shell game with our money” rather than “ween[ing] us off this institution of punishment.” Coffin relayed a story that took place after the last meeting, when they received a crisis call in the wee hours of the morning involving a 12-year-old child. Coffin was unable to obtain a crisis evaluation appointment for the child until the following afternoon, and the only other option was to go to the ER. Coffin also objected to what they described as Chief Kasper’s “straw-manning” arguments made in the Policing Review Commission report, and concluded that they “hate when people don’t use their power to do good things.”

Shanna Fishel of Ward 7 also spoke, noting her support for defunding police and reallocating funds, but used most of her time to describe the city’s need for a community fridge. According to Fishel, food insecurity has been higher in Massachusetts over the last year than in any other state, and while unhoused people often know where to get food, people experiencing food insecurity for the first time often do not. She said she is not seeking financial support, but community support, and hopes that businesses and individuals will step up to support the project by providing electricity, offering regular cleaning, or building a small structure. Fishel suggested the bike path in Florence as a location, and said she had been in touch with Councilors Maiore and Jarrett regarding the matter and invited interested parties to ask them for her email.

Following public comment, Councilor Nash announced a joint meeting on Wednesday, January 27th at 5pm between the Community Resources and City Services committees on the topic of housing security. The committees would hear four presenters from Eliot Community Human Services; from ServiceNet regarding the city’s new shelter; from Community Action regarding supports for renting and eviction; and from the Mass Network to End Homelessness. Councilor Nash said that “the public is invited to interact with folks” at the meeting.

Councilor Dwight announced that a public hearing held jointly by the Planning Board and Legislative Matters committee regarding two-family dwellings had been postponed to February 8th at 7pm. Councilor Sciarra announced (though she forgot until the meeting was ending) that on Thursday, January 28th at 7pm the City Council would hold its annual joint meeting with the School Committee.

Mayor Narkewicz also communicated that city Finance Director Susan Wright had announced her retirement set for June 29th, and spoke of her career. Councilors Dwight, Nash, and Labarge praised her work for the city.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. 

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