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I Go To City Council Meetings #44

Mayor Narkewicz explained vaccination hiccups to City Council; Councilors feel conflicted over new gas station

by Brian Zayatz

Mayor Narkewicz announced during Northampton City Council’s February 18 meeting that the city was applying to become a mass vaccination site, meaning the site will have the capacity to administer 750 vaccinations per day. If the plan to expand Northampton’s capacity, which sees 400-500 people on a busy day, were not approved, the city would no longer be able to administer vaccines under the Governor’s new plan to direct resources primarily to mass vaccination sites (a plan he has since walked back), the nearest of which is currently located at Springfield’s Eastfield Mall.

The Mayor noted that 750 vaccines per day is substantial, even more than the Mullins Center at UMass has been administering, but he added that he was “confident Merridith [O’Leary, Health Department Director] will MacGuyver a solution.”

Apparently, MacGuyver she did, as Mayor Narkewicz announced on Wednesday that the city was approved for mass vaccination in partnership with the town of Amherst. The two sites, respectively at the Northampton Senior Center and the Bangs Community Center in Amherst, hope to see a combined 5,000 vaccinations per week, beginning the week of March 1st.

With both towns retaining their vaccine administering capacity despite Governor Baker’s best efforts to make the rollout as difficult and inequitable as possible, one hopes access will improve. The less-hopeful news regarding the Northampton site’s possible closure the Mayor delivered last week came as the city struggled with many of the same problems seen in smaller cities and towns across the state. “I’ve had Merridith call me at 8 o’clock,” said the Mayor, “‘do you know anybody 75 and older who hasn’t been vaccinated? Anybody on your street, anybody?’” At the time of the City Council meeting, the city had just gotten approval to use the refrigerator at the Senior Center for storage, which allows for thawing smaller batches and less risk of waste. 

Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) asked where the waitlist function had gone on the city’s registration portal, the disappearance of which had been the subject of calls she’d received from constituents. Mayor Narkewicz explained that the city, upon hearing with no warning that the state was moving to vaccination phase 2b, had taken the waitlist down and had intended to send all those on it, who were newly eligible for the vaccine, a link to register for an appointment. But the state’s registration site crashed almost immediately. Moving forward, the Mayor said he doesn’t think the waitlist will be necessary because the newly eligible group is so large that he finds it unlikely doses will be leftover at the end of the day.

“They should’ve had the people who do Grateful Dead or Phish concert tickets design the website,” the Mayor quipped at one point amidst diplomatic expressions of frustration with the state’s vaccine rollout. “This was a program that was developed by the state and so it’s what we have to work with.” He also thanked State Senator Jo Comerford, who has been appointed to the Joint Committee on Covid-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, and hopes that she can get some answers from the Governor.

Clash of ideals and convention over new gas station

A public hearing was  held Northampton City Council’s February 18th  meeting regarding a license for underground gas and diesel storage at Big Y’s North King St. location, which is adding a gas station. Councilor Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) recused himself, as he is a Big Y employee.

Carolyn Parker, a representative of Big Y who has years of experience in the gas station industry, said, “it’s pretty straightforward: gas station needs gas.” Big Y has met all requirements for the license, including approval of their design plan by the Fire Chief. Two members of the public who had spoken during public comment also spoke against the license during the hearing. Jose Adastra of Ward 4 urged not to be performative in their passage of the climate resiliency and regeneration plan and vote against more fossil fuel infrastructure; Jackie Ballance concurred and suggested putting up an electric car charging station instead. 

During discussion, Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) explained that the City Council approval of these types of licenses was a holdover from the past, and that if Big Y met all the necessary conditions, City Council could not deny the permit on ideological grounds alone. “While I agree philosophically with Jose and Jackie,” Councilor Dwight said, “we don’t dictate the terms of how Big Y does business.”

Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6) suggested seeking City Solicitor Alan Seewald’s counsel to better understand the City Council’s rights to approve or deny licenses. She said she had “great concerns” and that she thought the matter should go to the DPW. 

During further discussion, Council secretary Laura Krutzler noted that it had been over five years since the last application of this kind. Councilor Dwight said he wished they had a better understanding of their authority in this situation. Parker chimed back in to say that Big Y provides jobs for the community, and that the gas station would be a convenience for the supermarket’s customers. “I think we’ve shown there’s no reason not to approve,” she concluded. 

Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) noted that he was feeling the irony and “living with the conflict” of having to approve the license. The license was eventually approved with eight ‘yes’ votes.

Public comment

Jackie Ballance and Rue Walther spoke during public comment about new developments in Bay State Village, which Ballance described as “‘80s-style mansions.” Ballance urged the Council to apply the resilience and regeneration plan and suggested a cap on the size of new residences at 1100 square ft. “Newcomers need to understand this community is serious about its climate goals.” Walther asked the Mayor to come to a Zoning or Planning Board meeting to hear the concerns of the neighborhood’s residents. “We are a neighborhood right now that is in uproar,” said Walther. “We are really working together to get things changed.”

Harrison Blum of Extinction Rebellion Western Mass also spoke about the Climate Resilience and Regeneration plan, urging the city to take up a more ambitious timeline and with aggressive language to leverage into binding commitments.

Jose Adastra, Rye Buckley, and Liliana P all spoke to endorse the demands of Northampton Abolition Now to redirect funding away from the police department and towards services and new non-punitive public safety mechanisms. For more on Northampton Abolition Now’s work and demands, see their recent op-ed.

Hildegard Freedman, a public housing resident, asked for more transparency in the wake of a death in a common space of one of the Cahill Apartment buildings. She suspected the death was an overdose.

Other business

The resolution against Comcast’s rate hikes, financial orders, and endorsement of the Climate Resilience and Regeneration Plan from last week were all passed in second reading.

A new financial order was heard allocated nearly $200,000 of free cash towards expenses that the city recently found out may not be covered by the CARES Act. Finance Director Susan Wright explained that the federal government had changed its position on what was eligible for reimbursement. Mayor Narkewicz called her explanation “polite,” and expressed frustration that they had in writing that certain expenses would be covered that they are now being told will not.

Another financial order surpluses the property at 56 Vernon St, allowing the Mayor to enter a 30-year lease beginning in 2023 with Community Action Pioneer Valley to continue the Head Start preschool program that has used the property for decades. The Mayor and Councilors said they hoped the long lease would improve access to funding for needed maintenance on the building.

Both orders were positively recommended by finance committee and passed their respective first readings.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor and new staff writer at The Shoestring. 

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