The ordinance review committee presents findings on systemic racism; City Solicitor questions reviewers’ intent
By Brian Zayatz
At the April 15th meeting of the Northampton City Council, members of the public turned out to speak to the Councilors’ mandate for police reform, the proposed new animal control facility, and other topics.
Twenty-nine speakers called on the Mayor and City Council to cut the police budget by 50% in the upcoming FY2022 budget draft and fund the creation of a new Department of Community Care, as recommended by the Policing Review Commission.
One speaker identified herself as a former Servicenet worker who witnessed the ways that police used brutality against her mentally ill clients. She spoke about her current work with people with alzheimers and dementia, and how police routinely respond inappropriately with this group, as well (the following day, video was released of a 2020 incident in which police in Colorado hog-tied a woman with dementia who had been picking flowers).
Jose Adastra spoke of a recent experience in which he was stopped by Northampton Police, forcibly removed from the vehicle and threatened with a baton. “Do you think this department is better than Chicago or Minneapolis?” he asked. “Maybe it’s gonna be Jose Adastra that the Northampton Police kill.”
Lemy Coffin of Ward 1 read the founding language of the Policing Review Commission and reminded Councilors that this was their own timeline and that the recommendations were clear. They highlighted the use of the phrase “deliberate speed and lasting impact” to encourage them to act.
Danielle Amodeo, the chair of the Northampton Arts Council, informed City Council that the Arts Council had voted to sign onto Northampton Abolition Now’s demands for the immediate reallocation of the $880,000 cut from last year’s police budget towards services for Northampton residents in need, a 50% cut to the police budget in the coming fiscal year, and the creation of a new Department of Community Care accountable to those most impacted by policing. Amodeo said that if the Arts Council could agree on these demands given the diversity of thoughts on policing among their members, the City Council could, too. “We’re all here asking you to get it done,” she said, adding, “people have been showing up on these calls for a year now.”
Four members of the Policing Review Commission—Josey Rosales, Javier Luengo-Garrido, Carol Owen, and Booker Bush— also spoke in favor of their findings. Luengo-Garrido and Owen emphasized the reasons for their recommendation for an independent city department accountable to city residents most impacted by policing. “It has to be accountable,” said Luengo-Garrido, “that is non-negotiable.” Rosales and Bush sought to clarify that while they supported the establishment of a community resilience hub, that it should not be construed as a replacement for an independent department, and Bush questioned what accountability structures would be built into the hub.
Seven residents of Ward 2 also spoke against a proposal for a new animal control facility in their neighborhood. The proposal was discussed at the previous Council meeting as one of several allocations for capital improvements. The $400,000 allocation would make it possible for the city to move forward with the next steps in the process, including a site plan review which would further dig into the possible impacts of the facility on the neighborhood. Many of the speakers felt blindsided that they had to hear about the proposed project through the grapevine after it was discussed at City Council. One speaker pointed out his window to the space where the facility would go, contesting implications from Councilors and the Mayor that the facility would be out of the way. Another speaker said it was “impossible to believe this is the only site available,” and several suggested placing the facility on land by Smith Vocational School or the county jail.
Ordinance Review Committee presentation
The Ordinance Review Committee, chaired by Councilor John Thorpe (Ward 4), presented its findings from several months of study of the city’s ordinances. According to the city’s charter, ordinance review takes place every five years, and this past year was charged with an additional mandate to bring a framework of social justice to the review, as outlined in a September 2020 resolution “in Support of Actions to Combat the Public Health Crisis of Systemic Racism.”
The presentation got off to a slow start, but eventually settled around the committee’s recommendations of issues for further study, including more frequent charter review, the banning of rental agency fees, and snow storm towing policy, the latter two issues primarily impacting renters, who are more likely to be low income or people of color.
It soon became clear that there were some lasting disagreements with regards to how the work was conducted between Committee Member Megan Paik and City Solicitor Alan Seewald. In response to a question from Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) about what could be done better in future ordinance reviews to center questions of equity, Paik told the Council that Solicitor Seewald “took a very interventionist approach to our work… At points he really questioned the linkage between ordinance review and our discussions of systemic racism.”
Paik had thought Solicitor Seewald was not on the call when she said this, but he was shortly thereafter recognized by Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) and responded that he was not trying to discourage a social justice lens, but that he was trying to focus the committee on ordinances. Many of the issues the committee identified, such as snow storm towing, fell under the executive branch. Paik said she thought that the implications of ordinances necessitated a more holistic view. “When we talk about zoning, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to talk about how wealth gets passed on,” she said, and pointed to conversations that the Council had had that went well beyond the specific matter at hand. Jeff Napolitano, the other non-Councilor on the committee, said he agreed with Paik.
Reading the report, a section titled “Ordinances Impacting Historically Marginalized Communities Not Recommended for Adoption” reads virtually like an exchange between Solicitor Seewald and resident Tay Porco, who advocated for a number of ordinances that would limit discrimination in housing and employment, as well as protect unhoused people from having their camps destroyed. For each ordinance, Seewald seemed to advise that it was either not the city’s purview, or that a law to such an effect was already in place. Though the committee was charged with a significant amount of work, perhaps some acknowledgement of ongoing issues and suggestions for further city actions would have gone a long way.
“I don’t think great ideas should have to leak out, they should be centered,” said Councilor Maiore. She said she hoped future iterations of this committee would not have the City Solicitor present as a supervisor, and that it “should center the voices that are there that are not from the white male perspective.” (The commission was comprised of Councilors Thorpe, Jim Nash (Ward 3) and Marianne Labarge (Ward 6), as well as Paik and Napolitano. Paik was the only person of color besides Councilor Thorpe, who is one of the Council’s more conservative members.)
Animal control facility
The allocation of $400,000 for a proposed new animal control facility came up for its second vote, and Mayor Narkewicz addressed some of the concerns of the Ward 2 residents who spoke against its placement in their neighborhood. He said the facility still needs a designer and is subject to site plan review, and that he has committed to holding a neighborhood meeting on site before anything goes to the planning board. He also detailed the “odyssey” of looking for the best location, explaining that Smith Voc and the jail were both not viable long term options, and that private parcels would be cost prohibitive (the Ward 6 lot is already owned by the city) and many lack city water and sewer hookups. “You can point out some parcels—we’ve looked at all of them,” said the Mayor.
Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) asked about some of the specific concerns around noise, and pointed out that the standard recommendation for these facilities is complete soundproofing and a 350 foot setback. Mayor Narkewicz responded that the dogs would mostly be inside, and never outside overnight. He also believed that, because it would be built to new sustainability standards, it would be well insulated for heating purposes, which he thought would also result in good sound protection. The allocation passed unanimously in second reading.
Mayor Narkewicz announced that Smith College has pledged $200,000 towards the establishment of a community resilience hub, and that the city signed an option to purchase the Curran Roundhouse building near Pulaski Park for this purpose. The option ensures that the current owner will keep the building off the market for 120 days while the city conducts its “due diligence” to decide if the building is well suited to the hub’s function.
Council passed in first reading a series of allocations of Community Preservation Act funds, including $120,000 for Habitat for Humanity towards the construction of permanently affordable homes on Burts Pit Rd, which will be reserved for residents earning 60% or less of the area median income. The package also included $60,000 for the establishment of a public beach along the Mill River greenway in Leeds, where swimming has become increasingly popular anyway.
Finance Director Susan Wright gave her final quarterly finance report before her upcoming retirement. According to Director Wright, the city is in good shape, with revenues coming in at or above the projections for the year, which were conservative given the pandemic. Parking revenues, which had previously been performing below even the adjusted projections, seem to be recovering, as well as meals and hotel/motel excise taxes. It was also not a bad year for snow and ice, so spending is roughly on course as well. As for the enterprise funds, water and sewer revenues are coming in above the conservative projections.
Councilors also discussed including members of the public on the forthcoming committee to review the rules of City Council. Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) argued against it, saying a larger committee will make it more complicated and that there will be many opportunities for input. Councilor Nash said he “didn’t want to be on record saying we need less public input,” but supported the resolution as written. Council President Sciarra said she already thought the committee was a “radical” way to amend their rules, as it would normally be only one councilor bringing their proposals to the full Council. The resolution passed second reading with no amendment for non-Council members. Council President Sciarra will soon choose its members, saying she would decide in part based on engaging Councilors who had not recently been on time-intensive committees like the NPRC.
Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor and new staff writer at The Shoestring.