In the last meeting before budget hearings begin, Councilors expressed tepid support for NPRC recommendations
By Brian Zayatz
Despite the short agenda, Northampton City Council again lasted until nearly 1am during their May 6th meeting, in part thanks to three and a half hours of public comment.
The few items on the agenda had been watched closely by various sectors of the public, and included resolutions in support of key recommendations by the Policing Review Commission and of Gazette workers’ right to a contract, respectively, and the establishment of a municipal light plant, which would allow the city to pursue municipal broadband.
Department of Community Care
The central recommendation of the Policing Review Commission (NPRC), which concluded in March after being established by Mayor Narkewicz and Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) last year, is for the establishment of a new city department that would provide non-police emergency response for wellness checks, mental health calls, and domestic violence. Councilors Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) and Michael Quinlan (Ward 1, and a member of the NPRC) introduced a resolution endorsing the recommendations of the NPRC calling for the creation of the department, funding it by at least $882,000 (the amount of police money cut from the Mayor’s proposed FY2021 budget), and called for the department be housed under the Board of Health.
During public comment, 47 speakers endorsed the NPRC’s recommendations, with many of them also expressing support for the demand of Northampton Abolition Now for a 50% cut to police funding in the upcoming budget. One of the more common sentiments expressed was that the city has had more than enough time to study and consider cuts to policing, and it is time to fulfill the demands that are now nearly a year old. Shanna Fishel, a Ward 7 resident and mayoral candidate against Council President Sciarra, spoke boldly in support of NAN’s demands and against some speakers who had explicitly centered property values in their calls to keep the NPD fully funded. She told the Council that if they do not support the findings of the NPRC, there was no need to establish it in the first place, and the city would not be a democracy. Ashwin Ravikumar of Amherst argued that the Mayor could create a department by administrative order and that the process was less complicated than he made it out to be.
Other speakers shared testimony reminiscent of last year’s public hearings. Maretha Wallace, an employee at JFK Middle School, spoke of her experiences with racial profiling from the NPD, and of students who confide to her that they’re afraid of the police. Others testified firsthand experience of seeing the decades-long replacement of mental health services with policing, the ill-fit of social workers to replace police, and the strength of peer responder models. Jose Adastra and others likened the NPD to a gang using social media to sicc their sympathizers on activists. Another speaker called on the NPD to remove the gang-like Thin Blue Line symbol from their uniforms.
A few speakers called for level services or an increase in funding for police. Save for Josh Wallace, president of the New England Police Benevolent Association (the police union representing NPD), none of these speakers used their full or real names. Many trotted out statistics that were debunked by the PRC or others and referred derisively to the large number of Amherst College students on the call, saying only residents should have a say (one of these speakers was later revealed to be from Granby). Another blamed the “China Communist Party and their virus” for the “devastation” of downtown, which Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) later condemned, referencing last year’s resolution against anti-Asian racism.
During the Council’s discussion of the resolution, Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) expressed discomfort with the specificity of the references to the $882,000 and to the Board of Health. Mayor Narkewicz explained the chronology and his own difficulty with the $882,000 number. In short, his original FY21 budget was going to dip into the city’s Fiscal Stability fund to fill gaps in the budget. Typically, this is a dangerous move that is only done in emergencies, because by including stability fund money in an annual budget, the city creates circumstances in which future level services budgets have to be funded by either a tax increase or further stability funds, rapidly depleting the fund. After the police budget cut, the city’s reliance on the Fiscal Stability Fund for FY21 dropped from nearly $1 million to $411,000, and still the city cut over 20 positions across different departments. In principle, the Mayor defended his ongoing decision not to reallocate the funds cut from policing, a central demand of Northampton Abolition Now, because it would likely get the city into a vicious cycle of depleting the city’s reserves.
The counterargument, of course, is that the Mayor was willing to do this in order to keep police fully funded and even buy them two new hybrid cruisers. Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) pointed this out during discussion. “The Mayor was proposing to fund public safety in this way,” he said, “and we are asking for [the Department of Community Care] to be funded similarly.”
Councilors Jim Nash (Ward 3) and John Thorpe (Ward 4) also expressed concerns about the resolution. Councilor Nash asked if it was meant to “pigeonhole” him into voting for something during budget deliberations, but added that he wanted to include the NPRC’s other recommendations in the language, as well. (He later drafted an amendment to this effect, but withdrew it after some discussion). Councilor Thorpe, who is a parole officer, said he did not think the Council knew enough to pass this resolution, saying he wanted more input from the Board of Health, dispatch, the Fire Department, the NPD, and Cooley Dickinson, and that he wanted to “look at” things like non-police traffic response. He declared that he would abstain from this vote.
Councilors Dwight and Foster drafted friendly amendment language that replaced the $882,000 figure with the phrase “funded with a meaningful investment that would ensure viability,” and the reference to the Board of Health with “advocate that the department be housed outside of the police department.” These amendments passed, and the resolution passed its first reading with Councilor Thorpe’s abstention. Councilors also discussed a second reading, but Councilor Dwight argued that the most important recipient of the message, the Mayor, had received it loud and clear, and that they could make any final changes to the language at the next meeting. The resolution’s sponsors concurred.
Councilors also considered a resolution, introduced by Councilors Sciarra, Foster, Maiore, and Marianne Labarge (Ward 6), in support of the workers of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. After forming a wall-to-wall union inclusive of all workers at the Gazette’s offices, workers have been in stalled negotiations for two years, fighting for basic protections like an annual 2% cost of living pay increase while half of the building’s staff have been laid off. The resolution affirms the value of the paper to the community and declares that “the Northampton City Council stands in solidarity with the workers of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and asks Newspapers of New England to swiftly bargain a contract that improves the well-being of its workers, which will strengthen the newspaper and help it continue for years to come.”
During public comment, 35 individuals spoke in support of the resolution, including many current and former DHG employees. Dane Kutler of Ward 3, the paper’s former special sections editor, told the Council that “by the time I left for another job, I was the most stressed out and miserable I’ve ever been at a job,” and affirmed that the resolution meant a lot to her and those workers left at the Gazette.
Discussion went reasonably quickly, in part because Councilor Dwight recused himself, as he is related to the owner of the Gazette. Councilor Labarge, a former union member herself, spoke strongly in support of the workers and expressed disdain for Newspaper of New England (the paper’s owner) for bringing in an outside law firm, which is historically anti-union. Councilors Sciarra, Maiore, and Foster all affirmed their feelings that local news was crucial to a healthy democracy (Councilor Sciarra’s comments used the qualifier “unbiased”). Councilor Quinlan shared a personal story of being a paperboy in his youth, whose route included famed local activist Francis Crowe, and that his wife worked in circulation. He also noted that the paper now uses Crowe’s name to give out an annual award to a local humanitarian. “What would Crowe think of the use of her name by an organization that lays off her neighbors?” Councilor Quinlan asked.
Councilor Nash expressed some discomfort with “wading into collective bargaining,” a process which he said can be “messy and difficult.” “We are asking for Newspapers of New England and the workers to come together,” he said, but affirmed that he would vote yes over his discomfort. The resolution passed in first reading with eight yes votes and Councilor Dwight’s abstention.
The Council voted affirmatively on the establishment of a municipal light plant, which the Council must approve in two separate fiscal years in order to move forward with municipal broadband (the first vote took place around the same time last year). Little discussion took place, as the vote occurred after midnight, but Mayor Narkewicz shared the preliminary results of a recent survey on the topic following public comment. Among the findings were that 63% of responding households had someone accessing education online at least once a month, and 70% had someone working from home at least part time. 39% of respondents were dissatisfied with their internet provider, compared to only 22% satisfied and 4% very satisfied. 97% of residential respondents and 90% of business respondents expressed interest in municipal broadband, with a roughly 25% response rate (the average response rate for such studies being around 10-12%). The city paid consultants $70,000 over two years to conduct the study.
Eighteen members of the public spoke against a proposal for road work that would involve the removal of cherry trees from Warfield Place, a small side street near downtown. Residents of the street called the process undemocratic, in which they were informed via notice on their doors and invited to a Planning Board meeting where the outcome seemed predetermined. They were also told by the tree warden that the trees likely only had five years to live, but some residents said they consulted with independent arborists who disagreed. “If the tree warden says it’s OK to cut down trees if they only have five years left, maybe I should jump off a bridge,” said Lois Ahrens, a 74-year-old Warfield Place resident who claimed the DPW director treated her and her neighbors with disdain. Meg Robins of Ward 1 characterized the city’s approach towards these types of projects as “we have the money, so let’s go spend it,” and make sure it’s too late for anyone to do anything about it. “The city is missing protocol and process,” she said. The Council did not take any action on the issue during the meeting.
The Council also approved roughly $333,000 in budget transfers, primarily towards replacing a fire truck that has been breaking down and overtime for staff of the Mayor’s office. Mayor Narkewicz said the overtime was primarily for some staff who had done support work for the NPRC, and the licensing commission, which oversaw Covid-safety measures in businesses. He affirmed that he does not get overtime.
Brian Zayatz is a staff writer at The Shoestring.