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City Council

Northampton City Council Considers Hybrid Meeting Format

The Council also voted to begin the process of banning broker fees at July’s meeting

By Avery Martin

Public comment

During public comment at the June 15th Northampton City Council Meeting, speakers expressed concern over a lack of accountability from the city government. The most frequent topic of comment was the planned removal of 7 cherry trees on Warfield Place as part of an upcoming repaving project. 18 people spoke in defense of the trees and against the repaving of Warfield Place. Jim Sharp, of Florence, read an excerpt from a letter written by certified arborist John Berrymore disputing the city’s claim that the trees are in poor health. “I can say with extreme confidence that they are not diseased, not in rapid decline, and they are actually showing signs of vitality,” Sharp read. Residents of the street and others talked about the importance of the mature trees for carbon capture, as well as their own mental health. Ivy Vann, an urban planner who looked at Warfield Place at the request of the residents, called the current design a shared street, or “woonerf,” used by walkers, cars, cyclists, and others. “I’d like the city to look at making it a better shared street, rather than a suburban model,” she said.

Residents argued that if the city cares about accessibility for people with disabilities, they should repave other streets. Liz Gaudet of Warfield Place read excerpts from letters written by Dierdre Muccio, a blind Northampton resident, in defense of the trees. Muccio wrote that she walks on Warfield Place because of the trees and plants, and has never tripped or had trouble. Alena Bartoli of Northampton, who described herself as “legally blind with good sight,” concurred that the sidewalks on Warfield Place have never been a problem for her. Muccio and Bartoli both mentioned several other streets that they do find difficult to navigate, and suggested that the city focus on repaving those surfaces.

Shanna Fishel, Lilly Lombard, and Kyra Anderson expressed concern about the lack of community input in the new “Main Street for Everyone” plans. “This isn’t a decision for Wayne [Feiden, Director of Planning and Sustainability] and the Mayor, it’s a decision for us. It’s the people’s decision,” said Anderson. 

Commenters also discussed the implementation of the new Department of Community Care and the threatened removal of an encampment of unhoused people as examples of city government ignoring the needs and wishes of residents. Henry Morgan spoke about the Department of Community Care, saying it should be non-carceral. He continued, “To those of us who come here and tell you what we need, all that we see is that you don’t listen to us.” Jose Adastra and Mimi Odgers both said that while the council had claimed to care about the findings of the Northampton Police Review Commission, they barely listened to the findings or funded the new department. Adastra said that they have been receiving messages asking for help from people who are being displaced from the encampment, which could have been avoided by investing money cut from the police budget in 2020 back into the community. “You made a department, two years later there’s no money on the street still. We’re still talking about evictions,” they said.

The public comment portion of the meeting closed with a commenter who played clips of recordings of a phone conversation between John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Franklin Roosevelt’s speech after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and George M. Cohan’s World War I song “Over There.” The commenter did not speak to the council.

Ordinance Review Committee Recommendations

The council discussed several recommendations from the Individual Ordinance Review Committee.  One recommendation was a proposal to increase the frequency of charter review from its current interval of every 10 years. Committee members Sam Hopper and Stan Molton said that the process was long and complicated, and that they didn’t think that holding it more often would be beneficial. After a long discussion, during which most councilors seemed unsure of exactly what they were discussing, the council concluded that the issue was not the frequency of charter review but the balance of power between the council and the mayor. Councilors John Thorpe (Ward 4), William Dwight (At-Large), and Marianne LaBarge (Ward 6) all spoke about concerns that the executive branch of city government has outsized power. Mayor Narkewicz was not present at the council meeting.

The council also voted to begin a process to ban landlords from charging rental fees to tenants. The vote, which passed unanimously, was a motion to draft a petition which will then be forwarded to the state legislature for authorization. This change would make rental housing more accessible to those using housing vouchers, which do not cover rental fees, said Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5).

Other recommendations from the committee that the council discussed include updated trash collection guidelines, zoning changes, housing stability notification, and vehicle towing. They also approved a series of “housekeeping” changes to ordinances.

City Council Meeting Format

The council considered whether the remainder of the meetings in the 2020-2021 session would take place remotely, in-person, or in a hybrid manner. Al Williams of Northampton Open Media, the group which manages the broadcasting of council meetings, presented some ideas about how a hybrid system might work. The proposed system would involve one wide-angle camera including all councilors in the room as one participant in a zoom meeting, through which the public could comment remotely in addition to commenting from the meeting room. They have tested the system in the council chambers, said Williams, and plan to test a few other rooms soon.  

Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) expressed appreciation of the remote meeting format, saying that it allows increased access to the meetings for department heads as well as constituents. The remote meetings have allowed a more diverse range of public commenters, whereas traditionally participants in public comment skew whiter, older, and propertied, she said. 

Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) defended in-person meetings. He misses the opportunity to build relationships by speaking with constituents in the hallways and meeting with people before the council meeting, he said. He also misses Councilor LaBarge sharing candy with the council.

Councilor LaBarge recommended that the council remain remote until 2022, citing concerns over the uptick of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts. The council agreed to hold the August meeting remotely, and decide during that meeting on where they will meet for the remainder of the session.

Other Business

The finance committee discussed three proposed financial orders, all of which they passed unanimously for positive recommendation to the council. The first order appropriated FY22 capital funds to specific projects, including building and vehicle repairs and upgrades. The second transferred $10,088 from health insurance to other departments, in order to balance and close out FY21. Both of these orders passed in both first and second readings in the council. 

The third order discussed by the finance committee would make parcels of city land available for lease or sale to build affordable and attainable housing. The parcels are located on Chapel Street, Oak Street, and Evergreen Road. This order passed in the first reading in the council.

Avery Martin is a researcher and reporter at The Shoestring and a student at Mount Holyoke College.

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