Northampton City Council Passes Farmworker Resolution over Apologies to Ag. Commission

The Council also discussed redistricting, diesel storage, and the Resilience Hub.


By Jules Marsh

On October 21, the Northampton City Council held its regularly scheduled meeting which included a second vote on a resolution to support the Fairness to Farmworkers Act, a vote to amend a fuel permit, an extensive reading aloud of new redistricting borders, and an ordinance to allow the Mayor to look into a parcel behind City Hall as a possible site for the developing Resilience Hub. 

Fairness to Farmworkers Act

In its second reading, the councilors again voted unanimously to support a resolution to endorse state legislation known as the Fairness to Farmworkers Act which would reform labor law for farm workers in Massachusetts. But not before a number of councilors apologized to the Northampton Agricultural Commission (NAC), for not including them in the resolution process.  NAC, an all-male commission of farmers and landscape contractors, is part of the Massachusetts Association of Agricultural Commissions which “serves as a local voice advocating for farmers, farm businesses and farm interests.”  

As councilors Rachel Maiore (Ward 7), Bill Dwight (At-Large), Micheal Quinlan (Ward 1), and Marianne LaBarge (Ward 6) apologized to the commission, they did so in the context of an email NAC had sent to the City Council, which included a summary of the most recent NAC meeting. While the public was unaware of the contents of the email as it was being discussed during the meeting, The Shoestring obtained the publicly available email in an effort to understand the string of apologies ensuing. 

In the email Tom Annese, the contact for NAC, summarized, “As you may know, the main issue for the farmers affected is overtime.” (Under current labor law, agricultural employers are not required to afford farmworkers any days of rest, nor to pay any overtime rate.) It continued, “Some of the large wholesale crop farmers are concerned about overtime because they generally can’t afford to pay it. Since other states have overtime exemptions, this bill will put Massachusetts farms at a competitive disadvantage.” The commission also criticized the academic work done by a UMass economics professor which backed the economic feasibility of paying farm workers overtime, claiming it was a one-size-fits-all solution that did not take into account the market competition that local wholesale farmers face. The summary continued, justifying historically and current racially exploitative labor practices by claiming that farms cannot exist without them in place. “As one member put it, people do not realize that due to weather concerns often an entire crop needs to be harvested in a day or two due to impending hot or rainy weather. Farmers need the flexibility to hire employees for these periods of time and sometimes they need to hire them for more than 40 or even 55 hours a week.” 

A number of councilors praised local farmers for opting to pay more the than the current $8/hr farmworker minimum wage and more than one councilor, including Councilor Maiore, clarified that the resolution supported the “spirit” of the state bill, insinuating that the current draft, which states that “no employer in the commonwealth shall employ any such employee for a work week longer than 55 hours unless such employee receives compensation for his employment in excess of 55 hours at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed,” may look different than it does now—perhaps less strong for workers, perhaps more pleasing to NAC. Attorney Claudia Quintero who is a member of the Fairness to Farmworkers Coalition which is helping to draft the act, said the group has been in communication with farmers throughout the process, saying, “We respect the work of farmers and want to work together to create equity for farmworkers in relation to other workers. Conversation is important, we know there is a long road ahead.” 

The resolution, now passed, will be sent to state representatives Joanne Comerford and Lindsay Sabadosa. The state legislation has been referred to the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development and a joint virtual public hearing will take place Nov 9 from 10:30am to 3:30pm.   

Redistricting

The Council unanimously supported an ordinance that allows city officials to submit redistricting boundaries based on the 2020 federal census to the state for approval. The most notable changes are that Ward 2 shrunk geographically while Wards 6 and 7 are slightly larger geographically, all due to population growth and shifts. The redistricting will not change until after Dec 31, 2020 and everyone whose Ward has changed, will be notified by the city. 

Diesel License

After a public hearing on the matter, the council unanimously approved an application for a flammable and combustibles storage license at the Shell gas station at 506 Pleasant St. The original application, which was written incorrectly, sought to add a new gas storage tank and to transition an existing gas tank to diesel. Jason Frigon, a representative from the Global Montello Group Corp who attended the meeting, clarified that due to demand, they want to transition an existing tank from gas to diesel, not to add any new gas storage tanks. 

During the hearing, a member of the public asked and later Councilor Nash followed up on whether the underground tanks had the potential to leak. Nash asked, “Your single wall tanks, what is the lifetime on those? This was put in in 1984. When does a tank get retired?” Frigon responded that the leakage sensors in the tanks are updated and very accurate and that , “There are no state or federal requirements for fiberglass tanks. We are starting to phase out 1980s tanks. However, there isn’t a reason to do that at this point. There is no statute.” 

Councilors and Frigon acknowledged that diesel emits less carbon than regular gas. In response to Councilor Jarret’s question and comment, “ We are concerned about the environment and carbon emissions. Does your station have any electric charging stations or any plans for that?” Frigon said while the infrastructure changes are too substantial for the global financial corporation (which is comprised of 394 companies and generates yearly sales of $128,000,000)  to apply to existing gas stations, there are plans to include them in new station designs where a customer can, “drink a latte and wait while their Tesla charges up.” 

Resilience Hub Site

The council voted unanimously to pass an ordinance that designates the city land behind City Hall as surplus and allows Mayor Narkewicz to move forward in purposing that land for the Resilience Hub. Narkewicz updated councilors on the city’s efforts to identify a site for the Resilience Hub, a building designated to support Northampton residents who face chronic and acute stress due to natural and human-caused disasters, climate change, and social and economic challenge. While the city is still looking at all of its options, one of which is to retrofit an existing building, the Mayor said an exploration into new construction possibilities “led us right to outside our back door at City Hall where we realized we have this parcel.”

He shared that the city is also looking for land to build single room occupancy housing (SRO), also known as studio apartments, and that the parcel could be a potential site for the Resilience Hub, or affordable housing in the downtown area, or both. Two other sites that the city is exploring are St. John church, which officially declined the city’s offer to purchase, and the Roundhouse Building, adjacent to Pulaski Park, which needs further testing to ensure that the former coal processing plant is safe for use. Planning and Sustainability Director Wayne Fiden clarified that the price for a single use Resilience Hub building is likely too high and that creating a dual use for SRO affordable housing meets two important needs. He gave an example of a combined-use building in which the first two stories would be the Resilience Hub, and the three stories of housing on top of it would be SRO affordable housing. Both the Mayor and Fiden noted that an existing building that could be retrofitted would be preferable for the Resilience Hub.

Narkewicz shared that during the pandemic, the city learned that many people can achieve permanent housing if single room occupancy is available. He mentioned a meeting he attended earlier in the day in which Massachusetts mayors and town managers sent the message to Boston that they need quicker funding to address the housing affordability and houselessness crisis in their towns. He stressed his excitement for the SRO development saying, “Northampton will put its money and land where its mouth is.”


Jules Marsh is a co-editor at The Shoestring. They are alive in Northampton.

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