By Dusty Christensen
NORTHAMPTON — Northampton will soon have a new climate action-focused city department and a commission to discuss reparations for Black residents and workers.
In a jam-packed City Council agenda that also included a successful effort to add seven all-alcohol liquor that the city can offer to entertainment venues and restaurants, councilors voted unanimously in favor of a resolution to investigate racial injustices against Black people and explore reparations. The council also passed a proposal by Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra to create a Climate Action and Project Administration, which includes a new city position to lead the department.
“What a monumental night,” At-large Councilor Marissa Elkins said during the meeting. “I think tonight’s council meeting might be one of the most consequential in Northampton’s history.”
In passing the resolution to “investigate racialized harms perpetrated against Black residents and workers,” Northampton became the latest western Massachusetts community to begin the process of exploring reparations on the local level. Last summer, Amherst’s Town Council passed a motion to put $2 million into a reparations fund over the period of 10 years.
The resolution sets the stage for the creation of a joint mayoral-City Council commission to begin that work. At least half of the membership of that panel must be Black city residents, and it will ultimately release a report with its findings of its recommendations of initiatives to be funded and other ways to “restore and grow and nourish Black community and culture in Northampton for future generations.”
The council also unanimously approved Sciarra’s reorganization of city government to create the Climate Action and Project Administration, or CAPA.
Speaking to the City Council, Sciarra said that the new department, similar to human resources or IT services, will coordinate with all of the city’s other departments in its work.
The department will be headed by a director who has yet to be hired. Two other positions are being reorganized from other departments under CAPA: the city’s energy and sustainability officer and the chief procurement officer.
In introducing the change to the city’s administrative code, Sciarra noted that in 2021, Northampton laid out, in its comprehensive plan, goals to have city operations become carbon-neutral by 2030 and to have net-zero carbon emissions citywide by 2050.
“I, supported by a group of committed residents calling themselves the Northampton Climate Emergency Coalition, have identified the need for a director-level position that will guide the city’s efforts to realize the goals outlined in the comprehensive plan,” Sciarra wrote. “I agree that a department-head-level position that reports directly to the city’s chief executive officer has the highest potential to succeed in bringing about the changes necessary to meet the city’s environmental goals.”
The new role will add a “sustainability lens” to all project management in the city, Sciarra continued.
“I am confident that adding project management practices informed by environmental goals to every city project will improve municipal efficiency and climate outcomes,” she wrote.
More than four hours into the meeting, councilors got around to another of Sciarra’s proposals: adding seven all-alcohol licenses to the city’s portfolio. After some debate about public health and the downtown economy, councilors passed the special legislation by a vote of 8 to 1. Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) voted against.
In Massachusetts, the number of liquor licenses a municipality can issue is based on a quota tied to population. Northampton has 32 all-alcohol licenses for restaurants, all of which are spoken for, though Sciarra did say that the city’s License Commission recently met and revoked a business’s license. She did not clarify which business.
The seven additional licenses are “above quota,” and as such the state Legislature must approve the legislation that the City Council passed. Unlike many of the city’s licenses, which can — and often are — sold on the private market, these new licenses would revert back to the city if a business closed.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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