Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

There's no better way to start a New Year than to write about Springfield politics, right? Here's what I just wrote for the papers I edit:

I took the period between Christmas and New Year’s off and I was under strict orders to unplug and basically watch movies and relax. One of the things, I try to do for my staff, though, is not to burden them with trying to filling the hole meant for this column.

So on New year’s morning, I’m briefly plugging back in – while I’m on vacation typically don’t look at newspapers or watch much local news – and the task is easier because of the implications presented by the negotiated settlement between House Speaker Sal DiMasi and State Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera.

Coakley-Rivera had placed the governor’s loan repayment bill for Springfield several amendments that stopped the bill’s legislative process dead in its tracks. So did State Rep Ben Swan, but obviously DiMasi didn’t recognize the merits of Swan’s arguments.

After discussions with House leadership, Coakley-Rivera removed several of the amendments, but two were allowed to go forward – one that would eliminate the trash fee and another that would require city residency for any new city employee and those receiving a promotion.

I have no doubt that Coakley-Rivera was simply doing her job as a state rep and responding to issues identified by her constituents. Her positions, at least on the trash fee, put her at odds with Mayor Domenic Sarno, once an ally on the issue, and the Finance Control Board, which, ironically, she also wanted to stay longer in the city.

Now here’s the rub in all of this: the state has now stepped into two issues that have historically been the role of the city to address. That’s an interesting and, perhaps to some, a dangerous precedent.

The question becomes who represents the city’s interests as a whole and how are we as a community suppose to set policy. If a state rep and mayor disagree over a controversial law or fee set by a city, should this be the way to settle the issue?
Over the years, residency requirements are fairly controversial, and although they were once pretty common, unions representing municipal employees have sought to eliminate them. So what are the legal implications here?

And the trash fee? From the press release dated Jan. 1: “Representative Coakley-Rivera’s amendment to eliminate the $90/barrel trash removal fee has been fast-tracked ending the fee per barrel one year earlier than she had originally proposed, now July 1, 2011.

“‘This is a major victory for the residents and businesses, helping them out in this tough economy and fighting our trash fee related problems of blight, flight, and illegal dumping,’ said Representative Coakley-Rivera.”

I live in a neighborhood where illegal dumping has taken place in the past and I have to say I’ve not seen an increase in the time in which the fee has been collected. The threat of illegal dumping, though, has never been the real issue here. Whether or not the city should be charging for a service that is already covered by our taxes is what bothered many people who made the claim that city residents don’t have an additional $90 a year to spend.

Although the city needs the $4 million it receives from the fee, I’m sure the logic is that it can afford to absorb it with a better re-payment plan in place, provided the Senate approves it. I hope so. With more cutbacks in state aid anticipated, perhaps we would need that $4 million past 2011.

Now some folks in other communities probably will read all of this and roll their eyes in the way I know they do about this latest turn in the soap opera that is Springfield politics. In this sub-plot, Coakley-Rivera has won by going over Mayor Domenic Sarno’s head – as those as well of the City Council and the Finance Control Board – and had the state dictate city policy.

But before anyone chuckles, consider it happening in your community. If you live in a city or town in which there is a controversy or two and a mayor or select board on the opposite sides of that issue with members of the local legislative delegation, this can happen to you.

And is that the way you wish to have your community governed?

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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