No Ordinances, No Raise
Activists push Mayor Sarno on anti-foreclosure regulations.
by Maureen Turner
It’s been more than two years since the Springfield City Council approved unanimously a pair of ordinances designed to address the problems caused by the high number of foreclosures in the city. But the regulations still haven’t gone into effect.
So last week, a group of protestors rallied before a City Council meeting to call on Mayor Domenic Sarno to implement the ordinances—and to question whether the mayor, who, incidentally, was up for a pay increase that same evening, deserved the bump in pay.
“We’re tired of our government officials refusing to implement laws that have been passed with the will of the people,” Ruth Clements, a city resident, said in a press release from Springfield No One Leaves/ Nadie Se Mude, the anti-foreclosure group that was instrumental in the ordinances’ passing. “I’m seriously questioning what Mayor Sarno’s priorities are. The City Council is considering giving him a raise, but I think he should implement the ordinances first.”
One of the ordinances requires mortgage lenders to participate in a city-facilitated mediation process to determine whether property owners who can afford market-rate mortgages, or were fraudulently foreclosed on, can stay in their homes; banks that refuse to mediate could be fined. The second requires a lender who has foreclosed on a home to put up a $10,000 bond to ensure that it will maintain the vacant property, rather than let it fall into disrepair.
The Mass. Bankers Association had challenged the ordinances in court. But in 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor upheld them, finding that the Springfield Law Department had “made a sufficient showing that the Foreclosure Ordinance was necessary to protect a basic societal interest, was tailored appropriately to that purpose, and imposed reasonable conditions.”
Springfield No One Leaves/Nadie Se Mude says the city has lost as much as $25.3 million by the administration’s failure to implement the regulations: $4.76 million in the required cash bonds and $20.6 million in fines that could have been leveled against banks for refusing to participate in mediation.
That’s not all the delayed implementation has cost, Roberto Garcia-Ceballos, an organizer with SNOL/NSM, told the Advocate after the meeting. Residents who might have been able to avoid foreclosure through mediation have lost their homes, he noted. And “people who are living in neighborhoods that are filled with vacant homes owned by banks … are now having to deal with everything that comes with having a vacant home in your neighborhood, whether the break-ins or the garbage that’s piling up in these neighborhoods.”
About an hour after SNOL/NSM sent out its press release announcing last week’s rally, Sarno’s office responded with its own statement saying that that the administration “has worked tirelessly on the implementation” of the ordinances, including defending them in court.
“The City has just completed the necessary internal operational details for a successful implementation and will bring this important issue before the City Council at their next regularly scheduled meeting on October 21, 2013 for approval,” Sarno’s statement continued. “I would like to thank everyone who has worked so hard to get us where we are today; including Springfield No One Leaves, who has been a tireless advocate for the residents of Springfield.”
e_SDLqWe really hope the mayor was serious about this implementation plan he has,” Garcia-Ceballos said. But, the flattering words about SNOL/NSM in Sarno’s press release notwithstanding, the mayor has not been open to working with the group, Garcia-Ceballos added. His organization says it “has sent repeated letters and e-mails to the Mayor and offered technical support with implementation of the ordinances” but never heard back.
So why the long delay? “I think Mayor Sarno has focused all his energy on getting this casino in the city of Springfield,” Garcia-Ceballos said. “I don’t think the casino is going to generate any money anytime soon, while he could have been implementing these ordinances,” which would have generated money for the city and helped homeowners and residents in high-foreclosure neighborhoods.
And on the subject of money, the City Council gave first-step approval to a proposal that would increase the mayor’s salary from $95,000 to $135,000 a year. That proposal has been kicking around the city for years and, in fact, predates the Sarno administration.
Councilors also gave first-step approval to a plan to give themselves a raise, from $14,500 to $19,500. Though the mayoral raise has been the subject of many public meetings over the years, the proposal to boost councilors’ pay has received significantly less public airing.
Both the proposed raises will come back before the City Council on Oct. 21, the same meeting when Sarno says the anti-foreclosure ordinances will be on the agenda.•
Mass Abortion Clinic Buffer Law on SCOTUS Docket
By January, Martha Coakley’s campaign to be the next governor of Massachusetts should be in full swing. But the attorney general will have a take a break from the campaign trail for her office to defend the commonwealth’s abortion clinic buffer-zone law before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The buffer-zone law is among a number of high-profile cases on the docket for the Supreme Court’s new session, which began last week. The case, McCullen v. Coakley, challenges a 2007 Massachusetts law that bans abortion protestors from standing within 35 feet of clinic entrances and driveways. The law, like similar ones in other states, was passed in response to incidents of violence at clinics that provide abortions including, in 1994, the murder of two employees at a Brookline clinic by John Salvi.
The law has been challenged by abortion opponents who protest regularly outside clinics, including in Springfield. They argue that the buffer zone violates their First Amendment rights and discriminates against them based on their particular position. Dana Cody, executive director of Life Legal Defense Foundation, which filed a brief in support of the challenge, has called the law a “clear case of viewpoint discrimination,” saying, “Activists who make disturbances at military funerals, animal rights protests, and ‘occupy’ demonstrations are not bound by the sort of restrictions applied to peaceful pro-life witnesses who invite women to learn about abortion alternatives.”
Earlier this year, a federal appeals court upheld the law, ruling that it was a “content-neutral, narrowly tailored” law that protects patients and clinic workers without violating protesters’ free speech. “[T]he right of the state to take reasonable steps to ensure the safe passage of persons wishing to enter health care facilities cannot seriously be questioned,” the court added.
In 2000, the Supreme Court upheld a similar buffer-zone law in Colorado. But abortion rights supporters worry that a bloc of conservative justices on the current court could overturn the law, as well as uphold abortion restrictions in Oklahoma and Arizona that could come before the court. The court is also expected to take up a challenge to a portion of the Affordable Care Act that requires private employers to provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives; that provision has been challenged by employers who say covering contraception violates their religious beliefs.• —MT
Humason, Bartley Advance to Senate Final
The results in last week’s primary contests for the 2nd Hampden-Hampshire District Senate seat couldn’t have been more different: on the Democratic side, Holyoke City Councilor David Bartley squeaked past Easthampton Mayor Michael Tautznik with 52 percent of the vote to Tautznik’s 48. On the Republican side, meanwhile, the results were a blowout for state Rep. Don Humason, who beat challenger Mike Franco, who works in veteran services in Holyoke, with 87 percent of the vote.
The close results in the Democratic primary were not surprising; Tautznik has been a popular mayor who’s led Easthampton during a period that’s seen a boom in its downtown, especially in arts-and-culture based developments. He also had the support of various progressive organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, and, as his city’s chief executive, has a higher regional profile than Bartley, who’s still in his first term on the Holyoke City Council.
But Bartley enjoyed the backing of major Democratic party players, including Hampden County Sheriff Mike Ashe, as well as family-name recognition—his father was once speaker of the Massachusetts House and president of Holyoke Community College—and his campaign, focused on education and improved infrastructure, won strong support in his home city.
The campaign for the seat has been a compressed one, triggered by the August resignation of the incumbent, Republican Sen. Michael Knapik, who left the Legislature to take a job at Westfield State University. With his party’s backing now secured, Bartley lost no time refocusing on the November general election, which he described on his campaign’s Facebook page as a “a battle royale of Democratic values against Tea Party extremism.”
Invoking the specter of the Tea Party is an irresistible move for a Democratic candidate in the largely left-leaning Valley, especially in the midst of the current battles in Washington. But Humason, in response to Bartley’s comment, told the media that he’s not a Tea Party Republican and presented himself as a more middle-of-the-road, common-sense candidate than a conservative extremist.
Indeed, of the two Republicans in last week’s primary, the easier target for anti-Tea Party sentiments was Franco, who’s been active in that movement. Humason’s voting record puts him somewhat to the right of Knapik, for whom Humason once worked as a legislative aide. On a recent legislative scorecard of the 2011-12 session put together by Progressive Massachusetts, Knapik voted the “progressive” position on a number of key issues 38 percent of the time, while Humason earned a progressive mark of 31.5 percent. Knapik was the only Republican in the state Legislature to vote for the new, Democratic-supported state budget and a $500 million transportation bill that included an increase in the gasoline tax; Humason voted against both.• —MT
Twizzlergate: Not So Sweet For Holyoke’s Quotable Councilors
It’s been a couple of weeks since Holyoke City Councilors Todd McGee and Dan Bresnahan were caught on tape making various embarrassing comments before the start of a Council meeting, but the fallout continues.
To recap: McGee and Bresnahan were recorded commenting on the relative attractiveness of two of their Council colleagues—Rebecca Lisi and Brenna McGee, Todd McGee’s wife and a candidate for Holyoke city clerk—during pregnancy; joking about putting a casino or strip club at the Whiting Farms Road parcel where, until recently, Walmart hoped to build a supercenter; and dropping a number of f-bombs. The two also discussed resident and activist James Bickford, with Bresnahan calling Bickford a “fucking communist” for not standing up for the Pledge of Allegiance. As it turns out, it was Bickford who broke the story, putting the audio and a transcript of the conversation on his website, http://www.hush.fluxmass.org.
From there, the story took off like wildfire, generating endless social-media chatter, a damning editorial in the Springfield Republican (“Boys will be boys, some say, but comments by Holyoke city councilors broadcast inadvertently at the beginning of a public meeting Tuesday showed a pair of grown men acting like children.”) and a catchy nickname: Twizzlergate (a reference to the treat McGee offered Bresnahan after revealing that he was “pleasantly surprised” by how attractive he found his wife during her pregnancy).
McGee and Bresnahan both issued public apologies, of a sort. While McGee’s mentioned both Lisi and his wife by name, Bresnahan apologized, more generally, to “my constituents, my colleagues and to anyone who may have construed my very sarcastic comments as true to my beliefs.” Both men also used the opportunity to take more shots at Bickford, with McGee accusing him of taking the recorded conversation “out of context” and Bresnahan clinging to the Pledge of Allegiance issue and suggesting that Bickford is disrespectful to the “thousands of American veterans who were and are buried by the American flag.”
But those apologies failed to appease the councilors’ critics; as the Republican editorial put it, the statements were “self-serving” and, by sloughing off the comments as innocent “joking,” showed that they missed the bigger point: “The issue is that City Hall, and City Council chambers, are public spaces; and every member of the public has a right to enter those spaces without worrying they will be denigrated by elected officials.” Meanwhile, an online petition has been circulating calling for the two to resign.
Will the blowback hurt Bresnahan and McGee (and, for that matter, Brenna McGee) on Election Day? Last week, web developer Jim Chevalier announced a write-in campaign for the Ward 6 Council seat, now held by Todd McGee. While Chevalier’s announcement did not reference Twizzlergate, it’s hard to imagine that his last-minute candidacy is not connected, especially considering some of the language he used: “My number one priority would be to provide Ward 6 residents with respectful, responsive representation. … I know that this is going to be a tough campaign, but every voter should have a choice, and now, more than ever, the people of Ward 6 deserve one.”
Meanwhile, among the candidates Bresnahan faces to hold on to his at-large seat is progressive activist Rick Purcell, the Green Party’s lieutenant governor candidate in 2010, who’s been very vocal in his criticisms of Bresnahan and McGee.• —MT
Have Health Coverage? You May Need to Re-Enroll
e_SDLqBecause Massachusetts has had an individual mandate, 97 percent of people have coverage. A lot of people think, Oh, I have coverage and I don’t have to worry about the federal mandate,” Eliza Lake, Community Services Manager for the Worthington-based Hilltown Community Health Centers, told the Advocate last week. “I would say this is part of our challenge.”
Under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), every region of the country is supposed to have trained people known as Navigators and Certified Application Counselors who can guide insurance seekers through the complexities of searching health exchanges—the Health Connector, in Massachusetts—and choosing the plan they need. Lake is the director of the HCHC’s Navigator program, and she wants Valley residents to be aware of things they may not know—like the fact that people on Commonwealth Care plans must re-enroll by December 15 or they will have no coverage.
“They need either MassHealth [the Massachusetts version of Medicaid, which will be expanded under Obamacare] or a Connector Care plan,” she explained. “And people who have Commonwealth Choice plans now need to re-enroll because the new plans would be more affordable.” (Obamacare offers subsidies to people earning higher incomes than the state’s program did [”Massachusetts: From Romneycare to Obamacare,” October 6, 2013, http://www.valleyadvocate.com].)
Another very important change, said Lake, is that MassHealth is expanding to include childless people between 19 and 64.
Since Massachusetts is taking the government up on its offer to fund Medicaid expansion in the state, about 145,000 new people are expected to be added to the MassHealth rolls in the commonwealth. Under the Affordable Care Act, the state has already received $130 million for community health centers, to help them offer more primary care and other services. The number of accounts created through the state’s Health Connector during the first week of open enrollment under the ACA was 10,310, the number of applications started was 7,553, and the number of applications completed was 1,471.
Lake says that people are signing up through her program, but that she expects the pace of activity to pick up later. “The real push,” she says, “is going to be in November and December.”• —SK
National Priorities Project Marks 30 Years
When Tim Carpenter first started working with the National Priorities Project in the early ’80s, he was living in California and involved in a nuclear-weapons freeze campaign there, and NPP was a small Northampton organization, “just working off the couch,” he recently recalled.
Thirty years later, Carpenter lives in Florence and is national director of Progressive Democrats of America. And he still turns to NPP for the data and analysis that inform his work. “They’re an invaluable tool,” he said. “In real terms, they break it all down.”
NPP’s mission is beautiful in its simplicity and ambitious in its scope: to make the “complex federal budget transparent and accessible so people can exercise their right and responsibility to oversee and influence how their tax dollars are spent.” It’s a vision of open, participatory government that began with the group’s founder and longtime executive director, the late Greg Speeter, and has grown over the years from the “pencil and paper” operation Carpenter remembers from the early days to the sophisticated and far-reaching organization NPP has become.
Today, NPP offers its information and analysis in a range of ways, including books, videos and webinars, compelling graphics and interactive tools that let users try their hands at drafting a federal budget that reflects the needs and priorities that matter most to them. But the heart of its work remains unchanged: helping the public, whether individuals or organizations, understand what the federal budget looks like, how spending priorities are set, what different spending decisions would mean—and, perhaps most important, how they can make their voices heard in the process.
Progressive Democrats of America turns to NPP for information on things like wasteful Pentagon spending and what the effects would be if that money were instead spent on human needs, Carpenter said. PDA members make regular visits to the Capitol and organize “letter drops” to members of Congress focused on issues such as healthcare access, economic justice, and the environment, and its grassroots network of activists relies on NPP’s data to show the effects of federal spending in individual Congressional districts. “It unifies us, allows us to work cooperatively in a coordinated fashion,” he said.
NPP celebrates its 30th anniversary at a moment when the need for inclusive, small-d democracy has never been clearer. Indeed, the current sad state of affairs in the U.S., where partisan politics have brought the work of government to a grinding halt, creates an opportunity for the group to focus on its mission: the help create a budget “by and for the people.”
NPP’s 30th anniversary celebration takes place on Friday, Oct. 18, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at Northampton’s Academy of Music. It will include live music and talks by U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern of the 2nd Congressional District; former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank; Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance; and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of the activist group MomsRising. NPP will also honor 30 “National Democracy Champions,” a list that includes Carpenter, the four speakers, Van Jones, Bill McKibben and Robert Reich. For information about the event, go to http://www.nationalpriorities.org.• —MT
Gun Buyback Brings Surprises
Who’d have thought the first Upper Valley gun buyback, sponsored by the Northwestern District Attorney’s office at the instigation of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and other local groups, would take an aesthetic and cultural turn? But the event yielded a rare 1902 pearl-handled Colt Browning pistol that will become the property of the Springfield Armory Museum. Another surprise catch was an AR 15 assault rifle Greenfield Police Lieutenant William Gordon said would likely have brought $3,000 on the market. In all, 140 guns were turned in in Northampton and 160 in Greenfield, giving Franklin and Hampshire counties a total take of nearly as many weapons as were collected in a Springfield buyback March 2 (333).• —SK