$13 million bond gets first reading, not without opposition

Ward 2 Councilor Ralph J. Figy

WESTFIELD – Halfway into Thursday’s City Council meeting, Ward 2 Councilor Ralph J. Figy reported that the $13 million bond for water filtration received a 2-0 vote at Tuesday’s Legislative & Ordinance (L&O) committee to recommend it to the City Council for a first reading. A debate then followed, resulting in a vote for the first reading of the bond.
At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty began, countering the recommendation with one to send the bond back to the Finance sub-committee, or to table it. “I feel there are a couple of open items,” he said, pointing to the idea of At-large Councilor Matthew Emmershy to investigate a temporary filter for Well 1 and to seek emergency supplies from the Department of Defense (DOD).

At-large Councilor David Flaherty

Flaherty also said for him, reimbursement for expenses was the other open item. “Historically, our odds of winning massive lawsuits in this city are not good,” he said, adding that the “combined brain power” of a few more weeks might allow alternatives without prolonged legal battles. “I don’t see any time pressure,” he said.
Figy responded that there has been confusion about the $48.6 million the city is seeking in a tort claim from the DOD, which he said includes damages, and is not the 30-year cost of the bond.
“I would like to offer a compromise,” Figy said, suggesting that the Council vote through the first reading, and schedule the second reading and final passage for the meeting of May 3, rather than the usual practice of scheduling a second reading for the next meeting, which would be April 19. Figy said the city needs to show good faith to the vendors who have responded to a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a permanent filtration system for Wells 7 and 8, bids for which were due back this week.

At-Large Councilor Matthew Emmershy

“I’m fully prepared to vote against this. People have been saying, `trust the experts.’ I’ve been talking to experts,” said Emmershy. He said he had found land on Cabot Road to put a temporary filtration system on Well 1, an option which is not part of the request by the Water Department.
Emmershy added that the Water Department had said a new well would place the city under the Water Management Act, but he said there is an exemption for a threat to public safety, as long as the city doesn’t add to its capacity.
Ward 6 Councilor William Onyski, whose district is in the affected area, said some of the issues raised have been addressed. Regarding a new well on the north side, Onyski said the Water Department has stated there is no practical area. He also said the Law Department has said that lawsuits don’t preclude the city from settling.
“I like the idea of Councilor Figy. Let’s compromise,” Onyski said, calling it a “unique” idea.

Ward 1 Councilor Mary Ann Babinski

Ward 1 Councilor Mary Ann Babinski, who also represents the residents on the north side, said she respectfully disagreed with Councilors Flaherty and Emmershy. “The people on the north side need filtration plants now,” she said, adding that the discussion of the bond began on March 1.
Babinski also said that there is a lot of misinformation “out there.”
“I talked to the same experts, the same person at the DEP,” Babinski said. According to their conversation, she said they were misunderstood, and that a permit for a well could be expedited, but the actual completion of a well on the north side would take years.
Babinski said she was told that the filtration system for Wells 7 and 8 was the best bet, and to get them up and running as fast as possible. She added that people should keep pushing legislators to do their part in getting reimbursement for the city. “We have to do our part. For Pete’s sake, let’s get this moving right now,” Babinski said.

Ward 3 Councilor Andrew K. Surprise

Ward 3 Councilor Andrew K. Surprise said that a lot of information was not shared up front. “The more that I talk to people, it disputes things they’re saying to us,” he said. Surprise said the city needs to work with the National Guard Bureau to get reimbursed.
“We have a group of people – the Mayor, Law, and Water – who are responsible and accountable. They are responsible for the safety and well-being of the people,” said Ward 5 Councilor Robert A. Paul, Sr. “We are not, in the City Council, responsible for their health and safety. It’s nuts. We have no accountability,” he added.
Ward 4 Councilor Michael J. Burns said he served on the Water Commission for years, and agreed with Babinski to move the bond forward. “You just can’t start drilling wells around Westfield,” Burns said.
Emmershy said a secondary temporary filtration on Well 1 would give the city redundancy. “Information is starting to flow because we’ve drawn that line in the sand. If we approve the first vote, there will be no more information,” he said.

At-large Councilor  Brent B. Bean, II.

At-large Councilor Brent B. Bean, II promised to be brief. “We’ve had the time. Our questions were answered. Experts came in front of us,” he said. “The administration has given us zero reason not to trust them. I applaud everybody’s effort. It is a trust factor,” Bean said.
“I applaud Councilor Figy’s suggestion,” said At-large Councilor Dan Allie, who chairs the Finance sub-committee. He said Emmershy was right, if they hadn’t voted against the bond, they wouldn’t have received the information they did. “I would vote to support Councilor Figy’s motion if he made it. I’m an agreeable person,” Allie said, adding that he commended all the work the councilors have done on this issue.

At-large Councilor Cindy C. Harris

At-large Councilor Cindy C. Harris thanked Allie, and agreed that councilors are working hard on this issue, but said so is the DPW and the Water Department. Harris also said she’s had more people ask her to just “get on with it,” although she said not everybody.
“We’re not saying they’re not experts. They did tell us the water was 100% safe last year, and did say $5 million would cover it. There are too many unanswered questions for me,” said Surprise.
Figy said people were making it sound as though the city has not been in touch with the National Guard, which they have, as well as with Senators Warren and Neal. “I agree the way this came in was not the appropriate way. We have had one of the best Finance meetings ever with the Special City Council meeting. We are learning. I think we need to get the first reading,” Figy said. He also said that the federal government and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Secretary (Scott) Pruitt were currently deregulating the Clean Water Act. “He’s not going to add regulations,” Figy said.
Flaherty said it is in the city’s contract with the Air National Guard that if they damage the water system, they are responsible. “I don’t think a long drawn-out battle is the answer,” he said, adding that temporary filtration on Wells 1 and 2 would cost “half a million each.” He credited Surprise with doing “a ton of work on this.”
“I respectfully ask for another couple of weeks,” Flaherty said.

Ward 4 Councilor Michael Burns

“We were all new to this when the DEP put in advisories,” Babinski said. “If you want four more weeks, vote it through tonight. You’re throwing things out there to muddy the water. We have a solution that’s been vetted. We will give you another two weeks, give us the courtesy of a vote tonight,” she said.
Onyski said that he met with Mayor Brian P. Sullivan, City Solicitor Susan C. Phillips, the Air National Guard, the Air Force and engineers in January of 2016, two years ago. He added that Phillips has also spoken with a community in Ohio that has a military base that leases from the city, which few do. “I don’t foresee anyone rushing into giving us a reimbursement,” Onyski said.
Burns added that even getting Wells 1 and 2 online would not solve all of the water problems. Flaherty said another four weeks would allow them to come up with a road map to resolve the financial issues without going through a 10-year lawsuit.
The first motion to send it to the Finance sub-committee was then voted and defeated, with Councilors Allie, Surprise, Emmershy and Figy in favor, and eight councilors opposed.

At-Large Councilor Dan Allie

“The lawsuits are totally separate tracks that put pressure on the situation,” Allie said to Flaherty following the vote. “Those are going forward,” he added.
Flaherty then made a motion to table the vote.
“The motion to table is probably the worst thing you can do. There is an urgent matter in front of us,” said Paul. The motion to table was then voted and defeated, with Councilors Surprise, Emmershy and Flaherty voting in favor of tabling, and nine councilors voting against.
Figy then made a motion for a first reading by title only, which required nine votes to pass.  Councilors Harris, Onyski, Paul, Allie, Babinski, Bean, Beltrandi, Burns and Figy voted in favor, with Councilors Surprise, Emmershy and Flaherty voting against, passing the motion 9-3. At-large Councilor Nicholas J. Morganelli, Jr. was absent for the vote. Figy then made a motion to set the second reading on May 3, which passed by majority vote.
“I would like to thank all of the councilors and the public for their interest in this,” Figy said.

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