WESTFIELD – At the start of the City Council meeting, Acting Mayor and City Council President Ralph J. Figy asked for nominations for a president pro tem to serve until the new mayor is sworn in Jan. 6.
At-large Councilor John J. Beltrandi, III was voted, and took up the gavel for the rest of the meeting. Figy then asked for a nomination for a Mayor Pro Tempore from Nov. 26 to Dec. 1, while he is out of town. Beltrandi also accepted that role.
Finance sub-committee chair Brent B. Bean, II asked to move up the second reading and final passage of eight items to finalize contracts for municipal employees, several dozen of whom were present in the chambers, some holding signs. Bean said the contracts had been discussed during the first reading and vote on Nov. 8, and are small amounts that must be restored in order for the contracts, which were signed and ratified earlier in the fiscal year, to be fully funded.
Ultimately, the contracts passed on the second reading, but not without some discussion.
During public participation earlier in the meeting, two union presidents, Marisa Colon of ASFCME of Local 346 clerical employees, and Ashlie Felix of the Westfield Professional Municipal Employee Association, had urged councilors to vote for the contracts, which have been held up for months in the council, and are retroactive to July 1, 2019.
Also speaking was resident Matthew Roman, who said people were getting tired of the repetition. He handed out spinners to the councilors that he had gotten from a local bank, and suggested that they start spinning them when it was time for someone to wrap it up. Several union members applauded Roman’s comments.
During the discussion of the first contract to restore $389 to for crossing guards, At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty, in response to some of the statements made by Colon and Felix, said his opposition was not about how much he appreciates people. He said it had to do with what he feels the city can afford.
Flaherty said the city is $9 million away from hitting the levy ceiling, which he estimated could happen in two-and-a-half to five years. He said once the levy ceiling is reached, there is no way to exceed it without voting for a debt exclusion.
“We have a big pickle coming,” Flaherty said, adding that he doesn’t want to see employees laid off two or three years down the road. He said he also wanted to give the new mayor the opportunity to review the contracts. “The concern is the money; not the value of the employees,” he said.
“I wholeheartedly agree,” said Ward 3 Councilor Andrew K. Surprise, also addressing the employees in the room. “We do value the work you do. The city wouldn’t run without you.” He then also spoke about hitting the levy ceiling. “It’s not fair to force seniors to work off taxes,” Surprise added.
“The contracts are already signed. Tabling it won’t let it go back to be renegotiated, only voting it down will,” said Figy, adding, “we do not require senior citizens to work off their taxes.” He said there is a volunteer work-off program that is available to seniors who wish to take advantage of it.
Flaherty then made a motion to table all of the contracts until the second week of January. The motion lost on a vote of 5 to 8, with Councilors Daniel Allie, Matt Emmershy, Flaherty, Nicholas J. Morganelli Jr. and Surprise voting to table, and Councilors Mary Ann Babinski, Bean, Beltrandi, Michael J. Burns, Figy, Cindy C. Harris, Leslie LeFebvre and William Onyski voting no.
The contracts were then voted one by one, each receiving a positive vote of 9 to 4, with Councilors Babinski, Bean, Beltrandi, Burns, Figy, Harris, LeFebvre, Morganelli and Onyski voting for the contracts, and Councilors Allie, Emmershy, Flaherty and Surprise voting no.
Before the votes were taken, Surprise once again questioned whether Figy had the legal right to sign contracts. Figy said the contracts have already been signed, and that he runs everything he does sign as Acting Mayor through the Law Department.
“I think these people have waited long enough,” said Babinski.
“The implication is that we don’t care. It’s because we’re concerned about finances,” repeated Flaherty following the votes.