WESTFIELD – Thursday evening, the City Council unanimously passed the second reading of the Westfield Gas & Electric $15 million bond for Whip City Fiber Extension with no discussion, after At-large Councilor David Flaherty made a motion to move the vote up to the top of the agenda.
The passage of the bond sets the stage for the next discussion of Westfield G&E’s payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the city.
Flaherty has previously requested through motions a three-year history of revenues related to Comcast’s License and Franchise fees from the Audit Department, and copies of contracts from the Law Department between the city and Comcast, and between the city and Westfield State University related to local access television and community radio.
During the discussion of the G&E PILOT, which was on the agenda, Flaherty asked to hold it in the Finance Committee, and invited other councilors, and G&E commissioners and staff to come to the committee’s March 2 meeting at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the matter.
Previously, Flaherty has said the G&E PILOT is currently capped at $500,000, and that the city receives $600,000 annually from Comcast.
Also passed with no discussion at the end of the agenda by a 7-5 vote was the City Councilors’ salary increase by $3,000 in 2018 with graduated increases to $15,000 in 2026. City Council members currently earn $10,000 annually.
Not all the matters before the Council went as smoothly. At the end of Mayor Brian P. Sullivan’s briefing prior to the meeting, he asked if the councilors had any questions. At-large Councilor Dan Allie said that the mayor had expressed concern following the last City Council meeting about the conversation that took place during public participation with Kristen Mello, who raised concerns about water quality in Westfield.
Mello, who described herself as having a master’s in analytical chemistry from the University of Delaware, with a specialty in Chemometrics data analysis, used the public participation portion of the meeting to ask the city for certain steps to deal with water issues. Among other suggestions, Mello asked the city to stop the ongoing contamination of Barnes Aquifer by enacting a moratorium on fire-fighting training, and by stopping all use of foam and the tire crumb rubber surfaces which are being used at Roots.
Several councilors at the meeting asked Mello questions, and also asked that her report be referred to the Natural Resources Committee and to the Public Health & Safety Committee for review.
Allie asked Mayor Sullivan if he was partially concerned that the Council had acted to send Mello’s report to sub-committee for investigation.
“I don’t have a problem with sending matters to sub-committee. What was tough was the back and forth questions regarding her professional opinion, which was strictly one-sided,” Sullivan said. He added that the sub-committees should make sure that everybody is invited to the meetings. “That is the only way for you guys to have a meeting of that magnitude,” he said.
“The issue is already in Natural Resources,” Ward 4 Councilor Mary O’Connell said, adding that this conversation seemed to be mixing two branches of government.
“Public participation is just that. An opportunity for the public to talk about whatever they want to. Laws do not say that we can’t engage with that person,” Flaherty said.
“It’s not a law, but a preferred method to handle it,” Sullivan responded.
“Most of the questions should probably be asked in sub-committee. We don’t want to interfere with what the city is doing legally,” said Ward 3 Councilor Andrew K. Surprise.
“You’re asking questions that are one-sided. We can agree to disagree. I don’t agree with the back and forth,” Mayor Sullivan said.
At the end of the meeting, the matter of public participation was once again raised in a motion by At-Large Councilor Cindy C. Harris to allow public participation of up to 3 minutes per person as currently allowed, but to eliminate any extension of time limit.
“All speakers should be treated fairly. Three minutes is enough time for anyone to make a point. We’re trying to keep everybody treated the same, everyone treated equally,” Harris said in presenting the motion. She asked that the motion be referred to the Legislative & Ordinance committee.
“In twelve years, this is the worst motion I’ve ever seen. I don’t think in twelve years, we’ve ever not extended someone for three minutes if requested,” O’Connell said. She said during public participation, people can talk to any issue apart from public hearing issues.
“I look forward to public participation. I get my back up at the insinuation that we don’t treat people fairly. This body treats everybody fairly. I would not even vote to send this to sub-committee,” O’Connell added.
“I find that highly offensive, Councilor,” Harris said to O’Connell.
“I feel people have a right to come to us. A lot of people come here and are not confident speakers. I’m going to vote no,” Flaherty said. Also speaking against the motion were Allie and Surprise, who said he didn’t feel it was necessary.
Ward 5 Councilor Robert A. Paul Sr. said he was disappointed by the response to Harris’ motion, saying that the normal course of action for motions is to send them to sub-committees, where they may be discussed.
Also speaking up during and after the meeting was At-large Councilor Stephen Dondley, who said that while he was running for Councilor he had brought up issues that were not popular during public participation, and had been shut down by the City Council.
Harris withdrew the motion from consideration, adding that she appreciated Paul and Dondley’s comments.