One reorg approved, not another


WESTFIELD – The City Council unanimously approved an ordinance amendment to reorganize the city’s Law Department last night, but narrowly rejected a second amendment to change the composition of the Planning Board.
The council, while unanimous in amending the ordinance that establishes the City Solicitor’s Department, was divided on how that Law Department should support the council.
The Law Department falls under the executive branch of city government and as such represents the interests of the city government as a whole. Several councilors said that the department should include an attorney specifically dedicated to representing the interests of the City Council, exclusive of other municipal concerns.
The revised ordinance will allow the creation of positions to address specialized areas of the practice of law.
At Large Councilor David A. Flaherty opened the discussion of the role of the Law Department, not only in the broader context of representing city government, but specifically the council.
“I wish we had a solicitor dedicated to us,” Flaherty said. “I feel that the solicitor’s (office) is working for the mayor, not for us.”
At-large Councilor Brent B. Bean II agreed with Flaherty.
“It is difficult sometimes to get answers,” Bean said.
Bean suggested that city attorneys should be available to the council’s committees, where much of the technical debate about pending issues occurs, but not at the regular council sessions.
“Clearly we’ve overused that asset,” Bean said, pertaining to having an attorney at Council Sessions.
Ward 4 Councilor Mary O’Connell disagreed, stating that she feels it is a benefit to have a city lawyer present during the regular council session, when votes are taken.
“I wish we had a solicitor who would come to our meetings like we used to have,” O’Connell said.
Flaherty said that he did not see the need for an attorney at regular council meetings.
At-large Councilor John J. Beltrandi III, said the purpose of the amendment is to “allow the Law Department to hire more people, people who specialize in different areas of law. This is all tied to the budget, but it gets us moving in the right direction.”
Susan Phillips, Law Department supervisor, said the current structure of the department limits the number of attorneys and the hours they work. Most of the staff is part-time, while the city’s caseload is increasing.
The Law Department is now representing the School Department and is engaged in all union contract negotiations, both of which have substantially increased the man-hour requirements of the department.
The council, by a 6-6 vote, rejected the amendment to restructure the Planning Board. Mayor Daniel M. Knapik had submitted the ordinance change because of the current requirement that all six city wards be represented by one member of the Planning Board, with the seventh board member at large.
Knapik has said that finding candidates to fill those seats on a ward basis is often difficult and it would expedite the appointment process if all seven board seats were at large.
Flaherty opened that discussion as well, stating his preference for ward representation.
“I will not vote for this,” Flaherty said. “I like the ward system, having people on the Planning Board who are familiar with neighborhoods in their ward.”
Bean said that he sees the value of ward representation and that many other communities are moving back in that direction for boards and commissions.
“I like the ward representation piece,” Bean said. “Ward 5 is completely different that Ward 1. It’s good to have different eyes looking at those issues (from different perspectives).”
Supporting the Planning Board amendment were councilors: James R. Adams, Beltrandi, Ann Callahan, Christopher Crean, Kevin Harraghy and Agma Sweeney.
Voting against the amendment were councilors: Bean, Flaherty, Christopher Keefe, O’Connell, Richard E. Onofrey Jr., and Brian Sullivan.

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