Councilor Keefe: A momentary reflection

It’s August, and the Westfield City Council is on “vacation”.
Interestingly, it’s actually a city ordinance.
Section 2-36 reads: The regular meetings of the city council shall be held at the council chamber in the municipal building on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Council meetings shall begin no earlier than 7:00 p.m. During the months of July and August, one regular meeting per month shall be held, on the first Thursday of July and on the third Thursday of August.
Summer months often find many residents and some councilors out of town, and the ordinance recognized that and was enacted to ensure important issues wouldn’t be decided during thinly-attended meetings. Still, the President always has the power to call for a special meeting during the interim, a power I exercised a few times myself. So far this summer though, legislative life has been quiet. The proverbial calm, so to speak, before the political storm of the upcoming election season.
So I wanted to make a moment to reflect back on my eight years of service and share a few of the things I’ve learned along the way. Somehow, along the way, I became a senior councilor, but there was a time I was the “new guy”, seated next to James Casey, the then Ward Two councilor. I didn’t say much in my first few months, and that seemed just fine with the other senior councilors, who put a premium on short meetings and concise debates. I think I shocked Jimmy though when a few months later when I did weigh in on a debate the council was having on the legality of “Games of Amusement” (basically, slot machines) in order to present a few potential flaws in the proposed ordinance. His reaction that night taught me that usually it’s more effective to comment at the right time rather than all of the time.
While I was the new guy, Barbara Swords was the “Dean” of the delegation that was the Westfield City Council. What impressed me most about Barbara was what you didn’t see on camera: the tireless way she attended meetings. Committee meetings. Board meetings. Commission meetings. Advisory Board meetings. I actually became concerned when I didn’t see Barbara Swords at a meeting, but then usually that just meant that she was attending a different meeting than I was that night. Her involvement at the very grass roots of local government meant that she more about what was going on in the city than almost anyone in or out of government. Form Barbara Swords, I learned the value of staying involved.
I also served with Adam Liptak that first year. Adam served the City Council for many years; in some ways, he was its unofficial “ambassador”. What stood out about Councilor Liptak was that he was a gentleman, both to his fellow councilors, and to those who had business before the Council itself. Adam Liptak taught me that sometimes, your reputation as a city councilor can be better enhanced by how you behave rather than by what you say.
Upon election to my first term, I was appointed by then-president Sullivan to serve with another Liptak: Finance Chairman John Liptak. When it came to finance and numbers, John was the best – and that wasn’t just my opinion, that seemed to be the indisputable city consensus! I learned more about city finances and budgeting from Chairman Liptak in a single year than I did in my six total years at the Department of Revenue. And we were only working part-time here! Although come each spring, it started to feel like another full-time job…Chairman Rick Onofrey carried on after John stepped away from city politics, and taught me a few things too, especially about municipal health insurance, our biggest single line item in the annual budget. His leadership in Finance likely saved the city millions of dollars; his recommendation not to join the state GIC pool looks like genius now: while our rates and contributions remain level, GIC rates are predicted to rise 6-9 percent this year with increases in copays as well being slated to close a deficit of almost $200 million in the fund (per the Mass.gov web site).
Councilor John Beltrandi served on Finance with Chairman Onofrey. John called me out one night shortly into my first term as President. He was upset because he thought the Council had a duty and an obligation to come together and stand up to the Executive Branch on broader matters of procedure, principle and policy, and he tasked me with the responsibility of unifying the fractured Council on the issue of spending the newly-certified free cash. I wasn’t too pleased that evening, as the conversation was rather blunt, even by John’s direct standards, but after I reflected upon what he had said, and where it was coming from, I knew he was right. The Council came together and presented a list of much needed and neglected items, and later that year, was able to negotiate a reduction in the annual proposed tax levy increase. John taught me to never forget the responsibilities incumbent upon city councilors as the elected representatives of the citizens of Westfield. And the value (and relative scarcity) of honest straight-forward talk.
The image of Councilor Marty Canty standing against the majority – as he frequently did – will always be one of my early memories from my years as a councilor. I think Marty was on the short end of more 10-1 votes than anyone who ever served before the expansion to 13 councilors. But it was Presidents Brian Sullivan and Brent Bean who taught me that nothing gets done without seven votes. It’s no accident they find themselves in the President’s chair again and again: it takes patience, persistence, and a touch of persuasion to bring a difficult issue across successfully. And a knack for strategy: both leaders demonstrated to me time and time again the value of thinking two steps ahead.
Maybe my favorite lesson in my eight years on the Council came from the man who served Ward One before me: Charles Medeiros. Charlie was always a bit of a mentor for me, since we shared the same real estate. So it came as a bit of shock one night when he got rather heated during a debate over the tax shift and lit into me pretty good. I was worried that somehow, this would cast a shadow over what had been up to that point a good working relationship, but as I later figured out, Charlie enjoyed a good debate – it made public service that much more interesting – but he rarely let it carry over outside the Council chamber. We shared a few beers and few laughs later that night (and a few losing Keno tickets too). I learned from City Council President Medeiros that it’s okay to stick up for your principles, and your ward, and even take a stand against your colleagues – but leave it in the chamber.
Finally, and maybe the most important lesson I ever learned as a City Councilor, came before I even thought about serving. My father-in-law, John C. Tierney served as the Ward Three Councilor from 1981 to 1984. By all accounts, then and now, Jack Tierney was considered one of the finest gentlemen ever to serve on the Westfield City Council, and he still remains popular up on the hill and throughout the Whip City even 31 years after his last term. And the lesson? Well, sometimes nice guys really do finish first….
Enjoy the rest of your summer!
Christopher Keefe
Westfield City Council
Ward One

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not the staff, editor, or publisher of this publication.

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