WESTFIELD – The City Council, following a tumultuous debate punctuated by Council President Christopher Keefe’s admonishment to several councilors to maintain the level of civility required by rule in the Council Chambers, last night voted to default the Ward 2 City Council seat appointment Mayor Daniel M. Knapik.
Keefe chided councilors on both sides of the raucous debate which opened last night’s City Council session, a debate marked by parliamentary jockeying through points of order, then invoking of council rules to stymie comments by opponents and several motions.
City Clerk Karen Fanion submitted the name of Brian Winters of 34 Cross St. as the candidate to fill the Ward 2 vacancy created by the Sept. 1 resignation of James E. Brown Jr. in the Nov. 8, 2011, city election. Winters received one of three write-in votes for the council seat and was the only one of the three residents willing at accept the post.
The council was sharply divided on that appointment, with a three-councilor block arguing for Winters election to serve the remaining time of Brown’s term in office.
But that three-councilor block, Ward 4 Councilor Mary O’Connell, and At-large councilors David A. Flaherty and Agma Sweeney, were opposed by a much larger block of councilors who were limited in the action they could take because of two opinions issued by the Law Department on the succession process, opinions which basically mandated Winters’ appointment.
The vote on Winters’ appointment was 2 (O’Connell and Ward 3 Councilor Ann Callahan) in favor and 1 (At large Councilor James R. Adams) opposed, meaning the vote failed to attain the seven-member majority required.
Flaherty left the Council Chamber just prior to the vote, stating that the city’s legislative branch was blatantly violating the law, on a number of levels, and that he would not be a partner to that illegal activity, and was recorded as a “not present” for the vote.
The other eight councilors abstained from the vote, effectively killing the motion to appoint Winters, who is one of the Cross Street residents involved in the Hampden Superior Court Article 97 litigation pertaining to the incorporation of part of the Cross Street playground into the Ashley Street elementary school construction project, a suit naming all of the sitting councilors, as well as other city officials, as defendants.
The council received an unsigned letter stating Winters would drop his name from the Article 97 suit if appointed to the council.
Ward 5 Councilor Richard E. Onofrey Jr., was the first to evoke abstention because of the order of the rotating roll call which started with O’Connell who challenged the roll call order on a procedural point, based on the grounds that the roll call should have started with At-large Councilor Kevin Harraghy, two names prior to her name.
At-large Councilor Brian Sullivan pointed out that the rotation drops down one name each time the roll is called and that two meetings, called by O’Connell, Flaherty and Sweeney, failed to gain a quorum, but that the roll was called to determine if a quorum was present. Keefe ruled that Sullivan’s interpretation of the rules was correct.
Onofrey was challenged by O’Connell to justify his abstention, which he did by stating that Winters was a party of the suit in which he was a defendant.
Ward 6 Councilor Christopher Crean was the most adamant in explaining his reason for abstaining, stating that the councilors were trading their vote to have Winters remove his name from the suit.
“This is a standard of ethics issue,” he said. “Should I be trading off my responsibilities? We are the victims of a law suit by this individual.”
“In the performance of our duties, we took a vote and we were sued,” Crean said. “Now the person who is suing us is saying that if we appoint him, he’ll drop the suit for our gain. The council has lost character and integrity in what we’re doing here (to consider Winters election to the City Council).”
O’Connell said that “All of the councilors who are against this are abdicating their responsibilities. The (City) Charter and two written (Law Department) opinions directs us in this matter.”
Crean responded that “nobody is abdicating responsibility. We’re being asked to vote for a person who has a law suit against us (in exchange for dropping his name from the litigation). That is morally wrong. My integrity means something to me. He can’t buy my vote.”
Flaherty said that he is also currently involved in a law suit alleging that Mayor Daniel M. Knapik violated his civil rights by removing an election sign from private property on East Silver Street.
“People sue the city all of the time. I’m suing the city,” Flaherty said. “That doesn’t mean I can’t run for office in the next election.”
At-large Councilor Brent B. Bean II responded that the pending law suit “skews my ability to vote for this person who said he would take his name off the law suit.”
“Vote and move on, that’s why people put us in these seats,” Bean said.
Sullivan said the matter of Winters’ appointment is “a no-win situation. If he’s appointed he takes his name off the law suit, but if I don’t vote from him he will sue us because of the civil rights issue. The legislative branch is not legislating anymore because of lawyers and litigation. This gentleman is suing me personally, so my vote is compromised.”
The council then took a second vote to refer the appointment, by default, to Knapik. That motion was approved by an 8-4 vote with Flaherty, O’Connell, Onofrey and Sweeney voting against the motion.
The council then proceeded to its normal agenda with public participation as the next item.
Dean Winters, also of of 34 Cross St., charged that the council’s action “will be the destruction of this Republic. We’re supposed to be a nation of laws.”
Following the meeting Brian Winters was asked if he would communicate with Knapik about his desire to fill the Ward 2 post, responding with a one-word answer of “no.”
Winters was then asked if he would take any further action to pursue the Ward 2 seat and responded that he “would do nothing at all.”
To watch Thursday’s city council meeting, click here.