To the Editor: The finance subcommittee’s water fight fiasco

When the water bond was resurrected by the city council, the city council voted to not send the matter to the finance subcommittee for a second time. But on April 5th, Councilors Allie and Emmershy decided to do an end run around the matter by making a broad motion to “review water production costs and make recommendations,” per the April 5th City Council meeting agenda.

Predictably, the three subcommittee members, Dan Allie, Matt Emmershy, and Andrew Surprise have turned their “review” into a fiasco, with Emmershy recently taking to Facebook to accuse department heads and the mayor of “stonewalling” them on questions they incorrectly think they are entitled to be able to demand answers for. It’s all quite shameful and extremely counterproductive to solving our water problems here in Westfield.

Before I get into the weeds on this matter, let’s step back and take a look at the big picture.

As we all know, the city, through no fault of its own, is in a bad spot with the contamination of wells on the city’s northside which likely resulted from fire fighting foam used by the Air National Guard over the past several decades. These wells are critical for supplying the city with a reliable source of water to residents. Other water infrastructure improvements to improve the integrity of our water supply are also needed.

The City of Westfield has a governmental body in place that handles these matters, the Water Commission. Its three members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council. According to the city’s website, “The Board of Water Commissioners has charge, control, and management of the waterworks, water supply, and wastewater treatment systems of the city, and has the powers to perform the duties conferred or imposed upon them by Chapter 322 of the Acts of 1897.” The water commission also sets the water rates that residents and businesses pay for their water to cover the costs of providing water. The water commission has access to a lot of information about our water system and works closely with qualified experts and contractors to ensure our water supply is safe, reliable and reasonably priced.

And so it was the water commission, who by state law make the decisions about our water system infrastructure, that developed the plans to tackle the issues mentioned above. After many, many meetings and around two years of consulting with a number of private and governmental organizations at both the state and local level, they developed a plan for implementing and paying for the measures they, in their expert opinion, thought were best for the city.

The problem is that the water commission does not have $13 million in the bank to pay for the improvements they decided upon. The City of Westfield, fortunately, has the capacity to raise this money by borrowing money at low interest rates in the form of a bond. By law, the city council must approve all bond measures with nine “yes” votes. The bond cannot move forward without them. Since all the legwork and research to address the problem was done under the purview of the water commission, the vote for the water bond should be more or less a formality.

Unfortunately, Councilors Allie, Emmershy and Surprise, in their overzealous and misguided effort to demonstrate they are fighting for residents, think it’s time for them to swoop in and usurp the duties and responsibilities of the water commission, question their competence, and begin exploring radical new options–like digging a new well or connecting to Holyoke–in a few weeks time. It is sheer madness.

First, these councilors are in no way, shape, or form qualified to weigh in on the city’s water infrastructure. Councilor Allie is a salesman for a printing company; Councilor Emmershy is a landlord; and Councilor Surprise is a political operative for-hire. None of them have ever served on the water commission and are deeply ignorant of the many complicated, technical problems involved. The two sitting members on the City Council who were water commissioners, Mike Burns and Brent Bean, approve of the bond.

Second, the time for second-guessing these plans was when they were under development by the water commission. All of the numerous meetings the water commission held on the matter were open to the public. There was plenty of time and opportunity for those concerned about the plans during this process to speak up and give input. City Councilor Mary Ann Babinski states that she attended these meetings and participated in the process and that she is satisfied with the process. And like Councilors Bean and Burns, she supports the bond measure.

Third, the three city councilors are relying on the same experts and officials for information that developed the plans in the first place. Are the finance committee members delusional enough to think that if they pepper the same people with enough ignorant questions that they will suddenly be able to arrive at a better solution? It makes no sense.

And that brings us to our fourth and final point. The city council has already had several meetings now which has given these city councilors opportunities to ask their questions (often the same ones, repeatedly). Still unsatisfied, these councilors sent more questions in writing to Dave Billips, the head of Westfield’s DPW.

Earlier this week, I made a public records request to the three finance committee members and Councilor Flaherty who helped formulate questions for the committee. I asked for the documents sent to city officials containing their questions as well as the responses they received. I have not received an official response to our request but within hours of our request, Councilor Emmershy collected the questions asked by the finance committee and posted them to Facebook.

Looking at the questions they have posed to the water department, it’s abundantly apparent these councilors are wasting everyone’s time with ridiculous inquiries and their demands that officials chase down information to help them get up to speed on basic facts or deeply arcane areas of knowledge that aren’t likely to uncover anything relevant to the matter. These councilors questions aren’t being “stonewalled,” they are being ignored, and for good reason.

I counted a total of 87 questions. Only a handful of them had anything directly to do with the costs associated with running the city’s infrastructure. Some questions were about legal matters but the vast majority of them were clearly designed to help them overcome their own ignorance of our city’s water operations.

Again, this is not what city councilor’s are paid to do and this is why we have a water commission. Furthermore, these councilors are not entitled to have city workers chase down information and do their homework for them. Councilors can submit public record requests to obtain documents that may contain the information they seek. But city workers are under no obligation to run around and compile and extract data from those documents just to answer their questions. City workers are not paid staffers for city councilors nor should they be treated as such.

I’m sure the finance committee’s core base of supporters will give pats on the back to them for trying to shave a few bucks off their water bills. The rest of us are just shaking our heads and hoping some grownups will soon replace them on the finance committee.


Steve Dondley

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