Follow the Money: Biomass Edition
On Monday, the Springfield City Council will take up the question of whether to appeal the building permit recently granted to Palmer Renewable Energy to build the wood-burning power plant in East Springfield. Steven Desilets, head of the Building Code Enforcement department, issued the permit earlier this month over the protests of councilors and residents who oppose the plant because of concerns about its effect of public health and the environment. In May, the Council revoked a land-use special permit it had given the developers back in 2008.
Earlier this week, the Council passed, by 10-to-3 votes, two non-binding resolutions opposing the plant’s construction. Later, At-large Councilor Tim Rooke—one of the three opposing votes, along with fellow At-large Councilors Kateri Walsh and Jimmy Ferrera—described the resolutions as “purely political.”
While I’m typically a dedicated skeptic, I don’t share Rooke’s view on this matter. For one thing, the recent municipal election showed that being for or against the controversial plant didn’t necessary have any bearing on a candidate’s success. Mayor Domenic Sarno, who’s backed the project thus far, saying he’s relying on state officials who have given it a green light, handily won re-election over his challenger, Council President Jose Tosado, who opposes the plant. Rooke,
Walsh and Ferrera, all of whom have consistently backed the plant, also were re-elected, with Rooke the second-highest vote-getter in the at-large race (just behind Tommy Ashe, a plant opponent). Voters also returned to office former Councilor Bud Williams, a project supporter who gave up his seat to run, unsuccessfully, for mayor in 2009.
Do I think there might be a degree of political calculation behind some of the plant opponents’ positions? Sure. But I’ve found that the most vocal among that group have clearly stated legitimate concerns about the project—concerns shared by community groups, led by Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield, and public-health organizations such as the Mass. Medical Society, the American Lung Association, the Mass. Breast Cancer Coalition and the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition.
But I will agree that the battle over the plant is dripping with political implications. Take, for instance, its influence on campaign contributions this election season.
Between January of this year and Election Day, members of the Callahan family—owners of Palmer Paving and the would-be developers of the Springfield plant—made thousands in campaign contributions to City Council candidates. Among those receiving that money (all of whom support the project):
• Jimmy Ferrera: $1,400
• Bud Williams: $1,400
• Kateri Walsh: $1,250
• Tim Rooke: $750
David Callahan, president of Palmer Paving, also gave $250 to Ward 1 City Councilor Zaida Luna back in April. Luna opposes the plant.
The Callahans also made significant contributions this year to several state-level candidates. State Rep, Angelo Puppolo (D-Springfield) received a total of $1,000 from various members of the family; Senate President Terese Murray received $1,500.
Interestingly, no contributions from the family show up on Sarno’s 2011 campaign finance reports. Between the fall of 2008—when the project first came to the City Council for a special permit—and this January, the Callahans had given Sarno a total of $2,025.
Ferrera had received a total of $500 from David Callahan in 2008 and 2009, both contributions made after he cast his vote for the special permit.
Williams—who had been on the Council during that 2008 vote, and voted to grant the permit—received $1,000 from Callahan family members between October of 2008 to June of 2009. Williams also received a $500 donation from the president of Barletta Engineering of Canton, Palmer Paving’s partner in the Springfield plant, in June of 2009.
In addition, Frank Fitzgerald, the attorney representing Palmer Renewable Energy, contributed to a number of Council candidates this season. Fitzgerald (who over the years has represented many clients with business before the Council) gave to plant supporters Walsh ($500), Ferrera ($350), Rooke ($250) and Williams ($250). He’s also contributed $250 to Sarno this year, and $250 to Puppolo.
In addition, Fitzgerald gave money to Tosado ($100), Luna ($250), Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs ($100), Ward 5’s Clodo Concepcion ($100) and Ward 7’s Tim Allen—all opponents of the plant.