Between the LInes: Approval By Default
The Springfield City Council has spent years considering the prospect of allowing electronic billboards in the city. It’s held numerous meetings on the matter and heard from residents and billboard owners as well as the professionals in the city’s Planning Department. Critics worry the billboards pose safety risks by distracting drivers; some also object to the signs on aesthetic grounds. Supporters describe the signs as cutting-edge technology and say they could be used for public-service purposes. And billboard owners, of course, are eager for the higher prices they can charge advertisers for electronic, rather than static, billboards.
Given all the time and effort the Council put into the matter, it’s difficult to imagine that such a contentious—not to mention potentially lucrative—issue could simply “fall through the cracks.”
But that’s what City Council President Jimmy Ferrera says happened late last month, when the body failed to vote within the required 90-day period on Lamar Advertising’s applications for two special permits for electronic billboards, one on West Columbus Avenue and the other on Liberty Street. And for a while at least, that looked like good news for Lamar; at the time, Ferrera announced that because the Council had failed to meet the deadline, the permits would be automatically granted, without any conditions.
That also would have been good news for councilors who wanted to avoid weighing in publicly on the hot issue. But now it looks like that free pass has expired; late last week, the city’s Law Department announced that because a February hearing on the permits was never closed, the 90-day clock had not been ticking. That means the Council can, indeed, vote on them. (At deadline, no vote had been scheduled.)
Ferrera had been willing to take the heat—mostly—for letting the deadline pass. “I guess you could blame me,” he had told the Springfield Republican—before adding, in reporter Peter Goonan’s words, that “other councilors could have brought it to his attention as well.”
At best, that “oops, we forgot” excuse would indicate an unacceptable level of sloppiness among councilors—and yes, as president, Ferrera would bear the biggest share of the blame. But perhaps some councilors preferred to appear delinquent in their responsibilities rather than take an on-the-record stand on the sticky billboard issue and risk alienating those who opposed the plan, or publicly aligning themselves with those connected to it.
Certainly, political connections have added to the controversy. Among those promoting the billboards is Patrick Keough, a real estate developer for Lamar and the brother of former City Councilor Frankie Keough, who’s served time in prison on federal public corruption charges and who is known for having, even after his legal troubles, enviable access to certain councilors.
In 2012, Patrick Keough contributed to several city councilors, including Ward 2’s Mike Fenton ($50), Ward 8’s John Lysak ($100), at-large Councilor Tom Ashe ($40) and Ferrera ($200).
Earlier this year, Hampden County Clerk of Courts Laura Gentile—whose husband sat on the board of the Friends of the Homeless during the period that Frankie Keough was that organization’s executive director—showed up at a City Council subcommittee meeting to voice her support for the billboards. At the time, Goonan reported that Frankie Keough had identified himself as a “campaign consultant” to Gentile during her 2012 run for the clerk’s job, which she denied. Gentile, Goonan wrote, said “that the Keough family had nothing to do with her appearance before the council committee on the billboards … She said her appearance was as a Springfield resident, a parent, and someone who has worked in the court system for more than 20 years.” The billboards, she said at the meeting, could be useful for displaying Amber Alerts, among other public services.
Ferrera gamely tried to spin the Council’s lack of action on the billboard permits as a sign of integrity. In a press release explaining why he wouldn’t attempt to schedule a vote after the expiration of the 90-day period, he wrote: “I don’t believe voting on this matter after the 90-day period has ended by trying to use a technicality is ethical or legal; it is an excuse for not following our own rules. …
“While I support the use of digital signs in Springfield, this is no longer about whether you are or not in favor of said issue, it’s about following the rules and maintaining the integrity of the process which we hold out to the public,” Ferrera continued. “Being accountable and credible is not about looking for loopholes to circumvent the process it’s about being fair, open and transparent.”
Last week’s ruling for the Law Department goes even further toward promoting “open and transparent” government, by allowing the vote to take place. That’s good new for the public, if not for nervous councilors.•