Noho: Round One Goes to the Benches
Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz sidestepped what was shaping up to be a real donnybrook last week, when he undid his earlier decision to remove a half dozen benches from the sidewalks in his city’s downtown.
Narkewicz had made the unilateral decision to remove the benches last month in response to complaints by business owners that they encouraged excessive loitering and added to a climate marked by aggressive panhandling and other behavior they say is chasing away potential customers.
Public response to the benches’ removal came fast and furious. While some shop owners and others applauded the change, critics said the move was classist and an attempt to sanitize downtown Northampton, turning a vibrant city center into a shopping mall-like environment. City councilors weighed in, too, calling for the benches’ return and even the installation of additional benches. Some critics organized a downtown “sit-in” protest, bringing their own lawn chairs to replace the missing benches. A second protest had been planned for last weekend, before Narkewicz announced that the benches would be returned.
In a statement on his Facebook page, the mayor wrote that he’d initially had the benches removed as a trial “to test what role if any those benches in key, high-traffic areas of our downtown play relative to increasing complaints from city residents, business owners, and visitors about negative and occasionally aggressive behaviors along these particular stretches of sidewalk.”
His decision to restore the benches came after hearing what he described as “swift, impassioned, and substantial” public feedback. “Legitimate concerns have been raised about the loss of downtown seating, particularly for the elderly and disabled, and the perception removing benches may create that Northampton is somehow less welcoming, insensitive to class and poverty issues, or walking away from it’s [sic] well-established leadership role on homelessness and hunger,” the mayor wrote.
Northampton isn’t the first Valley city to experience a bench battle. Several years ago, Springfield removed public benches from Court Square; while city officials said the move was made to accommodate renovations, some in the city suspect the real reason was to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them.
While Narkewicz’s decision staved off another sit-in, it doesn’t end the larger conversation that’s begun about the overall culture of downtown Northampton. As the mayor wrote in his Facebook post, “Equally legitimate concerns have been raised … that the long-term occupation of benches by a few renders them inaccessible to many and that activities on and around the benches have made our downtown feel less welcoming and safe.” Now comes the hard work of considering how to balance business interests and civil rights, public safety and public access.• —MT
Springfield Budget Gambles on Casino Approval
By Maureen Turner
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno released his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year last week—and used the opportunity to reiterate his administration’s message that a casino would bring important financial benefits to the struggling city.
While Sarno’s $571.8 million spending plan contains some setbacks—such as the closing of two of the city’s branch libraries—it also includes positive news, as underscored in a press release from the mayor’s office. Those positives includes funding for new police and fire recruits, the hiring of new snowplow drivers, and commitments to keep city pools open next summer and to maintain existing curbside trash and recycling collection. Even the closing of the two branch libraries is at least softened by an increase in hours at the remaining branches. Most significant, the plan—which Sarno called a “hold-the-line” budget—includes no lay-offs.
So how did the mayor’s financial team pull off such a relatively benign budget? In part by relying on a $5 million payment promised the city by MGM, the company vying to build a casino in the South End—something Sarno took pains to point out in his press release.
“Without the strongly negotiated MGM Host Community Agreement which includes a $1 million ‘signing bonus’ and upfront payments of $4 million, over 100 layoffs and service reductions would have occurred,” the mayor said.
That’s a pretty pointed message for the mayor to be sending city residents just six weeks before they’ll go to the polls to vote on whether to approve the MGM plan. Sarno has promoted aggressively the idea of bringing a casino to Springfield. Now, in his budget plan, he seems to be warning voters that if they don’t approve the plan, they’ll see key city services disappear, along with city jobs that perhaps they or their family depend on.
Of course, even if city voters fall in line, a Springfield casino is not guaranteed. Two other proposals are competing for the sole casino license to be awarded in Western Mass., and the state Gaming Commission will select the ultimate winner.•
Prison Strip-search Lawsuit Proceeds as Class Action
A federal lawsuit protesting the practice of male guards’ videotaping strip searches at the women’s prison in Chicopee is proceeding as a class-action suit.
Late last month, U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor ruled that women who’ve been held at the prison since September of 2008 and have been strip-searched while a male guard videotaped the procedure can be in the class action. The suit was originally filed in 2011 by former inmates at the prison and named Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe and Superintendent Patricia Murphy as defendants.
When the suit was filed, Howard Friedman, the Boston-based civil-rights attorney who represents the women, told the Associated Press that allowing men to videotape the searches is a violation of inmates’ “basic human dignity” and noted that many of the women have mental-health problems or had been sexually abused in the past.
Murphy said the practiced ensured the safety of inmates and guards, adding, “We always try to make sure there’s a woman on camera. However, if we do not have enough women on shift, a male officer might be asked to operate the camera.”
According to the suit, at the time it was filed, male guards videotaped the majority of searches. Since then, that figure has dropped dramatically.• —MT
Advocates Point to California Model for Mercury Safety
Environmental activists in Massachusetts who are pressing for tougher laws regarding the recycling of mercury thermostats have some advice for lawmakers: look to California.
Last month, that state released new regulations that require thermostat manufacturers to recycle a certain percentage of retired mercury-containing thermostats each year—up to 75 percent by 2017—replacing a voluntary program that has seen only a fraction of them recycled. While California, like many states, has banned the sale of mercury thermostats for several years, many of the older models are still in use. The concern, then, is what happens when those older models are replaced. When thermostats containing mercury are tossed in landfills, the neurotoxin—which can damage the brain and nervous system and which poses a particular risk to developing fetuses and children—can seep into the water supply and, eventually, the food chain.
Massachusetts legislators are now considering a mercury-recycling bill that critics say won’t result in the level of recycling needed. (See “Activists Urge Tougher Mercury Law,” April 16, 2013, www.valleyadvocate.com.) That bill, which passed the Senate in March and is now before the House Ways and Means Committee, does not include the recycling goals that California’s does, nor does it give the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection the authority to ensure its success, the they say.
According to a 2010 report by Clean Water Action, Massachusetts’ existing voluntary recycling program captured only 4.3 old thermostats per 10,000 residents; by comparison, stricter programs in Vermont and Maine collected 22 and 42.2 per 10,000, respectively. A big part of those states’ success, according to CWA, is the $5-per-thermostat bounty manufacturers must pay homeowners and contractors for each thermostat they bring in for recycling. A competing bill in the Massachusetts House is modeled on Vermont’s and Maine’s law, including the $5 bounty.
Now, advocacy groups point to the model in California as well. “Mercury is a serious public health problem... demanding a serious solution,” Elizabeth Saunders, Mass. director for CWA, said in a press release. “The Massachusetts House should follow the lead of California in setting aggressive goals and add teeth to the proposal currently on the table.”
Voluntary programs, while favored by manufacturers, simply aren’t effective, added Ryan Black, director of the Mass. Sierra Club: “Efforts to control mercury pollution from thermostats that don’t include targets or incentives have proven to be almost entirely ineffective. It’s time for us to set real goals, and if the industry cannot reach these through their own voluntary programs, the state needs to have the authority to implement a solution that will work.”• —MT