The Forest Park Civic Association holds it annual meeting this Sunday, where neighbors will get together over a potluck meal and hear addresses from a number of state and city officials about issues relevant to the neighborhood. At the top of that list, I’m assuming: the proposed Forest Park Middle School project.
The speakers list for the meeting includes Mark Mastroianni, Hampden County’s newly elected DA, as well as state Rep. Jim Welch and Amaad Rivera, who recently took over the Ward 6 city councilor seat left vacant by the mid-term resignation of Keith Wright.
Rivera’s entry to the Council was marked by some degree of controversy (indeed, as it turns out, there was even some controversy over whether to describe it as a controversy), much of it to do with questions about whether he still lived in the ward. Rivera attends graduate school in eastern Mass., and some residents—backed by a few councilors—asked City Hall to verify that he hadn’t moved out of the ward since the 2009 campaign. The city’s Election Commission verified Rivera’s residency, and last month he was officially sworn in as a councilor.
But the dust from that drama had barely settled before Rivera found himself in a new contentious situation. Earlier this week, Rivera stopped the Council from approving a number of private land-takings necessary for the long-awaited, $43 million renovation of the Forest Park Middle School, by evoking a Council rule that allows any councilor to postpone a vote on an issue until a financial report on the matter is produced. At the meeting, Rivera expressed concern that not enough public input had been sought on the land takings.
City officials (as well as this scolding editorial in the Springfield Republican) warn that Rivera’s move puts the long-awaited project in jeopardy of losing a 90-percent cost reimbursement from the state. Rita Coppola Wallace, the city’s director of capital asset construction, has said that if the Council does not sign off on the deal by the end of this month, the state commitment could disappear, and that future school-project reimbursements from the state are expected to be less generous. (Check out, too, this sharp coverage of the meeting, from Western Mass. Politics and Insight.)
Rivera’s decision to delay the vote put him most directly at odds with Council Vice President Kateri Walsh, an at-large councilor who lives in Forest Park and who is a proponent of the school project. Walsh was one of the councilors who supported calls for Rivera’s residency to be verified before he could join the Council. At the Council’s first meeting of the new term, when it came time for councilors to vote in their new president and vice president, Rivera opted not to vote for Walsh, instead answering “present” during the roll call. Traditionally, councilors hammer out deals about who’ll get those seats privately ahead of time—a process that’s not without its own moments of drama—and then present a unified front by voting unanimously during the public meeting. And let’s just say that Rivera’s decision to break with that tradition has not gone unnoticed.
Councilors will have another chance to hash out the middle school matter at a special meeting, called by Walsh, on Tuesday, Feb 15, at 5 p.m. in City Hall. The city’s comptroller will present the required financial report at the meeting, then councilors will vote on the land takings and a cash transfer necessary for the project.
But before that meeting, Forest Park residents will have the chance to talk to Rivera, and each other, about the project, at the Civic Association meeting. That meeting will take place Sunday, Feb. 13, from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at the Sumner Avenue School. “The annual meeting and potluck dinner provides an opportunity for neighbors to meet each other and to get updates on neighborhood activities,” according to an announcement from organizers. In addition, members will elect the 2011 FPCA board.