Tuesday, May 28, 2013 • 8:13 AM Comments (4)

Council Dodges Controversial Billboard Vote

posted by Maureen Turner

It’s difficult to imagine how an issue as contentious—not to mention as potentially lucrative for the developers—as the battle over allowing digital billboards in the city could simply “fall through the cracks.”

But that’s what City Council President Jimmy Ferrera says happened. Last week, the 90-day period in which the Council had to decide on Lamar Advertising’s permit applications for the billboards ended without a vote. By law, the Council’s lack of action means that the permits are automatically granted.

“I guess you could blame me," Ferrera told the Republican’s Pete Goonan—before adding, in Goonan’s words, that “other councilors could have brought it to his attention as well.”

Let’s say we blame them all. Really, am I the only one who finds it hard to swallow that the Council simply “forgot” to get around to voting on the matter, which has been discussed and analyzed for years? 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 I’d suggest that a number of councilors were more than happy to take a pass on the billboard issue, to allow the permits to be issued without their having a take a stand and risk alienating those who opposed the plan.

And let’s not forget who stands to profit by it, starting with Patrick Keough, a real estate developer for Lamar and the brother of former City Councilor Frankie Keough, who’s served time on federal public corruptions charges and who is known for having, even after his legal troubles, deep 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).

In an interesting side note, earlier this year, Hampden County Clerk of Courts Laura Gentile showed up at a Council subcommittee meeting to voice her support for the billboards. At the time, Goonan reported that Gentile’s husband had sat on the board of the Friends of the Homeless during the period that Frankie Keough was that organization’s executive director. Goonan also 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 last week. 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.”

Ferrera, meanwhile, 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. Being accountable and credible is not about looking for loopholes to circumvent the process it’s about being fair, open and transparent.”

So, Springfield voters, do you believe that the way that billboard matter played out is a shining example of government transparency?

Comments (4)
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This was actually the best outcome of this situation. I cannot prove it, but I believe Frank was involved and the push to pass this was an attempt to relegitimize Frank. Whether Pat wanted or asked for his brother's help is impossible to say, but I can say were I confident Frank was not involved, this permit would have passed long ago with minimal controversy.

It may be ducking by letting the permit gain approval by default, but it also robs Frank Keough of any right to say he still has clout on the Council, at least in this circumstance. The fact is that the merits of the project are sound, but the recovery of Frank Keough's credibility is not. We had our cake and ate it too. Jimmy's just mad because he's friends with Frank and could not help him out as he had hoped (assuming Frank was involved, which I reiterate, I cannot prove...yet).

Posted by Matt S on 5.28.13 at 9:01

Hi Matt, interesting take.

You know what's sad? We can come up with all sorts of intriguing theories and readings on this, but none of them has anything to do with serving the public interest.

Posted by M. Turner on 5.29.13 at 9:58

The best outcome of this is that the very large field of city council candidates may be further emboldened in their efforts to seek elected office. This entire issue in no uncertain terms very easily illustrates the dangers of allowing entrenched politcians to repeatedly sell out the interests of the public in the name of appeasement of cronies (or the appearance thereof). With luck, the entire current crop of councilors will be purged by the electorate.

Posted by tiedyeguy on 5.29.13 at 11:08

Too true, Maureen. Too true. Frankly, these special permits should be taken out of the Council's hands. I think it has become a problem from my observations, although the question is how do you get accountability, especially in the face of things like Biomass? Maybe the Council could have the right to order whoever would get that authority to reconsider an approved application (since reconsideration of denied applications is prohibited under state law).

As for throwing them all out, I don't think they are all that bad. The real entrenchment though is in the at-large seats. Hard as it may be to beat any incumbent, it is really tough when you don't have an actual opponent, but just tossing job application into a field of five slots.

Posted by Matt S on 5.29.13 at 16:38
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