First Council Meeting Features Showdown

It’s not what happened so much during the City Council meeting on Monday night, but rather what happened afterward and behind the scenes that has grown more important than the actual issue at hand – that issue being public safety and policing strategies.

The return from the summer recess for the Council was anything but ordinary, as two controversial motions by District 5 Councillor Joe Perlatonda – one of which concerned discussion of bringing in a Police Commissioner – had everyone on edge from the get-go. And, by the end of the meeting, councillors had lost their cool and the post-meeting discussion turned into a  very animated yelling match  with the two opposite factions that have developed on the Council squaring off against one another.

Perlatonda at one point appeared to be cornered by Councillors Dan Cortell, Clifford Cunningham and Matt Frank as they yelled loudly and made wild hand movements for nearly 10 minutes.

The same scene played out a few minutes earlier as well between Councillor Leo Robinson and Councillors Frank and Cortell – with Councillor Calvin Brown coming in for the assist of Robinson.

It quipped one long time observer to say, “Wow, it’s like the old days up here again. Haven’t seen that in Chelsea for awhile.”

The overlying issue revolves around public safety, and Perlatonda has been harping on the issue for several weeks – voicing a frustration with the police and the City’s administration for claiming that crime is going down and refusing to put cops on a walking beat near City Hall.

Two shootings in a matter of days a few weeks ago seemed to strengthen his point, and that’s what brought about his call for a Police Commissioner and a simultaneous call for discussion about what the city manager is doing regarding crime.

The underlying issue, though, was about power and procedure, and several councillors were upset that Perlatonda and five other councillors had formed an alliance that sort of put everyone on the spot and didn’t follow the typical Council procedures for major changes – that being to send such proposals to a subcommittee.

That played out at Monday night’s meeting when five councillors – including Council President Cortell – called for the matter to be sent to the four-person Public Safety subcommittee.

It was seconded by Councillor Frank.

However, a new alliance on the Council seemed to put up a united front against the effort – and for the first time in a long time – that front had more power.

Tempers unravelled when Councillor Robinson was a bit critical on the floor of those who wanted to send the matter to subcommittee and not to the conference committee – which is made up of all 11 councillors.

“It seems some of my colleagues want to shirk their responsibilities and send this to public safety,” he said. “Crime affects all of us and it requires all of us looking for solutions and not just four of us.”

Councillor Giovanni Recupero agreed, as did Councillors Brown, Paula Barton and Paul Murphy – the latter two being new entrants into the alliance that has loosely formed around Perlatonda and Recupero over the last several months.

Robinson’s comment set off what took place after the meeting – where allegations and insults flew around the Chamber and woke up long-sleeping ghosts from the 1970s.

President Cortell told the Record, though, that all was not what it appeared to be. He said the disagreement revolved around procedure and certain councillors putting everyone on the spot with major, revolutionary proposals – proposals he said had no serious place in a one-hour conference committee.

“What happened after the meeting might lead some to believe there is some big split or division and that’s not the case; it was all about procedure,” he said. “I am of the opinion that if someone brings something before us they are serious about getting it done and I tried to place it where that would best happen…My gut feeling tells me this is maybe not something we need, but I’m open to being convinced. However, I am not one hour and one conference committee away from being convinced. In one hour, we won’t even have a job description. I would think if you had a real revolutionary change with many moving parts you would want to refine it and shepherd it through a process…Putting a one sentence proposal before the Council and putting us on the spot to vote for or against public safety is not the way to make a change.”

He also said he believed that Robinson was out of line in speaking about others ‘shirking” their duties. He said one thing that confounds him is that most of the councillors for the proposal are also on the Public Safety Committee and they have never met.

“Something was said on the floor that I think was way out of line,” he said. “Councillor Robinson said some of us were ‘shirking’ our duties. I think it’s quite the contrary and I realize that’s a strong statement…I don’t know why six councillors, including four who are on Public Safety, are so against the proposal going to their own committee so it can get fleshed out in depth.”

Robinson, after the meeting, said he believed it was important enough that all councillors should be present.

“My issue is that it is such an important subject that all 11 of us should be involved,” he said. “Why didn’t all 11 councillors want to be in the room? This is something the whole Council should be involved in.”

Councillor Christopher Cataldo said in e-mail comments that he was hoping the matter would go to Public Safety.

“I would say that pubic safety is a concern to all councilors and I’m disappointed that due to Monday’s vote the City Council’s Public Safety Committee won’t be meeting,” he wrote. “I feel that it would be extremely helpful and beneficial to all if the Public Safely Committee met, conducted research, and put together a presentation that the entire council could review. Only after solid facts are presented would it then make sense to take any additional steps, including meeting with the City Manager in a sub committee on conference.”

Though some councillors have claimed that the official statistics are not accurate due to an alleged large amount of unreported crime, City Manager Jay Ash said following the discussion that the facts show crime is down and that he believes the whole discussion is an overreaction.

“The facts I reference indicate that crime is not only down, but down big time,” he said. “We believe our policing strategies are working…One crime is one too many crimes and the people should be anxious about that, but we shouldn’t overreact either…It’s too bad there is an isolated voice that is overreacting. We’ll listen to what people have to say.”

That said, the new faction on the Council showed its political muscle in passing a motion via a 6-5 vote requiring a subcommittee meeting to be held to discuss what Ash is doing about crime.

It was a vote that probably had less meaning for public safety issues, and more meaning within the realms of local politics and political power plays. It was a vote that seemed to send a message that a growing number of councillors would like to see something different done in the Police Department – and that something is likely to be walking patrols that are going to be an unpopular, hard sell to a police union that just put to bed a contentious, three-year contract fight with the City.

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