It was the meeting that never got started Monday night as the City Council was scheduled to choose its incoming leadership team, but encountered a quorum block as five councillors remained in the hallway and refused to assemble for the meeting in a move to push the decision to a final vote on Jan. 5.
The choice of Council President has been filled with low-level drama or no drama over the years, but Monday night was different, as an apparent 5-5 impasse was staring down the body. Allegedly, five votes were set in stone for Councillor Leo Robinson, and five were drawn for current Council Vice President Clifford Cunningham.
It was the kind of political maneuvering and political impasse that hasn’t existed in Chelsea for some time, but in the past there has certainly been much less at stake than right now.
As the meeting came to order, Cunningham’s supporters gathered in the Council Conference Room. Robinson’s supporters stayed out in the hallway caucusing loudly and choosing to initiate the political tactic of blocking a quorum rather than face an uncertain, and contentious, tie vote.
A quorum is defined as six councillors, and no official meeting can start or take place without having at least six in attendance.
On Monday, as Council President Matt Frank banged his gavel to call the councillors into the room, it soon became apparent that they weren’t going to come. Not long after that, the meeting was discontinued and the game of political poker had been won by those outside.
Those inside the room included Frank, Cunningham, Dan Cortell, Chris Cataldo and Paul Murphy. However, some alluded afterward that everyone in the room was not necessarily a supporter of Cunningham’s bid for president.
Those outside the room who blocked the meeting were Robinson, Brian Hatleberg, Calvin Brown, Giovanni Recupero and Paula Barton.
The key vote, however, will lie with vacationing Councillor Joe Perlatonda – who is likely a shoe-in to vote for Robinson. With him still gone on Monday, many believed there was a tie on the Council and those supporting Robinson wanted to wait to get the sure outcome with Perlatonda in the room.
Cunningham has been lobbying for the post for some time and appeared to have a fair amount of support prior to City Manager Jay Ash leaving. Since that time, Robinson has emerged.
As the count goes now, Robinson likely has at least the six votes required to win, and maybe has seven votes. By January, he could likely have even more votes.
“I really can’t comment on the situation right now other than to say it will all get worked out on Jan. 5 when we have our official vote to choose the leadership for 2015,” said Robinson this week.
This time around, controversy has erupted because much more is at stake as the Council prepares to pick a new city manager and negotiate contracts with that person, choose members of an applicant screening committee and introduce any new city manager to those in the city. There could likely be important posts being negotiated as well, such as committee chair posts or leadership posts to committees involved in the City Manager search.
The Council President will have a lot of sway over the process and over several other things, and a good number of councillors reportedly were looking for experience in the situation and Robinson is the senior member of the Council.
Others had pledged their support to Cunningham and felt he had served admirably as the vice president and would do the same as Council President.
Cunningham was livid after the decision by Robinson’s supporters to block the quorum, and said it was no way to conduct business at Council.
“It is truly insulting to the people of Chelsea that the process to select Council’s leadership for 2015 was held hostage by a group of councillors who employed a dirty political trick to force the meeting to be postponed, choosing to remain outside the room to deny a quorum,” he said on Tuesday. “The willingness of some councillors to hold the entire City Council hostage to advance their own political agenda is deeply disturbing. It is equally disturbing that the entire process may well hinge on a councillor who has missed nearly a dozen regular meetings, and sub-committee meetings, while on a nearly month-long vacation. The people of Chelsea deserve better than what occurred Monday night, and I hope they took careful notice of where some councillors’ priorities lie.”
Council President Matt Frank – a supporter of Cunningham – said he wasn’t happy with the way things turned out.
“What happened on Monday is exactly why I wanted to have a public meeting,” he said. “The fact they were in a group a few feet away outside the room and within earshot negotiating and talking was even worse. I heard haggling and negotiating and that concerns me and is a bad precedent…I refuse to have a conversation about president because that meeting has passed. I’ll make my decision Jan. 5 and everyone else can do what they want.”
Frank said he had been criticized by some colleagues for calling the meeting when Perlatonda was gone, but he defended the decision.
“There was no other time to do it,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened at a time when Joe was on vacation, but Joe made that decision to leave the country for a vacation in late November and not come back until late December. That was his decision. This was a scheduled meeting and we’ve had a meeting like this for many years. I can’t hold up the Council because one person is on vacation…It’s mind boggling to me that we’ve made all these important decisions while he’s been gone, but we can’t make this one decision.”
The official vote for council president, vice president, School Committee liaison and seating position for 2015 will take place at the Jan. 15 meeting.