By Seth Daniel
In what has become the first big squabble on the new City Council, many councillors are at odds over the decision to block a vote on the controversial police and fire residency ordinance that was expected to come to a vote on Monday night, but instead was ruled out of order by Council President Dan Cortell before any vote could take place.
The Council has been debating for the last month the latest measure by Councillor Giovanni Recupero, which requires new hires of the police and fire departments to remain living in Chelsea for seven years before being allowed to move out of town. Already, anyone taking the Civil Service exam to be a police or firefighter has to have lived in the City one year.
The matter had been in Conference Committee and was discussed at length on Feb. 15 between councillors, with a roughly even split set of opinions on the matter.
In other words, it was going to be a down-to-the-wire vote.
On Monday night, at the regular Council meeting, the stage was set.
When the time came to pull the matter out of Committee, the votes seemed to swing heavily towards those in favor of the ordinance.
Then, after it was read publicly, Cortell ruled it out of order, and City Solicitor Cheryl Watson Fisher said the ordinance violated, in her opinion, several parts of the City Charter. The most critical part was that it interfered with the “day to day operations” of the City Manager – a major taboo in Chelsea’s Charter and something frequently cited in efforts by the Council.
With the vote blocked by Cortell via Watson’s legal opinion, which she gave verbally on Monday and also had submitted in written form late last week, the tension grew.
Recupero ordered an appeal of the decision and wanted a vote to overrule the chair – a common practice allowed by Council Rule #3. With the votes seemingly with Recupero, it was believed that he would be able to overrule the chair and still bring the matter to a vote.
However, Cortell said he would not allow Recupero to overrule him because, in this instance, it wasn’t allowed. That set off an argument and, even as late as Wednesday afternoon, was still in hot dispute amongst the councillors.
Cortell explained that the one exception, in his opinion, to Rule #3 is that the chair cannot be overruled if the matter at hand violates the Council Rules or the U.S. Constitution. He felt that both were being violated and that Recupero could not force the overrule vote.
Cortell said there is much more to the case than what most believe, and there was no case here of him using his power to squash the matter.
Others, however, disagree, saying that similar ordinances and orders on residency have come up for a vote in the past – when the vote count was not so favorable for passage – and it was always allowed to be discussed and voted upon. Usually, in those times, it always lost and there was never any discussion of such a thing violating the Charter or the Constitution.
Recupero dismissed the entire proceeding, saying that he had the votes and it simply got “squashed.”
“I had the votes; it was going to pass and they blocked it,” he said. “In other words, we can’t do anything. It never was the case before when we voted on this and didn’t have the votes. Now, we can’t make any ordinances apparently because they interfere with the day-to-day operations. So, what is the point of us? It’s kind of strange, now they rule it out of order. Imagine that.”
Cortell said there are very good reasons for his decision, and he said there was a lot of behind the scenes back and forth during the meeting.
“The following four motions are never in order, even if adopted by a unanimous vote,” said Cortell. “Number 1 being, motions which conflict with laws (federal, state or local), or bylaws, constitution, or rules of the organization. I also want to point out the the City Solicitor is the individual who is tasked to defend the City when legal matters are arise. No one thinks this Ordinance, if passed, is not going to be contested either immediately by the Unions, at some point in the future and most certainly when a firing or other form discipline that results from it takes place. The contest may even be done in the form of injunctive relief before there is an actual violation or on purpose upon the next new hiring so as to test it.”
Councillor Leo Robinson, an advocate for passing the ordinance, said he believed that Watson Fisher was totally wrong in her opinion. He said he plans to ask for second opinion and he wants to get a legal opinion on Council Rule #3.
“In the past this ordinance has come up on the floor, which was reviewed by the City Solicitor and everything was in order,” he said. “Several votes had been taken in the past and it was voted down. The ordinance was re-introduced after being reviewed by the City Solicitor this time. The president allowed the ordinance to be moved to committee. As the president is the person who arranges the conference committee, which was held and the City Solicitor said there that if it passes that it could be negotiated. At the regular Council meeting, the City Solicitor and the president stated that this was out of order. When I asked which rule they were referring to, I didn’t get an answer. I want to get a ruling now on Rule #3, the powers of the president. Cheryl reviewed this previously and said it was fine.”
Councillor Damali Vidot, who has spoken frequently on the matter, said she believed the situation reflected on a process that wasn’t fair or transparent. She added that while residency isn’t her pet issue, constituents frequently tell her it is something they really want passed.
“This is a power struggle that has existed way before the new councillors like myself came and I don’t want anyone to attempt to use us as pawns,” she said. “What happened Monday denied councilors who represent the people the right to speak and the right to vote. Regardless of which way the voting would have gone, my main concern is that the process is always fair and transparent. And it wasn’t.”
Cortell said the view of the ordinance changed on Monday because of Watson Fisher’s written opinion. He said he could not let it go forward after reading the ways that it violated the Charter.
“Passing this Ordinance, instead of it being just an order, will unquestionably result in a lawsuit as no one thinks a police officer or firefighter is going to accept not getting paid, fired or any other punishment without fighting it,” he said. “This alone is a reason even someone who is in favor of the Ordinance in principle might decide it’s not something worth the fight it will inevitably cause at some time sooner or later.”
There was no official tally of what the votes were lined up to be had it gone to a vote, but informal polls showed it likely had the required six votes, and perhaps even seven.