Northampton council makes tree warden chairman of shade tree commission

  • Northampton City Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra voted to make the tree warden the chair of the tree commission.

Staff Writer
Published: 10/17/2020 3:02:47 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Some city councilors came into Thursday night’s meeting wrestling with how they would vote on an administrative order on the agenda that would make changes to the Public Shade Tree Commission. 

“I’ve really twisted this week about what is the right choice here?” Ward 1 Councilor Michael Quinlan said as the council debated the changes. 

The proposed change to the city's administrative code, submitted by Mayor David Narkewicz, makes the city’s tree warden the chair of the Public Shade Tree Commission, which advises and assists the mayor and tree warden on tree-related issues. 

After debate Thursday, the order passed narrowly, 5-4. 

The order also included a name change: The commission is now called the Urban Forestry Commission, which Narkewicz said better describes what the group does. The name change was not controversial, but making the tree warden the permanent chair was. 

Those involved in the commission spoke during a public hearing on the proposal.

“I think having a professional, highly expert staff person leading the commission is a positive,” Susan Lofthouse, a commission member, said at the meeting, which Northampton Open Media recorded. “I think having the tree warden working with the volunteer commission gives us a better voice, a direct voice. It’s our best chance for the commission to reach the DPW (Department of Public Works), which is absolutely critical in all of this.”

Lilly Lombard, a former member of the commission, supported the name change, but for her, “this is about subtle but significant structural change in our city government and a power shift that underlies that change that causes me to ultimately lend my opposition to this proposal.”

The chairperson has inherent power, she said, including setting the agenda. “When you have a staff person as chair, you risk steering ideas and proposals to what the chair thinks the mayor — their employer — would approve. That is inevitable.”

Three members of the current commission supported the change, while three “expressed concerns,” Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra said at the meeting.

Ward 4 councilor John Thorpe said he heard from people on both sides. “I’ve been weighing this back and forth,” Thorpe said. “It’s not easy.”

The change is similar to what Narkewicz did last year with the Transportation and Parking Commission and the Energy and Sustainability Commission, which have city staff as chairs, he said. “He is the person who is the operational arm of the city’s tree program,” Narkewicz said of the tree warden, a job Richard Parasiliti currently holds.

“He’s the one doing the overseeing of tree plantings, working with volunteers, also the budgetary issues that he works with the DPW director on. That’s why I think there’s value in having these collaborative committees.”

The chair, Narkewicz said, still gets only one vote. “I also want to stress to you that the chair of a multi-member body does not have an extra authority over any other member,” the mayor said.

Some disagreed. “I think if there’s nothing special about the chair, then why are we here?” Ward 7 councilor Rachel Maiore asked. “I think there is something about the chair.”

She floated the idea of putting the warden on the commission and allowing the group to vote on its leader. “Why make these changes permanent when committee members can simply vote for them?”

Alex Jarrett, Ward 5 councilor, shared similar thoughts. “I think there are times when an advisory committee needs to take a stand that may be in opposition to the city’s leadership,” he said. “Having the chair always be someone who’s supervised by that leadership could stifle the necessary and important dissent.”

At-large councilor Bill Dwight supported the change. Advisory commissions, he said, “exist and serve at the will of the mayor.” He added, “It disturbs me to suggest this is some kind of nefarious power grab.”

The chair debate aside, councilors recognized the commission for its work. “We’re having this discussion about one of the most successful committees and programs that’s gone on in my memory of the city,” said Ward 3 councilor Jim Nash. “It feels like the first controversy to ever come out of what has almost been a joyful processes of planting trees.”

In the end, five councilors voted yes — Thorpe, Sciarra, Quinlan, Nash, and Dwight, and four voted no — Karen Foster, Marianne LaBarge, Maiore and Jarrett.

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