City Briefing: Northampton councilors to revisit facial recognition technology ordinance

  • Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra appointed Patrick McCarthy, currently the facilities project coordinator in the city’s Central Services Department, to serve as the new Central Services director. The appointment requires confirmation by the City Council. CITY OF NORTHAMPTON

  • Northampton City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/30/2022 2:04:36 PM
Modified: 4/30/2022 2:03:02 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As local activists continue their push to strip funding from the Northampton Police Department, the City Council plans to meet Monday night to begin its review of the ordinance that bans the use of facial recognition technology.

During the virtual meeting at 5 p.m., the Legislative Matters subcommittee will also discuss whether to request special legislation from the state that would enact ranked-choice voting in local elections, and councilors will consider appointments to the Disability Commission, the Conservation Commission and other city bodies.

The facial recognition ordinance became a hot topic during the recent public debate over the use of dashboard cameras by police. Critics of a plan to upgrade the dashcams pointed out that the new system is capable of facial recognition; the City Council approved the upgrade in February at a cost of $133,000 for a five-year contract with Motorola Solutions.

“It shall be unlawful for any City official to expend any City resources to obtain, retain, access, or use any face surveillance system,” reads the ordinance adopted in December 2019.

The ordinance mandates that the full council review it “three years from the month of enactment,” meaning it will be up for a renewal vote sometime in or after December.

City Council President James Nash said that his “decision to review it sooner than later came out of the discussion around the dashboard cameras (and) surveillance in general.” He said the early start would mean the council could be ready to continue, amend or rescind the ordinance on time or even “by the fall.”

Officials including Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra assured concerned citizens that the city would not acquire or use the facial recognition capability in the new dashcam system and that the city would own any data the system does collect, so it would not be shared with federal immigration authorities.

On Saturday, May 7, Northampton activists are planning a noontime rally outside City Hall to demand cuts to the police budget and reinvestment of the money into other services.

“Northampton City Council and Mayor Sciarra have voted for increased police surveillance and are gearing up to support increased funding for police,” a social media event page reads. “Come out to show your support and demand that Northampton city government make Black Lives Matter in actions and dollars instead of empty words and lawn signs.”

New Central Services director

Mayor Sciarra has appointed Patrick McCarthy to serve as the city’s new Central Services director, a promotion from his role as the department’s facilities project coordinator.

If confirmed by the City Council, McCarthy will fill the position that has been vacant since David Pomerantz retired in January.

“I am excited to promote Pat to the level of Director to fill this essential role in city operations,” Sciarra said in a written statement. “Pat has seven years of experience managing key projects for the City of Northampton. With an additional 25 years of experience in public housing, project management, and construction, Pat is the right person to manage some of our city’s most critical infrastructure.”

The Central Services Department provides maintenance, heating and cooling, plumbing and electrical services, energy management, security and more to city properties, including the schools and parking lots. The department is also responsible for internal municipal mail delivery and all energy contracts for the city.

McCarthy, a former HVAC technician, has a bachelor of science degree from Springfield College and has worked for the Home City Housing Corp., Valley Community Development Corp., the Holyoke Community Land Trust and Nueva Esperanza.

Neighbors back in action

Northampton Neighbors, the volunteer organization that provides services and support to those 55 and older, is filling up its social event calendar and accepting donations of laptops, which will be given to a local family or resident in need.

The nonprofit’s tech coordinator, Nina Kleinberg, leads a seven-person team that will wipe the computer’s hard drive and return it to full working order. All donated laptops must be no more than six years old and have a camera and a microphone; donations are tax-deductible.

“We’ve got so many people who just have old laptops sitting around,” Kleinberg said. “We have more that are waiting for homes. … We’re looking for people who can’t afford the tech.”

About a month ago, Northampton Neighbors said it had received nine laptop donations to date, one of which went to a family of Afghan refugees and another that went to someone who needed it to get a teaching job.

Elisa Deutschmann used her laptop to sign up for Ancestry.com, according to Northampton Neighbors, and has connected with a brother on her mother’s side. She is also using the video conferencing features to attend appointments, according to the organization’s website.

“None of these things would have happened if I didn’t get a computer,” Deutschmann said.

On March 7, Northampton Neighbors restored its in-person essential services, including transportation for medical appointments and grocery shopping, and minor safety-related household repairs.

On Friday, director Diane Porcella said that all services are now restored, but volunteers and members must still wear masks, show proof of vaccination and socially distance.

“We’re keeping safe as we do this because that’s who we are,” Porcella said, adding that the goal is to “open up respectfully.”

To request a service or a donated laptop, call (413) 341-0160.

On May 6, Northampton Neighbors’ virtual speakers series will feature Christopher Clark of the Ruggles Center in Florence from 3-4 p.m. The talk will focus on the history of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian community formed in 1842.

Mayor Sciarra will join Northampton Neighbors’ first Community Forum, to be held virtually on Monday, May 23, from 7-8 p.m. The Zoom link and information for submitting questions can be found at https://bit.ly/CommForumMayor.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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