Two Northampton city councilors object to Panhandling Work Group

  • Northampton City Hall is shown Jan. 10, 2018, downtown. Gazette File Photo/Sarah Crosby

  • Thomas Mose, "Box Car" sits on the side walk talking with Gary Blanchard who was panhandling in Northampton Tuesday afternoon. Mose gave Blanchard some money and said he used to be homeless but now lives in Salvo House. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Thomas Mose, "Box Car" sits on the side walk after talking with Gary Blanchard who was panhandleing in Northampton Tuesday afternoon. Mose gave Blanchard some money and said he used to be homeless but now lives in Salvo House. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Thomas Mose, "Box Car" gets up off the side walk after talking with Gary Blanchard who was panhandleing in Northampton Tuesday afternoon. Mose gave Blanchard some money and said he used to be homeless but now lives in Salvo House. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gary Blanchard panhandling in Northampton Tuesday afternoon. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Thomas Mose, "Box Car" sits on the side walk talking with Gary Blanchard who was panhandleing in Northampton Tuesday afternoon. Mose gave Blanchard some money and said he used to be homeless but now lives in Salvo House. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gary Blanchard crochets while panhandling in Northampton Tuesday afternoon. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gary Blanchard takes a break from crocheting and panhandling in Northampton Tuesday afternoon. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gary Blanchard, second left, takes a break from crocheting and panhandling on Main Street in Northampton, Tuesday afternoon. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gary Blanchard crochets while panhandling in Northampton Tuesday afternoon. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

@BeraDunau
Published: 5/9/2018 9:58:06 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Two city councilors are raising objections to Mayor David Narkewicz’s Panhandling Work Group and a downtown Northampton survey it released last month.

In a joint public statement, Ward 7 Councilor Alisa Klein and Ward 1 Councilor Maureen Carney objected to the mayor’s description of how the work group was authorized, its purpose and membership.

The mayor created the work group in early 2017, when both Klein and Carney were members of the Committee on Community Resources, in the wake of a study on the local economy by the committee. In its final report, the committee recommended that the mayor create a task force to “explore non-ordinance and non-punitive ways of addressing the needs of downtown at-risk populations,” the report states.

Klein and Carney contend that the committee did not ask the mayor to specifically study panhandling, and that the mayor’s task force represents a subversion of its intent.

“We and the committee that we serve on had been misrepresented,” Klein said.

“Never did we agree as a committee to ask the mayor to study the issue of panhandling as the mayor’s webpage states,” the councilors say in the statement.

“We didn’t want to single out any population,” Carney told the Gazette.

She added that she does not view panhandling to be a problem, saying that it is constitutionally protected.

In response, Narkewicz released a statement, saying that it appeared to be a matter of disagreement between city councilors on the subject of the intent of the January 2017 report released by the Committee on Community Resources.

“I am somewhat puzzled by the timing of these concerns given that my work group has been meeting for over a year and includes a member of the City Council committee that conducted the local economy hearings and issued the report,” Narkewicz wrote. “If the council would like me to refrain from referencing its report and withdraw its representative from the work group, I will certainly respect and honor its decision.”

In the statement, Carney and Klein say that it was argued on at least one occasion in the committee that those who ask for money on the street — homeless people and others who may be at risk — be included in the working group the committee was suggesting be formed.

The Panhandling Work Group the mayor eventually created has no panhandlers or homeless people on it, although it does contain representation from nonprofits that work with these groups.

“Our assertion was that never would the city form a work group to conduct research on and consider policies and actions regarding a particular community of people without their participation,” Klein and Carney’s statement reads. “For example, would the city ever form a work group to study and propose policy for members of LGBTQ communities without including members of those communities?”

Speaking to the Gazette, Klein said that having nonprofit representation on the committee was not sufficient for this representative purpose.

“Everyone should have a voice, no matter where they are in their lives,” she said.

The statement asserts that Ward 2 Councilor Dennis Bidwell, a Committee on Community Resources member then and now, objected to having panhandlers on the proposed work group. Carney and Klein also question whether Bidwell, who serves on the Panhandling Work Group, has conveyed the sentiment that panhandlers be included to the mayor. This suggestion did not make it into the Committee on Community Resource’s final report.

Bidwell could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The statement also notes that the committee did not want the Northampton Police Department to be a part of the proposed work group, and that a suggestion for more community policing money was stricken from the committee’s final report.

The Panhandling Work Group contains police department representation.

Downtown survey

The councilors also criticized a downtown Northampton survey released by the Panhandling Work Group in mid-April.

The online survey asks for responses to numerous questions related to the city’s downtown, many of which are about panhandling.

In their statement, Klein and Carney assert that the survey’s methodology is unscientific, and that its language and agenda appears to place the blame for societal ills on the less fortunate, rather than calling for action from the powerful to address societal inequities.

“The survey appears to be designed with the hope that the responses to it will justify the actions and activities that the Mayor’s Panhandling Work Group seems to want to implement, not least of which is the removal of panhandlers from the streets of downtown Northampton,” the councilors state.

In speaking with the Gazette, Klein also had strong words for the survey.

“I think the survey is a completely invalid tool,” she said. She said it uses leading questions, and that the data should not be used.

The deadline for completing the survey was extended through Wednesday. As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, 5,380 people had taken it.

Klein said the survey was what motivated her to speak out against the Panhandling Work Group, although she’d had issues with the work group for some time. She said that action on it was delayed because she recently returned from travel outside the country.

In their statement, the councilors finish by saying that they stand by the Council’s Vibrant Sidewalks Resolution which, among other statements, affirms that some people make a living on the sidewalks and for others it is home.

“It is our belief that we, as a community and as a society, need to be able to look at and see the struggles of others and face our responsibility to address social inequity with compassion and grace. Creating policy to make ‘go away’ what makes some people uncomfortable is not responsible governance,” the councilors say in their statement.

Not included in the statement is that, as an advisory committee to the mayor, the work group is not subject to the Open Meeting Law. Klein said that she felt that the committee’s work hasn’t been done with transparency, and that was troubling to her.

Klein was blunt about what she thinks should be done with the Panhandling Working Group.

“I do think it should be dissolved,” she said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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