Ordinance raises questions about election of two school employees to Holyoke City Council

  • Holyoke City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

STAFF WRITER 
Published: 11/19/2021 5:25:54 PM

HOLYOKE — When the 13 newly elected members of the Holyoke City Council are sworn into office on Jan. 3, they might already find themselves in a crisis.

Two newly elected councilors, including the second-highest vote-getter in the at-large race, work in the city’s schools. Because of a city ordinance passed in 2017, holding a city job and a City Council position is prohibited in Holyoke. That means that if another councilor challenges the qualifications of their new colleagues — at-large councilor-elect Israel Rivera and Ward 1 councilor-elect Jenny Rivera — those new councilors might face the choice of either quitting their jobs or abdicating their duly won City Council seats.

Based on comments made at this week’s full meeting of the City Council, a challenge seems inevitable.

On Tuesday, City Council President Todd McGee introduced an order that, if passed, would amend the city’s ethics ordinance to allow the new councilors to serve by striking the language barring city employees from holding a City Council seat. The proposal was sent to the Ordinance Committee. But another councilor-elect, former council president Kevin Jourdain, made clear that he objected to the proposed ordinance change.

“It’s an act of public corruption that should be given leave to withdraw,” said Jourdain, who was the top vote-getter in the at-large race. “I loathe the day that the City Council would ever allow one of its members to serve as a city employee.”

Heightening the conflict is the fact that, in a year when the city elected its most diverse City Council ever, the two members likely to have their qualifications challenged are Hispanic.  Israel Rivera came in a close second to Jourdain in the at-large race. Only twice in the city’s history have Latino candidates been elected to at-large seats prior to the election of Rivera and Jose Luis Maldonado Velez this year.

“For me, what it sounds like and feels like is that they’re coming up with some kind of caste system,” Israel Rivera said.

Rivera noted that the city’s schools are a massive employer in the city, adding that members of the City Council have previously held city office without issues.

“Everyone already knows I work for the schools and they didn’t have a problem voting for me,” he said. 

Jenny Rivera, the new Ward 1 councilor, said she was “shocked and upset” when she learned about the debacle on Thursday from her coworkers at school.

“Why now all of the sudden this is being brought up?” she asked. “If this was an issue, once we got our signatures in we should have been told then and there.”

In an opinion issued to Mayor Joshua Garcia on Tuesday, the city’s acting and associate city solicitors laid out the relevant state and local rules at play.

The largest issue for the new councilors is the fact that in December 2017, the City Council approved an ordinance that states that “no employee of the city shall simultaneously serve on the city council during their term of employment.” The provision, they said, serves “to extend the public purposes originally stated in the Holyoke City Charter.” They added that other cities, including Northampton, have similar provisions in their city charters prohibiting city councilors from holding city employment.

The city’s charter states in section 23: “No member of the Council shall, during the term for which he was elected, hold any other office in or under the city government.”

“The definition of ‘any other office’ is arguably among the most confusing terms in the charter,” the city’s lawyers wrote.

City ordinances, for example, define a municipal official as anyone holding the positions of mayor, councilor, city clerk, auditor, city solicitor, school committee member, school superintendent, assistant superintendent and principals, chief of police or chief of fire department.

Section 23 of the city charter also prohibits councilors from serving in one of those positions for a period of time after leaving the City Council. It also bars city councilors from having “the expenditure of any money appropriated by the city council.” In other words, any money “appropriated for their own benefit,” the lawyers noted.

The interpretation of that section of the charter is under the power of the City Council, the lawyers wrote. The 2017 ordinance, though, extends the prohibition to all city employees.

It is also the City Council alone that acts as the judge of an election and the qualification of its members. The lawyers said that charter language can be read to allow a holdover city councilor to serve until a successor has been qualified, though how that person is selected is less clear, they noted.

“Taken together, under the Charter and the Ethics ordinance, there would first need to be a formal challenge to the seating of a Council member,” they wrote. “The Council would then need to decide how to proceed to hear the challenge.”

The challenge must be raised as a point of order by a councilor, the lawyers said. And since the city charter will require the City Council to first elect its president after new councilors are sworn in on Jan. 3, the challenge could be made after that decision.

“Under a combined reading of the city charter while applying the 2017 ethics ordinance, any conflict or challenge over compliance with the ‘no other city job’ ordinance would need to be decided by the Council (absent the contested seat or seats),” the opinion states.

Holyoke’s 2017 ordinance is stricter than the state’s ethics law, which simply requires that somebody with a city job who is elected as a city councilor only take one salary or stipend from those two positions. Israel Rivera and Jenny Rivera both said they intended to forgo their $10,000 City Council stipend.

The matter playing out in City Council has caused significant debate in the community, including in online forums. 

The 2017 ordinance change came at a time when Jourdain was president of the City Council. At-large Councilor Rebecca Lisi, who currently chairs the Ordinance Committee, was on the council at the time. Lisi said that most councilors voted to approve the change at the time, including herself. Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon said on Tuesday that in 2017 city councilors even mustered the votes to veto former mayor Alex Morse on the issue.

Lisi said that as a junior councilor, she saw the logic at the time of the ordinance change in order to ensure a councilor isn’t induced to cast a certain vote that may, for example, be against the wishes of their supervisor. She has since changed her mind, however, given that a councilor with any conflict has to recuse themselves from votes that pertain to that conflict.

In particular, she said that the ordinance is an overreach when it comes to the city’s schools, which are under the control of the School Committee. The City Council doesn’t have line-item control over the school budget, nor does it set school policy in any way, though the council does vote on the city’s overall budget at the end of the process. She also noted that the schools are a large employer of a diverse population of city residents.

“It really feels like we would be removing a lot of talent from the pool of potential candidates … by excluding them from City Council service,” Lisi said. As for how she thinks the issue will play out: “I think that a legal battle is inevitable. And probably worthwhile.”

At-large Councilor Joseph McGiverin, who was reelected, seemed a bit more optimistic that things would work themselves out. He said the city’s law department is in talks with the state, and that he hopes nobody has to quit their job over the issue.

“I think now it’s best to be calm, cool and collected,” he said.

But as a possible ordinance change heads to committee and the Jan. 3 swearing-in ceremony approaches, some are adamant that the rules are the rules. Vacon, who was reelected to her seat in Ward 5, spoke out on Tuesday about McGee’s order attempting to change the 2017 ordinance. McGee could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Jourdain, for his part, was adamant on Tuesday that allowing a city councilor to work a city job would be “disgraceful.”

“Jobs could easily be offered to candidates before or after the election as a form of bribery,” he said.

Israel Rivera, for his part, said it seems like a faction of councilors wants to take control out of the hands of the people who elected him and Jenny Rivera. He said he hope he’s able to be sworn in on Jan. 3 without problems, but if it comes down to giving up his City Council seat or schools job, he would quit his job. But that would come as a big economic harm to Rivera’s family, just after his wife gave birth to their second child and is on maternity leave.

“This is the community’s voice,” he said.  “They elected us and want us to serve … I am not stepping away from this.”




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