Holyoke City Council upholds rule barring city employees from serving in elected office

  • City councilor-elect Israel Rivera, left, watches a City Council meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. The council was discussing a proposed change to a 2017 ordinance that bars all city employees from simultaneously serving as city councilors. Rivera is a public school employee. STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer
Published: 12/8/2021 8:59:08 PM

HOLYOKE — The Holyoke City Council failed to muster the votes needed Tuesday to change a 2017 ordinance that bars all city employees from simultaneously serving as city councilors.

The City Council meeting included a screaming match between members of the public, councilors and at-large councilor-elect Kevin Jourdain, who ignored a one-minute time limit on those making public comments before leaving City Hall yelling. But with nine votes needed to change an ordinance, the council’s 8-5 decision fell one vote short of striking the ordinance, which says that “no employee of the city shall simultaneously serve on the city council during their term of employment.”

That prohibition will impact two newly elected city councilors who are set to take their seats on Jan. 3 — inauguration day. Israel Rivera, the second-highest vote-getter in the at-large council race, and Jenny Rivera, who was elected in Ward 1, are both employees of Holyoke Public Schools.

Because the council did not remove that ordinance language on Tuesday, both councilors-elect will have to find other employment or relinquish their City Council seats. Israel Rivera has said he intends to find another job. Jenny Rivera did not immediately respond to a voicemail left Tuesday morning.

During public comment, all but Jourdain — the top vote-getter in this year’s at-large council election — spoke in favor of removing the 2017 ethics ordinance, which was championed by Jourdain when he was on the City Council before stepping away in 2018.

“This is not ‘stop the steal’ in Holyoke,” said Richard Purcell, one of those speaking during public comment.

“We’re talking about two of the most ethical and upstanding people I know,” said former Ward 5 council candidate Guy O’Donnell about the two councilors-elect.

Ultimately, five city councilors sided with Jourdain’s arguments, voting “no” on whether to strike the ordinance language in question: Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon, Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley and outgoing at-large councilors Michael Sullivan, Howard Greaney and James Leahy. Both Leahy and Greaney lost in their reelection bids for one of the council’s six at-large seats this election cycle, placing seventh and eighth respectively.

Jourdain’s public comments, as well as the reaction from other councilors and the public, caused heated exchanges both Tuesday and during an ordinance subcommittee meeting late last month.

“Everybody knew the rules crystal clear before the election,” Jourdain said Tuesday, adding that in August he “tipped off” the school department to the pending ethics issue. He suggested that both councilors-elect knew about the ordinance before Election Day, and that changing the rules after the election would be unfair.

“Allowing the mayor and department heads to start hiring council candidates and councilors-elect and then planting them in city jobs is a recipe for big trouble,” Jourdain said.

Council President Todd McGee then informed Jourdain that his one-minute time limit on speaking had expired, and some from the audience shouted the same. But McGee called for order and allowed Jourdain, who said he was being “shouted down,” additional time. Soon after, though, Jourdain again refused to stop speaking when McGee tried to cut him off a second time.

Several councilors joined in, raising their voices to tell Jourdain his time had expired, though Jourdain continued to speak over the gavel and the protests of those city councilors.

“You are done!” Ward 6 Councilor Juan Anderson-Burgos shouted to Jourdain. “Bye, Kevin. Bye. Get out of here.”

Jourdain finished his remarks by saying that come inauguration day, other councilors wouldn’t be able to “shut my mic off.”

“See you Jan. 3!” Jourdain yelled from the hallway outside the council’s chambers, which he left immediately following his remarks. “Get ready.”

Israel Rivera spoke soon after, beginning by thanking everyone who had supported him. He said that kind of support is “truly democracy, not coming in here and grandstanding and trying to bully people.”

“If you guys think that that’s OK, then you guys can vote against striking the language,” Rivera said. “If you guys think that … a future councilor can come in and flex muscles on you guys and make you guys feel like you guys are doing something wrong when you genuinely feel like you might be doing it right, that’s on you guys.”

After public comments, debate between the councilors touched on everything from whether the ordinance was overly restrictive, whether it was fair to change the rules after an election, whether striking the language would invite conflicts of interest, and the impact that the rule has had on candidates of color.

Vacon said she had heard from people who wanted to run for office but didn’t because they knew of the ordinance. She noted that in the council’s charter and rules subcommittee, councilors held off on a decision to change an elected position to an appointed one because it was an election year. She also noted that neighboring Northampton, as well as other cities across Massachusetts, have the exact same law on the books.

“Does it need to be changed? I believe so,” Sullivan said before raising the possibility of mayoral aides, for example, getting elected to the council. “I don’t think simply striking it is the right way to go, and long term could create a much bigger problem for the city.”

At-large Councilor Rebecca Lisi pointed out that it is three Hispanic candidates who have now been impacted by the ordinance, including longtime school department employee Marilyn Sanabria, who in 2019 put her name forward for appointment to the then-vacant Ward 2 seat. Several councilors raised concerns about her employment during the appointment process, considering the 2017 ordinance, and ultimately councilors selected Terence Murphy to the seat.

“One person sounded the alarm — one person who has a lot at stake,” Anderson-Burgos said, referring to Jourdain though not by name.

“Our community is watching, I’m hoping that this encourages people more to really really get out, register to vote and vote the right way,” longtime and outgoing Ward 1 Councilor Gladys Lebrón-Martinez said. “For us to get a chance and to get ahead. The struggle and the challenges continue, this is not going to be over.”

Leahy, Greaney and Bartley did not speak during Tuesday’s meeting about their reasons for voting against the change. The proposed ordinance change was referred back to the council’s ordinance subcommittee, which will allow the body to reconsider the issue.

Speaking after the meeting, Israel Rivera said he had hoped for a better outcome, but that he wasn’t disappointed in some of the councilors who voted against the change. He did take issue with Jourdain’s actions, however, saying that it was not the way to “move the city forward.”

“It has to stop,” he said.

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