New Holyoke councilor Israel Rivera ends contention by quitting school job

  • Holyoke Ward 5 Councilor Juan Anderson-Burgos, foreground center, listens to a response by At-large City Councilor Kevin Jourdain, background right, after comments by Anderson-Burgos in support of newly-elected At-large Councilor Israel Rivera during a council reorganization meeting at City Hall on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • ISRAEL RIVERA

  • Holyoke Ward 5 City Councilor Linda Vacon and At-large Councilor Kevin Jourdain speak at the start of a council reorganization meeting following the swearing in of elected officials at Holyoke City Hall on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke City Ward 7 Councilor Todd McGee greets newly-elected At-large Councilor Tessa Murphy-Romboletti after McGee was elected Council President by councilors at a reorganization meeting on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Ward 5 City Councilor Linda Vacon and At-large Councilor Kevin Jourdain speak at the start of a council reorganization meeting following the swearing in of elected officials at Holyoke City Hall on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 1/3/2022 7:26:33 PM
Modified: 1/3/2022 7:25:54 PM

HOLYOKE — The lead-up to Monday’s meeting of the Holyoke City Council was filled with dramatic moments, including councilors and members of the public yelling at one another during several recent council meetings.

But when the council’s 13 members sat down for their first meeting Monday, the expectation of more conflict melted away after At-large Councilor Israel Rivera announced that he had resigned from his job with Holyoke Public Schools — a position some said disqualified him from serving as a councilor.

In 2017, the City Council overwhelmingly passed an ordinance that stated “no employee of the city shall simultaneously serve on the city council during their term of employment.” That ordinance has been debated a handful of times in recent months after the election of Israel Rivera and Jenny Rivera, the new Ward 1 councilor who also worked in the city’s schools. Israel Rivera and Jenny Rivera are not related.

A majority of councilors worked to strike that ordinance from the books after November’s election, though they ended up one vote shy of the nine-vote supermajority needed to change an ordinance in Holyoke. Jenny Rivera had already secured other employment — at the nonprofit Enlace de Familias — but that left Israel Rivera in a pickle.

Some had suggested that Israel Rivera must choose between his school job or the council, while others — including a prominent civil rights organization — argued that the ordinance didn’t prevent him from taking his seat. In the end, though, Rivera said he turned in his resignation letter not because of the ordinance or the insistence of a few other councilors.

“I resigned because of the divisiveness that it has caused,” Rivera said at Monday’s City Council meeting — the new body’s first meeting. “People are focused more on me than the actual city business. I haven’t said anything, I haven’t put it out there because people are predictable and I wanted people to be able to see how predictable they are and how the council should not be divisive.”

Normally, the Holyoke City Council’s first meeting of the year is a procedural affair meant for nothing more than electing a new president. However, the city’s lawyers had issued opinions saying that if a councilor wanted to object to a fellow member’s qualifications, Monday’s meeting was the place to do so.

At-large Councilor Kevin Jourdain and Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon both immediately raised objections to Rivera’s seating on the  council, though they were briefly put off as the council moved to reelect Ward 7 Councilor Todd McGee as council president. Vacon was the only member not to vote for McGee; she cast her vote for Jourdain.

Jourdain and Vacon again raised their objections after the election of McGee — this time as a formal objection to Rivera’s seating as a councilor.

“As a city employee, he is not eligible/qualified to serve on the City Council pursuant to our city charter and ordinance,” Vacon said, saying that if Rivera resigned, her objection would be withdrawn. “The law that we have before us, that we just all took an oath to uphold, was passed in 2017 by a supermajority and it was upheld twice in the last month by the council.”

Ward 6 Councilor Juan Anderson-Burgos spoke next, saying Vacon and Jourdain’s move seemed “desperate.”

“You’re putting a wrong taste in people’s mouths,” he said. “Stop what you’re doing, celebrate with Holyoke and move forward.”

But as the drama reached a crescendo with a vote pending on whether to seat Rivera, it was Rivera who next took the microphone and ended any speculation.

“Unfortunately, I had to leave my job at the Holyoke Public Schools to be sure that we as a City Council can come together and work together on Monday morning,” Rivera said, drawing applause from the crowd gathered to watch the meeting unfold. “And hopefully we can do that for the rest of the two years I’m on the council.”

Following his announcement, Jourdain and Vacon withdrew their objections and McGee was able to give his victory speech as council president.

McGee said he thought back to advice he got from former mayor Marty Dunn, who died in September 2020. McGee said that Dunn, who had also served on what was then the city’s Board of Alderman, told him to always get back to constituents.

“Then he said, ‘Serve the city the best that you can. Do it with honor and dignity,’” McGee recalled, at times choking back tears. “And he left with this: ‘Always remember to work with your fellow councilors and treat them with respect.’”

Speaking after the meeting, Rivera said his decision to quit his Holyoke Public Schools job as family access and community engagement manager will be financially difficult for him, his wife and children. But he said he had a few employment options he was considering, as well as continuing his master’s degree.

“I’ve been down a couple times before,” said Rivera, noting that he was always able to pick himself back up. As for his focus in the near future, he had no hesitation: “the council.”


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