Rule barring city employees from serving in elected office sparks protest, debate at Holyoke City Hall

  • Protesters gather in front of Holyoke City Hall on Tuesday ahead of a City Council ordinance subcommittee meeting. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • At-large councilor-elect Israel Rivera GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Ward 1 councilor-elect Jenny Rivera GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/24/2021 2:56:12 PM

HOLYOKE — Meetings of the Holyoke City Council’s ordinance subcommittee are usually muted affairs, occasionally drawing more than just a few members of the public. But anyone on High Street Tuesday evening could see that that day’s ordinance meeting would be no ordinary affair.

A caravan of souped-up Jeeps flashed bright lights and blared Marc Anthony’s version of the classic Puerto Rican song “Preciosa,” expressing patriotic adoration and nostalgia for the island. Protesters were gathered to support a proposal to strike a 2017 rule that bars city employees — including two newly elected Hispanic councilors — from simultaneously being city councilors.

“I hope those in power hear the voice of the people,” said María Salgado Cartagena, one of those gathered in front of City Hall ahead of the subcommittee meeting. She held a sign that spoke to the issue in front of councilors that night: “Democracy spoke on Nov. 2. Izzie and Jenny yes.”

The sign referred to city councilors-elect Israel Rivera, the second-highest vote-getter in the at-large council race earlier this month, and Jenny Rivera, who won a decisive victory in Ward 1. Both are employees of the city’s school system, and both now face a likely challenge to their ability to take their seats on the council without first quitting their jobs.

The controversy is directly related to an ordinance the City Council overwhelmingly passed in 2017, which states that “no employee of the city shall simultaneously serve on the city council during their term of employment.” With both newly elected councilors facing a debacle ahead of their Jan. 3 swearing-in, Council President Todd McGee has introduced a proposal to strike that rule to allow them to serve immediately.

In a passionate speech introducing the order to the subcommittee on Tuesday, McGee noted that several councilors had simultaneously held city jobs prior to the rule’s 2017 implementation, including former Ward 1 councilor Donald Welch, who was a city police officer when he served. He said the intent of the ordinance was to bar City Hall employees, not school employees, from taking office as city councilors.

“The city has spoken,” McGee said. “The real issue is: What are we afraid of?”

‘Ignorance of the law’

The 2017 ordinance had been championed by then City Council president Kevin Jourdain, who stepped down from the council in 2018 but was elected again this year as the top vote-getter in the at-large race. And it is Jourdain and others who have already begun to challenge their future colleagues’ ability to serve while keeping their city jobs.

Jourdain was one of six newly elected councilors present in the City Council chambers for Tuesday’s meeting, and he laid out his case for why the ordinance should remain on the books. He said he believes that the city’s charter also bars all city staff from serving as a city councilor — a reading of the charter others have disputed — by stating that no city council member should have “the expenditure of any money appropriated by the city council.”

The School Committee, not the City Council, has line-item control over the school budget, althought the state is currently in control of Holyoke’s schools.

Jourdain noted that in 1963 a special act of the state Legislature was needed to let a city councilor resign to take a city job and that other communities like Northampton and Chelsea have the same rule barring city employees from also being city councilors. He said that a ward councilor-elect resigned his City Council seat in 1995 because he was a Department of Public Works employee, adding that he also opposed Welch being allowed to serve on the council as a police officer.

“We have laws, we have rules,” he said. “No one is above the law and the notion that people either didn’t know the law, didn’t know the rules, I’m not sure — maybe it’s only here — that ignorance of the law is a defense.”

Jourdain said having city employees serve as councilors invites a conflict of interest and possible corruption. He and Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon also said they were troubled by the effort to change the rules after the election, saying that is unfair to school staffers who may have wanted to run for office but didn’t because they were aware of the 2017 ordinance.

“This is also a matter of equal opportunity,” Vacon said later in the meeting, adding that it was her understanding that the two councilors-elect knew about the ordinance ahead of the election.

Vacon and Jourdain were the only speakers who objected to the ordinance change at Tuesday’s evening, though Ward 2 Councilor Terence Murphy said he would vote for the ordinance change on Tuesday “with some concerns.”

Faced with a choice

Israel Rivera spoke next, and said it was hard not to see the efforts of Jourdain and others as a personal attack. He said the ordinance “cancels out” a large number of city voices, given the city’s status as a large employer of residents. He said that the city’s charter, created in 1896, was not written with people of color, women and other marginalized groups in mind.

If it ultimately comes down to a choice between keeping his job or the council seat, Rivera said he would stay on the council. But that would come with a significant financial cost for his family, he said.

“Unfortunately, my wife is on maternity leave, so we will figure it out because I’ve figured it out every single time,” he said. “Me coming from the hood, Ward 1, single mother … broke neighborhood, you guys should be proud at the end of the day.”

Jenny Rivera also spoke, saying that both Jourdain and Vacon attended a candidate meet-and-greet event she was at and offered her their support. She also said that Jourdain texted her early in the morning, the day before the election, telling her he hoped “to be a winner like you.”

“I became a winner Kevin, just like you,” she said. “Why do you want to kick me out now?”

Heated exchanges

The moment sparked one of several heated exchanges throughout the night, with councilors and councilors-elect speaking over each other and calling for order.

Many members of the public spoke out in favor of Jenny Rivera and Israel Rivera, including Jenny Rivera’s children, one of whom was wearing a shirt that said “54%” in reference to the percentage of the city’s population that identifies as Hispanic or Latino, according to federal census data.

Jossie Valentin, a former Ward 4 councilor, said she was one of two votes against the 2017 ordinance when she was served on the council. She called it “quite obstructionist and quite exclusionary” at a time when Holyoke just elected its most diverse City Council ever. She noted that many people during the council’s history have run into potential conflicts of interest related to their employers and simply recused themselves from votes without an issue.

“At a moment when institutional and structural knowledge could be used to elevate and assist folks who have never served in office … to use your institutional and structural knowledge to destroy them before they actually have a chance to serve is shameful,” said city resident Terry Gibson, his comments mirroring those of many others during more than an hour of public comment.

Ultimately, the change to the ordinance passed by a 4-1 vote, with only Vacon voting in opposition. It will now head to the full City Council, where it will need a nine-vote supermajority to pass.

The city’s lawyers spoke at length about the process that may play out as inauguration day begins on Jan. 3. They noted that only by striking the ordinance can the new councilors be sworn in, after which the new council will elect its president. After that, a new councilor may still raise an objection to the seating of city employees on the council under the city’s charter or could seek a temporary injunction in court.

That’s because the charter states that no councilor shall hold “any other office in or under the city government.” Assistant City Solicitor Michael Bissonnette said that the definition of “officer” will continue to cause problems because of its ambiguity in the charter. The city’s ordinance’s definition of a municipal officer includes elected and appointed positions like the mayor, school superintendent and police chief, but not school staffers, city lawyers said in a recent opinion.

The new City Council could move to change the city’s charter through a home rule petition to the state Legislature, Bissonnette said. The subcommittee asked the city’s lawyers to draft language for such a change.

Ultimately, Bissonnette said, if the ordinance is removed, the issue will come down to a vote of the new City Council.

“The new City Council is the one who decides the composition of its membership,” Bissonnette said. “The new City Council would have to take a vote to seat the Ward 1 councilor and the at-large councilor if someone chooses to challenge their qualifications to be seated.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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