Northampton City Council Finance Committee debates social responsibility, special legislation on dashcam contract

  • Northampton Police officer responds to a car accident in Northampton.

Staff Writer
Published: 2/9/2022 7:49:02 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The City Council’s Finance Committee says it needs more time to consider a “social responsibility rubric” related to a proposal to upgrade the Northampton Police Department’s dashboard cameras.

During its meeting Tuesday, the committee also explored the idea of requesting special procurement legislation from the state.

Following a public outcry over data privacy and the tech company Motorola Solutions potentially facilitating human rights abuses, the City Council last week tasked the Finance Committee with developing social responsibility standards that vendors should meet before the city considers contracting with them. But city solicitor Alan Seewald told the committee that the state Legislature needs to act first.

Seewald added that Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra could sign a three-year dashcam contract with Motorola Solutions “tomorrow” under her current authority, but the proposed five-year contract requires the approval of an order by the City Council. The contract has not been written yet; terms could only be negotiated after the full council passes the order.

Ashwin Ravikumar, an activist and assistant professor at Amherst College, said that the city will not be able to find a socially responsible vendor because dashcams “are basically never used to help anyone. They are fundamentally used to increase criminalization, increase harm.”

The community’s concerns, he said, are “deeper” than looking for the right vendor, and citizens do not want to invest in “surveillance” at all.

“You are doing something bad and only bad people sell this tech,” Dana Goldblatt, a Northampton defense attorney, said. “That’s one of the obstacles you face. The second is that this tech exists in order to put more people in cages. They want to do that and this helps them.”

Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore said that “there needs to be a place to talk about and look at the value of dashcams themselves.”

Reached on Wednesday, she said that the committee will recommend holding a public forum on the topic.

“Council is really endeavoring to reflect the values in our community,” Maiore said. “Finding out how to do that is a big conversation, and that’s why we really need to talk to the community. I doubt that there are mom-and-pop dashcam services.”

The next City Council meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m.

No bidding required

Joe Cook, the city’s chief procurement officer, explained that a municipal government cannot consider factors like “social responsibility” when contracting. State law governs the bidding process and there is no room for refusing a vendor because it, like Motorola Solutions, is accused by the U.N. Human Rights Office of operating surveillance equipment in the Palestinian territories on behalf of Israel.

Mass. General Law Chapter 30B requires the city to put any contract worth more than $50,000 out to an advertised bid or use certain vendors that have existing cooperative purchasing agreements with the state to provide “supplies” to local governments; Motorola Solutions has such an agreement in place.

“We know that we don’t have to go through a bid process,” Cook said. The city nevertheless conducted seven months of due diligence to find the right vendor and selected Motorola Solutions for a contract worth $133,000.

With an advertised bid, the city could base its selection on specific criteria, like the vendor’s “skill, ability and integrity,” Cook said, but integrity does not mean “in the larger sense of being a world citizen.” Rather, it refers to relationships with customers and whether they delivered the goods of the contract.

In response to concerns expressed during public comment, namely that Motorola Solutions is known to share data with federal immigration authorities, Cook said the city owns all data associated with its contracts.

“The data ownership is not questionable,” Cook said. “That’s one of the things we discuss with the vendor, that the data can’t be used in that sense.”

There is no existing contract for support or maintenance of the dashcams that Northampton police have used since 2013.

Reached on Wednesday, Ward 1 City Councilor Stanley Moulton said that even though the IT Services Department was hoping to sign a contract by March 1, “there’s no firm deadline, in my view.”

“There is a need to act expediently on this because we’ve heard that the current cameras are unreliable, so we can’t just let this linger,” he said.

No existing criteria

Ward 6 Councilor Marianne Labarge said she and other councilors have been “inundated” with calls and emails about the issue, and she is grateful for the public input. She supported passing a local social responsibility ordinance, but Seewald said the city instead would need to approve a home rule petition asking the Legislature’s permission to change the procurement standards.

“We’re going to have to be very, very specific about the criteria,” Seewald said. “The Legislature is not going to pass a generic social responsibility requirement.”

Special legislation signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2020 allows Northampton to “disqualify” any vendor that also works in the nuclear weapons field.

City Council President Jim Nash said he was “surprised that, from the commonwealth, there is not clear criteria that we could pull from” to avoid undesirable contractors. He added that any social responsibility standards would likely cover all purchasing for the entire city.

“Motorola wouldn’t just be out for dashcams. They would be out for walkie-talkies at the high school, they would be out for some of the video equipment we use in City Council chambers,” Nash said. “You could end up where we can’t order a particular pen anymore. It can just go in so many different places.”

The committee voted down Nash’s suggestion that it issue a neutral recommendation on the contract order.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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