Somehow, some way on Wednesday night — after six months of failing — the City Council’s Finance Committee found its way to accepting the federal government’s pandemic relief money for New Bedford, the so-called American Rescue Plan Act funding.  

The 8-1 vote was remarkable for the fact it happened at all, perhaps in no small part because Linda Morad and Brian Gomes were not in attendance. Councilor Naomi Carney, at least, was consistent and voted against the deal.

The same could not be said for most of the other councilors — who after agreeing a month ago to a secretive process for providing their spending ideas by way of email to Councilor Morad for an “average” that was then supposed to replace Mayor Jon Mitchell’s proposal — finally voted for a motion to accept the money, ostensibly on a recommendation from the mayor.

At least, the request on the Finance Committee’s agenda said it was from Mayor Jon Mitchell but the council acted as if it wasn’t the mayor’s order they were voting on. And apparently they weren’t.

The mayor’s proposal, which was published on the Finance Committee agenda ahead of the meeting, contained an Exhibit A. That exhibit was a letter from a city-contracted lawyer advising the mayor that all the council needed to do was accept the money.

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Councilors, however — on the advice of their attorney David Gerwatowski — believe they can instruct the mayor on where the money has to be spent, a proposition Mitchell has said he disagrees with, although he hasn’t provided evidence for his claim.

As the meeting opened, Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereira made an immediate motion to pass an order that was not discussed on the council floor. 

“I make a motion to adopt the order that was provided to the chair along with Exhibit A and refer that order out to the full City Council,” Pereira said at the Zoom meeting.

What order? What did Pereira’s motion say? It was not on the agenda. There had been no public discussion before he proposed it.

No problem. The Ward 6 councilor had Assistant Clerk of Committees Donna Britto read his motion on how to spend a full $65 million just before the vote.

The proposal was to accept the city’s share of the ARPA money to be expended in specific categories. The categories had been those proposed by the mayor — and worked out with the councilors in a series of compromises. But again, the numbers had never been publicly discussed before Britto read them.

They included $7.1 million for health and safety; $11.1 million for neighborhood stability and housing; $7.1 million for small business support; $8.7 million for open space enhancements; $4.7 million for water and wastewater; $11.9 million for arts, culture, hospitality and tourism; $11.1 million for matching funds for strategic investment; $953,000 for revenue replacement; and $1.1 million for administration.

Suggested allocation of ARPA funds

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There was a similar order on the council’s published agenda for Feb. 28, but none that I could find on the March 9 agenda. This is the problem when there is little discussion of the council’s business on the council floor and much of the business takes place elsewhere. Not to mention so few councilors wishing to explain their actions to the press. 

The ARPA amounts had all been reduced by 20 percent from the mayor’s original allocations. The council apparently reasoned it was necessary since it had already voted to abide by the county’s process for spending its share of the money, which Gerwatowski has advised the county intends to have a say in.

The Finance Committee is a committee of the whole council, but the council sitting in a formal meeting must still approve the plan.

Notable among the lower amounts approved by the council was the arts funding, which has now been reduced to $11.9 million from a compromised amount of $15 million. And despite the advocacy by local groups for spending additional money on affordable housing, that category was approved at an unimpressive $11.1 million.

It will be interesting to see whether the county allows the city to increase these funds to the amounts the mayor had originally intended.

Neither the City Council nor the mayor seems to care much for doing things in public. Mitchell, probably happy to just get the money finally approved, declined to make any comment about the behind-closed-doors process by which it came about.

His press officer issued the following, carefully worded statement when asked to comment: “We’re pleased that the City Council is beginning to move forward on the acceptance of ARPA funds. They represent an important opportunity for the city to emerge even stronger from the pandemic.”

There was no mention of whether the mayor will feel bound by the council’s directives.

At least you can say this for the councilors. They had the sense on Feb. 28 to vote down the “averages” arrived at by individual emails they had voted to engage in with Morad. Even if they did stay true to their penchant for voting on amounts that had not been discussed in public, along the lines of Pereira’s motion.

Here’s what attorney Jonathan Albano on behalf of the New England First Amendment Coalition said about the council’s vote to take the detour into the email averages for spending the public’s money:

“The Mass Open Meeting (law) applies to any communications, including email between a quorum of members. Here, council members basically ‘voted’ by sending individual emails to one councilor. That seems to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Open Meeting Law.”

I would say the same thing about the lack of discussion on the plan the council finally approved for spending all this money.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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