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City Council priorities questioned

Member argues addressing poverty should be higher priority for body

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What looked like a minor point of business at the end of the Jan. 24 Springfield City Council meeting turned into a contentious exchange among members.

Under the category of new business, council was asked to refer three items to the Community Involvement Committee. The agenda items bore simple labels, not detailed explanations, but the first had to do with clean air and environmental protection, the second with the payment of prevailing wages by recipients of tax abatements and the third on adopting a local preference program for city contracts.

Councilperson Richard Ollis wondered where the issues had come from.

“How did these things get to us here?” he asked city staff.

He said he did not recall discussing any of the matters at one of council’s weekly luncheons, held every Tuesday.

“Did I miss something?” he asked.

City Manager Jason Gage replied that an individual council member proposed the items be sent to committee.

Ollis asked if any of the items fit into council’s stated priorities, and Gage said they did not.

The same council member, Craig Hosmer, had proposed elevating all items to the Community Involvement Committee to initiate council discussion, one of several ways a bill can be introduced to council.

Some other members of council balked at the move. Matthew Simpson questioned whether the referrals were a good use of staff time. Heather Hardinger asked if committees should be the ones to decide whether an issue is worth pursuing.

Hosmer is chair of the Community Involvement Committee, and Ollis, Hardinger and Angela Romine are members. The committee is responsible for environmental issues, legislative priorities and neighborhood issues, according to the city website. Hosmer expressed frustration with the discussion.

“The argument is if you bring it before council, it should have gone to committee; now, you can’t take it to committee?” he asked.

He added, “Whether you object to the proposal or not, that’s not the question. The question is should a councilperson have the ability to bring an issue up, even if it doesn’t have five votes to pass.”

But Hosmer’s argument went deeper than processes. Instead, he suggested council was too focused on development issues, at the expense of other challenges like poverty, blighted properties or crime.

“I believe there are issues that are different than what the chamber wants,” he said, referring to the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. “That should be something that people have an opportunity to hear and debate.”

Hosmer said if he has an issue that he thinks people need to hear, he will take one of two moves: bring it before council or bring it before a committee.

“I’m going to do one of the two,” he said. “There are issues that come up in council every day that don’t go to committee. We paid $75,000 of taxpayer dollars to do an abatement study that never went to committee, but it was for developers and it passed.”

According to Hosmer, council’s work is too heavily weighted toward development.

“If you look at our agenda, it’s full of development. Half the agenda items are development issues,” he said. “When have we had an issue dealing with people’s derelict properties in the city of Springfield? When have we had an issue about 60% of our people living in rental property? When have we tried to do something about 25% of our population living in poverty?”

Ollis countered that most of what council does is planning and zoning because those issues come before council.

“Most of the issues that we take up are from the community, right?” Ollis said. “They come from the community, and then we expend time on this. The issue I have is that one of us just continues to dominate the agenda with issues.”

Before his remarks, Ollis noted he would not be politically grandstanding, in an apparent attempt to contrast himself with Hosmer.

Councilperson Andrew Lear noted that action concerned with development is by its nature action on poverty.

“I would disagree that we don’t deal with poverty,” he said. “I think trying to bring in enterprises that pay a better wage and development does help address poverty. We get people out of poverty by providing better opportunities for employment.”

Like Simpson and Hardinger, Lear said he was concerned about focus.

“I think these are all topics that might well be worthy of some investigation,” he said. “I do think, though, that staff’s priority now is we need to get the comprehensive plan across the finish line. … I just think we’re too fragmented, and we don’t have a good procedure for dealing with that fragmentation and the prioritization.”

Several council members expressed concern about overworking the city staff.

In an interview following the meeting, Romine said Hosmer had brought up some good points, particularly about council being in the pocket of the Springfield chamber.

“I think to a certain extent, that is true,” she said. “If you look at how everybody – including Mr. Hosmer, in prior races – everybody’s been backed by the chamber. If you look at the school board, it’s the same thing. If you have chamber money, more than likely you will be there.”

Romine said her election campaign received no chamber funding, and Hosmer, too, defeated a chamber-backed candidate in his most recent election. She noted these instances were not typical.

Romine said, “If you look at past elections, usually you know the winner by who the chamber backs.”

Romine said Hosmer has a right to be heard.

“We should listen to everybody,” she said. “If he’s getting stonewalled in every avenue he’s trying to use to get to the bottom of a problem, he has a right to be heard.”

According to Romine, sometimes council does appear to put the business community first.

“I think it’s got to be a balance,” she said. “I’m all for development; I’m all for growing the economy. I just think sometimes the way we go about it, we put businesses first instead of citizens first.”

One speaker during the public input portion of the council meeting offered the same point. Springfield resident Seth Goodwin, who described himself as a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, argued that council needs to listen to the people.

“Sixty percent of the people in this town are renters, and since the global pandemic first devastated this area, rent has skyrocketed; 23% of the people in this town live in poverty,” he said.

Goodwin added that, on average, there are 500-plus homeless people living in the city, according to what he called unreliable statistics from the city for the past eight years.

“We have crumbling sidewalks in many of our urban neighborhoods, a good amount of our housing is condemned, and honestly, good luck getting anywhere in a timely manner on public transit if you get out of work in the evening. It takes a while,” he said.

Goodwin quoted Councilperson Abe McGull as saying city government is where the rubber meets the road.

“My question is, who is behind the wheel?” he asked.

“For the majority of this community, workers and small-business owners that have built this community have zero agency in how this city is run.”

At the end of the meeting, Hosmer’s trio of items were referred to the Community Involvement Committee, and they may ultimately rise out of that body to become items for council consideration at a later date.

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