Opinion: City Council Politics Are Alive

The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Paradise City Press, Northampton Community Television, or the City of Northampton.

I never expected a city council meeting to be this intense, philosophical or relevant. When the staff at NCTV told me that my duties as a summer intern included filming weekly in the council chambers, I imagined something stuffy and far-removed from my interests and concerns. Turns out, these meetings are a place where American political life is debated on a most personal level.

First up on the agenda was public comments.  Everyone who wants to speak is given three minutes on the clock, and the council is not permitted to respond - they sit, silent and watchful. These comments were sometimes nearly-shouted,sometimes really smartly articulated, and sometimes read from handwritten notebooks smoothed by shaking hands,

One man of Northampton was against the override, a proposed 2.5 million collection that would fund the schools and the city but increase the annual tax bill of the average Northampton homeowner.  The bottom line is taxes, he said, echoing the rhetoric of the last two presidential elections.  He was upset because this tax would be irreversible; would “be forever.”  He spoke with distrust of the government, arguing that it wasn’t fair for people to be made to loosen their already-lightened purses for an ineffectual government. Why us? Another asked.  She didn’t see other cities passing overrides.  Many who spoke felt that the council wasn’t operating circumspectly, and it was the principle of the thing: why should a government decide how the people spend their money?  I don’t have a kid - why should I be forced to pay for some kid’s band uniform? YOU pay for your kid’s band uniform. An override, definition: a burden, a punishment, not a choice.  Money being taken against our will; money being given to an untrustworthy, corrupt body.

A teacher, a student and a mother spoke out in favor of the override; they were impassioned too.  My children won’t get the best education if you vote “No;” my daughter’s favorite music teacher is on the chopping block, she said, and she was nearly in tears. The arts are important.  I love school because of my arts classes, a bright sophomore at NHS announced.  Class sizes are rising to almost thirty.  In the last decade, thirty-seven teachers have been cut; we can’t cut anyone else.  Our children are our future. Too much money is being spent on technology, building, and not education and art.  A very put-upon, outraged English teacher testified to the problems with continued cuts to the school budget, warning the council that the school was obligated by law to provide assistant teachers in classrooms with students whose documents state they need the extra help. “A school in New York was sued and lost, and is up the creek and two million dollars in debt.”

When given the opportunity to defend themselves, council members were sympathetic to residents’ frustrations, pointing out that they were stuck between a rock and a hard place, and that the state and federal governments were largely at fault. According to council members Freeman-Daniels and Tacy, the seemingly-frivolous items on the budget are paid for with allocated grant money from the government that can’t be spent any other way. Apparently, state and federal general funding has continued to fall, but grant money for things like extending the bike path has increased, which is a reason the schools are hurting so much. Council President Dwight explained the ultimately minimal power the council has:

"Unfortunately, the job we signed up for, which pays very little, is that we’re dealt three cards when the opponent has seven, and we have to pay those three cards. We don’t get to fold, we don’t get to back out, we don’t get to do anything else. And the fact is, I absolutely agree. We are stuck with a regressive tax system which requires the homeowner or property owner, not necessarily based on their ability to pay, to pay more in taxes than they paid on their mortgage. And we are creating an enormous disparity in the community by giving some of these people no choice but to sell their assets and leave town.  It is excruciating. But the fact is, the override is actually a pretty interesting contraption, that actually makes sense. Because it compels the city governance to appeal to the city residents every time it needs more money, and find out from them what their priorities are. And as the state and federal government continues to abdicate their role and devotion to this kind of governance, it falls on us."

The override means about $235 more a year for the average property owner in Northampton, but as I learned from this heated meeting, unlike most tax increases, it is a chance for taxpayers to have a say, and for the council to be responsive to Northampton's needs.  It is money which would directly save the jobs of teachers and police officers.  For some, it is a symbol of an unfeeling government that takes and takes and spends badly.  I understood everyone’s outrage.  But I also see it as an opportunity to be a community; to be effectual on a local level while Congress stalls and stutters.

The entire meeting can be viewed below: