|North Adams Council to Review Hydrant Ordinance Next Week|
|By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff |
10:29PM / Wednesday, February 24, 2021
|Bright orange bags began appearing in the city this week as the Water Department began marking nonfunctioning hydrants. |
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday referred an ordinance change regarding fire hydrants to the General Government Committee over the originator's protests.
City Councilor Jason LaForest had initially submitted the proposal for the creation of a "Fire Hydrant Division" with a request to refer to his Public Safety Committee but on Tuesday night instead asked it be fast-tracked to publication and a second reading.
The rest of the council balked at taking a shortcut in the process, rejecting the motion and voting 7-2 to send the language to the General Government with LaForest and Councilor Marie T. Harpin voting no.
The ordinance relates to issues regarding non-functioning fire hydrants and how information is shared between the Water Department and police dispatch. Two recent fires highlighted problems with the hydrants; officials say about 130 of the 631 hydrants in the city are nonfunctioning in some way. The city has been working for a decade to address faulty hydrants of which nearly half had been dysfunctional back in 2011.
Residents had been frightened when it was revealed that firefighters had struggled to find working fireplugs in the vicinity of the two fires. The Water Department has been "bagging" nonfunctional hydrants
in the past few days, which seems to have heightened rather than alleviates residents' uneasiness, based on Facebook posts.
LaForest, who on Tuesday indicated he was strongly considering a run for mayor with the announcement that incumbent Thomas Bernard is stepping down, had proffered an ordinance that would set inspections of hydrants twice a year, require notifications of various departments and place hydrant repairs and replacements in the six-year capital budget.
He argued that the language, which he had written, was in line with city code and after looking at other municipalities' ordinances.
"If this were a contentious issue or vague issue, I would certainly understand the need to send it to committee and I certainly understand the need for process and protocol," LaForest said, adding that he has spoken with dispatchers and the police and fire chiefs, and that the issues had been aired at two other meetings. "I'm very concerned that something that is framed on the basis of our ordinances, that is consistent with other municipalities across the commonwealth and codifies a critical need in our city right now, that so many constituents are concerned about, is going to go back to committee for another hearing."
His colleagues, however, said the ordinance had not been brought up at either the Public Safety
or Public Service committee when the hydrants had been discussed.
"I think this is a immediate issue. I think we can move too fast also. Skipping committee is probably a bad idea ... we need input from everybody," said Councilor Wayne Wilkinson. "I watched the Public Safety Committee. I know how this is important to get done in a timely fashion. But to railroad this through is just not the right thing."
He said the council could spend the estimated $250,000 to make the repairs and take care of the problem once and for all in the new fiscal year.
Councilor Benjamin Lamb said there were points to be brought up that he thought would be hashed out in committee. He said he also wanted to be assured that it was done right and consistent with the city's ordinances and others across the commonwealth.
"We all know that the topic of fire hydrants has been brought up we've had the meetings about those particular things but this specific ordinance language has never come before this body nor a committee of this body," he said, adding, "Just in terms of process and practice this would be a little bit outside of the lines of what we've done historically, at least as long as I've been on council. ... The other thing is, as far as I'm aware, this has not been referred to the city solicitor for review."
Councilor Lisa Blackmer, chairman of the General Government Committee, which usually deals with ordinances, said it was important to know where the executive, legislative and management responsibility came in. She commended LaForest for the work he had done but asked where the language had came from so she could also look it up and review it.
"I looked for fire hydrant divisions things like that and I couldn't find anything. So, if you could let me know which cities you looked at that would be really helpful," she said, adding that it would need to be sent the ordinance to the city solicitor for review. That would take a maximum of three days, a meeting could be held next week and it could be back before council at its next meeting, Blackmer said.
A couple councilors pointed to LaForest's statement that 90 percent of his proposed ordinance was already being done as a reason not to rush. Councilor Keith Bona noted that at both the Public Services and Public Safety meetings the Water Department, public services commissioner and fire chief had detailed their meetings with the mayor and what was being done to address the situation.
"My concern was where it was overlapping with policy and procedures that usually come down from the administration, and then where do we go with it with other departments, I mean, we're pretty much writing an ordinance telling departments what they are supposed to be doing with some of their regular responsibilities," said Councilor Keith Bona. "Just because hydrants has been the thing that made the news all of a sudden if it gets out there that the fire trucks didn't work appropriately, are we going to then make ordinances that they need to be inspecting the fire trucks more?"
He also asked what would happen if the ordinance was not — or could not from a staffing perspective — be followed, noting there were a number of ordinances that had fallen by the wayside.
"I really feel that this is more administrative duties and responsibilities of the department heads has than it is for the council to make law," Bona said.
Council President Paul Hopkins said he was "a little wary, too, of skipping the committee step." Councilor Jessica Sweeney was against setting a "dangerous precedent" outside of the structure and process they'd agreed to while acknowledging it was an important issue to address.
Councilor Peter Oleskiewicz felt it wasn't the council's job to delegate department responsibilities but thought meeting with the fire chief and department heads on plans for administration would be useful.
"I think that this is not only a hot topic I think it's an important topic. It's something that is important to the citizens, the City Council, the administration, everyone in the city," said Harpin. "Because we're concerned about public safety, we're concerned about people's lives, this is something that could save a life. Period. End of story. ...
"This is why I think it's important that we do everything that we possibly can to make sure that these fire hydrants are inspected ad at least if they're not working, that people know that they're not working."
LaForest withdrew his motion and, after some debate, Blackmer called the question to vote on the new motion to send to language to General Government. She received a second from Wilkinson but was voted down. LaForest said it was "incredibly offensive" to cut off debate of other councilors but Wilkinson responded that everyone had spoken at least once.
"You can't beat a dead horse," Wilkinson said. "It's time to make a decision."
The council voted to send the ordinance to General Government, which will meet next Wednesday.
In other business, the council postponed an ordinance prohibiting the "Sale of Dogs, Cats, or Rabbits by Pet
Shops" that has been lingering since last year awaiting final language on bill pending in the Legislature that is expected to be released this week.
The council also postponed an ordinance amending fees in the city
taken up more than a year ago. A change in Finance Committee leadership and the departure of the former administrative officer had stopped the process last year.
Committee member Wilkinson thought they could take it up again in the summer after budget season and Harpin, former chairman, said she had begun working on the fees and could share her notes with new Chairman Blackmer.
The fees in some instances had not been updated in decades and Wilkinson said quite a few were archaic. "Everybody should know we charge $1 a year per cow," he said.
Editor's note: An error was made in counting the votes against sending the hydrant ordinance to committee. Councilor Harpin voted against by raising her hand.