Aldermen and big money
When Springfield City Council members repeatedly accept large campaign contributions from the same serial donors year after year, they invariably compromise their impartiality and subordinate the general interest to special interests. Last month, several serial givers held a “thank you” event for a quorum of aldermen. The event was exceptional in its boldness, notoriety and legal recklessness.
The Springfield City Council took two important votes this year of great interest to certain developers and union business managers.
In May, aldermen pushed through an ordinance on a 9-1 vote which freed developers from future city council oversight (and thus also freed them from neighborhood association input) on most large-scale development projects.
On Sept. 5, the city council voted 9-1 to extend the County/City Enterprise Zone in the Pawnee area. This ordinance will give Emberclear an estimated $50 million in construction cost tax subsidies to build a planned natural gas power plant that will compete directly with CWLP for electric sales on the wholesale market. Before the vote, Laborers packed the council chambers to support construction jobs.
On Wednesday night, Sept. 27, seven of eight invited aldermen attended a small private gathering at Saputo’s restaurant. The aldermen received $40,000 in “thank you” campaign contribution checks – best estimate – most delivered that night, some earlier, and some later. The checks came from two Laborer Union funds, one Plumbers Union fund and a developer.
During my six years on the council I have become aware of the unhealthy dependence of aldermen on campaign contributions from developers, gaming interests, business interests and unions. But until now I had never seen any meeting like what took place at Saputo’s. We have some good aldermen and they would be better if they didn’t take the type of money passed out at Saputo’s. It creates deep conflicts of interest when aldermen later need to approve collective bargaining agreements, city contracts and zoning decisions.
The Saputo’s meeting was also significant because we are not even close to an election. These large campaign contributions allow aldermen to build up their war chests, which in turn discourages challengers later. Meanwhile special interest allegiances are forged, and we end up with less quality at city hall.
Taxpayers and voters should care about all this because we have mounting city debts … mostly due excessive government employee pay levels, retiree health benefits and pension costs.
When I came to the council six years ago, our city’s total pension debt was $271 million.Today it is $453 million. Back in 2001, it was $39 million.
Public-sector unions and our white-collar city employees sit at the bargaining tables and are self-interested in the outcome of pay and benefit agreements. We need elected officials who owe their vote to the general interest, and exercise checks and balances vigorously.
Open Meetings Act
Given the purpose of the intimate Saputo’s meeting, aldermen violated the word and spirit of the Open Meetings Act. The meeting’s intent was clear, to reward and encourage the aldermen in their current and future rendering of city policies. By attending and remaining there as a solid quorum, seven aldermen by all appearances conducted city business by giving unified approval to the union reps and developers. This approval by seven aldermen was without Public Notice, and hidden from public view. This was wrong and contrary to the Open Meetings Act.
There are certain money givers to the Springfield City Council who gain influence beyond what is healthy for our city. We need candidates for city office who pledge their allegiance to the general interest and decline large dollar campaign contributions from special interests.
Joe McMenamin of Springfield is Ward 7 alderman.