Warren City Council Recap Nov. 26, 2019
By Susan Smiley
One of the first orders of business at the Nov. 26 Warren City Council meeting was to rescind the Sept. 10 decision by the previous council to give council persons health care coverage for life.
The original decision came to light a couple of weeks ago and has been a topic of controversy in the news. The vote to rescind the decision was unanimous.
Council also voted unanimously to uphold mayoral vetoes regarding the issuance of three additional medical marijuana provisioning center licenses. The number of licenses issued will remain at 15 and will not increase to 18. Another item on the agenda related to marijuana called for a resolution approving a six-month moratorium on recreational marijuana businesses in the City of Warren. Council voted 4-3 not to adopt the resolution with Garry Watts, Eddie Kabacinski and Angela Rogensues voting in favor of the moratorium.
Earlier, during the audience participation segment of the meeting, resident Lori Harris spoke in favor of the moratorium and went even further to say other decisions regarding medical marijuana dispensaries should also be rescinded.
“It is not fair to the neighborhoods that people are growing marijuana in homes and are not even living there,” said Harris, who again called for councilman Ronald Papandrea to resign because of his involvement with several lawsuits pending against the city and members of the marijuana sub committee. “We should not be paying him a salary when we are already paying for his lawsuits.”
While no one from the audience spoke at the first public hearing of the evening regarding the removal of a house and garage at 28606 Audrey, councilman Jonathan Lafferty spoke out inquiring why it was the house had already been removed seemingly before potential house flippers had a chance to look at the home and decide if it could be improved and saved. Council voted to approve the removal even though council members said the home had already been razed
LeCom, Inc. had its application for a commercial rehabilitation exemption center on the site of the old Regal Lanes approved unanimously.
An item from Parks and Recreation director Dino Turcato that had been tabled at the last meeting remained on the table after Tuesday’s meeting. Parks and Recreation had requested permission to award a bid to put mulch and border timbers at various playscape areas in Warren parks. At Monday night’s committee of the whole meeting council members Lafferty and Watts made it clear they were not inclined to approve any requests from Parks and Recreation until they receive a detailed budget plan for the $3.6 million that was awarded to the department in June.
An item to approve contract modifications to for Iroquois repavement between 13 Mile and Lutz was questioned by Kabacinski.He asked why the increase adjustment to the Zuniga Cement contract was so large at $98,508. Since no one from the city’s engineering department was in the audience to answer questions, the item was tabled until the next council meeting.
Under “Council Business” there was discussion regarding the city policy to charge elected officials for the use of public event rooms. This includes rooms in city libraries and at the Warren Community Center.
“I am very much in favor of having access to community space,” said Rogensues. “But I think this council needs to consider additional cost to the city. I’m not sure if it should be free access across the board because it is not uncommon for community groups to have to pay.”
Council president and Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Green said residents are already paying for the meeting spaces via taxes and that most other municipalities do not charge elected officials to hold town hall meetings or other informational gatherings that benefit the citizens.
“These are community spaces paid for by you, the taxpayers,” said Green. “I agree if we fill this (auditorium) there is going to be an expense involved and that is something we can look at. But if our state rep is having a town hall about an important issue we should work with them. We are bringing people to our library to help people see the great assets available. If elected officials want to meet with residents they should not be charged; no one does that.”
Council agreed to look at revamping the current guidelines for room rentals.
During audience participation at the beginning of the meeting, citizen Laurie Artz commented about the rental of meeting rooms. She said the League of Women Voters was told it had to pay more than $1000 to rent the Community Center auditorium for a candidate forum during the most recent local election season. Artz said Warren Parks and Recreation Director Dino Turcato said he could not allow the League of Women Voters to use any room for a candidate forum before getting permission for them to do so. According to Artz, Turcato never indicated who had to grant permission or indicated that there was a particular application process for community groups to follow.
“If the community center is not going to be used for the community then who should it be used for?” asked Artz.
Council reappointed Mary Kamp as Deputy Council Secretary. Council Secretary Mindy Moore said she had the authority to make the appointment but wanted to do so at an open meeting.
“It has become clear to me in the past weeks that Mary is a valuable asset and has been extremely helpful to me,” said Moore. The appointment received applause from the audience.
Safer Neighborhoods Founder and Director Bill Clift made a brief presentation to council regarding what appears to be a change in citizen access to BS&A software. The software is used by the assessment department but enables residents to look up information on rental properties and other properties such as permits pulled, citations issued, etc.
“Safer Neighborhoods helps residents form strategies to deal with problems in their neighborhood,” said Clift. “One of the biggest tools we have been using is the BS&A software so that when people formulate complaints, they can see what kind of track record that property owner or landlord has. It allows residents to communicate to people in authority that there is an existing problem going on in their neighborhood.”
Clift said that at some point in recent weeks, all of the information that residents were once able to access has disappeared.
“People are making waves so now we are going to eliminate access to the information so that residents have to work harder to find out what is going on in their neighborhood?” said Clift. “We are hoping this is just a glitch that happened when they transferred over to the new web site.”
Council agreed to look into the issue and see about making the information accessible to residents again.
Moore introduced a resolution asking the city attorney to draft an ordinance establishing a social media policy for elected officials. She indicated she has received several complaints from residents who have been blocked by city officials, including Mayor James Fouts, on Facebook.
Moore’s proposal is included in the e-packet which is available on the City of Warren website: https://www.cityofwarren.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2019.11.26_CC_ePacket.pdf
“The president of the United States is prohibited from blocking people,” said Moore. “Elected officials can’t exclude citizens from reading and responding to posts that include announcements about the city.”
Moore cited the First Amendment of the Constitution and said even if residents are critical of an elected official, they may not be blocked from a social media page used to make official announcements about the city. Her proposed ordinance states that it should be unlawful for any elected officer of the city including board and commission members to use a personal social media account for city business if they choose to block residents. She proposed a $1,000 fine for willful violation of the ordinance.
Papandrea said the council does not have the authority to levy fines on anyone and that he disagreed with Moore’s proposal.
“If I want to set up a Facebook account to talk about Warren politics I should be able to block whoever I want,” said Papandrea. “I am going to vote ‘no’ on this because I think it is a violation of my rights.”
Rogensues thought the ordinance proposal should include some kind of exception for harassment or for someone making threats to the elected official. She also stated that in her opinion, $1,000 was too steep of a fine.
“Going door to door I learned our community has a lot of challenges including food and housing insecurity,” said Rogensues. “It concerns me that the second meeting of this council is focused on social media policy.”
Council voted 5-2 to approve Moore’s request to have the city attorney draft an ordinance; Papandrea and Rogensues were the dissenting votes.
Lafferty added an item to the agenda under council business regarding what he says is a city policy prohibiting various city department heads from speaking directly to members of the city council.
“I was informed by one department head that the mayor has forbidden any department heads from talking to me,” said Lafferty. “I was told that all requests must go through the mayor’s office and must be responded to by him.”
Lafferty indicated that it was cumbersome not to be able to contact department heads directly when often there are questions about various agenda items and issues that are best answered by a particular department.
Lafferty then addressed Mayor Fouts directly: “Mr. Mayor, are you afraid citizens are going to realize someone other than you is capable of working for and with the people? I have a newsflash for you; I have no intention of calling your office every time I need an answer from one of your department heads. Instead of fiening outrage on your Facebook page, why don’t you say that your first directive tomorrow will be to direct our department heads to engage with council members that were elected to do a job.”
Lafferty specifically requested information from the building department about properties located at 8319 Christine and 8581 Linda.
Papandrea argued that it is not the mayor but the City Charter that prohibits department heads from speaking directly to council members.
“I served on council from 2003 to 2007 and I was never once prohibited from talking to a department head to get information that I needed,” said Moore. “Many times a situation is time sensitive and we need to find an answer and get back to a resident right away. I think the current situation is burdensome and I think it is stonewalling.”
Green agreed that it makes it much easier to serve residents and procure needed information if council persons are allowed to go right to the source.
“We call a department head to get background on certain items and I have spoken to several since I was elected,” said Green. “We are not trying to circumvent the mayor; we are just trying to get information that we need to do our jobs. We will just have to table the entire agenda if we are not allowed to talk to department heads.”
Council agreed that department heads should be allowed to speak directly to them.
Last night’s Warren City Council meeting was the first featuring audience participation at the beginning of the meeting. Immediately after announcements several residents made their way to the podium to speak out on Warren parks, marijuana and rental of meeting rooms in community buildings.
Tina Mills asked for information regarding repairs that were done on Wagner Avenue after the planning commission and council approved the street to be vacated as part of the construction for the logistics company that will be located at 9 Mile and Hoover. Mills also inquired about a city sub-committee for the 9 Mile and Hoover project that she says was promised but has not materialized.
“They went the whole week (after the decision to vacate) and keep repairing and how it has all been dug up because it has been vacated,” said Mills. “You know how much money has been wasted on repairs to this? Everyone seems to think they know what is best for us down there and they have no idea.”
Jerry T. Bell spoke on behalf of his friend, Warren resident Tony Baker, regarding the need to ensure that all businesses are following ADA guidelines with regard to handicapped parking. Earlier this year, council voted to have the city attorney draft an ordinance that would strengthen the federal ADA law regarding parking. That ordinance has not yet been written and returned to council for approval.
Several people spoke regarding Warren parks in response to a comment by city controller Richard Fox at Monday’s committee of the whole meeting suggesting that Warren should consider selling off some of its parks. Parks and recreation was given $3.6 million in June for park upgrades and repairs and plans for how and where those funds will be spent is currently evolving.
“You said we have 30 parks and I feel we need all 30,” said resident Rick Anderson. “I know it was said that not enough people use the parks but I have not used the fire department since I have lived in my house here but I still want that! To make a community we need our libraries and our parks.”
Resident Bridget Quinn, who identified herself as a former member of the city’s Environmental Advisory Committee, asked new city council representatives to make parks a priority.
“Overwhelmingly, citizens have said they want more green space and more trees,” said Quinn. “We have not made investments in our parks that go with citizen demands.”
Quinn called for more bio-diverse and sustainable plantings to reduce flooding and the addition of natural areas where residents can play and relax.
Susan Smiley, whose home backs up to the Ridgewood property that is slated for development as a nature park, urged council to use creative thinking to stretch the Parks and Recreation budget. Seeking grants and engaging community groups and students were among her suggestions to maintain and develop parks and recreational programming.
“So many residents have mentioned the old program the city had that allowed young people to work in the parks during the summer, helping with park maintenance and helping to run day camp programs,” Smiley said. “Bringing back something like this would help our parks and help the kids.”
Smiley also mentioned that Fitzgerald football coach Gary Skop wanted to engage his team with the parks as a community service project.
Gracie Passalacqua said she attended Ridgewood Elementary School in the ‘60s and feels strongly that the park that is to be there simply cannot be called anything but Ridgewood Park. She said she was extremely upset to see a sign erected on the property designating it at “Racine Park.”
Pete Sutliff, who heads the Green New Warren community environmental group, said the city must think beyond the expense of mowing the parks and consider all of the benefits parks and green spaces provide for residents.
“Perhaps you think installing something like a wildflower meadow or butterfly garden will add to your workload,” said Sutliff. “But if they are installed properly, they will do just the opposite. You will cut mowing costs and reduce flooding. If you pave over these parks you will contribute to storm water runoff.”
Sutliff echoed Passalacqua’s statements on naming the park located on the old Ridgewood school property.
“Naming it Ridgewood is the right thing to do; to do the opposite is a slap in the face to the community.”
Sarah DeMercurio, who lives near the Ridgewood property, expressed a frustration on the part of residents that no action to develop the property into the promised nature park has been taken by the city.
“Residents are anxious to see it come to life,” said DeMercurio. “Many residents are willing to contribute their time and effort to make this happen. The park can be self sustaining and low maintenance. Parks do not have to have asphalt and ball diamonds; a beautiful space is enough.”
Resident Diane Young closed public comments by describing parks as the lungs of the city and calling for improvements to parks, not the elimination of them.
“Right now, there is not enough programming for kids and the city could take a role in enhancing this,” said Young. “Programming could be offered year-round. We need a better vision for our parks.”
The next meeting of the Warren City Council is scheduled for Tuesday, December 10, 7 p.m. at the Warren Community Center on Arden.