PITTSFIELD — After two marathon debates within a three-plus-hour meeting, the City Council approved a code change Tuesday allowing consideration of a law firm for the role of city solicitor and gave the treasurer the nod to pursue a bond refinancing process that could save $425,000.
Finance Director and Treasurer Matthew Kerwood and Mayor Linda M. Tyer sought approval to begin preparing to seek bids to refinance $4.26 million in long-term city debt, which Kerwood said could result in lower interest rates over the next 10 years and save the city more than $40,000 annually.
He said the move was recommended by the city's bonding consultant for bonds that date to 2008, when the interest rates were much higher at the beginning of the Great Recession. But a number of councilors objected to the request because Kerwood sought approval Tuesday so the bidding paperwork could be ready to be posted by June 1, prior to the busiest weeks of the city's annual budget season.
"We had very limited time to look at this," said Councilor Kathleen Amuso of material not in the council meeting packet received last week, which had been sent to councilors on Tuesday.
"I don't want to keep bypassing the committees," she added, referring to instances in recent years when mayoral requests involving finances that came in seeking immediate approval.
"This has happened more than I would like it to over the past two years," Amuso said.
Councilors Melissa Mazzeo, Kevin Morandi and Anthony Simonelli argued for sending the proposal to the council Finance Committee for a full vetting prior to any decision. They said the committee could meet next week and make a recommendation for the next meeting of the full council.
Mazzeo argued at length that, although the proposal seemed a good one, she had many questions about the bond bidding process and about the projects the bonds were originally taken out to fund before she could approve the plan.
"I need more questions answered," she said, adding that she only received the updated information from Kerwood late that morning.
"We have council rules and we need to follow them," Morandi said, referring to a rule requiring any large financing proposal from the mayor to be sent first to committee for review.
"This is like putting the cart before he horse," Simonelli said.
Speaking against a referral to committee, John Krol noted that Kerwood had said he will return in May with the full details of the bonding plan, and the proposal could then go before the Finance Committee.
"He is asking us to set this in motion," Krol said. "We are not voting on any final figures."
After about an hour of debate, the motion to refer to the Finance Committee failed on a 5-6 vote. A subsequent motion to authorize Kerwood to begin the process passed unanimously.
Tyer said rebidding the loans to gain a better interest rate "is a very important step" in what she hopes will be a number of changes to help stabilize city finances
"Every opportunity to save money, I am going to take a shot at it," she said.
Kerwood said he previously worked on a similar refinancing proposal while town administrator in Richmond, which saved the town on a long-term school construction loan.
Also Tuesday, the council approved Tyer's proposal for an ordinance change to specifically allow Pittsfield to consider either a law firm or a person for the role of city solicitor. After another lengthy debate, councilors voted 7-4 to approve the change.
However, Mazzeo reiterated her contention at prior meetings on the subject that the city government charter that voters approved in 2013 specifically refers to a person as solicitor, not a law firm. She argued that a charter change, not an ordinance change, would be required for the city to consider installing a law firm in that role.
Earlier this year, Tyer had won council approval to hire the firm Donovan & O'Connor, with Richard Dohoney as lead attorney, for six months while she considered whether to recommend hiring a firm or another solicitor for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1.
Solicitor Kathleen Degnan was not retained when the Tyer administration took office in January, after Tyer had defeated former Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi in the November election.
Tyer said Tuesday she wants it to be clear in city code that a law firm can be chosen for the solicitor's role. The mayor and attorney Fernand Dupere, the city's labor relations counsel, said they don't believe a charter change — taking six or more months and approval by the state Legislature — is required in this case.
Mazzeo, Morandi and Simonelli argued, however, that three members of the city Charter Review Study Committee that drafted the new charter — attorneys William Barry and Michael McCarthy and former Judge Edward Lapointe had previously agreed with Mazzeo that a charter change would be required in order to hire a law firm.
"We are not following the charter," Mazzeo insisted, adding that since Degnan was not retained, the city has had a vacancy in that post and the charter provisions for filling it also haven't been followed.
Dupere said he was offering a personal opinion after a request from the mayor, not a formal legal opinion. But he noted that some 200 communities in the state are represented by a law firm, although he recommended designating one attorney from the firm as the solicitor.
He, Tyer and supporters of the proposal said it is difficult for one attorney to be knowledgeable in all areas of municipal law, which is a reason communities have chosen that method of representation.
Mazzeo and Morandi said they believe having a person as solicitor is preferable in terms of the availability of the attorney at City Hall and in terms of overall cost for the department. "I think we get more bang for the buck for the city," Morandi said.
Tyer said her intention now is to seek both proposals from law firms to represent the city next budget year and candidates for solicitor, in order to compare the two options. In response to councilor comments, she said daily office hours at City Hall could be part of her request for proposals for law firms.
Councilor John Krol said he believes it is important to give the mayor and the city "all the options we could possibly have" to choose Pittsfield's legal representation.
Tyer has said she will return to the council with a recommendation as part of her fiscal 2017 budget proposal.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.