I had my hand up for a while at the meeting about the Recreation Dept. move at the senior center, but lots of other people had their hand up too, and after awhile I gave up. Every one was piling on the Mayor and I began to feel sorry for the guy. I was wondering if he had second thoughts about starting that battle with Smith Vocational two years ago.
The battle started with budgetary matters. The city felt that it was carrying too much of the budgetary load for Smith’s operations; Smith Vocational feels we are not doing enough. When that was not resolved, the mayor decided to ask the city council backing for special state legislation to make the vocational school part of the Northampton public schools. The mayor said he wanted to reduce the expense of having two separate school systems operating in the city.
City employees I talked with saw the Parks and Department eviction as retaliatory. It was a matter of falling dominos: the mayor banged Smith Voc, so Smith Voc evicts Parks and Recreation, and then Parks and Recreation pushes the Senior Center out of their meeting room. Then the President of Greenfield Community College reads all the coverage, and decides that he didn’t want the college to be seen as the bad guy in this scenario. The mayor, and the recreation department are off the hook. But this is no way to run a city.
When the war started, the Recreation Department was in a vulnerable position, living on Smith Vocational land. The Mayor’s move polarized things, stimulating new candidates to run for the school’s board of commissioners on a platform of preserving Smith Voc’s independence.
Mike Cahillane, chair of the Board of Trustees, disputes the Mayor’s timetable on when the city was notified. He said that he had told the mayor and Anne Marie Moggio, the program’s director, last summer that they were negotiating with other parties about leasing the building. He said that he told them that without a lease (and he said the city had not renewed the lease) they were living there on a day-to-day basis.
I think if we had a city manager system in place back then, that idea of the mayor to go to Boston and put the Smith school under city control would have died in its infancy. A mayor, particularly a new ambitious mayor, needs a hired hand who can shoot holes in his bright ideas when he’s boiling over with frustration at a particular problem.
Say he walks into the city manager’s office and says, “Look I can’t take the crap we’re taking from Smith. Let’s file a home rule petition, go to Boston and take them over.”
You need someone, preferably an older person and a pipe smoker, who could say, with some authority, “No. Take a pill or have a drink or go home and kick your dog. We can’t do that.”
Mayors Dave Musante and Mary Ford both tried to change how the Smith School is governed. In the 80s and 90s real estate interests yearned to populate their pastureland with split-levels. Mary Ford tried to eliminate the farm program, and her efforts ended up boomeranging, electing two farm advocates to the board of trustees and re-invigorating the farm program. When Mayor Narkowicz unveiled his plan, the newly selected Superintendent of the School, Jeffrey Peterson, said the school was on strong legal ground when it came to keeping its independence. I remember the night Mayor Narkowicz’s proposed petition hit the city council floor. When Peterson told the city council that he was willing to go to court to protect the school, you could feel the air going out of the effort. What Mayor Narkowicz didn’t fully appreciate was the grass-roots support Smith has in the community, and how difficult and bloody and expensive the legal battle would have been if it got to Boston. And there was no assurance that the effort would prevail.
The will originated by a simple country farmer from Hatfield in 1831 setting up Smith Vocational School was a well-crafted document. It has withstood legal challenge. Oliver Smith had the help of a probate judge and another lawyer framing it. It gave governance rights over the school to elected commissioners. What he envisioned was a hybrid: part private school part public school, a place that would train and support farmers and tradespeople. It was accompanied by and complemented by bequests to brides and tradespeople that would be eventually be administered by Smith Charities.
It touched off a famous legal battle. Oliver Smith’s relatives were outraged, and it offended the Daily Hampshire Gazette, who campaigned relentlessly against it.
“It is suprising that a man of Mr. Smith’s known penurious habits should make such a disposition of his property. And we are forced to smile at his extreme solicitude for the poor. ..” (Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 30, 1845)
The trial in Northampton’s probate court was a very public battle between Daniel Webster, advocating for the will as written, and Rufus Choate, who argued that the will be thrown out. The farmer won. Webster won. It seems to me that the trustees and the administration of Smith Vocational were carrying forth their mission when they decided to give a permanent home to the Greenfield Community College LPN program, which was facing their own eviction deadline from their temporary quarters at the VA Medical Center. How it was done is another matter. The agenda item of leasing the building to Greenfield was originally scheduled for November 18th. The mayor asked for a delay and it was discussed and voted for on December 2nd. He complained that the school was not “transparent” about being in negogiations with the college and had put the item on the agenda at the last moment. The meeting only lasted 25 minutes. This is pretty brutal stuff. No blindfold here. Evidently the elected trustees did not want to listen to the ex-officio trustees (the Mayor and the Superintendent of Schools) on what a bad bind this decision would put the city in.
What’s was the downside? For the senior center, it was losing its event room, about 1160 square feet of space, but the move would have been much more wrenching for the Parks and Recreation Program. Their constituency is more suburban, its present building was close to the geographical center of the city, and it was easy to get to. Their building had plenty of parking, had a conference room and was relatively spacious. They would have been badly cramped down there on Fruit Street.
There needs to be some kind of peacekeeping mission put in place, something like what they did in Bosnia. Appoint a neutral third party to look into the tensions between the city and Smith Voc, and make some recommendations. We can’t rely on the goodness and mercy of Greenfield Community College to pull our fat out of the fire.