Councilor Andras to Bill Stephens

Letter from Stephen, July 21, 2010:

Dear Councilor Andras:

Thanks so much for your thorough and thoughtful reply. Please know that while we may disagree on the issues, your responsiveness is always appreciated.

I fully realize that the job of a councilor is made all the more difficult by today's historic economic downturn. Tax revenue has fallen off a cliff, and expenses must be brought in line with revenue. I also share your frustration with the teachers' union. In these hard times, there's no way that anyone should expect a raise. Instead, people should be glad to have a paycheck.

Nonetheless, I don't believe the council has gone about this the right way. I do not like to see such a high-stakes gamble taken with my children's education. I would like to see cooler heads prevail. And I'd like to see the council, mayor and School Committee work together to solve this crisis.

Now is not the time to worry about long-term finances. With the school year fast approaching, it's time to take action on the School Department's budget for this year. I urge you to support our schools and our children by voting to restore funding that the council cut.

Once funding is restored for this year's school budget, then the City Council, mayor and School Committee should take a longer-term view of the fiscal crisis. This longer-term view should also look back. Why? So the council remembers that the School Department has lost more than 75 positions in the past three years. That fact has been lost during the debate over the teachers' contract.

The council also should look into the conflict of interest ruling that prevented some councilors from voting on the School Department portion of the budget. It struck me as highly unusual. It's one thing to hand a relative a no-bid contract or city job that wasn't posted. It's another matter entirely to vote on a multimillion-dollar budget that happens to pay the salary of a relative. The conflict of interest decision in this case doesn't seem to recognize this important distinction. If overly broad interpretations of conflict of interest become the norm, it will handcuff local governments. Local people by definition have extensive local ties and the use of conflict of interest provisions should be applied in a reasonable manner. This broad interpretation is unreasonable and played a role in this school funding debacle.

I don't like paying taxes any more than the next guy. But I also want essential city services preserved, and I know that costs money. I would not grumble about a tax increase if it meant preventing cuts that would destroy the quality of life in Westfield.

I know that being a council member can be a thankless job. So I'd like to thank you again for taking the time to attend last night's meeting, as well as for your service to our community.

And, once again, I urge you to restore funding for our schools.

Bill Stephens

Councilor Andras' Response, July 21, 2010:

Thank you for your concern regarding this issue. It is of grave concern to most of us. We all want to do the right thing for the children and the future of our school system and City. I think the Council felt in taking the vote we were doing the right thing. I think I can speak for all the councilors that we would never vote other than what we considered the right way.

To survive this financial crisis the Mayor’s budget needed every city department and employee to give a little. We are not saying how much or what, just something. The teachers walked away from contract talks and stated they were not coming back until Sept. That was not acceptable as the Mayor’s budget was balanced with them giving something back. We hoped that the teachers would get their union rep. back to the table and work towards helping the city and the school system to survive this crisis. In much of the talk I have heard after our vote, many teachers have said "this is not what we want, we are not consulted with by the union rep." I feel that it was the teachers that need to stand up and if they believed that walking out of negotiations was not in their best interest, the best interest of the children or the city; they needed to get that message to their rep.

In my mind, this is not a stand-off; this is a serious cry from the City Council to the teachers asking them to help the City provide what is needed to give the children the best education possible, as other departments and employees have done. I can’t justify in my mind that all the city employees are willing to give something and the teachers are not.

I would like nothing more to give back the entire amount that was withheld; but; I can not say that will be done with certainty until we see whether the negotiations are fruitful.

Thank you again for your concerns and please don’t walk away when this is over, stay involved. I was very pleased when I saw the crowd at the School finance meeting. I wish that crowd was at our City Council meeting so we could have expressed the dire straights the city is in and perhaps you would have understood we feel we can’t sustain the same old same old. We would have listened to any ideas that were brought up and perhaps found other solutions in addition or instead of what we did. With state and federal funding and excise taxes decreasing and our desire to stay within prop. 2 ½, expenses are out of control and services are decreasing. Thirteen people don’t have all the answers and quite frankly don’t want to make decisions in a vacuum. We welcome all thoughts, ideas and constructive criticism.

Please know I am only speaking for myself.

Patti Andras