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Budget fight provokes confrontation

Date: 6/28/2011

June 29, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

CHICOPEE — In reaction to the budget meeting conducted by the City Council on June 23, Mayor Michael Bissonnette will present two options to that body on June 29: either the council will recognize the cuts to the budget they made are invalid and restore them or Bissonnette will introduce a 1/12 budget so the city can stay in business while the budget process moves forward past its July 1 deadline.

“If they do neither, I’m taking the position there is not legal budget and will take instructions from the state and the attorney general,” Bissonnette told Reminder Publications.

The actions of the seven councilors came after a controversy over Bissonnette re-assigning several members of the City Clerks’ staff to other positions in City Hall. At the June 23 meeting, the mayor restored them to the clerk’s office and then several city councilors started to make unprecedented cuts in the mayor’s staff.

Bissonnette said at a budget reconciliation meeting such as that one, new issues, such as the elimination of two of his staff positions, can’t be brought up. None of the actions were on the posted agenda, he noted.

The failure to post the agenda as it unfolded made the meeting and its actions invalid, Bissonnette contended.

The seven councilors cut Christopher Nolan’s chief of staff position as well as Anthony’s Resnick’s administrative assistant job. They then cut the travel budget for the office to “level funding to last year” according to Councilor Fred Krampits.

“Level funding” was the phrase used by several of the councilors as they made motion after motion in quick order.

Councilor James Tillotson told his fellow councilors their cuts would not “really going to do anything with the tax rates.”

“It’s obvious we’re creating war here [between the Council and Bissonnette],” Tillotson continued. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Councilor Ronald Belair said the mayor could always come back and ask for additional monies if the amount determined by the council proved not to be enough.

When Councilor Timothy S. McLellan made a motion to reduce the salary of City Solicitor Karen Betournay from $75,000 to $47,299.20 — the amount paid to the former part-time solicitor — Tillotson said the meeting had now become “the theater of the absurd.”

Councilor Charles Swider reminded his colleagues they had agreed this was a full-time position they had previously approved. The motion to reduce the salary was carried, though.

Krampits withdrew his motion to cut the special services line item from $80,000 to $10,000 only after Auditor Sharon Riley confirmed that most of that amount covered contractual obligations for the city and could not be cut.

A similar discussion took place over the position of the compliance officer who generates revenue for the city by making sure tickets issued by the city are paid. Initially some councilors wanted the salary line item to be cut to zero — but the job maintained on the books rather than be eliminated — but after discussion, the motion was withdrawn.

Krampits made another motion to bring the salary line item for the benefits manager in the Human Resources office to zero. Tillotson explained that as part of the new health insurance contract for city employees, which is saving both the employees and the city money, the city had to create this position to do some of the work that normally an insurance company would do. After the explanation and discussion Krampits withdrew his motion.

Bissonnette, who attended the meeting, told the councilors their actions were “a shameless political attack” and said the seven members who took part in the action may have violated the state’s new open meeting law by discussing their actions in text messages and e-mails.

Councilor Frank Laflamme told the mayor he understood what Bissonnette was accusing him of and he denied he had broken the law.

“There was really no reason what happened here tonight,” Bissonnette said.

Bissonnette has characterized the proceedings as another incident in the on-going conflict between him and State Rep. Joseph Wagner.

In a Facebook posting, Bissonnette wrote, “I was just reminded that the Gang of Seven on City Council all supported [former City Councilor Shane] Brooks/Joe Wagner in last [mayoral] election [where the] margin was 68 to 32. Also that three of them almost lost in last race. Three also have state jobs [Frederick] Krampits, [John] Vieau and [Ronald] Belair). Any possible connection? Some people think so.”

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