At-large Councilor-Elect Bill Dwight Has Inside Track on Council President’s Post
The council’s newest member and highest vote-getter appears to have the council presidency sewn up two weeks before the formal vote on inauguration day.
By DAVID REID
NORTHAMPTON – William “Bill” Dwight, who was elected Nov. 8 to an at-large seat on the City Council, will become that body’s junior member shortly after he is sworn in along with other elected officials here on Jan. 3.
And when the City Council meets at 2 o’clock that afternoon for its traditional organizational meeting, Dwight – who received more votes than any other council candidate in last month’s election – will likely be chosen by his peers to serve as the council president for the next two years.
At least that’s how the tea leaves are being read this week, after Dwight, 56, emailed several councilors on Tuesday saying he wants the job. According to Dwight and other councilors, he now has a majority of the nine-member council in his corner.
Of course, nothing is carved in stone until the council meets in 10 days and a vote is taken.
Dwight says he was at first reluctant to consider the top council position, but changed his mind after hearing from some of his peers.
“I’ve been encouraged to run for council president for a variety of reasons,” Dwight told Northampton Media late this week in a phone conversation. Asked if he now has majority support for the leadership post, Dwight said he does.
Dwight is not new to local politics, having served as Ward 1 City Councilor from 1996 to 2004.
Since retiring from the council eight years ago, Dwight has kept his hand in local affairs. He hosted talk radio shows on WHMP and Valley Free Radio, supported various political campaigns, and spoken out on community issues at public meetings.
“I’ve definitely stayed apace of everything,” Dwight said this week. “And I understand the process and I understand what’s expected of the council president.”
Dwight is maybe best known as a longtime clerk at the now-closed Pleasant Street Video store. He says he is currently unemployed.
The current City Council president is David Narkewicz, who has also served as acting mayor since September, when former mayor Mary Clare Higgins stepped down to take a private-sector job. At the polls on Nov. 8 Narkewicz trounced former council president Michael Bardsley for mayor, and will begin serving his own two-year term on Jan. 3.
The Busy, Behind-the-Scenes Race for Council President
The contest to fill Narkewicz’s shoes as council president has been an active but short-lived one, and took place completely behind the scenes.
Just a few weeks ago, both At-large Councilor Jesse Adams and Ward 5’s David Murphy said they were seeking the council presidency. This week, though, each told Northampton Media they are no longer in the race now that Dwight appears to have the needed votes.
“I’m comfortable with him (Dwight) as a choice,” said Murphy, adding that other councilors echo that sentiment. Adams said he would decide whether to support Dwight after meeting with him.
“I’m going to wait until I talk with him,” Adams texted Northampton Media Friday. “I’d like to learn about his platform and how he thinks the council can be more effective.”
Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge, who lost her own bid for council president two years ago to Narkewicz, told Northampton Media she solidly favors Dwight’s bid for council president, and said she urged him to run a few weeks ago.
“I told him that, if he wasn’t going to run, then I would,” LaBarge told us.
According to Ward 2 Councilor Spector, it was he who lit a fire under Dwight, convinced him to consider the job and solicited support from his peers.
Spector told Northampton Media he considers Dwight a great choice to bring the council together as a group, and to help heal some political rifts that have marked the council in recent years.
LaBarge, who said she hadn’t talked to Dwight in weeks, said Thursday he’s definitely up to the president’s job. “I think he will be fair and square in his dealings with the councilors,” she said.
The Council’s Newest Member Got the Most Votes
While some observers might question why councilors would pick their newest member as their legislative leader, it should be noted that on Nov. 8 Dwight got more votes than any other city councilor; also, most council presidents have historically been at-large councilors, who represent the entire city.
Dwight got 5,692 votes to Adams’ 4,942; more than 60 percent of voters who cast a ballot chose Dwight.
Dwight said his focus would be to facilitate liaisons between the mayor and City Council, and between the council and the public. He also vowed to advocate for easier website access to city information, and to work with fellow councilors to re-examine the City Council’s formal rules, and to make changes where needed.
The council president makes appointments to various committees, works with the mayor on setting agendas for City Council meetings, and fills in when the mayor is out of town, incapacitated or unavailable. The council president also serves on the Finance Committee. The mayor chairs City Council meetings by charter.
Pay for city councilors is $5,000 a year; for the extra duties, the president earns an additional $500.
No Ambition To Be Mayor, Says Dwight
Dwight said his skills are in bringing people together on complicated issues, and that he has no ambition to be mayor.
“My strengths play towards mediation,” he told Northampton Media, adding that his skills are better suited to be “a representative than an administrator.. . .I have no mayoral ambitions.”
For his part, Murphy said he has no burning desire to be council president, or mayor, and had put his name out there for council president to give his peers a choice over other options. “It was something I was willing to do,” he said.
But Dwight, said Murphy, “is a lot more political an animal than I am,” something he said fits the council presidency’s job description.
The fact that Dwight denied any interest in running for mayor was important for Murphy to give Dwight his support. “That was key for me,” he said.
Murphy also said he thought Dwight would be a strong advocate for the council’s legislative independence from the mayor while also working with Narkewicz on city issues without being antagonistic, which he said would be counter-productive.
“I think it will work,” said Murphy.
Adams, who served for nine months on a charter review committee, said he strongly favors a charter change for the council president to chair council meetings, something he and Narkewicz have said would help empower the legislative branch.
“I want the next City Council president to be strongly in favor of having the council president chair City Council meetings,” said Adams.
He said he hopes to meet one-on-one with Dwight before Jan. 3.
A Freshman Councilor’s Concerns
Another councilor, Ward 3’s Owen Freeman-Daniels, told Northampton Media this week he had a conversation with Dwight and “told him I might support him.”
He described Dwight as “a great candidate for at-large,” and voted for him.
But Freeman-Daniels – who won a special election in August to fill the unexpired term of former councilor Angela Plassmann and was unopposed last month to win a two-year term – said he doesn’t like the behind-the-scenes process. He said it appears one candidate has sewn up the council presidency without one word being spoken in the public view.
“It’s the ultimate insiders’ game,” he said. To be decided outside the public view and without public input, he added, “to my mind is a shame.”
And it would be hard to decide between candidates for council president “without knowing what they stand for.” As for Dwight, he added, “I don’t know what he stands for.”
Freeman-Daniels said he couldn’t support a candidate who would use the post as a political stepping stone to higher office, who would not challenge the mayor when needed or who would trade support for key committee assignments.
Despite his reservations about the process, Freeman-Daniels said, having Dwight serve as council president “is a good thing for the city.”
But if you really believe the process is flawed, he asked rhetorically, how do you justify voting for someone? At this point, Freeman-Daniels said, he might not vote for Dwight despite his qualifications.
Dwight, meanwhile, said his only real concern about becoming council president is what would happen if Narkewicz were unable to serve as mayor for any reason.
After all, there is no provision in the charter for a special election to fill a mayoral vacancy. Instead, the charter calls for the City Council president to serve as acting mayor until the term is completed.
Since Narkewicz took over for former mayor Higgins, for example, he has earned only his $5,500-a-year council salary.
Imagine, Dwight said, if Narkewicz had to step down soon after Jan. 3, and Dwight had to spend the next two years as acting mayor on a councilor’s paycheck.
“I can’t tell you how much that makes me nauseous,” he laughed.
© 2011 Northampton Media
David Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org