NEWBURYPORT — Amid claims of playing politics and leveling personal insults, the City Council last night failed to pass a measure proposed by City Councilor Dick Sullivan Jr. to make public the council’s executive-session minutes regarding the troubled Plum Island water and sewer system.
Five councilors voted in favor of Sullivan’s measure (Brian Derrivan, Tom Jones, Bob Cronin, Tom O’Brien and Sullivan), three councilors voted against (Allison Heartquist, Ed Cameron and Barry Connell) and two voted “present” (Ari Herzog and Greg Earls).
Councilor Steve Hutcheson was absent due to a death in the family.
The measure required six affirmative votes to pass, according to City Clerk Richard Jones.
Discussion of the proposal brought the sharpest public disagreement in the two-year tenure of this council.
Sullivan, who is running for mayor, had introduced a measure “to release for public inspection all executive session minutes pertaining to the ongoing problems with Plum Island water and sewer services.”
“This is about open government, and the people who are paying deserve to know” what councilors have been told about possible problems, he said.
Municipal leaders in recent months have launched a study to determine the source of problems with the water and sewer system that runs from the mainland to Plum Island in both Newburyport and Newbury.
The water system has failed to function properly on several occasions, temporarily leaving residences without water.
Municipal engineers are concerned about a major disruption if there is a fundamental problem in the system.
Mayor Donna Holaday has launched a study, and she has kept councilors informed. But she and lawyers working with the city, including those in the state attorney general’s office, have urged councilors not to make the information public.
Councilors have maintained silence, though several privately have expressed frustration that they could not inform their constituents.
Holaday held a public meeting last winter to respond to citizen concerns but at that time did not have the results of the city’s engineering probe.
Sullivan’s formal request to make the minutes public was opposed by Holaday, who said that providing details on the matter would “tip the hand” of the city as it prepares for possible litigation.
Heartquist, whose Ward 1 constituency includes Plum Island, said she opposed Sullivan’s measure because it could compromise the city’s legal position.
She said that perhaps Sullivan’s proposed order came because it is an election year, and she suggested it was a move “to advance political ambitions.”
Later in the discussion, Sullivan said he felt “insulted” and said Heartquist’s words were a personal attack on him and his integrity.
Heartquist later apologized “if you thought I insulted you” but said she felt compelled to represent those on Plum Island, the majority of whom she said favor confidential proceedings until the appropriate time.
Early in the discussion, Earls, who came in third in a three-way race for mayor this fall, suggested that the Sullivan measure be sent to committee. It wasn’t.
Cameron said that the city would be wise not to show its legal hand; Connell said that the city should cooperate with the state attorney general’s office in keeping its silence for the moment.
“We’re getting legal support from the AG’s office and it would be imprudent if we are seen not as a trusted and discreet party,” Connell said.
There was verbal support from Jones, Cronin and Derrivan.
Jones said the AG’s office had not been effective in helping the city close the Crow Lane landfill, suggesting “they sold us down the river” in not being aggressive in shutting the private site.
Cronin said that much information about the engineering problems related to Plum Island has been made public (at meetings of Newbury officials), and he urged release of minutes so that residents would know what is happening.
Cronin said, “This issue is not just about Plum Island. If there are major expenses, people from Ward 1 to Ward 6 will be involved.”
He was referring to the fact that the two communities are in a common water and sewer district, and significant expenses would be shared by all users.
Most observers of City Hall believe that there is a significant problem with the water and/or sewer systems.
City officials are working with the attorney general’s office in search of a solution, which could be litigation or it could be cooperation, observers say.
Sullivan last night said it was his understanding that test results that the city ordered have been returned, but no confirmation of that claim was made by other councilors or municipal employees.
When the question came to a vote, more voted for it than against in the unusual configuration of 5-3-2-1.
But because the proposal did not result in a majority, it failed — and silence reigns, at least for the moment.