Monday, December 15, 2014

Holiday v Christmas Tree?

Recently, the media has been reporting a debate about whether the City of Holyoke should call the tree outside of City Hall a “Holiday Tree” or a “Christmas Tree.” While I did not say one word about this issue at either of the two meetings where it’s come up, I feel that I have been unfairly placed on the side of “Holiday tree” and labeled a “bah-humbug.”[1] I’d like to set the record straight on a few points and articulate my perspective- which is that I simply do not care to discuss what I see as an unnecessarily divisive and frivolous order at a time in our City’s history when so many more substantive issues need our attention.

First, at the December 2 meeting of the full City Council, I remained completely silent on Bresnahan’s order when it came up for discussion. At an already very long meeting with several serious financial transfers and other matters to discuss, I chose to remain silent to help limit the time spent on floor discussion and move the process along. Ultimately, Besnahan’s order was sent by the body to the Ordinance Committee, the committee of which I am Chair.

Second, as Chair I have wide discretionary power over what is placed on the agenda for our Ordinance Committee meetings. Ordinance Committee is by far the busiest committee of the City Council; we meet every Tuesday night that the full council is not meeting (nearly every other Tuesday), for several hours, and take care of some of the most important legislative work of the City. I would be completely within my right to let Bresnahan’s order be placed quietly in the long cue of orders that have come before it and not take it up for several months. However, despite my personal feelings on the issue I recognized its time-sensitive nature and out of respect for Councilor Bresnahan decided to put it on the agenda, so it could come up for debate.

At the Ordinance Committee meeting on December 9, we had a full agenda with several public hearings and other issues (including high profile orders such as the Public Art Process) preceding the Christmas tree order. When the issue came up for a vote take it off the table for discussion I exercised my right to vote ‘no’ on that motion along with two other councilors (Alexander and Bartley). It is not a requirement that everything on the agenda be discussed. In fact, there were other items on the agenda (one filed by Councilor Vacon and two filed by Councilor Valentin) that failed to achieve the votes necessary to take them up for debate- there was no singling out of Councilor Bresnahan’s order. Voting ‘no’ does not ‘kill’ the order- it simply remains on the table for discussion at a subsequent meeting.

Additionally, some have commented that since Councilor Bresnahan was at the meeting we should have afforded him the professional courtesy of hearing his order. Perhaps this should have been so- I can see that this point has some merit. However, as Chair of a continually overburdened committee I may be more sensitive to the time constraints we face and did not want to take up a potentially controversial order when 1) we had a legal opinion that said that this item did not require an ordinance change and 2) there did not seem to be a need for the order at all considering there was nothing that legislated calling the tree outside of City Hall a “Holiday Tree” in the first place.

To the first point, once I placed the “Christmas Tree” order on the agenda I called the Legal Department for an opinion as to whether it would be legal for the council to take action on this item given the order’s tenuous relationship to the Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The Legal Department advised us that a resolution would be more appropriate because an ordinance carries the full weight of the law behind it and comes closer to violating the Constitution.[2] This opinion was forwarded to Council Bresnahan as well.

To the second point, it is my opinion that Councilor Bresnahan completely fabricated this controversy as there was no previous action taken by either the Mayor OR the City Council that specifically and/or exclusively designates the Christmas tree outside of City Hall a “Holiday Tree.” Councilor Bresnahan continues to reference 2012 as the year that “everything changed”- insinuating that Mayor Morse must have made this change when he took office, but I have not been able to locate any official action that limits the calling of the City’s Christmas Tree to a “Holiday Tree.” Councilor Bresnahan openly admits that he got the idea from a conservative talk radio show that he listens to on his commute home from work[3] and then arbitrarily applied it to our City. If I am mistaken, I would ask that Coucilor Bresnahan please reference the 2012 action that designates the City’s Christmas tree a “Holiday Tree.”

Finally, as someone who grew up with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father and whose household celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah, Easter and Passover- I’d like it to be very clear that I am completely comfortable calling the tree outside of City Hall a Christmas Tree. My point of contention is that I do not believe that we should be politicizing the issue and taking time to legislate the matter. It has proved to be unnecessarily controversial, divisive, and distracting from what I believe to be more important city business.


Rebecca Lisi
City Councilor at-Large

[1] Dan Bresnahan on “The Chump Line.” Howie Carr radio show Friday, December 12, 2014.
[2] Email communication from Kara Lamb Cunha to Rebecca Lisi on Tuesday, December 9, 2014 at 12:54pm re: Christmas Tree Order.
[3] Dan Bresnahan on “The Chump Line.” Howie Carr radio show Friday, December 12, 2014.


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