Citizen Complaints Officer

As noted on wrcstr, there are four citizen petitions for this year’s Sunshine Week.

One of them is:

9w.     Jeremy Shulkin request the establishment of an ombudsman or point person to handle all requests by individuals or media outlets requesting information on any city department and that this employee’s contact information be easily accessible on the city’s website to support increased transparency and openness in government.

Regular readers of the charter may remember that the charter originally provided for the position of “citizen complaints officer”, and that the citizens of Worcester voted this position down in 1987. 

To those of us who are interested in a more open government, it might seem a bit odd that our fellow citizens would vote to take this position away.  I took a trip down Microfiche Lane and found the following article, which may help shed some light on the debate as it existed 25 years ago.

“Should the City Appoint a Complaint Officer?”, by Joe Pinder, Sunday Telegram, October 25, 1987, page A1

Among the races for City Council and School Committee on the Nov. 3 ballot, voters will find a single ballot question that will decide the future of the controversial job of citizen complaints officer.

Called for in Worcester’s new charter — which voters approved in the municipal election in November 1985 — the position drew the ire of most city councilors almost immediately.

After complaining that the position would duplicate the services they already perform, councilors in the summer and fall of 1986 decided they would appoint someone to do the job to avoid violating the new charter.  But at the same time, they decided to take steps to amend the charter to eliminate the post.

So, according to David J. Rushford, first assistant city clerk and the Election Commission’s executive secretary, voters will be asked on the ballot this year to vote “yes” or “no” on the question, “Shall the city approve the charter amendment proposed by the City Council summarized below?”

The summary reads:

“The proposed charter amendment eliminates the position of Citizen Complaints Officer by deleting Section 2-8(c) of the Worcester Home Rule Charter, which provides that the City Council shall appoint a Citizen Complaints Officer to process citizen complaints and inquiries.”

Drawn Little Attention

It’s a question that has drawn little attention.

Councilor Jordan Levy, a chief opponent of the position, said earlier this month that the question “hasn’t been talked about very much” recently and that he “really couldn’t call the outcome because it hasn’t been debated or discussed.”

But even if there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the job recently, there’s still some emotion in the issue.

“Citizens should be in favor of anything that makes it possible for people to relate to city government,” said Paul M. Pezzella, the former charter commissioner who proposed the position.

If voters “knew the cost of it and the reasons behind it, I’m sure they would vote against it,” said Levy.

Although the position was created in the new charter, it had been discussed before.

Former Councilor Barbara J. Sinnott in the mid-1970’s proposed creating an “ombudsman” position in city government to handle citizen complaints impartially.  In 1968, the late George A. Wells proposed setting up either a complaint center or a 24-hour complaint hotline.  Neither plan came to fruition.

But when Pezzella proposed that the commission elected in 1983 to review the charter include such a post, the group adopted the suggestion.

Vacuum

As spelled out in the charter, the person holding the job would field complaints and have the authority to investigate and analyze the complaints, talking directly to department heads without having to work through the city manager, and then submit regular reports to the council.

In a recent telephone interview, Pezzella, Florida field director for the Dukakis for President campaign, said the position is “a natural, given the fact that our city government is made up of part-time elected officials.  I saw a vacuum in which individual citizens did not have the opportunity to raise their concerns to elected officials and to the government as a whole.

“A lot of people are disenfranchised — they don’t have direct contact with elected officials, — and are cynical about government as a result.  They need better access to city government and services.”

Elected officials, Pezzella said, “are also political figures and even in a part-time system like Worcester’s, they like to have the opportunity to provide those services to the electorate.  Unfortunately, the elected officials in this council saw the position as a threat to the system.”

This was not the Charter Commission’s aim, according to Pezzella.

“The intent was that the ombudsman would serve two roles, both to the citizens as a whole and as a staff to the elected officials,” he said.

But the position had its detractors from the start.  Roberta R. Schaefer, then president of the Citizens Plan E Association, said even before the 1985 election that she opposed the position because it would “make inroads into Plan E government” and “weaken the role of the city manager” if the officer bypassed the manager.

Downhill

Paul S. Morgan, who chaired the Charter Commission, said when the position began to be debated in the council, he unsuccessfully pushed for the position to be established in the manager’s office and not, as it was, under the control of the council.  As set up, he said he was not particularly excited about the post.

It was downhill from there.

Although then-Mayor John B. Anderson proposed in February of last year, when the charter was just a few weeks into its life, that the position be filled immediately, it was not fulled until Jan. 1 of this year, and then only as a shadow position.  Ann M. Hoey, secretary to the council since 1981, was given the added responsibilities for $2,000 more a year instead of the $25,000 annual salary that had been proposed.

In between was a lot of arguing — Anderson and Councilor Arthur E. Chase lined up on one side of the fence and the other seven councilors opposed the post.

“We currently have nine councilors elected to represent the people of this city,” Levy said.  “We’re going to have 11 in January, and each councilor gets paid $17,500 a year to represent the people of this community, to answer the complaints and respond.  I don’t think we need another bureaucrat, another city official, to do the job that I’m being elected and paid to do.”

He said he does not consider himself a part-time elected official, either.

Volunteers to Assist

“I make myself available full time,” he said.  “That’s how I perceive my position.  And if I need assistance to get the work done, I have volunteers.”

But Chase said citizens “need an independent person they can contact at City Hall in order to get jobs done.  People don’t know how to go through the bureaucracy.  They’re intimidated by it, so they need help in getting access to all parts of city government.”

Chase said he thinks his peers on the council oppose the position “because they would like to require people to contact them in order to get a job done because that ends up being a favor.  That’s really what it is, and people should be able to avoid that.  Certainly when a person calls a councilor there is no obligation … but sometimes people may get that impression.”

Councilor Thomas J. Early, also a staunch opponent of the job, said he agrees with Levy that all councilors are “complaint officers.”

“Why can’t we do the job?” Early asked.  “That’s what we’re getting paid for.  If we have a complaint officer, the net thing we’re going to have is a new office, and a new typewriter and a secretary, and that can run into a lot of money — especially when someone else can do it.  I don’t see the need for this at all.”

Pezzella said the fate of the position “depends on how much education is done to bring out the pros and cons.  If people look at it for what it is, another form of outreach to the community, I don’t see why they would vote against it.”

He acknowledged that the issue “has been kind of forgotten, and that is unfortunate, but I hope in the closing weeks of the local election that the public has an opportunity to understand what is at stake.  If it’s defeated, it will be a real loss”

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One thought on “Citizen Complaints Officer

  1. Sean says:

    Nicely done!

    I don’t think I have ever agreed with Roberta Schaefer on anything regarding Worcester.

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