Albert Southwick thinks turning ninety isn’t a big deal.

While that may be true, ninety years of AWESOME is totally worth celebrating.

Thank you, Mr. Southwick, for your always-interesting columns, for continuing to inform the public about our history, for being an inspiration to young people, and for knowing the difference between “jerry-built” and “jury-rigged.”

(Also, in honor of your birthday, today’s BBC One Planet programme devoted the better part of a show to aging.)

Regional Transportation Plan Central Sub Region Meeting Liveblog

6:16pm: Meeting scheduled to start at 6:30; if you’ve got feedback for them and can’t attend the meeting, you can do so with the survey here.

6:33: Can I just say before this meeting starts how the liveblog as an art form would make a great master’s dissertation for someone?  (And that it’s obvious I have no abilities in this arena?  I need to be less serious and more humorous!  Also — this room is really empty.)

6:38: If I loved you, I would have typed out the whole agenda and handouts while I was waiting.  But all you’re getting is this liveblog.

Rich Ridens (sp?) from CMMPO is discussing the agenda. 

Two gentlemen from the Canal District; one representative from the City Manager’s Office; one from WRTA; one from MassDOT; a few other citizens; staff from CMMPO.

6:41: Why are we here?  On the PowerPoint, pictures of congestion on Main Street, watch for bikes sign blocking bicycle lane, cars parked on sidewalk, and truck trying unsuccessfully to get under an overpass.

6:43: Mary Ellen Bluntk, to discuss Potential Themes.

Overview of the Powerpoint; we’ll discuss in detail in a minute…

Potential Themes
Backdrop – Fiscal Constraint: not enough $, how do we make it go further?  What items do we prioritize? 
Maintenance: is preserving existing infrastructure most important?
Equity: How do we distribute funds across modes and communities?
Security: Can we make transportation systems more secure?
Congestion: Do you find yourself waiting in traffic?
Safety: Do you feel safe on roadways, buses, and trains?  Do you see a lot of accidents or areas where accidents are very likely to happen?
Access and Connectivity: Should we focus on gaps in connectivity?  Should we focus on multi-modal access?
Livability: Should roadways be designed for all users?  How do we coordinate transportation planning with economic development, housing, environment, & health.
Planning: How do we foster sub-regional dialogue?  Are there better ways to engage the public?
Technology: Can we better manage systems for efficiency & safety?  Are there low or high tech solutions that we should consider?  Should we prioritize making multi-modal choices easier?

What Themes should we focus on?
What would improve your daily travel?
What is your long-term vision for improved travel in your local area, in the region, across the state?
What do you think planners should be working on in the future?

6:52: Steve from WRTA (?)- [we should be] making it easier to use public transportation.  We could have wireless on buses, make it easier for passengers to know where bus is/on time.  More routine maintenance schedules.

John G., Canal District: agrees with Steve…we can use transportation as infrastructure resource.  American population wants to live near amenities (bike paths, parks, etc.)  Would like re-creation of Blackstone Canal; $20m investment in canal could be brought back to taxpayer in 10 years (from feasibility study).  (So, highlighting the combination between economic development and housing.)

6:57: Anne from MassDOT: for “transportation owners”, infrastructure and maintenance are high in importance.  Indicates that all the above points (in italics) are intertwined.

Tom, the guy next to me, who brought handouts!!!): proposes a potential rail plan to go from Worcester out to the suburbs.  Wrote to the city fathers (back in 1999) that we could improve the city and region by using Union Station as a regional hub.  The rail beds would need to be improved.  Many hospitals and shopping centers are close to where existing rails are. 

7:01: Tom continues, to discuss highway.  Specifically, the airport connector.  Route 9 from Warren to Worcester/Cherry Valley is “hellacious”; he proposes improvements to that part of Route 9, with a branch to lead to the airport.  The rail system would be connected to the airport by a tunnel (from Stafford Street).  So, the tunnel would be for airport patrons to have a walk/moving sidewalk to a rail station.

7:04: we should not be thinking in little pieces, but all pieces at once.

7:05: Rich addresses the freight rail question: Worcester was traditionally a hub and “needs some spokes attached to it.”  In the future, it has been suggested to expand commuter rail to Springfield.  He notes that P&W goes to Gardner; access to Providence; a line to Ayer.  P&W RR has indicated that they would be willing to explore passenger service in the future (with a public/private partnership). 

7:08: Rich discusses the recent T&G article about whether CSX would be an impact to residents.

7:11: Joe from City Manager’s office: two points:

1) Economic Development.  The CSX deal (and increase in trains to and from Worcester)is really about economic development; hoping (and seeing) that the former factory buildings in Canal District are being populated by people from the “other side of 128” and then commuting to Boston.  Thinks bicycle is the most difficult for planning.

City is really hot on econ. dev./transportation link.

2) Existing vehicle transportation.  The more we can use technology, the better off we’ll be.  About half of traffic signals have no loops; the other half are pre-timed.  Improved traffic flow comes from improved technology; they try to use it when they get funding.  Even if it’s only in a small way, it’s an improvement for the environment because less cars idling, etc.  [Can I ask why we aren’t having any lead/end green lights along Park Avenue?  Really?]

7:17: Seth, also of Canal District: had three children who all went to school outside the city who said they’d never come back…and now they’re coming back.  And bringing their friends.  Many older people are not building “trophy homes” but are coming back into the city.  You’re going to see a lot more people here in the future.

Commuter rail: increasing service.  Need railroad bridge improvements.

Signage on 290 — indicating Canal District.

Kelly Square: make it safer!

Bicycle path: many younger people are using public transportation.  We’re going to be seeing a lot more people using bike paths and public transport.

7:20: Steve from WRTA: with the addition of trains, there ought to be syncing with the bus schedule.  Not much has been discussed about that, but it needs to happen.  How can we discourage people from entering the city with cars/one-person vehicles?

Tom, picking up on the comment: the idea of people traveling from outside communities to here via rail would reduce cars coming in.  [And, yes, T, I’d like a James Street station too!]

Joe: echoes what Tom said; we had a bit of a discussion about drawing people so that they don’t need to own a car — if they really needed a car, they could rent one, but wouldn’t need it for day-to-day existence.

Mary Ellen sums up our discussion well: moving towards a more sustainable vision for transportation; think boldly about where we want to get to and plan for it.

7:28: Singjatha ((sp?): showing a traffic volume map.  No surprises; Highland, Pleasant, Main, Chandler, Park Ave are busy; the interstates are busy…

Pavement condition data: in all of Central Mass., about half are not in good shape; I’d say about a sixth are considered great.

In Worcester specifically, it’s a bit better.  [I believe this is only for roads that are eligible for federal funds.]

 7:31: very intricate map of bike and pedestrian paths; they surveyed towns for walkability in the town center.  They overlaid the accidents with pedestrians and bicylists as well. 

[I should note that I left out my own comments; I spoke to the need for better/more bike paths and lanes, making pedestrian access safer by such simple things as painting crosswalks on a regular basis.]

 She’s discussing the major infrastructure projects suggested from last time (2007).  One of the more interesting is Worcester East-West Connectors.  A Highland/Pleasant Street is under design, but because of right-of-way, it will likely be mostly intersection improvements.

 7:40: There’s a discussion of a Park and Ride study to see where it’s needed; perhaps along the ring communities with a link to public transit. 

 A woman who’s name I didn’t catch discusses having a challenge to use public transport and then blog about it, or discuss it in some way.  She thinks that would be interesting…I agree! 

 [And doesn’t all this tie in with what MikeGermain was saying at last night’s council meeting?]

7:48: Tom discusses Providence: it’s an urban center that’s cohesive (a capital city surrounded by other cities) and that Worcester has a long way to go to get to that kind of cohesion…move away from thinking in terms of individual towns.

The dude from the City Manager’s office, regarding pedestrians: in discussion of making city of Worcester more walkable.  No money for all sidewalks to be in perfect shape.  Finding paths within city…destinations people want to go…and making sure there’s a good, safe way to get there.  [Oooh…I like that.]  Maybe that works in the towns, too?  Could there be a study for a plan of destinations?  (He spoke a lot more about how it’s impossible to improve all neighborhood sidewalks at once, but that this would be a way to target the destinations.)

 7:53: more advocacy from the Canal District guys.  These guys are tenacious!

Dude from City Manager: discusses cities that have closed off the main downtown road(s) and the economic development, but has not heard about the impact to other roads around those.  Mary Ellen says that it’s mixed.   Various discussions of Memorial Drive in Cambridge, Quebec City; perhaps it’s something that can be looked at for certain days and/or times.  John G. notes that on weekend nights, Water Street is essentially pedestrian because of congestion. 


The (paradoxical) strengths of a “Weak Mayor”

(For any of the ProQuest links — indicated in red — in the post below, I suggest you go here first, log in with your library card number, press the Massachusetts Newsstand button, and then you should be able to click on the links and view the archived articles mentioned.)

In the last installment we examined some of the attractions of the “Strong Mayor” form of government.  Let’s now have a look at the other side of that equation.

On the side of Plan E

Tracy warned us to be cautious about a strong mayor form of government:

Looking around at the cities that have strong mayors, I very much do not see this as a road Worcester wants to go down. If you think city government isn’t responsive now, try having one person who makes all of the decisions–and then getting that person’s attention. This is particularly true of education, certainly (Chicago, Boston, D.C.), but it is also true of other issues. I think there are those who are dissatisfied with particular things in city government and think the entire system needs an overhaul; I’d point to the lack of turnover in the last election for how much the rank and file voters actually want change.

Tracy alluded to a couple of things:
A worry that a strong mayor form of government would politicize city government [more than it already is]. Albert Southwick quotes from an Evening Gazette editorial from the late 1950s, regarding strong mayor form of government: “an antiquated form of partisan municipal government under which could flourish the patronage, ward politics and the kind of inefficiency which once had Worcester on the ropes.”  And I think it would be fair to be concerned that a strong mayor form of government would turn into that.

As Tracy pointed out, so few people vote in elections, there’s little turnover, and (in some cases) no challengers to incumbents. Would a strong mayor form of government get people more involved in their city, or would their frustration just shift from the manager’s office to the mayor’s?  And — instead of someone who has half a clue about running a city — would we end up with a politico who ingratiates himself to enough of the electorate to continue to get elected?

In addition to Tracy’s points, it’s worth bearing in mind that city managers are professionals. They bring a set of skills to the position that may not be sexy in an electoral sense, but, when given coherent direction by the city council, a professional manager can also be a leader.  Depending on the person in the position, a manager could have experience in other municipalities or organizations, and can use that to benefit the city. If our city council were capable of arriving at a consensus on priorities, a professional city manager could then act upon that consensus.  In the absence of that, our current city manager seems to create his own set of priorities, which may or may not be in line with what the city council, and the electorate, intend.

Two-year election cycles might be too short for the administrator of a city. One of the benefits of having a city manager is that we don’t have to worry about a strong mayor who spends half his time planning for the next election, or initiating feel-good projects to win votes.

What is this discussion really about?

If you replace the word “Toledo” for “Worcester” in the following quote from this post, it’s the single best summary I can think of:

Regardless of the lessons from local history, Toledoans have been unable (or maybe it is unwilling) to retain an institutional memory. They are under the misimpression that politics can indeed be removed. Toledo citizenry puts itself in another catch-22. On one hand, Toledoans want a supposedly non-partisan, non-political, professional CEO that they allege can only be secured by having a city manager. On the other hand, Toledoans want a CEO that is accountable and responsible to the citizens, something that can only come through a CEO who is elected directly by the people, that is a strong mayor.

Steve Jones-D’Agostino asked the following six years ago:

But questions remain: Does Worcester really need a strong mayor? Or does the city need a strong leader? And if it’s the latter, will changing the form of government make any difference?

And those points are as relevant today as they were six years ago, or sixty years ago, and they will still be relevant sixty years from today.

Here are a few recent issues in our city that cried out for a LEADER:

Did anyone ask if our contract with Fontaine Brothers for the Crompton Park pool covered crazy high PCB levels, or just normal levels?  Did anyone ask if we think the other pools with also have these kinds of abatement issues, and how this will impact the city’s plans for pools and spray parks? They did not.

Did anyone ask why tobacco buffer zones get to have a public hearing, but operating a regional public health system with Shrewsbury just warrants a short note in the T&G? They did not.

Will anyone mention the lack of tenants in the Union Station Garage, the complete nightmare (for both pedestrians and motorists) that has been imposed on Foster Street and Worcester Center Boulevard, or the continued headache that is Washington Square? We’ll see tonight.

Not only did our City Manager fail to take a leadership role in such issues, none of our councilors took the initiative, either — including the Mayor.

Our councilors don’t hold the city manager to account for issues like these, and neither do we, the voters, hold those councilors to account for such omissions.  Sloppy procedures, lack of vision and an inability to LEAD are the hallmarks of Worcester governance.

Why, then, should we expect that things would be any different under a “strong mayor” form of government?  Wouldn’t he/she be the equivalent of a City Manager in most respects?  If we’re not willing to hold the City Manager to account (via our councilors), what makes anyone think that the lethargic electorate of Worcester will suddenly participate if they’re allowed to elect their leader?

When the people of Worcester shake off their apathy and get their lazy posteriors to the polls once every two years and give a vote of confidence to their elected officials, maybe I’ll consider adding my signature to a “strong mayor” petition drive.

At this point, I think it would be merely trading one form of unaccountable despotism for another.

What will wake up the electorate, then, if not some grand change to the city charter?  Perhaps some projects that we, as citizens, can undertake, whether city-wide, or within our neighborhoods — there are many areas where ordinary citizens can “lead”, despite the leadership vacuum in City Hall.  Our councilors and other city officials are sometimes even helpful and can be brought on board if someone or some group takes the initiative to get something started.  If you’re frustrated enough to want to pound the pavement gathering signatures for charter change, why not get frustrated enough to petition for bike paths, or organize a neighborhood crime watch meeting, or serve on a commission?

I’d like to thank Tracy and Williby for their thought on this topic, which helped me wrap my head around the topic of Strong Mayor vs. Plan E.  Although I have my own opinions on this topic, I’d enjoy hearing other points of view in case there are nuances I’ve missed.

Theoretical strengths of a “Strong Mayor”

(For any of the ProQuest links — indicated in red — in the post below, I suggest you go here first, log in with your library card number, press the Massachusetts Newsstand button, and then you should be able to click on the links and view the archived articles mentioned.)

There were two great comments from more than a week ago that I wanted to respond to earlier, and which I felt deserved a larger response from me.  Conveniently enough, one was in favor of a strong mayor form of government, and one critical of that form of government (at least without major considerations).

In light of the city manager evaluation that’s coming up this evening, I wanted to write a couple of posts weighing strong mayor/strong city manager forms of government.

Why do we have a city manager anyway?

From 1893 to 1950, Worcester had a bicameral legislature (a 11-member board of aldermen and a 30-member common council) and an essentially weak mayor with veto power for appointments.  (See the “Under new management” section in this article for more details.)  City government was perceived as extremely corrupt and ineffective (except, perhaps, for lining people’s pockets and as a spectator sport for those who love political infighting).

In 1947, Worcester voters overwhelmingly chose to change their form of government to Plan E (an elected, nine-member city council and a city manager, who handles day-to-day operations).  In 1985, voters changed our form of government to allow for 11 councilors, 5 of whom would be district councilors (where previously all were at-large) and an elected mayor (where previously the council would pick the mayor).

On the “strengths” of a strong mayor

Williby Wooster wrote a comment in favor of a strong mayor form of government, and I’d like to outline some reasons why one might be in favor of a strong mayor.

The ability to elect an administrator. In our current form of government, the City Manager is the chief executive, and — by and large — he’s making all the decisions.  While some citizens may be frustrated by various aspects of their interactions with their city councilors, I think they’re equally frustrated by a feeling — justified or not — that the councilors don’t ultimately have much power.  (For example, the Public Health & Human Services subcommittee discussed tobacco ordinances in last week’s meeting; on the same day, the City Manager announced that Shrewsbury and Worcester are going to be entering into some sort of public health compact.  So — who’s got more power, and — just as importantly — who’s initiating activity that has a real impact on the city as a whole?)

Accountability. Electing a leader would mean that the mayor would be accountable to the people on a regular basis.  That would mean that the electorate would evaluate the mayoral candidates based on campaign platforms, and that the election would be a way for the voters to show their approval of the progress (or lack thereof) the mayor has made.  Currently, the City Manager is reviewed by the Council (though this is a relatively modern innovation), but that’s not the same as an election every two years.

Frustration with the existing structure. Many of the poor decisions (at least as I see them) have been initiated or championed by the city manager’s office (though not necessarily this city manager).  As Steve Jones-D’Agostino noted in his excellent article from December 2004, City Manager McGrath was responsible for the downtown mall, the fortress-like police station, and the Centrum.  (While the Centrum was not bad for downtown, I think it could and should have been sited better; as Tracy has noted elsewhere, there’s really not a lot of room for pedestrian movement around the DCU Center.)  As we all know, Worcesterites have a tendency to hold those in power accountable for bad decisions and not always give appropriate credit for jobs well done; so, perhaps, I’m as guilty as any of my fellow residents of looking at the negative.

Appreciation for examples set by other cities. I think there are a significant number of people who look at the career of Buddy Cianci not as a cautionary tale but as an example of a person who gets things done.  Albert Southwick said of City Manager McGrath, “He was squeaky clean, to an extent that some Boston politicians could not fathom. He built 40 schools and oversaw many other construction projects without a breath of scandal. … And he established a tradition of honesty in city government that has made it much easier for succeeding managers and city councils to stay within proper ethical boundaries.”  There are people in Worcester who continue to feel inferior to Providence, and I think that many of them credit Cianci, corruption and all, with turning Providence around.  Many of those people would be willing to put up with some of that corruption for what they perceive as the success of Providence.

Leadership. What the Buddy Cianci fans are really pointing to, I would argue, is a sense of leadership.  The City Manager is not really hired to be a leader, per sehe’s evaluated on whether he’s handling municipal operations well.  The City Manager is hired to manage the city; the job description does not require him/her to possess charisma, nor devise/execute a coordinated “vision” for the city.

Are these things entirely lacking in the “Plan E” form of government, or are they achieved (in part or in toto) by other means?

The next installment will look at some of the “strengths” of our current form of government.

Quinsigamond Firehouse

Someone had mentioned that this home (which I’ve been in love with since I was about seven) was featured in Preservation Worcester’s Most Endangered Properties list.

Also on the Endangered Properties list are the Mission Chapel (which is about number one in my properties to buy if I suddenly come into millions of dollars) and the Quinsigamond Firehouse.

Seriously, though, don’t you see this:

and dream of this:

Random Thoughts and Announcements

For all you lazy gardeners (and/or those who need to fill empty spaces in your gardens…mes amis at the REC (on FB) will be having a Seedling Sale Fundraiser on Tuesday, June 22nd (3pm to 7pm) and Thursday, June 24th (3pm to 7pm) at The REC (9 Castle Street, 1st Floor).  Most seedlings will be priced at 50 cents per plant.   (Varieties include green peppers, cantaloupe, Mohawk peppers, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, bush beans, yellow squash, summer squash, red hot peppers, cauliflower, zucchini squash, cabbage, cucumbers, sweet green peppers, greens, jalapenos, Tabasco hot peppers, flowers, eggplant, and kale.)

I read this article about violent crime being on the increase with much interest.  What’s unclear to me is whether there’s an increase in violent crime in general (regionally or nationwide), or just in Worcester.  Also of interest (but not known) is whether there’s any correlation between what happens in the first half of the year to what happens in the second half of the year.  For instance, in 2009, we’d had 2 shooting incidents in the first half of the year, and 16 in the second half of the year.  However, in 2004, which the article indicates was a bad year, we had 18 incidents in the first half of the year, but 11 more in the second half of the year.

It’s unclear to me why violent crime is on the increase, but it’s equally unclear that it follows that we’ll have an extremely violent second half of the year just because the first half was violent, if prior years are any indication.  And is this an uptick in violence for this year, or is it a continuation of what we saw in the second half of 2009?

I’m not trying to be a grumpy anonymous online poster, though I am all of those things, but I really, genuinely want to know whether first-half-of-the-year statistics indicate what will happen in the second half of the year, whether Worcester is unique in this “upsurge” or experiencing something everyone else is, whether making photocopies with a Most Wanted list is a good replacement for having up-to-date crime statistics on hand and available to all residents of the city.

I will be attending a potentially boring public meeting on traffic issues on Wednesday evening.  If you have anything you’d like me to mention, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Proving that various family members either read Worcesterite more closely than I do, or are somehow tuned to that wavelength, I got an email from my cousin yesterday linking to a song about Worcester: