Half the battle is asking the right question

This week, Jeremy Shulkin had a feature on this year’s young and diverse candidates for city council.

While the article itself is worth a read, equally of interest are the comments.  Three of the candidates (Devin Coleman, Tim Beaudoin, and Jim Kersten) responded to commenters’ questions.

You know how much I eat that kind of thing up, but all three answered incorrectly!

The three questions (which were first raised by — you guessed it! — Q) were whether the candidates were in favor of PILOT, the lowest residential tax rate, and neighborhood councils.

In the spirit of 508’s quest to focus on issues and not candidates, I’d like to highlight the questions asked (because I think the ‘incorrect’ responses have just as much to do with the questions as with the responses), the responses given, and how I think the discussion would better be framed.

PILOT

The candidates were asked if they were in favor of PILOT.

Jim Kersten: “PILOTS are also needed – we need to have a conversation with all non-profits (not places of worship). Look at what the existing funds have done – kept the Library open regular hours, improved Institute Park, and many others.”

Devin Coleman: “Additionally, Worcester has a very high percentage of non-profits, especially the universities. I met with the President of Clark University yesterday and expressed to him my deep support for the continuation and expansion of PILOT programs.”

Tim Beaudoin: “First, concerning PILOT programs, I can confirm that I am with every other Worcester resident in agreeing that this is not a matter of debate any longer. The city and its neighborhoods deserve PILOT contracts from all of the great schools that have made their home in Worcester and continue to grow here as the years pass. We provide an excellent setting for them, and great city services, and we deserve some good will on their end. ”

Asking a question like “Are you in favor of PILOT?” to a city council candidate tells me nothing. 

I can be the biggest Marcel Marceau fan in the world, but unless the city manager negotiates with a troupe of mimes, I’m not going to see any speechless white-faced men in the near future.

The City Council is only in charge of voting for PILOT agreements that the city manager negotiates.

So, better questions to ask the candidates would be —

  • “How much is Downing Street worth?”  (which is the corollary of “What are the conditions under which you would not vote for a PILOT agreement?”)
  • “What are the top five non-profits who should be making PILOT and how are you going to help the city manager with the negotiations?”
  • “If you work for a non-profit, have you spoken with your boss about how much he’d be willing to pay the city in lieu of taxes?”

I’d also like to hear a candidate talk about how difficult it is both to get real numbers on PILOT and to confirm that the PILOT money is being spent in the way we had agreed to.

Lowest residential tax rate

Jim Kersten: “Raising the residential property tax at this time is nothing more than wrong. Knowing that our water bill was going to spike it was absolutely the wrong time to raise this tax. It’s just shows where the City Council thinks of the middle class and families on a fixed income.”

Devin Coleman: “The bottom line is people are fleeing the city because they simply can’t afford to live here. Lowest Residential is not the whole solution but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

Tim Beaudoin: “I am also with everyone else in agreeing that we must maintain low residential property tax rates in a responsible and sustainable way.”

There’s enough for me to dislike in the first two responses: I think people need to start conserving water like it’s going out of style, and I think the latest census figures show that folks aren’t actually fleeing the city at all.

Tim Beaudoin’s answer is a bit more reflective (or, at least, cloudy enough that I can tell he doesn’t necessarily agree with the “lowest residential tax rate.”)

But I prefer the 508 questions: How should the city of Worcester be making its money? What is the correct tax rate for Worcester homeowners?

Those kind of questions do not ask for a soundbite.  They ask that you’ve done your homework and are not just parroting whatever you think the people who vote want to hear.

Neighborhood Councils

Tim Beaudoin had the only response: “I must say that Article 8 of the charter, concerning Neighborhood Area Councils, has long held my attention and deserves serious discussion.”

This is where I think the 508 question (“Why do you oppose neighborhood councils? Or, what is your position on neighborhood councils?”) might be lacking.

The idea of neighborhood councils is not a bad one, but I have serious concerns about how they would be implemented and what the ultimate goal(s) would be.

So — some questions I’d rather see asked:

  • What do you think the purpose of neighborhood councils is?
  • How would you implement them?
  • Which neighborhoods would be good candidates for the initial implementation?
  • How would you evaluate the success (or lack thereof) of a neighborhood council?
  • How do you see the relationship between a neighborhood council and the city council, or a neighborhood council and the city government as a whole?

This post is partly a friendly reminder that 508 is looking for input on the wording of two questions: one on sustainability, and one on the relationship between the manager and the city council.  I do think that we have the ability to frame at least some of the election discussions away from easy soundbites that mean nothing and towards real ideas and real answers.