WTHHLN: Oh, Here Go Hell Come

This is the second in a series of posts about What The Hell Happened Last Night. Like the previous installment, it is heavily biased reportage.

When we last saw the City Council, they had wrapped up their attempt to deflect attention away from the burgeoning neighborhood council movement by approving a ballot measure to expand the School Committee. 

Indeed, the city had not heard such Kumbaya-singing since the last time the City Manager had a performance review.

But there was trouble in paradise.  Trouble with a capital K.

Councilor Konnie Lukes had proposed that the “City Manager report on what resources, funds and training are required in order to send the fingerprints of a person arrested and held in custody by the Worcester Police Department to homeland security and federal immigration agencies.”

As she mentioned a few times in her remarks, this was inspired by the death of Matthew Denice, who was allegedly killed by an alleged illegal immigrant/drunk driver.  (The ‘allegeds’ are not there to make a point so much as to keep me from being sued.)

The order was also likely an attempt to distance herself from the major policy items of Camellia sinensis celebrants.

At first, the City Manager responded to Councilor Lukes’ questions, but Chief Gemme came to the podium early on to provide more detailed answers. 

Jeremy has the play-by-play, and it doesn’t need to be rehashed.  You are more than welcome to watch what I imagine is an uncomfortable video (it was certainly uncomfortable watching it from the gallery) or read Nick K’s account of this part of the meeting.

I’d like to address two things: the content of what was discussed and the general tone.

The Content

If the previous item was, in Lukes’ words, little more than an “election-year headline”, this, too, was meant more for soundbites than for action.

What Councilor Lukes was essentially asking was whether we could opt in to the Secure Communities program.

First, a brief explanation of Secure Communities is in order.  Here’s a brief explanation of how it works in a municipality (Boston) from WBUR’s Bianca Vázquez Toness:

When Boston police officers arrest someone, they enter their fingerprints into a database of FBI, Homeland Security and immigration information. If the person has had any interaction with immigration officials — if they overstayed a visa, if they applied for asylum, if they have a green card — it will ping officials. If ICE wants that person, they’ll call Boston police to put a hold on them.

ICE categorizes these immigrants — some of whom are here legally — by the severity of the charges against them. The program is supposed to target the worst offenders — “Level 1s” — people charged with murder, kidnapping, national security crimes. But Martin says ICE officials also deport people accused of lesser crimes that are picked up by Boston police officers.

Secure Communities (S-Comm) is, as you can imagine, somewhat controversial, but if you’ve read a newspaper or listened to the radio over the past six months, you don’t need me to tell you that.

Now, to Lukes’ question about whether we could opt in to S-Comm, the answer was somewhere in between “no” and “we already do it.”

The “we already do it” part is this: the city submits fingerprints to the state, which submits them to the FBI, which submits them to ICE, which checks them against its databases.  “If these checks reveal that an individual is unlawfully present in the United States or otherwise removable due to a criminal conviction“, then (according to Chief Gemme) ICE might ask that the WPD hold “certain individuals with retainer warrants.”  Gemme noted that they could hold these individuals for up to 48 hours for the feds.

The “no” part is that, according to Gemme, there is currently no way for us to directly interface with ICE.

Also, there’s no need, as we already provide fingerprints to the FBI and the two federal agencies share data with one another.

“Just about everybody shares our fingerprints with the FBI,” said Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. “Everybody does in one sense or the other, but practically every single department does on a daily basis. For most of us, it’s sent in automatically.”

From much of my reading, it’s unclear where the push is coming from regarding participation in Secure Communities.  If we already provide fingerprints to the FBI, and various parts of the federal government are cooperating with each other, then the biggest part of this (and this is where, I believe, the year 2013 comes into play) is making sure ICE communicates back to a municipality (or jail, or prison, or whomever) when it needs someone held and better linking of the various fingerprint databases.

For the purposes of brevity, I’m leaving out a whole slew of racial profiling and civil liberties issues.  It’s not that they aren’t important to me, but that’s not really at issue here.

What is at issue is that we spent nearly 45 minutes of time debating something that got referred to the law department and will get another 45 minutes of debate when the law department comes back with a response that will likely say that we can’t opt in.

Nothing was clarified.  Most of us came out of that even more confused about S-Comm than when we went in.

And — if I may grandstand for a moment — part of the reason for that was the general tone of the conversation.

The General Tone

Lukes went into this conversation in a rather adversarial way, and it did not seem that the Mayor was inclined to cut her any slack after her indicting quotes from his inaugural speech a few minutes before.

She asked the Chief two or three times if the city could voluntarily submit fingerprints to ICE.  When he responded in the negative, she asked the question in a slightly different way.  The third time, the Mayor stopped her.  (Perhaps it’s just because My Cousin Vinny is on every time I turn on the TV, but I half-expected him to tell her she was badgering the witness.)

At that point, the Mayor had nearly lost his temper.  This is a man who will smile sweetly at you when you disagree with him, but he’d had enough of Konnie.

And that’s when she let loose the S word.

She asked Gemme if Worcester was a sanctuary city.

The Mayor told her, “That’s a pretty vague question”, so she defined a sanctuary city for Gemme.

(For the record, Bill Coleman told me there are three sanctuary cities in Massachusetts: Orleans, Cambridge, and Chelsea.)

Gemme said that they were not deputized by the federal government, so “we don’t have the authority under the law to detain illegal undocumented immigrants.”

Yes, folks, Konnie Lukes actually did the impossible: she made Chief Gemme seem progressive.  He immediately corrected his “illegal” with “undocumented.”

There were various motions flying (Konnie sending this to legal, Bill Eddy to file; Bill Eddy not filing because Konnie was sending it to legal).

In between the motions and the Mayor’s bad mood, something important got lost in the shuffle: Ron Madnick’s voice.

Madnick had wanted to speak on this item, and the Mayor told him he couldn’t because he had spoken on it last week.

But Madnick hadn’t, and while the Mayor realized his error half an hour later, the damage was already done.

It is, of course, upsetting that Madnick was not able to speak out in favor of civil liberties, but it is even more upsetting that there are so many items up before the City Council that challenge our civil liberties that the Mayor couldn’t even remember which one Ron had spoken on.

In Conclusion

This was the most frustrating City Council meeting I’d attended in a while, and it wasn’t even half over yet.

It was frustrating not only because Konnie Lukes actually made me feel for Chief Gemme (never a good moment in any young woman’s life), but because the meeting (as a whole, not just this part) reminded me that we have truly lost any concept of what a public hearing is.

The emphasis should be on hearing.

Konnie went into this meeting with her own personal ax to grind.

Other councilors went into the first part of the meeting with their minds made up.

Konnie really didn’t want to hear what Chief Gemme’s expert opinion was, and she really wasn’t looking for answers.  She just wanted to get the words “sanctuary city” and “Milford” in print somewhere to appeal to a certain voter base.

She didn’t care that what she was talking about made no sense, or that someone who’s an illegal immigrant might not have fingerprints in any database, or that some of us are more worried about crime in general than the passport (or lack thereof) of those who commit the crimes.

As I said before, the worst part was that Ron Madnick was silenced.  And for that I blame both the Mayor and Councilor Lukes.

I also blame all of us for allowing our elected officials to care more about speechmaking and having pre-made opinions rather than true listening and decision-making.  Shame on all of us for allowing things to get to this point.

WTHHLN: “Discordant Elements”

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts about What The Hell Happened Last Night.  It’s an experiment in heavily biased reportage.

The first part of last night’s City Council meeting was devoted to the proposed ballot question about changing the composition of the School Committee.

You can read the Telegram story, the Worcester Mag liveblog, and/or Tracy’s excellent notes about the School Committee member’s comments, City Council discussion, and her own remarks.  You can watch the meeting as well.  My thanks to all these sources for the quotes included in this post.

The way City Council procedure works (as far as I can tell) is that members of the public (or, rather non-City Councilors) speak first, the folks proposing the item speak next, and those opposing speak last.  Things were a bit out of order, because Councilor Lukes (opposing) spoke before Councilor Palmieri (in favor); she was in enough good humor at that point in the evening to joke that Phil wanted to come after her just so he could respond to her comments.

I think the School Committee members (who spoke first) made excellent points.

But, according the Laws of Worcester Politics, neither persuasive argument nor skilled oration will sway City Councilors who have made up their minds.

And, according to another Law of Worcester Politics, there’s nothing like a City Councilor speaking in favor of something to prove his opponents’ points.

To wit, Mayor O’Brien said that he wanted to have “discussion in the community first.”

This is, of course, why the City Council shut down proposals for open access forum during the first 30 minutes of City Council meetings, for all members of the public to be allowed to speak on any given issue, and for a question to be put on the ballot about charter change just last week.  Because nothing says “discussion in the community” like not encouraging people to participate in public meetings.

To further wit, Councilor Rushton said that North High would have been built in a quicker time frame (that is, less than 30 years) if there had been district representation.  Of course, the City Council handles capital items, and they’ve had district representation lo these 24 years.  So, blame the lack of speed in construction of the new North High on the City Council (and district representation).

Lest we leave out a district councilor,Councilor Palmieri made a similar point: that the windows at Lakeview School have chicken wire.  As Tracy notes, windows are a capital expense, and thus are in the Council’s court.  (Palmieri also had the most awkward quote of the evening — “I really do applaud the mayor having the onions to do this.”  I really have no desire to know about the Mayor’s — or any other politician’s — onions.)

Councilor Clancy said that “I think the rationale [for district seats] is you would get more people turning out for an election.”  Which is why no one showed up at a D3 candidate debate, despite there being four candidates to choose from in a highly contested race.  I would be pleasantly surprised to see high turnout at the D3 preliminary election.  District council seats have not brought the promise of more voter turnout; why would district school committee seats do anything different?

Considering the councilors in favor of the proposal did such a great job proving their opponents’ points, you’d think the opposition could just rest.

But Councilors Toomey, and especially Eddy (!) and Lukes, did an excellent job making their point.

Eddy said that this was tantamount to asking for charter review (“If you’re going to have a discussion about charter, you can’t be just a little bit pregnant”).

He also expressed his openness to bring questions driven by the public to the ballot, saying that he would be the first to sign if “you want to have a discussion about what should be the official nut of Worcester.”  (I am all about putting a question on the ballot about who should be the official nut of Worcester.  Yes, I’m in the running!)

But it was Councilor Lukes who was by far the most pointed in her remarks and who proved most quotable.  And she used quotes (like “shining symbols of partnership”) from Mayor O’Brien’s inaugural speech and dismissed them as “good speeches.”  She took the Mayor’s ostensibly collaborative approach to task by saying, “Here we started this whole process of having voices heard and having collaboration and having partnership by doing just the opposite.”

Further Quoteable Lukes —

  • “Is this an election-year headline?  It came out of the blue.”
  • “The reason I heard for having the change was to get diversity, minority representation and to allow people an easier route to be elected in this city. Nothing about the governance of the public schools.”
  • “there has to be some deficit we’re correcting in the ways the schools function”…”So what are we correcting?”

The arguments that changes should originate in the people, involve extensive public comment before being pursued, and should stem from deficiencies in the current state of affairs did not sway fellow Councilors, and the (non-binding) question will be put to the voters in November.

Aside: Mike Germain was the fifth councilor to speak, and the first to apologize for the way the question had been handled.  Then he went for the provocative — “I for one think the City Council is too large.”  He then suggested removing some at-large and district seats.  Which would, of course, mean that he would be the first out.  So much for the self-preserving nature of politicians!

In his remarks, Councilor Clancy said that he “wouldn’t call any of the city councils I’ve served on ‘discordant or discourteous or uncooperative.’  We got many, many  good things done.”  (The title of this post is a quote from him, saying that this is what people said would happen when district councilors were introduced.)

By the end of the evening, however, Councilor Clancy probably wanted to eat his words, or at least the word “discordant.”

The contentiousness between Councilor Lukes and Mayor O’Brien had only just begun.

I’ll continue with an account of Lukes’ Secure Communities proposal later this evening.

False Imprisonment

I bet you thought this post was going to be some rant about pointless excursions to Secure Communities-ville!

Don’t worry, chickadees; I’ll likely have multiple posts later on about What The Hell Happened Last Night.  I’m still trying to process it myself.

No, this is about a bug that hitched a ride.

A week and a half ago, my husband and I did some trash cleanup on Swan Avenue.  One of the items dumped was a (perfectly fine) Little Tikes Tugboat sandbox.

We were going to leave it on our lawn with a free sign on it, but our kids wanted it, so now it’s sitting in the backyard.

Shortly after its arrival, our younger son saw a small bug on the sandbox and called my husband and I to look at it.

It was smaller than every model of an ALB I’ve ever seen, and duller (dark brown versus the ALB’s deep black), but it had banded antennae, so we figured we’d put it in a pill box and wait for a Novickian ruling on its identity.

Unfortunately, it took a bit of time for Colin to fully calm my worries, so the poor bug was in that pill box for nearly a day.

We released him and hopefully he’s off doing buggy things.

CWW: Worcester Historical Museum Store Sale on Friday

The Worcester Historical Museum will have an indoor sidewalk sale on Friday, September 16 from 10:00am – 3:00pm.

From FB:

Do you like to collect smiley face memorabilia or books on local history? Then check out our one-day side walk sale. There will be tons of items from our gift shop on sale, with some pieces as low as 50 cents.
The last time I went, there were a lot of great books; I’ll likely go again to get more giveaways for the next blogger coffee.
h/t Tracy