Whither the Need for Speed?

In Worcester, the spectre of the strong mayor appears every couple of years.

Whenever an issue bubbles up and residents aren’t pleased with the way the city manager handled it, whenever another municipality succeeds, our collective insecurity kicks in, and our inadequacies — real or imagined — give new life to the dream that will never die.

That dream is, of course, different things to different people, but it always takes the shape of a strong mayor.

To some, a strong mayor means increased accountability to the electorate, a louder voice to our legislators on the state and federal level, or a faster track to economic development.

To others, it’s simply a way to further consolidate power within a very small elite.

I don’t want to minimize the feelings of those who think strong mayor is right for Worcester, or who want a further conversation.  For many years, I felt that the lack of a strong mayor is what was holding Worcester back from achieving everything it could.

And I always welcome further community conversations.

But — being Worcester — there is a tendency to go from 0 to 60 in any community discussion.

We can’t have a discussion about whether we want a slots parlor — we jump straight to mitigation!  While we’re having hearings about a city manager, we’d prefer comments in one of two categories: that the current incumbent is perfect, or that a strong mayor would be even better.

If I had my druthers, we’d have many community meetings that would follow the following path:

  • Identify the main issues residents have with city government.  This could be a lack of diversity, a lack of public engagement, a feeling of not having a voice — and lots of other things I’ve never even thought of.
  • Identify what’s currently working in city government. There’s got to be something right, and we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
  • Can the problems be rectified within the existing system? Would the administration or elected officials be willing to focus on the major concerns that come out of the meetings?  If not, would a different slate of candidates bring about the changes needed?
  • Finally — if the problems can’t be rectified within the existing system, discuss better systems to accomplish goals.

This would be a journey of months — if not years — and would require a lot more community engagement than we’ve seen in some time.

You can’t get to a solution without first identifying the problem(s).

For too long ,we have looked at the strong mayor as a one-size-fits-all solution to whatever aspect of Worcester’s government we’re dissatisfied with.

And the powers that be are eating it up.

If we actually had a long discussion about what’s wrong with this city, at some point we’d talk about who is actually running things — or, to the point, who wants to be running things.

Folks like Gerry D’Amico, and Mike Angelini, and Kevin O’Sullivan, and Tim Murray — and the associated wannabes like Dennis Irish and Phil Palmieri — don’t actually want people to have a real conversation.

They would like to harness our general dissatisfaction into first derailing any possibility we might have at attracting a decent city manager, and then getting their candidate elected as strong mayor.

I don’t want to disparage the work of the Worcester Community-Labor Coalition.  I’m really impressed with the turnout at tonight’s City Council meeting.

But I disagree with asking the City Council to conduct any kind of hearings about changing the form of government.

They have shown that they have no interest in listening when residents say what they want in a city manager, and have proved utterly incompetent at getting a decent job posting written.

I have no confidence the City Council could have a satisfactory community discussion about what color flowers should be planted outside City Hall, never mind changing our form of government.

I have no confidence that those who continue to run things behind the scenes will just step back and let the people have their way.  They are only interested in having enough voter turnout to get the charter changed.  Then it would serve their interests to have things return to the status quo of 11% voter turnout.

If this conversation will go forward — and all indications are that it will — it would behoove us to instead have the meetings led by a relatively unconnected group of citizens, preferably non-politicians.  Since we know from the WCLC’s polling that residents are equally split between a city manager and a strong mayor form of government, an impartial name like “Worcester Government Reform Commission” would leave room for any number of possible conclusions the committee would come to, without unnecessarily narrowing the conversation.

There are a lot of thoughtful, intelligent people in this city, from all walks of life, who have different experiences of city government, and who have different ideas on how to improve it.  For too long we have allowed a tiny clique to stunt conversation and to drive their own agenda.  It would be a shame if we allowed that to happen again.

4 thoughts on “Whither the Need for Speed?

  1. Ed Moynihan says:

    Great job Nicole. Those who support a strong mayor can be placed in basically three camps.

    The first are those who want Worcester to be “like something” usually referencing Providence or Boston. They are like those vacation spots that you visit and wish you could live there instead of just a brief visit. Except if you do live there, you see if from a totally different point of view. The people of this first camp want the city to “MOVE.” They do not care what it takes to get done, just get it done. They don’t care if you are a Buddy Cianci, they want “strong” leadership. Eric Fromm wrote about them in “Escape from Freedom.” The issues are too complex and the process too slow for them. They will tolerate corruption and criminal behavior to “MOVE.” They will sacrifice freedom and individual rights for security and progress.

    The second camp, as you mentioned, are the political class. They want power. They want to control the patronage of the city to gain power within the (Democratic) party. They want Worcester to be a player in Boston. If they have power solidified in a single person, who can dispense favors to the connected and control a certain block of votes, they can become a player who gets state offices and state jobs, thus ensuring Worcester a part of the pie. In this case, what is good for Mayor X is good for Worcester. It is Machiavellian in nature. So what if it is bad planning and bad management. It is good politics. If you have to gamble with the fiscal health of the City for more power, so be it. It worked for Detroit. Ooops.

    The third camp are those who think that a strong mayor can bring more accountability and is more democratic. This is a combination of populism and idealism. In a democratic ideal, all citizens are informed and engaged and can make informed decisions based on the facts presented to them. Further, when things go wrong, we know who to blame. And if we don’t like the direction, we can activate our interest groups to bring pressure on the elected official or face our wrath next cycle.

    The problem with the third camp is that the reality does square with the ideal. We know that the issues are complex and the electorate at large does not have the full details available to them. Besides, too often the good that happens in a city is beyond its control, as is the bad. And as we have seen from state and national politics, personalities and superficial slogans that appeal to core constituencies are more important than fact or deeper thinking about actions and consequences of those actions. This is what a “strong” mayor would have to contend with.

    These are just a few thoughts and really need a discussion forum to fully flesh out the details and arguments. I will definitely stay tuned.

    Thank you for your work.

    • Nicole says:

      Ed, thanks SO MUCH for the comment. I agree with your concerns — I especially appreciated your paragraphs about the third camp.

  2. Look for that union label says:

    It is even more simple and crass than that. Unions with dwindling enrollment and shrinking funds simply want to only have to buy ONE politician instead of the 11 that they do now.

    It’s also easier to make sure that a single person STAYS BOUGHT. With 11, there are so many ways to twist up a council vote that they can each crdibly claim to be stil on your side (and keep their hands out for the next check) while blaming someone else for not giving you what you ordered them to give to you.

  3. […] From the time Mike O’Brien resigned, it took over six months to hire an executive search firm.  When a firm was hired, it was responsible for the most embarrassing, unprofessional job posting imaginable, and it took the attention of yours truly and Dianne Williamson for the job posting to be corrected and re-posted.  (While we waited for the resumes to roll in, citizens had a fun time once again talking about a strong mayor form of government!) […]

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