At the April 20th meeting of the Public Safety subcommittee, Councilor Toomey asked what the role of the city council was in evaluating an unmanned aircraft (drone) for the Worcester Police. City Solicitor Traynor said:
“This process is a public vetting of the proposal to acquire surveillance technology out of the executive order; the manager makes the decision to acquire or not acquire some technology that the department is requesting. In this case, the police department. But it’s been set up such that before acquiring it and using it, the manager committed to submitting all the information to the council for the council to have a hearing like you are tonight, to elicit public comment on the proposal to acquire any particular technology. There is no formal approval or veto power by the city council in this process.”
This statement struck me as bizarre; the city council approves earmarks and grants from the state all the time. Why would this earmark be any different than the ones they approve throughout the year?
Right after City Solicitor Traynor spoke, City Councilor Toomey asked Senator Moore to talk about this, because it was his earmark that funded the de-escalation equipment. He said that this was part of the FY22 state budget, that the amount was $100,000, and, oddly, mentioned a K9 component.
Let’s go back half a year to November 16, 2021. At that city council meeting, there was an item for a K9:
Item 9.36 B (Recommend adoption of a resolution to file, accept and expend a grant in the amount of One Hundred Thousand Dollars and No Cents ($100,000.00) from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to enhance the Worcester Police K9 Program.)
I watched the video of the November 16 regular city council meeting. This was brought up at around the 9 minute mark but there was no discussion.
This is the item specifically:
As you can read, there’s nothing about de-escalation, nothing about unmanned aircraft, it was about a dog and equipment and training for the dog.
Is this drone being funded by the $100,000 K-9 earmark? It would seem so. If there’s some separate earmark, it would need to be approved by the city council.
Despite what the city solicitor says, it is completely within the purview of the city council to accept, or not accept, funds from the state. And if those funds aren’t being used for the purpose that was presented to the city council, it is the city manager’s job to explain why and to ask for approval.
To put it another way: if, back in November, the city council had been presented with $100,000 earmark from the state for a police dog, a drone, and some tasers, and that earmark was approved without any requests for a policy, then it might be fair for the city administration to balk at such a request six months later.
But if the city council was told that $100,000 was going to a dog, and now the administration wants half of it to be spent on a drone, we’re back at square one. It is extremely fair to ask why this wasn’t requested up front and for a policy to be in place. That policy can be reviewed – and then the city council can decide if that’s how the grant money should be spent.
To put it yet another way: the City Manager has never brought funding for a drone before the City Council for approval as required by the Charter. One can only wonder why the City Solicitor isn’t concerned about this aspect of the City Charter.