Bait and switch

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.

Running scared

This week’s city council agenda has a very curious item: item 10.14B, a memo from the city solicitor to the city council, letting them know just how little power they have.

The reason for this memo – and, indeed, compared to some of the items that languish in a never-never land, the comparative speed in issuing the memo – is that the Worcester Police Department wants a drone. At last week’s meeting, my elected official (a title only given to a select few!) Thu Nguyen had requested that the proposal not be approved until there was a policy in place for its use. Indeed, Councilor Nguyen noted that the drone was part of funding for de-escalation, given to the WPD from the state legislature.

For most of us, it’s unclear how drones would aid in de-escalating a situation, and it would, of course, make sense for the city to have a policy about surveillance equipment. The city is being sued right now by a gentleman who was falsely arrested and jailed (Leicester man sues Worcester police; T&G April 28, 2022; link can be accessed with your WPL card). “The city of Worcester and the Police Department are accused of not having any written policies on conducting proper identification procedures or how to interview a witness, victim or suspect, with the lawsuit alleging that there are nationally accepted standards that have not been applied to training in Worcester.”

Councilor Nguyen is not only correct in requesting a policy in the moral sense, but is performing their fiduciary responsibility by trying to make sure we’re not sued because we don’t have policies in place! While traditions are a great thing, the city of Worcester’s tradition of getting sued and losing, repeatedly, year in and year out, may be a tradition we can lose!

Getting back to the memo: it would require more patience than I have ever had to outline the bizarreness of the Plan E form of government, but what the city solicitor is saying is this:

You, City Councilors, have ONE employee: the City Manager. You can’t direct the work of anyone else, you can’t create policies, you’re not in charge. You can hold hearings. You can solicit feedback from the public. But the city manager is in charge of policy.

Having served on an advisory board for the city, I wonder how this is any different than what I did. We had hearings, we listened to the public, but our votes were essentially meaningless: the administration was in charge. Surely our elected officials can do more than a lowly advisory board, right?

Of course they can!

Councilor Nguyen was not directing the work of anyone in the city. They had specifically requested that the “City Manager not approve the proposal for an Unmanned Aircraft System and prohibit usage of the this technology until a comprehensive and civil liberties focused policy regulating the use of it is submitted to the City Manager, City Council and the general public.” The City Manager is, after all, the one employee they can direct.

So – what gives? Can’t the city solicitor read a basic order?

These folks in city hall are scared. The city manager is so scared he’s getting out of Dodge. The city solicitor is so scared he’s writing memos about stuff that isn’t happening. They are scared because we’ve finally got a few more elected officials who aren’t afraid to ask questions, who aren’t afraid to think of bigger things than potholes.

Keep ’em running, Thu!