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!