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A pageant of the bizarre
What are we really getting out of these forums?
Relatively light reading today, kicked off by a piece from Chris Robarge on the recent School Committee forums and what, if anything, we’re getting out of them. Then some quick updates from me on various things. I’m still hard at work on the big project I teased last week, and as that’s taking up most of my writing time, I’m grateful for people like Robarge stepping up to keep the weekly content coming. Please consider a paid subscription so I can continue to pay people like Robarge for their work.
Robarge wrote one of my personal favorite Worcester Sucks pieces back in December on the WPD and their penchant for dangerous and deadly high speed chases: “Three chases, three deaths, zero accountability.”
Robarge and I are both hard at work getting Rewind Video Store and the Worcester Community Media Foundation up and running. We’re doing a “soft launch” event on Friday! Come hang! 4-7 p.m. on the 13th at 116 C June St.!
Ok, now to Chris.
A pageant of the bizarre
By Chris Robarge
I have been trying to find the words to describe what watching and absorbing the two Telegram/Chamber of Commerce/Research Bureau-sponsored School Committee forums has been like, and I’ve been really struggling. I keep landing back on a few words, though: Surreal. Bewildering. Embarrassing.
So far, we have seen a debate for at-large candidates a few weeks ago (Binienda, Clancy, Coughlin Mailman, O’Connell Novick) and, earlier this week, one for contested district races (Biancheria, Kamara, Medina, Roy). Two one-hour forums, and I wish I could tell you that you should have watched or gone to either of them. I can’t do that, though. If you enjoy the dark comedy of futility or you delight in the absurd, sure, maybe it’s a good use of your time. Otherwise, I sincerely could not tell you watching this forum is worth dropping whatever it is you’d otherwise be doing.
I am not neutral and unbiased. There are people mentioned hereafter that I like and trust to do this work and others I intensely dislike and absolutely do not trust to do this work. You can probably suss out who is who and decide for yourself from there.
I think maybe the best way to approach this is thematically: Each forum did have themes.
In the first, the at-large forum, we had the theme of three sitting School Committee members facing a fourth candidate for the committee who also happens to be the superintendent they ousted in 2021 with varying degrees of enthusiasm or conviction. I’ve been breaking my brain trying to describe this to anyone not living on this strange plane of Worcester political existence. Here’s what I’ve got: Imagine you had a job as an executive, and a board decided you did a bad enough job that they essentially fired you, and then you apply for a job on the very board that fired you, as an overseer for the executive position that all the people sitting next to you didn’t think you could hack it at. That’s an incomplete picture and it still bends the mind. A pageant of the bizarre!
In this forum we had three very capable women basically trying to describe how much better things are now that they got rid of the fourth candidate on the stage and hired someone who can actually do the job. If you do watch, watch Laura Clancey, because she cannot hide her facial expressions and as you are feeling the surreality of it all, you will see it in Laura’s face and in the whips of her ponytail. (In the last Worcester Sucks post, Cara Berg Powers caught a few prize moments from this forum as well.)
If you do watch this, take note of what it’s like to be an incredibly intelligent and accomplished person who analyzes data, listens to people, goes to conferences, learns and implements best practices, etc etc. and you’re subjected to this. Let’s just say theoretically you’re so good at what you do that a state professional organization that exists to implement trainings and standards for School Committee members across the Commonwealth decided to hire you, and you’re subjected to this. Imagine you’re maybe newer to things but you’re very smart and accomplished as evidenced plainly in what you’ve done before you got to this forum, and you’re subjected to this.
That first person is Tracy Novick, and she’s someone who made me understand why I care about schools and school budgets. I think it’s important to say that I wouldn’t know anything really about how our entire school-side political system works without her, because that’s just true. I have learned more about how to ask the right questions and poke the right holes to get answers about how our entire city works from Tracy than I have from any other single person.
The second forum happened Wednesday night, and it was for district committee members, but only those in contested districts. This gave some people, let’s say like Alex Guardiola, a chance to skate through their unchallenged races without having to answer a single question about their intentions and goals as School Committee members. This is really unfortunate, given that sponsor organization Worcester Chamber of Commerce employs Mr. Guardiola and yet conveniently never had to ask him a single question in their candidate forums. The Chamber of Commerce just will have a School Committee seat now. It’s great.
In the second forum, there’s really only so much to be said besides thankfully they mostly figured out how to at least provide mics to the candidates in a way that wasn’t generating horrific feedback throughout. That’s something. It would be something I’d be happy to report if this was a debate for fourth grade hall monitor. In closing statements, Dianna Biancheria, someone who made a point of the fact that they’ve had six terms on the School Committee, forgot an entire school in their new district in their pre-written closing statement (exchange starts around 1:03:00). Their opponent had to correct them. There are seven schools, not six, Jermoh Kamara said.
“What I didn’t hear was Grafton Street School,” Kamara said.
What stood out for me in the second debate is how two candidates showed up ready to try to actually answer questions (Kamara, Medina) and how two candidates showed up with piles or binders of paper and just read from them (Biancheria, Roy). I think if you pulled the papers from under Biancheria, things would’ve gotten more interesting. I think if you pulled the papers away from Kathi Roy, who was barely coherent with the papers, we might have seen someone fully glitch out. Any of that would’ve been more helpful in making a decision than what we got.
I will tell you that from my position as a street activist, I got to know Nelly Medina during the depths of early COVID, while she organized food outreach to people across the city. I don’t know how she was getting her lists of people in need, I don’t know how she was getting her product either. All I know is that I linked up with Nelly, and she would help me and many others pack our cars as full of food as possible and would give us lists to get that food to the people who needed it.
Through Nelly’s work, I knew that this person didn’t like bananas and we could double someone else up on those, and that person was no-dairy so save the milk for the next family, and for this person you actually have to go around the back of their apartment and leave everything on the ledge of the porch because the person is deaf and you just needed to catch their eye through the back window. It was some of the most important mutual aid work I ever did and it was also some of the most productive. I actually had incredibly detailed and careful information about what each and every household needed. A lot of other people tried to take credit for it, but Nelly Medina actually did that. When Nelly tells you she’s been in the streets, believe her. She was. I was just one of her drivers.
What I want to point out, more than anything, is just how bad these forums are structurally, and how unseriously they are set up to help you as voters make a decision, and how incredibly irresponsible and disrespectful that is.
There should be entire one-hour forums devoted to each of these questions. You cannot ask even a serious and capable candidate what they would do with over 60+ school facilities built over the span of more than a century and expect to get a real answer in 60 seconds. You cannot ask how we can ensure any standardized competency (or whether there should be a standardized competency) for roughly 25,000 students who come from all over the world and speak over 100 different languages and expect to get a real answer in 60 seconds. I could go on, but the process itself seems to take the decision at hand so unseriously.
The school-side budget in Worcester is approximately $552 million. That is a half-billion dollars. If you watched any of this, did you feel like it was set up to prepare you to make a decision on who controls a half-billion dollars in public money? Were you looking for 60-second sound bites about managing $552 million? Did you feel like you were in any way more informed on who you want wielding that kind of money and power over a student body that makes up something like roughly 10% of the city’s population? If you didn’t feel like that, you’re not alone. I left this entire experience feeling so embarrassed that this is how we’re going to make these decisions. The structure of our entire School Committee is going to change, and this is all that legacy structures of power and influence could offer us in making the decisions about it. That’s embarrassing. There’s really no other way to say it.
The Telegram, Chamber of Commerce, Research Bureau and other sponsors should be sincerely ashamed of themselves for even pretending that what they put in front of us was a useful product. I watched people I think are brilliant and people I frankly think are incompetent dullards answer questions in this format, and I could barely differentiate between them. This is a shameful product, and the people putting it in front of voters should be ashamed to have done so.
These same sponsors are putting on three more forums—At-large City Council on Oct. 11, City Council Districts on Oct. 18 and Mayoral candidates on Oct. 18—and there’s no reason to think these will be any more productive.
“I disagree with the City Solicitor’s conclusion...”
Bill again! No City Council meeting this Tuesday, which means another week of avoiding talking about Crisis Pregnancy Centers. The Council is very good at not talking about a thing they don’t want to!
There’s something new to talk about, however! A letter sent to the City Manager Eric Batista from Stephanie Toti of the Lawyering Project on Sept, 29 calls into serious question City Solicitor Mike Traynor’s legal opinion on the matter.
Before we get to the opinion, a quick refresher of this long and confusing story is in order. The City Manager’s Office has been mandated to bring an ordinance regulating crisis pregnancy centers since July, 2022, when the City Council voted 6-5 to mandate it. For more than a year, a solid body of evidence shows that City Manager Eric Batista was not so much working toward filling that mandate than he was ignoring it. This July, after behind-the-scenes work had gotten them nowhere, Councilor Thu Nuguyen took it public, not least because a crisis pregnancy center in the city had just been sued for almost killing a woman by way of a misdiagnosis. Batista responded to the criticism by blaming the Attorney General’s Office, and then texts between Traynor and a representative of the AG’s Office came to light, showing he was looking for a way out of drafting an ordinance.
It was only after Thu asked the city manager why he was lying in July that he begrudgingly changed course and got the draft ordinances on the agenda. On the agenda for the Aug. 22 Council meeting was a memo with two draft ordinances, accompanied by memos from both Batista and Traynor saying they didn’t want to adopt either. The ordinance was “held” by Donna Colorio at that meeting, and that’s basically the last bit of concrete action we’ve seen on this. At the meeting next week, we’re expecting some sort of action on this, but honestly, the way this city council works, it’s anyone’s guess whether we’ll see it.
What has been entirely lost in the reductive discourse so far is that there’s two proposed ordinances on offer from the law department (read the full memo and both ordinances here). One would curb the ability of CPCs to engage in deceptive advertising, and the other would mandate CPCs include language in their advertising that makes it clear they are not medical providers.
In his memo to the council, Traynor alleged that both of the proposed ordinances would be unconstitutional and opened the city to the risk of a lawsuit—a line the majority of the council has been happy to run with.
But it looks like on at least one of the ordinances, he was dead wrong. The letter from the Lawyering Project took particular issue with Traynor’s assessment of the deceptive advertising ordinance.
“I disagree with the City Solicitor’s conclusion that the Deceptive Advertising Ordinance under consideration by the Worcester City Council is unconstitutionally underinclusive and selective in its application,” Toti’s letter reads.
And poked significant holes in the basic facts of Traynor’s review of a similar ordinances in Connecticut.
I also disagree with the City Solicitor’s assessment that deceptive advertising statutes in Connecticut and Illinois have not been successful. In 2021, Connecticut enacted a statute to address deceptive practices by limited-service pregnancy centers. Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 19a-912 – 19a-912b. That statute remains in full force and effect today. Shortly after its enactment, a pregnancy center in New London, Connecticut, filed a lawsuit against the State Attorney General alleging that the statute violated several of the pregnancy center’s constitutional rights, including freedom of speech.
It’s worrying that Traynor was apparently quite wrong about that one. Tuti concludes:
“In my opinion, given that the City has compelling interests in preventing consumer deception and safeguarding access to time-sensitive reproductive healthcare; the Deceptive Advertising Ordinance is narrowly tailored to address a specific and well-documented problem; and the Deceptive Advertising Ordinance regulates false and misleading commercial speech, which is not entitled to First Amendment protection, the Deceptive Advertising Ordinance does not raise any serious constitutional concerns.”
This letter has already been covered in the Telegram and the Patch, so now it’s on the City Council whether they’ll allow it to change the narrative that the city can’t do this. Their hands are not tied, and whether they continue to claim that they are will say everything.
The Guardian gets a board
The Chamber of Commerce’s new, ostensibly “independent” news organization, the Worcester Guardian, has a board of directors. Tim Murray, president of the Chamber, is on the board. So much for what Murray said to Commonwealth Magazine about the Chamber having oversight: “you have to make sure you draw that line, and it’s a hard, impenetrable line,” he told them. But now he’s personally a member of the board. So...
Other than Murray, the board includes Timothy Loew, John Rodriguez, Giovanni Blue, Christina Andreoli, Joseph Kahora, Carl Herrin, Mary Beth Burke, Timothy P. Murray and Emily P. Trevallion.
There is not a whole lot of journalism experience among that group, but quite a bit of business experience.
And then another bit of news—it appears MassLive’s Kiernan Dunlop is moving to the Worcester Guardian as a “contributor.”
A failing grade
I’ve spent a lot of time in this newsletter chronicling Worcester’s awful policies and practices as it relates to the unhoused. But I’ve tried to make clear Worcester’s pretty unremarkable in this regard. Really, we’re living in a country that handles homelessness remarkably poorly. That failure was confirmed by a Human Right to Housing Report Card, released on Thursday by the National Homelessness Law Center (Law Center) and University of Miami Law School Human Rights Clinic.
The report card condemns the U.S. government’s ongoing failure to stem the tide of homelessness by neglecting its responsibility to ensure adequate, affordable housing is available to all.
In particular, the U.S. received an F in affordability.
“Housing is a human right, recognized around the globe, but here in America, tenants know that “the rent is too damn high,” and the growing encampments we see on our streets are a result of that,” said Eric Tars, Senior Policy Director of the Law Center. “Our country’s pandemic response—slower in coming than we would have wished, but ultimately postponing an eviction avalanche—showed us that when we treat housing as the human right it is, we can make a real difference. But today, with those pandemic measures gone, the avalanche is hitting, our country is failing to meet its obligation to its people to ensure this right, and this Report Card is a step in measuring, and remedying, that failure.”
The “avalanche” is certainly felt by Worcester, which is facing a drastic and dangerous deficit in shelter beds this winter, as I recently reported in my last dispatch on the homelessness situation, “Why do people have to live outside?”
With 363 beds needed and 139 beds available, the city is looking at a shortfall of 224 beds heading into this winter with not a ton of time—or, let’s be honest, political will—to remedy that situation.
But that whole business of the political will does not seem to recognize the severity of the situation. As the crisis worsens, a majority of our local officials appear more concerned with preventing the solution—or at least, preventing it happening near them—than they are with the solution. In a recent push from District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera, we see the mentality on display. As reported in The Patch:
District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera Tuesday moved to intervene in an apparent plan to offer drug treatment in a former American Legion hall in the Main South neighborhood.
Spectrum Health Systems purchased the 1023 Main St. hall over the summer for $910,000. Rivera said the nonprofit, which operates several Worcester-area opiate treatment centers, plans to house two programs in the building, including methadone treatment.
"The planned methadone clinic will operate within close proximity of a highly residential neighborhood, three elderly housing towers, several schools and school bus stops within our neighborhood," Rivera said in a news release Tuesday. "While we value community development and support initiatives that enhance our neighborhood's quality of life, we believe it is essential to ensure that such programs align with our neighborhood's unique character and prioritize the safety and welfare of its residents."
While not a shelter, the Spectrum treatment center is part of the same patchwork of services as temporary shelters and permanent supportive housing. The impulse seen here to fight a social service on the grounds it does not align with “our neighborhood’s unique character” is the same impulse driving Councilor Moe Bergman to fight accessory dwelling units in “single family” neighborhoods! It’s the same exact thing.
There is such a pernicious and depressing psychic barrier between so many of us and the acknowledgement that the people who need help are people.
What’s going on at WAM?
Uh oh! The Boston Globe has come to town! This time to take on the Worcester Art Museum and a recent wave of legal action against its director, Matthias Waschek.
Two lawsuits filed over the summer by employees articulate a pattern of harassment and hostile working conditions under Waschek.
Museum leadership is “well-aware of Waschek’s history of discrimination, bias, harassment, and retaliation,” the filing states. “At best, they have failed to investigate; at worst, they have aided and abetted this unlawful conduct for years, shamelessly sewing this toxicity into the fabric of the institution.”
But it’s not just the two lawsuits. There was another in 2015, and the Globe talked to quite a few people who corroborated the nature of the allegations.
In roughly 20 interviews with the Globe, former museum employees and board members described a stressful workplace, characterizing Waschek as an “intimidating” and “erratic” leader prone to “lashing out” at others for perceived social slights and other offenses.
But Waschek retains the support of the board, it seems. As the Globe reported:
Board president Dorothy Chen-Courtin echoed that sentiment, saying Waschek has had a “positive impact, increasing museum attendance, building productive relationships within the community, and putting the museum on more solid financial footing.”
Amid so many claims to the contrary, it’s worth considering why the board president would say such a thing!
Odds and ends
That’s all for today! Please consider a paid subscription!
There’s no Council meeting, but the Worcestery Council Theater crew will be streaming! This time, we’re going to take a new approach, simply hosting an event at Worcester State that should be hosted. Instead of a City Council meeting, we’ll be hearing from people the City Council has committed to completely ignoring.
A relevant article: “Former Worcester police officer, working as security officer, faces gun charges”
A security guard faces firearm charges for allegedly shooting at a pickup near a crowded McDonald’s parking lot on Mill Street late Saturday.
Court documents show that William Trotta, 78, shot twice in the direction of a vehicle that backed into his car following a physical altercation between the guard and the driver.
Trotta is a former city police officer who retired more than a decade ago, according to a spokesman for the Police Department.
Ok, that’s all for today! Til next time.