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At least we know who the bad guys are
On the worst City Council meeting I can remember
Welp. Finally got an answer on the city manager search question. We’re not going to do it. Eric Batista is getting the job without having done so much as an interview. Not entirely surprised by this. In fact I called it back in March, when Mayor Joe Petty publicly voted for a search process and everyone was pretending like that was going to happen.
There are a few ways the meeting next Tuesday could go, but the most likely is that Batista is handed his “interim” contract and he takes charge in June and then, at the end of his nine-month contract, the council goes ‘ah to hell with it’ with any half-hearted search process they put together and just hand him a full, multi-year city manager contract. Maybe even one that allows him to step down any time he wants with 30 days notice.
I say that’s the most likely outcome because that’s exactly what happened last time—and we have, for the most part, the exact same power brokers involved with the exact same amount of power.
And I could say I todaso until the cows come home but it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. I’m just so deeply embarrassed for the city. On the Worcestery Council Theater stream, my comrade-in-charms Brendan Melican saw it happening in real time and just plainly said, “This is how we stay a second-class city.” That’s just the whole story right there.
It’s not worth explaining the actual series of votes the Council took Tuesday night or otherwise delayed until the next meeting. It was all murky and confusing and really beside the point. It’s over. Based on votes taken and comments made, the prospect of a search process for the next city manager has died by a vote of 6-5. This vote also ensures that Acting City Manager Eric Batista will be offered the job without ever having to demonstrate why he wants it or what he plans to do with it. He will not be evaluated against other candidates. He won’t even be interviewed.
Setting aside for a moment that the way Mayor Joe Petty et al. handled this process reeks of cronyism and disregard for the public, they simply failed to meet a basic expectation of the job. Before you hire a new city manager, do a search. Let people apply. Interview the applicants. Pick the best one. Very basic stuff. Even if you’re convinced you have the right guy going into this process, you don’t do anyone any favors—least of all the guy in question—by circumventing it. The six councilors responsible for this failure—Petty, Candy Mero-Carlson, Donna Colorio, Kate Toomey, George Russell and Moe Bergman—have cast a fog of suspicion over Batista’s tenure before it even starts. A search process would have afforded Batista the opportunity to demonstrate why he deserves the job. It could have been a moment for him to shine! Inspire some confidence we’re in good hands. But he didn’t get that opportunity. So he’s taking on the most important and highly scrutinized position in the city under circumstances in which speculation—”wait, they didn’t even interview him?—is entirely understandable and skepticism—”why didn’t they interview him?”—is entirely warranted.
I’ll get to the palace intrigue of this spurious appointment later, but for now I really want to hammer home that these six councilors made a fundamentally irresponsible decision. They did not live up to what is expected of them. On the merit of that failure alone, they’re proven they don’t deserve their seats. They’re the bad guys. They need to go. It has been plainly obvious for years, but this vote captured it. Those six people are the people that need to lose come next November.
Since January, when this current iteration of the council came into being, I’ve taken pains to describe a nascent progressive bloc up against an “old guard” which has retained the majority. In my last post, I developed a slightly different framework which may be more useful in understanding how this board so consistently fails to live up to basic expectations.
As designed, the city council is the forum by which public will is expressed and leveraged over the people paid to do the day-to-day work of running the city. But in practice, it’s something entirely different. A set of competing fiefdoms, maybe. Or perhaps even that assessment is lending too much credit. Of course, it could work the way it’s designed. But that would require at least the majority of councilors earnestly trying to do so. That’s not what we have. Over the decades and decades of different people holding council seats and all their different interpretations of how to use it, we’ve arrived at a cultural understanding of the job which is quite different from the original design.
The City Council is an idea, and the architecture of that idea is very clearly illustrated in the City Charter (the municipal constitution, more or less). But at the same time, it’s just a group of people. While the Charter spells out the functions and responsibilities of this body, it can’t dictate the culture created by all the different people who hold its positions over the years and how they interact with each other. Through this process, over decades, a set of cultural norms and values emerge. As such the Council has two competing architectures: the ideal in the charter and the real in the culture. In the case of the Worcester City Council, the real has evolved to a point it’s deeply at odds with the ideal. Since January, we’ve seen countless examples of the new progressive bloc attempting things which align with the spirit and intent of the council but deeply violate its cultural norms.
In Sunday’s post, I used the Plantation Street vote as a way of illustrating the councilors who uphold and adhere to this culture as opposed to those who don’t. The six councilors who voted to kill that proposal were Petty, Bergman, Colorio, Mero-Carlson, Toomey and Russell.
You’ll notice this is the exact same group of people who voted this week to abdicate the responsibility of a city manager search. This is the “Normative Six.” And they’ve done a damn good job of punishing the “Other Five” for caring.
In terms of political beliefs, the Normative Six is all over the place—from Q-adjacent culture war conservative to self-identified “progressive.” But when it comes to the board’s culture, they’re a unified front.
Looking in from the outside, it’s plain as day that voting against a city manager search process is cartoonishly irresponsible behavior. But within the milieu of the Normative Six, such a decision was entirely sound. More than that, it was the morally correct thing to do. Conversely, conducting a search would be morally incorrect. An insulting one at that. It would violate a norm.
In one of the greatest examples of insult to injury I’ve ever experienced in observing local politics, the council moved directly from saying “fuck a search” to the matter of the Christopher Columbus statue outside Union Station. I’ll give you exactly one guess how that vote went!!
Yet again, it was Normative Six versus Other Five. The vote was 5-5. Petty recused himself due to some sort of familial connection to the statue which I don’t quite understand. The other members of the Normative Six voted against the item—which was not a request to remove the statue, but just to hold an open discussion on whether it would be a good idea to do so—and all of the Other Five voted in the affirmative. Bergman, Colorio, Mero-Carlson, Toomey and Russell voted one way. Rivera, King, Haxhiaj, Nguyen and Rose voted the other. As is the case nearly every time. And you’ll notice that every single councilor of color is in this Other Five whereas the Normative Six is all white and all older.
Of course, Petty could have joined the Other Five and put this one over the line. And in doing so he could have demonstrated there’s some truth to the claims he’s made about being a progressive. Quite a bind, though! Forced to choose between his political brand and his good standing in the council’s culture. He would have had to show which is more important to him. A real frying pan/fire situation if you ask me. Glad he found a way out of it.
So the Columbus statue yet again dodges any sort of public reckoning, and it does so along the same exact lines that a public evaluation of our next city manager died. The Normative Six ensured the norms were not violated in both instances.
As I wrote on Sunday, the city council is supposed to be the forum where the democracy of this supposedly democratic government actually happens. It is supposed to absorb and interpret the public will. It is supposed to leverage that will over City Hall by setting expectations for the city manager and ensuring he meets them. That’s the whole foundation of the architecture of this board.
In the Columbus vote, the Normative Six showed they’re uninterested in absorbing the public will. In the search process vote, they showed they’re uninterested in setting expectations for the city manager. These are the two core objectives of the city council as it’s designed. This week, the Normative Six showed in an exceptionally clear way that both are at odds with the board’s cultural norms—what they mean when you hear them say something like ”the way we do things” or “what we’ve always done” or “how we did it in the past.”
Really, as we start looking at the next municipal election, this one meeting contains all anyone needs to know about who deserves to stay and who needs to go. In the manager search, you have a clear demonstration that there are six councilors who don’t know or care about what it is a city councilor should be doing. In the Columbus statue debate, you have the same councilors on the wrong side of history, showing they’re unwilling (or, more likely, unable) to grapple with very baseline societal critiques.
I mean, there are some banger quotes to pull out from the Council’s discussion of the statue, which starts around the three-hour mark.
For instance, Candy Mero-Carlson directly addressed the assertion that a statue of a famous slaver is hurtful to the ethnic groups in the city which experienced slavery.
“When we talk about hurtful, it’s equally as hurtful to listen to this every so many months,” said Mero-Carlson.
Then this little polemic from Bergman...
And this interpretation of what it means to be tolerant...
All this took place in the same conversation that saw Sarai Rivera read from Columbus’ firsthand account of whipping a Caribbean woman into submission then raping her.
Just a few highlights to show what an all-around dismal affair it was Tuesday night. Watching it was thoroughly deflating. The feeling that reforming this board is a futile enterprise became hard to ignore. Of course it isn’t, but in the moment it can certainly feel that way.
I want to return to this idea of the prevailing culture of the council. It’d be wrong to think this culture is perpetuated merely by the six councilors representing it currently. They’re really just the public face of a network of politically connected people who all adhere to it. What you might call an ‘inner circle.’ Sort of an informal pool of people who just happen to end up holding key levers of power and keeping them for decades on end.
Keeping in mind that this culture casts a larger and more informal web than the city council, it’s useful to look at how the past three city managers were hired. Really, with Batista, we see a certain playbook being followed successfully for the third straight time, all by people belonging to this same network of influence and power. The specifics are a little different in each case, but the overarching course of events remain the same. The sudden resignation of a city manager creates the appearance of an immediate power vacuum which must be quickly filled by way of an “acting” or “interim” replacement. That replacement, after some months of what might look like a real debate on the next steps, assumes the full-time position. In 2004, it was Mike O’Brien. He was the “acting” manager for about five months before he was offered a contract. In 2014, it was Augustus’ turn. He was “interim” manager for nine months before they formally gave him the reigns. Now, in 2022, it’s Batista’s turn. He was made “acting” manager in April, and now he’s looking at a contract offer in November. Seven months. In each of these instances, the decision to appoint an “acting”/”interim” manager happened by way of a simple motion from someone on the Council. In 2004, it was former City Councilor Phil Palmeiri, who you might remember from this post last month, and in the same meeting then-Mayor Tim Murray brought it to executive session to give him a contract. No new names in that story. The same people that are still around. In 2014, it was Petty. In 2022, it was also Petty. In each case, these appointments were not the result of a public process but rather an individual decision by one councilor, who then received the support of a majority of his colleagues. In each instance, the circumstance of needing an immediate temporary replacement allowed a single councilor the unilateral power of putting a name on the table. Every time, that name floated by that councilor ended up being the full-time city manager.
After three back-to-back successful attempts at this method, how are we not to see this as a coordinated strategy? And then, considering that all these actors are born from the same informal network of people which adhere to this prevailing culture, how are we not to see these “acting manager” appointments as decisions on succession made well before any public process? And then how should any supposedly public process which occurs after the fact be seen as anything other than a performance?
Further, if we consider that O’Brien, Augustus and Batista are all members of this informal network of people who subscribe to this prevailing culture, how are we to see anything besides the fact that this ‘inner circle’ has figured out how to undemocratically install the leader of its choice?
On top of all that, we then consider that the power relationship between the city council and the city manager is at odds with the design of the city charter. The council should be the body which sets expectations for the manager to meet or fail to meet. In reality, councilors compete with one another to ensure that their individual objectives are made a priority by the manager. And the manager holds all the cards. The more fealty a councilor demonstrates, the more likely it is their pet projects are executed on. Indeed, I can say that in many conversations with various councilors over the years, this dynamic is accepted as an immovable fact.
Meanwhile, the manager is free to unilaterally dictate the prevailing strategic direction of the city without oversight. Because the council does not consider oversight to be its purview.
In order for this whole thing to work as designed, the council decides the strategic direction of the city by a democratic process, then the manager’s job is to execute the goals the council outlines. You’d have to be a nut to look at what’s going on currently and think that’s what’s happening. The manager is certainly beholden to someone. But it’s not the council. Not in the way it was designed in the charter. So who is that someone? It’s more like a club of someones. And that club doesn’t do elections. You’re born into it or you buy your way in.
Thanks for reading! And thank you to everyone who pays for a subscription for affording me the time and mental bandwidth it takes to write these posts.
This should be fun! While I’m not going down there for any journalistic reasons, I’m sure I’ll encounter some interesting examples of the way a national political spectacle like Fetterman v Oz manifests in a rural area. I’ve been trying my hardest to tune that race out, but I watched a video this morning of some freakin streamer/podcaster type in the “mixed martial arts and herbal supplements” lane earnestly making the case that Fetterman is not a stroke victim but rather a Democratic Party automaton that’s malfunctioning.
With any luck we’ll be able to look back to this period of time and conclude that everyone was just sort of losing their minds for a couple years but we got past it. If not, and we’re on some sort of exponential curve here... then hoo boy.
We’re not immune to this stuff locally. In a recent debate, Paul Fullen, the Republican challenging David LeBouef made a public claim that he personally witnessed and confronted some guys taking ballots out of a polling location and throwing them in the back of a pickup truck. From Neal McNamara at the patch:
According to Fullen, the men in a pickup truck appeared at the station and emptied ballots into what looked like a garbage bag, and then threw them in the bed of the truck. Fullen also said he confronted the men.
"I said to him, 'You're not going to throw any of those away, are you?' He said, 'It depends on who they're for.' So there you have it," Fullen said, noting that he had witnesses to the incident. "True story. I'm not joking. Not joking."
So there you have it he says. It’s all real he says. He’s seen it. Everything has always been real.
I’ve been trying to ignore that race on the whole because Fullen is the kind of guy who should just be ignored.
Have it on pretty good authority that the Telegram is getting hit with another round of downsizing. I know of at least three people who are leaving. As Gannett is very obviously sucking the marrow out of the Telegram’s bones, we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re yet again downsizing the paper. How much more can they cut before it ceases to function entirely? I suppose we’ve been asking that question on a quarterly basis for a decade now, but still...
Journalism is not the only local profession to be punished for existing however. Over at St. Vincent, the nurses are raising an alarm over Tenet’s plans to make more cuts to an already beleaguered staff. For more on that I’ll again defer to Neal.
Gannett and Tenet, one in the same. Just big negative forces on our community and its functioning and the livelihoods of the people in it and there’s absolutely nothing to be done.