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Contrast of competence
Bergman, Mero-Carlson, Binienda, oh my!
A classic Bill & Cara twofer today on the theme stated in the headline. First, I go over the worrying views expressed by certain city councilors on a zoning proposal to allow for in-law apartments which should be entirely innocuous. Then, Cara Berg Powers jumps in to take a look at the recent School Committee forum and the wildly obtuse comments made by a person who somehow ran our school district for six years.
Speaking of Bill & Cara, the work at Rewind Video Store continues! Later this month, we’re putting the “fun” in “fundraising” by showing Rocky Horror Picture Show at Redemption Rock. Come through, grab a few cold ones, do the silly dances and such and help Rewind and its non-profit, the Worcester Community Media Foundation, raise some dough!
Mark your calendars! October 25, 6 p.m. start, 7 p.m. movie. No tickets, just donations at the door. And spread the word on Instagram and Twitter and you know what we really need is a TikTok person if there’s anyone out there interested in being that (hit me up!!).
Rewind is always on the lookout for cash donations, media donations and volunteers! The big task right now is organizing and cataloging all the media we’ve received. It is going to require man hours! Sign up for the volunteer list and I’ll get some info out about that soon.
And most importantly, you can now sign up to be a founding store member!
Ok, now onto the business of independent alternative community journalism which Rewind and the WCFM are built to support!
As always, please consider a paid subscription to this newsletter so I can continue to put out these posts while working on bigger stories (one of which you may see soon!) and help launch a local journalism non-profit based out of a video store. This would not be possible if I was also working for a chef on top having my paid subscribers. So think of it this way: for $5 a month or $69 a year, you get to be my chef!
It’s the economic segregation, stupid
Most of the goings on at your average City Council meeting are functionally useless in terms of governance and only serve to perpetuate an ongoing soap opera of petty grudges and ego padding. Meetings that go as long as five or six hours only yield a small handful of tangible actions, if they yield any at all.
While it’s best to ignore or else gawk at most of what happens on Tuesday nights, every so often a moment comes along that is useful by nature of its functional uselessness. At the last meeting, we got one of those moments! The long and at times testy discussion of Councilor Moe Bergman’s resolution on accessory dwelling units led to absolutely nothing at all in a practical sense. Once he got worked up enough, Bergman “held” it in a huff, a move that simply continues the deliberation to the next meeting. But the near hour-long discussion leading up to the “hold” was to my mind the clearest demonstration we’ve seen of a City Council majority that is unwilling and thoroughly unequipped to address a real problem like the housing crisis. There was a level of incompetence and willful ignorance and classism on display here from old guard councilors that is remarkable and needs to be documented in some detail. Their barely coherent tantrums were put into stark relief by several councilors who could speak fluently about an issue they understood. There’s not a clearer example of the difference between the normative majority and the new progressive bloc, and why the former needs to go.
First, though, we need to establish the whole “accessory dwelling unit” (ADU) discourse. Earlier this month, the city administration proposed an ordinance which would allow homeowners to construct in-law apartments, garage conversions and other such additional “dwelling units.” Such projects are not allowed under current zoning laws. The pitch from the city administration is that allowing for ADUs will help alleviate the pressure on the housing market that drives up rents and property values. It makes perfect sense and, to my mind, should have never been illegal in the first place. Whose business is it what a homeowner does to their home? Even I, a would-be draft dodger, sees the Conservative-style government overreach in regulating whether you can build another bedroom out for grandma. In the abstract, lifting the restriction appears well aligned with the conservative worldview. But the most conservative of our City Councilors were the most vehemently opposed to this proposal, Bergman leading the charge.
When it comes to zoning regulations, our local conservatives sing quite a different tune than they do on, say, the environment. In this instance, for some reason, the regulations are now Perfectly Fine and changing them is Very Alarming. While it’s not even close to a reasonable assumption, our conservative councilors have twisted themselves into a panic that allowing for ADUs will remove a freedom they hold most dear: the freedom to live in a “nice neighborhood,” as defined by the extent to which it is economically segregated. The more segregated by class, the “nicer” a neighborhood is. The fear with ADUs is that they might compromise the line of economic segregation that defines “nice,” which in turn assigns property value. Single family zoning is the legal tool by which this segregation is maintained. A single family zoned home isn’t just a house on a plot of land. The economic segregation is figured into the asking price.
When someone like Moe Bergman says that allowing for ADUs will threaten the “character of the neighborhood,” it’s the economic segregation that he means. Cheap apartments suddenly tacked onto houses in his neighborhood means the type of people who live in cheap apartments are suddenly allowed where they shouldn’t be. That makes the neighborhood less economically segregated, thus less “nice,” and since property value is bound up in “nice,” that’s a “hardship,” as the lawyers like to say.
On Tuesday, Bergman proposed a solution to this perceived problem by way of a resolution, and it was certainly an... interesting read. Built on some pretty interesting ideas about what the government should be regulating! Here it is in all its contorted glory:
That the City Council of the City of Worcester does hereby support considering the following amendments to the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Report, in order to balance the public good of creating ADU’s and to preserve the character of the neighborhoods in which ADU’s are sought to be created in: 1) Section 8A C. (c) of the Report be amended to exclude an owner being temporary (sic) absent other than for documented medical reasons; 2) Section 8A C. (f) of the Report be amended to require a family relationship of up to three (3) degrees of kinship; 3) Section 8A C. 4. of the Report be amended to require an ADU to have one (1) additional off-street parking space (for a non-family relationship) in any zones other than RS-10 and RS-7; and 4) Prior to the adoption of any Zoning Ordinance Amendment relating to ADU’s that consideration be given to any suggested restrictions upon ADU’s offered through state legislation. (Bergman)
To me, the proposed change that really sticks out is requiring the resident of an ADU to be within three degrees of kinship to the homeowner. To consider such a requirement as one way to “preserve the character of the neighborhood,” is... really something. Public policy based on the determination of allowable vs. unallowable bloodlines. One historical example immediately comes to mind!
What is the issue he is perceiving here? What would this kinship clause ameliorate? He’ll never say it out loud. Even when he’s directly asked to do so, as he was Tuesday night.
In what was the wildest exchange of the night, Councilor Khrystian King asked Bergman to explain what he means by “character of the neighborhood.” King said nothing about race and made no allegation of racism. The question was plainly stated and reasonable: “I’m wondering what that means? If I’m going to vote in the affirmative, I need to know what that means.”
Bergman’s response was irate and indignant. He sailed clear past answering straight to a temper tantrum, adopting the position that King had called him a full blown racist, which of course King didn’t. I pulled the video. It’s worth watching, if only for the air quotes gesture.
But here’s the transcription:
“First of all in response to the question about preserving the character of the neighborhoods, I've been a councilor long enough to kind of read between the lines and unfortunately when you disagree with somebody oftentimes these days it becomes a character assault on whether or not the person is using some sort of ‘dog whistle’ or ‘racism.’ So let me just say this: I didn’t write that. That’s on the city document that came out of the economic development committee. So maybe I ought to flip the question back to Councilor King ... how that language showed up? Because I’m just repeating the language that was given to me by the proposed amendment. It’s not my language. It’s not my language. I’m just repeating what was said. But I know it’s convenient to make it my language when you disagree with something I’m saying because there has to be some sort of racial overtone because otherwise you can’t disagree with somebody without saying that.”
Two points of clarification: it actually was his language! And it actually wasn’t language in the city’s report.
I read the document twice and couldn’t find a single mention of “character of the neighborhood.” (Maybe I missed it. Give it a read.) The closest it comes is this line:
“With that approach in mind, we are recommending certain parameters and restrictions that we believe are in the best interest of the community and our city’s characteristics.”
To go from “our city’s characteristics” to “the character of the neighborhood” is a big stretch!
“I think we lose the character of some of our neighborhoods and we kind of lose the ability to say we’re in a single family neighborhood,” he said, exactly two weeks before he claimed it “wasn’t his language.”
So weird lies aside, Bergman’s ‘dog whistle’ tirade amounts to ‘making me say what I mean out loud is the same as calling me a racist.’
King’s response was great.
“There was no mention of race here. If anything it’s a classism issue. Not sure how race jumps into this, pertaining to my comments. It’s more about classism and how we look at things. To ‘preserve the character of the neighborhood’ I certainly have questions about that.“
Really though it’s not racism or classism so much as the perceived entitlement to a geographic remove from those made to experience the violence of racism and classism. The “nice neighborhood” premise in Bergman’s imagining is built on the promise that poverty and oppression remain abstract concerns. Stuff that happens somewhere else. Stuff you only see on the news.
It makes sense then, that these people would be less interested in solving the housing crisis than avoiding having to witness the negative effects of it. Bergman’s proposed amendments reflect this hierarchy of concerns.
While Bergman understands ADUs enough to see a potential threat to his class interest, Candy Mero-Carlson betrayed she had absolutely no idea what was happening, but still didn’t like it.
“I too stand here tonight and I am completely perplexed over the fact that we think we can have a city and no zoning laws.”
Who told her that? It’s not even close to true.
“I’m not quite sure what a city looks like with no zoning. I clearly understand that we need more housing and I thought this was really all about making it available to those who are our loved ones and affordability.”
That’s not a transcription error. That second sentence is a real thing she said.
She then demanded answers for a question that was not proposed in any way.
“What I don’t like that I’m hearing with some of this is.. Are we so sure these are affordable? Is someone going to answer that question?”
Then got a little conspiratorial.
“As I sit here tonight I’m wondering what are we doing? Is this really about making accessible units to those that originally started out for family members and those who you know were related and the hope was that they were affordable to people.”
Ummmm what? Then she alleged that allowing ADUs would “get rid of parking.” Like her earlier claim that the proposal would abolish all zoning, I’d be curious to know who told her that.
“At least to me it’s not about doing the right thing and having additional units that’s accessible but my god we have to talk about some of these issues that are going to be issues for the people.”
The most stunning admission, though, was this:
“Who’s to say they don’t charge the same rate? Market rate? There’s nothing in here that says they can’t,” she said, referring to the initial proposal. “The original intent I thought ... was the affordability factor.”
This is a councilor failing to understand the basic assignment. As is very clearly spelled out in the report, allowing for ADUs is an effort to increase supply and thus lessen the demand pressures driving up value. Simple money math. Mero-Carlson said she thought the ADUs were supposed to “be affordable,” and argued that since the proposal has no affordability restrictions, it should be voted down. Earnest question: does she even know why she doesn’t like the proposal?
This is a person with the power to make decisions that affect everyone in this city, and in this discussion she demonstrated as clear as day that she didn’t even remotely understand what was in front of her. And, most importantly, she didn’t let her lack of understanding get in the way of opposing it. Complete incompetence, and for anyone in this city who feels the stress of the housing crisis, it’s malicious incompetence. She needs to go.
Contrast this failure to achieve a base understanding with the comments of Councilor Etel Haxhiaj. The following passage was straight off the dome. Unlike Mero-Carlson, she wasn’t looking at any notes.
“I am... without words about this weird thing that we have about zoning. Every single urban planner in the state and across the country is talking about the restrictions that zoning puts in place which contribute to the high cost of housing. We cannot magically solve the housing crisis in our community without addressing zoning.
It is time we break the visible and invisible walls of economic and social exclusion, by moving forward and not in a regressive direction. I see this attempt to water down this ordinance and put more restrictions as a death by 100 paper cuts. We cannot afford to move forward with timidness and fear mongering. We cannot afford to do that. Because every resident, whether in District 5 and every district across the city, needs to understand that we are in a crisis. And this is one way. One step forward. To help people get out of the crisis. And we can help our seniors most importantly age safely in their homes.”
These are the words of a person who knows and understands the housing crisis. To look at Carlson’s comments next to Haxhiaj’s is to see a wide gap in competence. They have equal votes—equal say over what action the city takes or doesn’t to help struggling residents. That is embarrassing. In different ways, Bergman and Mero-Carlson showed with remarkable clarity on Tuesday they are unfit to represent the people of this city.
It’s not too much to ask that we have leaders who understand problems and actually want to solve them. That is a bare minimum expectation, and right now, we’re not meeting it.
“My academic background is solid”
By Cara Berg Powers
There was another At-Large School Committee Forum on Wednesday night, and it’s worth sharing a quick dispatch because the room was actually pretty empty, as far as great halls go. The dirty secret of campaign forums is that if you go to a campaign forum, the likelihood that you already know who you are voting for is about 99.9999%. You can read Nicole Apostala’s excellent notes from the forum here, and watch the whole video here, which is definitely worth skimming, if only for watching Laura Clancey trying to keep herself from laughing at Maureen Binienda’s responses, or Binienda trying to keep her face from the outward fury she had listening to the School Committee members that voted against renewing her contract talking at length about how much better things are going without her in charge.
Those who were not here back in 2016, when Binienda was first hired over only three other internal applicants, or 2019, when her contract renewal was protested by students, but pushed through with only two dissenting votes, or in 2022, when her contract was not renewed, with only John Monfredo dissenting (and creating a change.org petition to try to gather community support) may have found it strange that a candidate for school committee with claims of having the most experience, would be so thoroughly outmatched by her competitors. And that is fair. If you’d only heard from a certain fawning class of folks, you’d only have heard about the pre-school at South High, or Andy’s Attic, or how she just really loves kids. You might have a hard time squaring that against a woman unable to thoroughly answer almost any question posed by the moderators, even though many of those questions had been shared in advance.
Throughout the debate, candidates Tracy Novick, Sue Mailman, and Clancey shared specific, actionable plans, analysis of the challenges facing the district, and commitments to continue progress they see as well underway since hiring a new Superintendent last summer. Binienda read off of papers in front of her in barely sensical ways and even her introductory statements felt defensive:
“My academic background is solid,” she stated, almost as if preemptively responding to those who would claim otherwise. And those claims would be warranted. Over and over, the other three candidates showed their clear and comprehensive understanding of what is needed to run a district of this size, and Binienda found whatever notes on her papers most closely resembled an answer, or, defensively pushed back on claims that changes made since she left were warranted at all, as in previous debates. If you missed Aislinn Doyle’s piece on her take on buses at the first debate, it’s worth a read.
Take this exchange...
...as an example of what happened throughout the night. The question is on school building and capital needs and priorities, and it’s taken up first by Sue Mailman, who handles the question with humor and a clear understanding of the major challenges facing the district in the area, and even lays out a clear strategy for funding a new Burncoat building through increased vocational seats. Laura Clancey talks about how turnaround time on facilities projects has improved over the last year and how ongoing reporting helps set priorities. Tracy Novick talks about the ways that Student Opportunity Act funding has been utilized, and why the state needs to have an equity conversation about building funding similarly, and calls on the Federal Government to do more (which, coincidentally, Senator Markey just announced he is trying to get them to do). And then the following happens. Honestly, I can’t summarize. I am going to give you the exact transcript of Maureen Binienda’s answer to the same question:
“I think it’s important, uh, to state that the, uh, Worcester Public Schools does have a Capital Plan. It was written many years ago. I was part of that conversation, with the city manager, uh, regarding the Capital Plan. It’s a list of the buildings and what needs to be fixed in all the schools and there’s a priority. Um, I was happy to see that in the budget this year there is $14 million that is put in for doing some of the work in the schools. Um, $10,234, uh, came from the…”
Moderator, cutting off her 30 seconds: “Thank you. Thank you.”
And here is one of the opportunities you get to see Clancey having a hard time hiding her chuckle, as the camera pans back to Sue Mailman for rebuttal. Partly, I am sure, because she had already mentioned the Capital Plan, and didn’t need to read the numbers off a sheet of paper. In any case, if you want to see a woman who should probably just graciously accept retirement get repeatedly body slammed rhetorically by the people who tried to give her one, watch the whole thing.
If you’re still confused as to how this is the woman who was running our school district for the previous six years, it might help to understand that this is part of why the changes needed at the district are so numerous, and will take a lot of time. Remember why a coalition called for her contract not be renewed: That her administration was cited by the Lawyer’s Committee on Civil Rights, accused of illegally using Emergency Removals to avoid suspension hearings for students. That she publicly said that Asian students don’t want to be educators because they want to go into medicine or engineering. That she pushed back against fixing issues with busing for years, to say nothing of teachers working through the pandemic without the proper memorandums of understanding and contracts in place for increasing responsibilities, and we could go on. And then it might also be helpful to remember that the previous School Committee, like the current City Council, refused to even consider outside applicants for the role of superintendent when she was initially hired. The good news: in the way the rest of the candidates spoke, it’s clear we’re moving in the right direction. We can keep it that way.
A Council Quickie
In the petitions section, we have a good idea from Yenni Desroches which the City Council is expected to deem “too good” and promptly file:
7k. Yenni Desroches request City Council request City Manager ensure all road closures, due to construction or otherwise, get added or updated in Google and Apple maps, both of which have free tools for cities to submit closures.
And the Police Department under interim chief Paul Saucier is trying to get $100,000 to buy a robot. Expect the council to enthusiastically support the idea! Despite the flimsy two-page “report” from Saucier that talks a lot about how a robot would be useful and does not address at all how exactly they’re currently able to “borrow” a robot via some vaguely referenced “mutual aid.” What’s that “mutual aid” exactly? And why do we need to buy our own robot for the price of two teacher salaries when we can already borrow one?
8.12 A - Transmitting informational communication relative to the use of a robot in critical police incidents along with the benefits of such use.
There’s nothing apparently new from the city manager on crisis pregnancy centers, despite promises there would be. However there are a number of items that remain on the agenda in the various “tabled” sections. It’s unclear whether we’ll see any new discussion, deliberation or action on this front. Lord knows this City Council has been doing everything it can to avoid it. But it was promised!
For a solid update on where we stand on this issue and the thoroughly botched Council deliberation process, I’d suggest watching this clip of David Webb’s biting public comments last week.
“If you actually cared about lawsuits, you’d have done something differently in the past five years to avoid nearly $14 million in settlements. So my rhetorical question to the city manager is: Are you actually afraid of being sued by these religious organizations or do you just agree with their values? Anyways, since I know my testimony here won’t make a difference to the council, my request tonight is to the listeners. One, vote November 7. Vote for progress. Two, the city manager’s contract is up next year. Do not let them pull a fast one on us again. They’ll probably just give him another $50,000 raise.”
Backed hard! All of that! To color the point, there’s a finance item on the agenda (8.37a) requesting a $200,000 transfer to help cover the cost of retaining outside council the city uses on said settlements.
There’s also going to be a discussion about the whole police chief thing. Item 9c. Buckle up.
And on the “vote for progress” front, there are forums upon forums coming up as we head into the last month of Election Season.
Wednesday, Oct. 4: School Committee District Races. Takes place at Mechanics Hall at 7 p.m. with audio stream available at RadioWorcester.com. Funny note here: this forum is being sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and Chamber of Commerce employee Alex Guardiola is running unopposed for School Committee District D. Hence, I think it’s clear that the forum is for “contested” School Committee races.
Wednesday, Oct. 11: At-large City Council. Same deal: 7 p.m., Mechanics Hall, Radio Worcester broadcast.
Wednesday, Oct. 18: City Council Districts. Same deal.
Wednesday, Oct. 25: Mayoral candidates. Same deal.
My customary Election Guides to each race will be forthcoming later this month!
Odds and ends
So there you have it: on both the City Council and the School Committee, a clear contrast of competence is obvious. Thanks for reading everyone! Please consider a paid subscription or a tip! (Venmo / Paypal)
As we covered in last week’s post, the Harbor Shelter has ceased its overnight services. The Telegram’s Brad Petrishen has a good write-up on the closing and what it means for unhoused services in the area.
Very interesting development on the arrow through the heart of Worcester. Per Neal McNamara, there’s a federal grant to study putting an overpass over I-290 to connect Vernon Hill. Literally anything to rectify the damage done to our urban fabric by this highway is appreciated.
Take a look at this video of a woman tearing down a pride flag in Worcester and see if you can Identify That Crank.
Another thing to mark on your calendars: On Tuesday, Oct. 10, 7 p.m. at Worcester State, Mass Spring is hosting a forum titled “The Collapse of Discipline: The Consequences of Failed Leadership at the Worcester Police Department.” Speakers include Natale Cosenza (wrongfully imprisoned for 16 years) and Bill Gardiner, a former Worcester police officer with a lot to say about the department. More info. I’ll see you there!
And lastly a word about another project I don’t talk about much! Me and my comics writing team put together 50 “ashcans” of SECARTHA, the sword and sorcery story we’re working on based off Worcester thrash band High Command’s lyrics (“Ashcan” is a cool old school comic term for rough promotional issues, analogous to a demo tape). I may throw a few on the merch store at a later time. For now catch High Command on the tour they just started, and they’ll have some at the merch table.
If you work in comics or know someone who does, hit me up! I’ll send you one! We’re just starting to look for the right home for this project. Since we are certifiably “nobodies” in the comics world, any and all leads would be appreciated.
Ok cheers! Till next time.