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How embarrassing to be the Worcester City Council
On what we're doing here and how it's not what we should be doing
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The City Council this week got remarkably little done despite having met for nearly six straight hours (6:30 p.m. until about 12:15 a.m.). There really isn’t much to say about it save that it was embarrassing. This post is an attempt at illustrating why and how our city council is capable of such embarrassment and also incapable of doing useful things.
The six-hour display was made much worse than it usually would be by the fact that Councilor Donna Colorio was presiding over the meeting in Mayor Joe Petty’s absence. With Colorio doing Petty’s job, routine processes seemed to turn into extreme difficulties. It was a nice reminder of why it was so necessary that Robyn Kennedy beat out Petty for the state senate nomination, because should Petty have won, this would be our reality every week for a year—council and school committee. Oof. Thanks again for losing, Joe. Nice of you to remind us this week why it needed to happen.
Of all the awkward, crawling, confusing and embarrassing moments, the worst came around the four hour mark, when councilors and City Solicitor Mike Traynor had a 15-minute legal squabble over whether a councilor can “hold an item under privilege”—something councilors have been doing routinely at every meeting for at least the past five years and something that Colorio had done herself literal minutes before the argument broke out.
While I won’t bore you with a transcription of the whole exchange, a rough sketch is necessary to begin to understand the story hidden beneath the surface of it. It’s a story which makes the public tomfoolery of this moment all the more foolish.
So at about four hours into this meeting on Tuesday, we get to agenda item 10.9B, which is about as boring-seeming as any report that comes across the desk of councilors. It’s a three-page informational update from Parks & Recreation on the progress of a Little League field renovation at East Park. Councilor Khrystian King moves to hold the report under privilege, something councilors routinely do all the time. Every councilor is allowed to hold an agenda item for a week per the City Council rules and it happens all the time. It happened several times that night, even. King explains that he’d like to hold it because former City Councilor Phil Palmieri asked him to. Palmieri wants to speak on this issue, but couldn’t make the meeting due to an emergency, King says.
Despite the well-established past practice of “holds” like this, Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson then asks for a legal opinion on whether a “hold” is allowed on this report. Bewilderingly, the city’s lawyer, Mike Traynor, gets up in front of god and everyone and says that no, a hold is not allowed. This sets off a 15-minute argument in which King, Thu Nguyen, George Russell and others argue that holds are allowed—because they literally are—while Mero-Carlson, Moe Bergman, Traynor and Colorio argue that they’re not allowed, on the basis of Traynor’s poor legal ruling. The argument jumps the shark when Nguyen points out that not 10 minutes prior, Colorio had herself “held” a racial equity audit report. Colorio responds that she didn’t “hold” the item, she “filed” it, which is factually incorrect. After a long pause, Colorio, perhaps seeing she isn’t going to get away with it, concedes that yes she did “hold” that item. So she offers that they go back and correct that “hold” too.
“Maybe we’ve been doing it wrong for seven years? Who knows? So I mean if it’s right, let’s do it right,” Colorio says.
But then City Clerk Niko Vangjeli weighs in, saying holds are kosher—as everyone must already known—and then Traynor changes his tune. “So long as there is a vote, the item can be held,” Traynor says. “I was under the impression there was no vote.”
There is a vote on every single item on the agenda. Every agenda. Every week.
So the item was held as it should have been, but not after a deeply embarrassing—and, especially given our city lawyer’s deeply spurious legal ruling on a simple matter, quite troublesome—15-minute squabble. Reminiscent of a certain Arrested Development joke if you ask me. We’re all George Bluth in our prison onesies with our heads in our hands going “I got the worst fucking attorneys.”
But now let’s set aside the cartoonish fumbling and look closer at why this little flare-up happened. In arguing that King shouldn’t have been able to hold the item, Mero-Carlson was careful to make it known that, hold or no hold, there was nothing to be done that could stop the Little League field project in question.
“So just for clarification,” she said, “this is an item that’s for informational purposes, and this item will move forward as is.” While it’s unclear if she knew that going in or not, the whole charade was brought on by Mero-Carlson making the argument the item can’t be held, even though she should have known otherwise. Why make such a big stink about a hold if you know the hold is useless anyway?
Well, for that we might turn our attention to a petition, filed by one Phil Palmieri, that Mero-Carlson herself held at the last meeting in August—and in a way that Traynor may have found similarly in violation of council rules (cue the George Bluth bit again).
The petition reads, “Request city manager to consider working with the law department for a legal opinion to determine whether city councilors can engage in activities that would discourage other members of city council from holding discussions on incomplete municipal project Joe DiMaggio Little League at the 20 percent threshold resulting in said project being completed.” Or at least that’s my best translation. Here’s what it looks like.
Enterprising reporter that I am, I called Palmieri yesterday afternoon to ask him what exactly he meant by all that. The question predictably opened a “whole can of worms.”
“What prompted that language is what I consider to be the interference of the project moving forward by District Councilor Mero-Carlson, calling members of the council and telling them not to meet or talk to me about (the project),” he said.
Drama!! But again, why? It’s just a freakin’ Little League field.
Mero-Carlson did not respond to my call or text message or email asking for comment on this.
But to answer that question we need to take a closer look at what exactly this Little League project is and who’s behind it.
For decades, the Joe DiMaggio Little League used the field adjacent the now-demolished Mt. Carmel church. The luxury housing development currently being built at the Mt. Carmel site meant the field was going away in favor of a parking garage. Since at least 2019, there’s been an effort to “save Joe DiMaggio Little League.” League president Anthony Petrone was quoted by This Week In Worcester in April, 2019, saying “There is no little league field on the east side of the city and there will be no where (sic) for our kids to play once they sell this land."
Anthony Petrone wears a good deal more hats than Little League booster. He’s a sergeant in the Worcester Police Department and, incidentally, the fourth highest paid employee in the city. In 2021 he made $278,703 after salary, detail work, overtime and $47,257 in the “other” category.
Petrone’s also vice president of the local patrolman’s union and a frequent commenter on the patrolman’s union Facebook page (which routinely generates ghoulish content, like the ‘Joe Petty Hitler stache’ incident).
He’s generally a politically active guy. He’s lobbied against statewide police reform, advocated locally both for body cameras and for drones, railed against the decision to remove police officers from the Worcester Public Schools, and in the last municipal election he managed the city council campaign of fellow police union official Rick Cipro against Sean Rose in District 1. That campaign, if you’ll remember, baselessly accused Rose of having “defunded the police” (wish he did), among a slew of other copaganda-style smears. Before all that, though, he made a name for himself as a Democratic party operative and is still by all accounts deeply ingrained in the local party structure. Several people have confirmed to me that he’s quite close with both Mero-Carlson and State Sen. Mike Moore, for instance.
On top of all that, he owns a good amount of rental property, including two properties that line East Park: a three decker at 5 Risso Ct. and another at 8 East Park Ter.
Now let’s get back to this Little League field proposal. This is what it looks like. And you’ll also notice that most of the work is happening on or around Risso Court.
The scope of work includes regrading the field, upgrading the infield, a new fence, sports lighting, irrigation, dugouts, spectator seating, tree planting and a new parking lot, according to a Parks & Recreation report filed with the council. Now let’s take a closer look at the proposed parking lot.
That’s 32 parking spaces, plus two handicap van spaces and a staff-only space, right along Risso Court. Indeed right across the street from Petrone’s building, 5 Risso Ct. Where these trees are on the left side of the street down here.
The project is being funded in part by a $150,000 check from Wood Partners, the developer at the Mt. Carmel site, and another $500,000 from the state budget, which comes by way of an earmark filed by… *drumroll* …State Senator Mike Moore, good friend of Petrone’s!
“I’m proud to have secured $500,000 of state funding to create and maintain a new baseball field in the same neighborhood to ensure families will have a place to get together with their community and play America’s favorite pastime,” Moore said back in July.
Well, there’s one person who’s not so stoked on this whole thing and that’s Phil Palmieri.
It should be said that Phil is Petrone’s neighbor on Risso Court. Palmieri owns two parcels of land over in the little wedge between Risso Court and East Park. It’s hard to tell which ones by the deed on file but it’s sort of irrelevant. He’s got skin in the game.
Tensions boiled over, apparently, at an April 11 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission called to discuss the proposal, which wasn’t taped and for which there have been no minutes posted. As Palmieri tells it, Petrone “went ballistic” after Palmieri raised his concerns with the location of the project. Palmieri argued that Risso Court is too narrow a street with no sidewalks—indeed it is more of an alley—and that the project would require clearcutting some 60 trees.
“He was totally unhinged,” Palmieri said. “Yelling and screaming and pointing at me, and he was ranting and being very disrespectful and it was just beyond comprehension.”
Petrone, like Mero-Carlson, did not return the text or phone call I made requesting comment.
Palmieri followed up with a letter sent to councilors and state legislators which makes several arguments against the project, the most cogent in my opinion being that there is already a perfectly good baseball field in East Park.
Then after the letter, Palmieri filed a series of council petitions which led to a private meeting with Mero-Carlson where she said, according to him, that she would just hold his petitions. Which is what she did. And in the meeting, she continued to insist that the project is a “done deal,” according to Petrone. Which is consistent with what she said at the public meeting this week.
So that about brings us up to the present. Because the items were held, we’ll get to do this all over again next week. I’m sure Phil Palmieri will come speak at the City Council, and I’m doubly sure Mero-Carlson will find some new tortured way of throwing a hissy fit about it.
Though I’ve taken pains to explain this situation, my opinion on the matter, even after all my research and calls and even a FOIA request, remains the same: who cares. Who could possibly care. Who. Cares. WHO. CARES.
Is there a low-level grift going on here? Probably. Will Petrone personally benefit from the project? Certainly. Was he aided and abetted by his connections in the local Democratic party? 100 percent. But hey, welcome to Massachusetts. Are you new here? This shit happens all the time. It is not a remarkable situation. Transactions like this are the ties which bind the state’s political apparatus. It’s petty, it’s not fair, it’s not transparent, it doesn’t benefit anyone besides the people involved. But it’s par for the course.
The trouble is not the little league project itself, it’s that this is what the city council is equipped to do. These are the issues the City Council has historically focused on. These are the matters on which the City Council chooses to spend its time. On Tuesday the public was made to endure this petty beef by way of an embarrassingly juvenile legal argument amid a six-hour meeting where they couldn’t even get through the whole agenda. Next Thursday, they’re starting early to focus on everything they couldn’t get to this week. And we’re going to have to suffer through this little league nonsense again.
Meanwhile, on an issue which would actually affect Worcester residents in a meaningful way—inclusionary zoning—councilors displayed a level of comprehension that just barely gets them to being able to verbally support the status quo. Kate Toomey’s comments on the matter were stunning.
“I may be misreading it or whatever but it seems to me that it’s very inclusionary. It seems to me as I look here that based on the most current data we have over 100,000 households in the 60-80 percent level and we don’t want to exclude them,” she said.
I bolded the part that warrants bolding. Not looking for a pat on the back here, but I did my homework on inclusionary zoning before writing about it earlier this week. I read the report and I talked to people who know more than me and I read about the history of the general policy idea and I played around with the numbers. It is admittedly complex, but after a day or so of familiarizing myself with it, I have a working knowledge of this policy, what it would do and what it wouldn’t. If you’re a city councilor responsible for voting on this thing, what I did is the bare minimum of what you should be expected to do.
The assertion Toomey makes that “we don’t want to exclude” people who make between 60 and 80 percent of the area median income betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the policy. What does that even mean? It stretches the imagination to assume she did her homework.
Meanwhile, Acting City Manager Eric Batista’s comments revealed that his administration wouldn’t even consider a policy which would cut into a developer’s bottom line.
“What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to provide options for these developers, where they can provide an analysis on understanding and knowing, OK, what best is for me, the 80 percent AMI in terms of having 15 percent of the units meet that percent, or is 10 percent at 60 percent AMI the better option. This gives the developers the option and the opportunity to analyze those numbers and then come back to us and say ‘you know what, this is a better option, this is not a better option,’” Batista said.
“Our concern is that what we’re hearing from developers and folks who are doing this work is that if we do an absolute of only 60 percent AMI, it presents now a bigger challenge for us as a city. Now the city has to think about subsidies and provide subsidies to get to those numbers.”
At all costs, we have to get to those numbers. We take the haircut, not the developer.
And if you have a majority of the City Council willing to say, as Toomey did, “seems to me it’s very inclusionary,” why on earth would you do anything differently? What pressure are you feeling to be beholden to the people of your city over the hedge fund managers trying to park their capital here? As Councilor Etel Haxhiaj said, the city needs to put people over profit. But hers is a minority opinion on this board.
In my post earlier this week explaining inclusionary zoning, I wrote:
That Batista and the majority of the council appear to be incapable of budging on this one small thing out of fear it might cut into a developer’s expectation of windfall profit is a symptom of a large and deeply-ingrained failure of imagination and confidence here in this weird little city.
And that failure of imagination was on full display Tuesday night. Most of the councilors spoke in the fashion Toomey did. They barely understood the proposal but got themselves just to the point they could verbalize an argument in support of the city manager. Sorry—acting city manager. For now.
We’re just not going to get a meaningful affordable housing policy out of this current city council. That should be clear to us by now. We don’t have the votes. The majority of the city council is deferential to a city manager who is deferential to developers. The possibility of adopting policies which even inconvenience developers is beyond the pale. We simply don’t want to govern.
So, while someone over on the East Side is getting a new parking lot, we’re not getting more affordable housing. That’s about all this city council is capable of doing. All we can do for now, as people who want to see the council do better, is keep pointing out why that is. There is a failure of imagination at work here in the very culture of the board and it needs to be radically changed.
That change is possible! And I think on the phone Palmieri actually put it quite nicely, even hopefully, though he was just taking a pot shot at a former colleague.
“(Mero-Carlson’s) political attitude has been met at the ballot box with real change wanting to take place,” he said. “The last time (Carlson) ran, she spent nearly $50,000 between her money and help and the other gal (Johanna Hampton Dance) spent $5,000 and she only beat her by 200 votes. That to me was the bellwether of real change taking place and we saw it on the council recently and then with Robyn Kennedy I was really blown away.”
Sure hope he’s right because man, something’s got to give.
Thank you for reading as always! Please consider throwing me some cash every month. It’s like donating to NPR if NPR was just some freakin guy writing about Worcester.
And it’s also like NPR in that I made tote bags!
Seems like I have a grip of new subscribers this week and that’s probably due to this excellent story by Neal McNamara at the Patch on the city’s unhoused population and whether or not it should pursue sanctioning places for people to pitch tents. I don’t blame the stodgy old local news agencies for never doing it but it is nice to see Worcester Sucks quoted, linked and credited. Thank you, Neal. Along with an overview of the local situation, Neal’s story includes a wider review of the idea and interviews with experts on the finer points of it. I found this passage to be the most salient:
(Lily Milwit, an attorney with the National Homelessness Law Center) said her organization wants governments to focus on funding housing for unsheltered residents and wraparound services. But in the interim, the homeless should be offered services where they live, even if that's a tent. Even though camps are “problematic,” Milwit said sweeps can be worse, setting people back on their journey toward housing. Sweeps also scatter the homeless, cutting their ties to outreach workers.
"Homelessness is the result of no choices," she said. "Telling them where they can or cannot be homeless is the ultimate egregious indignity."
It’s always important to keep the dignity of unhoused people as people central to any analysis or reporting on the issue because it’s in that detail where the real devil lies. There is a move in our society toward a certain erasure of that dignity. Let’s just put it that way. But there are also examples of progress being made in the other direction. It’s on my to-do list to read this NYT longform review of housing activism in Houston, where it seems they’re really accomplishing something with novel organizing tactics. If you read it, lemme know what you think.
While we’re at it I’d suggest reading this Jacobin story on the affordable housing problem as it is very germane to the discussion in Worcester and makes many good points. We could be doing so, so much more. But first we need the imagination to consider what more we could be doing and the courage to follow through. Short supply on both fronts currently. What you might call a “squeeze.”
Oh!! And if you want to come see me and some good pals and RICHARD LLOYD OF THE BAND TELEVISION play tunes, mark your calendars for Nov. 16 and come down to Ralph’s. Tickets here.
Ok, I have a wedding this weekend and a ton of wedding-related errands to run today, so that’s all for me. Bye bye :-)