Discover more from Worcester Sucks and I Love It
It went down exactly like we knew it would
Process be damned!
Today’s a guest post from first-time contributor Deb Powers (hopefully not the last!) on the vote to appoint City Manager Eric Batista.
Under normal circumstances I’d have been happy to write this vote up, but circumstances have not been normal! If you missed it, I wrote earlier this week about these decidedly un-normal circumstances...
...and since I’ve been hard at work following up on this investigation, what it means for Worcester, and what it is the Department of Justice might find. More on that in the coming days (and weeks and months and likely years as these “pattern and practice investigations” are often very lengthy processes).
But I don’t want this city manager appointment to go unreported on in here, even though it was a foregone conclusion. So on the Worcestery Council Theatre 3000 stream Tuesday, I called for reinforcements. Is there anyone, I asked, who feels sufficiently motivated to write up this meeting in a Worcester Sucks fashion? Deb heeded the call, and she did a great job! She captured the messy nature of the vote, the rightfully dissenting opinions of our fledgling progressive bloc, as well as the inane drudgery that went along with it. In the same meeting they abdicated their responsibilty to conduct a city manager search, they spent hours talking about how there’s rats and debating whether there should be chickens. The City Council as currently composed is plainly a failure, and Deb offers us a great little glimpse at what that failure looks like.
But first, a thought on the local media economy and my long-term vision for Worcester Sucks.
I’m grateful to make a modest living off this newsletter (so much so I do not need a second job at the moment to maintain the peasant lifestyle to which I’m accustomed) but also to pay contributors like Deb to enrich this publication with new and varied voices. The only way this thing makes any money is by direct reader contributions. The genius of that funding model is I’m free to be as aggressive and innovative as possible so long as people are digging it. There are no advertisers to appease. So much of the conventions of local journalism making it lackluster are bound up with appeasement of local advertisers. I don’t give a flying fuck what the Hanover Theater thinks about my writing and I don’t have to.
You, however... You, the person reading this. You, the person who wants to be informed about how the city works and how it could be different and what prevents the difference from happening—I give a big flying fuck about you. This direct contribution model of this newsletter, especially given I don’t do paywalls or gimmicks, incentivizes the relationship between writer and reader—which should be the only relationship worth considering—in a novel way.
Look at Ray Mariano over there at the Telegram. Look at the drivel he puts out. Look at how they laid off all their other columnists and he’s the only one they’re left with (maybe because he writes for free? Can’t prove it but I know it). It’s no fault of any of the actual journalists employed over there, but the Telegram’s model—or MassLive, or the Patch, where there are also very good local journalists—is just not a model which incentivizes good writing. Good writers and reporters like the T&G’s Brad Petrishen (who is the king in Worcester, in my opinion) exist in spite of the model. They are writers paid by a model which doesn’t care about writing.
The only evidence needed to support this theory is that Ray Mariano writes there. There’s no way around this: he’s awful. Just plain dreadful. His last column is shameless. Not even going to link it.
A model for paying writers which valued good writing wouldn’t allow for a guy like Mariano. He’s self serving, transparently cronyish, lazy, and seemingly incapable of self reflection. Nothing he says addresses a real problem of significance to real people. He’s just a catty little guy defending his crony friends, Maureen Binienda chief among them. Because he does it for pretty much free, and he’s an “inner circle” guy, the Telegram lets him. Because the local news economy is so sparse, he’s the only regular “columnist” in a traditional sense who writes about the city. Put Ray Mariano in the position I’m in, where his livelihood is determined by his ability to articulate truth and resonate with people to the point they voluntarily throw him money, and that guy withers like new grass in a drought. Of course, he doesn’t need to write to survive in the way I do. He’s a retiree living in Cape Cod and he just gets his drivel published by the paper of record for free. Every week, another mockery of what Telegram columnists used to do.
Unlike Mariano, I’m in a situation where if this Worcester Sucks thing wasn’t making any money I would not be able to dedicate the time and energy required to produce it. That’s the hard truth I accepted when I quit Worcester Magazine to launch this back in 2020: Either this Substack thing works and I can afford to live or I’m done with journalism and I’m gunna work at the post office or something.
When I launched Worcester Sucks, I remember some people naively saying I had the makings of the next big Telegram columnist, in the tradition of Clive McFarlane or Dianne Williamson. Respect to both of them! But it’s so laughably hard to explain just how how naive that assumption was. I’ll never be the Next Great Telegram Columnist just as the Telegram will never have a Next Great Columnist. That sort of journalism is dead and buried under the weight of predatory venture capital practices which are never going away. Nothing a company like Gannett takes away is ever coming back. So you just have Ray Marianos now. That’s it. Depressing.
My ultimate goal for Worcester Sucks is a real, heavy-hitting, scrappy alternative newsroom covering the city like a hawk. An alt-weekly of old, but adapted to the current media landscape. For now, the financial reality sustains my trying my hardest to provide you that sort of scrappy, hard-hitting work, and a little money to spare to cultivate a roster of contributors who aim to do the same. However, the Worcester Sucks in my imagination is a bonafide staff. Me and several similarly-minded people working full time under one banner. A couple more writers with different focuses. A photographer. A graphic designer. Etc.
The more people who sign on for a paid subscription, the closer we get to making that ultimate newsroom goal a reality, and even if it never happens, we still get to figure out how much we can accomplish with the direct reader contribiution model on a local level. There are ~600 people who already make that small monthly or yearly investment in Worcester Sucks and that’s unreal to think about. I am so grateful for each and every one of you. There are ~2,500 total subscribers, however, and the more I convince to move over to a paid subscription, the more we can do around here. I don’t paywall stories or do other such gimmicks to “convert” subscribers, I just ask nicely. So this is me asking nicely and also offering a big holiday sale type deal which is good until the new year 🙂
Ok, take it away Deb.
Worcester appointed an official city manager, and it went down exactly like we knew it would
By Deb Powers (@wootownwoman)
On Tuesday night, after weeks of holds and months of public telegraphing, the Worcester City Council voted to offer a permanent contract to the current Acting City Manager. I'm not telling you anything you didn't already know, especially if you've been reading Worcester Sucks and I Love It for lo these many months. In fact, Bill called it the day Ed Augustus announced his abrupt resignation back in March. It's right here:
Just about a week later, his prediction started to come true. This was April 6:
However, the City Council did vote (almost) unanimously to conduct a good-faith search. Only George Russell voted against, because he wanted to hand Batista the contract then and there. They kinda had to, since the School Committee was just wrapping up their national search for a new superintendent, and their process was generating a whole lot of positive buzz, and their pick for the new super very quickly became popular with the community. It was almost like they were holding up a flashing neon sign for the City Council saying "This is how you do it!" Which is kinda funny in retrospect, since at least one city councilor brought up the school committee search with a comment about there not being a right way and a wrong way.
That was much, much later in the evening, though — did I mention that it was yet another 5-hour meeting? The meeting kicked off at 6:30 with the usual public comment period, and for the second meeting in a row, there were a lot of people there who came to say just one thing:
"I was born and raised in Worcester, and Eric Batista is the perfect guy to run the city."
There were a few other comments that had to do with other items on the agenda, but they were mostly drowned out by the chorus of praise for Eric. One did stand out, though — Idella Hazard (everybody's favorite City Hall grandma) spoke in support of her own item on the night's agenda — a petition to bring religious leaders in to start City Council meetings with an opening prayer. She also spoke in support of continuing a national search for a city manager, because it's the right way to do it. There were also a few folks talking about a noise ordinance, and about the — let me check my notes on this one—"saturation of boarding houses and SROs" in just a few neighborhoods in the city. And rats. They talked about rats.
In case you haven't figured it out, the public comment period was foreshadowing. The city council did eventually get to talking about the City Manager contract, but not before spending almost an hour talking about rats. The councilors wanted to know what is being done about the explosion of rats on Lincoln St and Greendale. They wanted to know who is paying for abatement. They wanted to know what is being done to educate residents about abatement. Who is telling them to stop feeding the birds? (Sidebar: Apparently, there is a bird feeder war going on with a resident who is ignoring instructions to take. down. the. bird. feeder. I don't make this stuff up.) Also, chickens made their first appearance during the rat hour. Moe Bergman pointed out that chickens attract rats, and he has the numbers: each chicken attracts up to 11 rats. He doesn't understand how we can be considering allowing chickens in the city when we have a rat problem. He had a lot more to say about chickens later. I don't know what a chicken did to Moe, but he has some serious hate for the little critters.
What with the chickens, the rats, and a bunch of items bundled off to different city departments, we didn't get to the city manager discussion until 2 hours into the meeting. And that's where it got interesting. Or confusing. Sometimes, it's hard to tell the difference between the two. For starters, there were four separate orders pertaining to the city manager on the agenda:
Item 19h: suspend the search process for the next permanent City Manager
Item 19i. appoint Eric Batista as the next permanent City Manager.
Item 19j. Go into Executive Session at the next meeting to negotiate a contract for Eric Batista
Item 19k. an order from Councilor King requesting a series of community conversations with Eric Batista so that he can hear directly from the community and all stakeholders what their needs are, and use it to shape his vision of the city going forward.
As you can see, one of these things is not like the others… Item 19k is a listening tour made by a prospective candidate so he can introduce himself, make the case for why the city should hire him, and hear from people that don't usually get to talk to folks like the city manager. Ideally, this would happen before he gets the royal nod. But the mayor wants to present them all together, get that contract voted on and settled, and make his announcement. In that scenario, Councilor King's listening tour becomes a victory lap presenting the new prize to the community as a fait accompli.
Councilor Nguyen asks to hold the first three items until the next meeting. However, since it's already been held twice, the council needs to vote on whether they can hold it again. So we get the first round of speeches about why Eric Batista is the perfect person for the job, which is why he should a) be offered a contract several weeks ago or b) win the job through a national search process. Absolutely no one will go on record saying that there just might maybe be, you know, someone more qualified for the job, but Rose, Rivera, Nguyen, Haxhiaj, and King all make the case that PROCESS is important. As someone said during the public comments, "We're not a podunk city. We need to stop acting like one."
The other camp counters that a national search will take months (which is why it should have been started months ago, but I digress), and the city needs a permanent city manager NOW. It's suddenly urgent, because, they say, investors are holding off on making investments because they're not sure if they'll be dealing with this guy (Batista) or another guy. Apparently, Carlson believes that's why City Hall is having trouble hiring staff—who wants to take a job when you don't know who your boss will be? The city needs a sense of stability, and Eric has proven that he can do the job, so we should give it to him without making him wait any longer.
If that all sounds chaotic, it's because it was. In the best tradition of Worcester City Council meetings, every councilor had to make a statement, even if they had nothing to say. In fact, George Russell, who was the last one to speak, started off with, "Well, I'm the only one who hasn't talked yet, so I figure I should say something." He went on to point out that he'd never wanted to do a search, and had, in fact, advocated for giving Batista a 2-year contract right out the gate in June.
Eventually—it's almost been an hour now—the mayor calls for a vote on Nguyen's motion to hold the first three items. They need 4 votes to hold, but they don’t get it. Only Nguyen, King, and Haxhiaj vote to hold, so the votes go forward.
The vote to suspend the search process is the most interesting — it passes 6 to 5, along the expected lines. King, Rose, Nguyen, Haxhiaj, and Rivera vote to continue the search process. Petty, Colorio, Bergman, Mero Carlson, Russell, and Toomey vote to suspend it. Bye bye search. (Note from Bill: this is yet again the Normative Six versus the Other Five as outlined in this post last month. That cultural critique of the council continues to hold water.)
The order to appoint Batista and negotiate his contract both pass, 8-3, with Rose and Rivera joining the other six to vote yes. King, Nguyen, and Haxhiaj all stand on their no.
The final vote in the bunch—the listening tour—gets a unanimous yes, but not before some sparks fly about the language. Specifically, Bergman takes issue with the use of the phrase "other appropriate stakeholders," because, he says, he can guess who those stakeholders will be. Not that he had to guess—King did present a pretty extensive list of groups he thought should be represented in these conversations: the unhoused, climate activists, disability advocates, affordable housing advocates, greenspace advocates… it was a laundry list of all the interest groups in the city who might, you know, possibly have an interest or a stake in setting city priorities. (Bill note: A proposed schedule for these “listening” sessions is on the agenda for the Council meeting Tuesday, for what it’s worth. Five of them taking place from Nov. 30-Dec. 14, though the Council could change that.) Eventually, after a couple of amendments, it passes, and the agenda returns to normal business.
The meeting continued for another 90 minutes, with a significant portion of it devoted to equity zoning — the aforementioned saturation of SROs and rooming houses in two districts — and chickens. Bergman even managed to claim that a chicken ordinance could become an equity issue because tenants could only own chickens with their landlord's permission. He also joked that if coyotes could vote, they'd vote for the chicken ordinance, to which Russell replied, "If coyotes could vote, they'd vote to adjourn."
Which Mayor Petty did, without even waiting for a voice vote.
Ok Bill again. Thanks for readin'!
Do you want to write for Worcester Sucks like Deb did today? Would you like to be on some sort of assignment list for stories I’d like to get to but can’t? Email me!
And I’ll be back at you soon with more on the DOJ investigation!
For now, I’d highly suggest watching We Own This City on HBO for a little glimpse at what these investigations are actually like.
Have you seen it? What did you think?
Ok bye bye! Going to see Charley Crockett tonight!! Weee!