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"O Lord make my enemies ridiculous"
Political violence, corruption in the police department, a spurious media project!
Gunna leave this Voltaire quote at the top as an epigraph of sorts.
I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: 'O Lord make my enemies ridiculous. ' And God granted it.
In the context of Worcester politics it resonates like a freakin’ gong.
Long one today but there’s much to talk about: The Haxhiaj situation, a tough week for Steve Sargent, an update on the Worcester Guardian, and then some thoughts about the mayor race.
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“I, Along With Others”
So this happened Friday night.
Like I said on Twitter, it’s not a productive game to speculate about who did this. It’s obviously political and it’s obviously an effort to intimidate. But the list of likely suspects is unfortunately long. Better, I think, to state the obvious: 1. Whoever did this is a fuckin’ pussy. 2. This is the sort of pussy move you pull when you know you’re losing.
We don’t need to know who the pussy is, we just need to make sure they know they’re a pussy for doing it. (Sorry for the gendered language but sometimes there’s only one appropriate word and in this case synonyms like “coward” don’t quite cut it! “Candy ass” comes close but still.) This was a person who aimed for “tough guy” and missed the mark completely. Pussy move!
That this happened and we’re primed for more of it in the next couple months means we need a lot of sunlight and a lot of vigilance and a lot of loud condemnation. Kudos to Etel’s opponent, Jose Rivera, for joining in on the condemnation! Not taking the tack of some of his most vocal online supporters and going full Alex Jones about it.
Pretty much everyone in the local political scene has quickly condemned this in no uncertain terms. But then there’s Kate Toomey, who like any good narcissist found a way to make herself the main character.
“I, along with others….”
Weird to downplay what happened to Haxhiaj and her family! After she was done putting herself in the middle in Tweet #1, she follows it up with Tweet #2:
No direct mention of the incident. Instead, a vague allusion to multiple instances. At first I took this as a bit of rhetorical dodgeball, but it appears she might be referencing a Facebook post from Councilor Donna Colorio, (which was posted at about 11 a.m. Saturday, well after Etel’s post Friday night).
“Just for the record.” O Lord...
The post is and of itself another example of the narcissist’s impulse to claim main character status. In the timing and the way it’s worded, it’s ridiculous to see it otherwise. ‘Oh you got a baseball thrown at your window while you were having dinner? Look at these two eggs on my car.’
It’s shitty that Colorio and Toomey skirted around direct condemnation. But it’s even worse they’re conflating the two things. I suppose when it’s “your side” throwing the baseball, it’s worth sacrificing intellectual honesty for the more convenient “both sides” narrative. Tough decision if you assign any value to that kind of honesty but if you don’t? Why not! Easy choice.
It’s a special kind of person that sees a baseball getting thrown at someone else’s window and says ‘I’m the victim here.’
It’s another special kind of person that sees the same baseball and refuses to believe it.
Both of those sorts of people are unfortunately abundant around here! Some of them even use white nationalist language to show it! Literal nazis!
Toomey and Colorio would do well to consider that in adopting a “both sides” framework, people like this are on “their side.”
The most important thing to keep in mind: this incident and all the flavors of bad faith reaction to it are expressions of a certain petulance–power slipping through the hands of people who remain convinced of entitlement to it. Objective reality eroding the foundation of a fictitious reality they were promised. Unwilling to concede the promise was false, they kick and scream for another explanation. It’s the window they say and then they throw a baseball at it.
O lord make my enemies ridiculous.
Speaking of ridiculous enemies... The Steve Sargent story has continued to get worse and worse and worse since his sudden, spurious “retirement” earlier this month. (In case you missed it, read up: So long, Steve Sargent!).
However beleaguered the Telegram might be, they’ve been able to keep Brad Petrishen on payroll doing the sort of righteous investigative work that newspapers should be doing. For years, he’s dug into the Worcester Police Department and its various abuses. With some help from Neal McNamara over at the Patch, this past week was a breakthrough moment for a case Petrishen has spent much time and energy building. It deserves to be documented as such so I guess that’s where I come in.
On Wednesday, a pair of stories hit our little corner of the Internet which dramatically worsened the situation for Sargent, his “interim” successor Paul Saucier and both our former and current city managers.
First, about 4 p.m., Neal McNamara published a story headlined “City Investigated Ex-Worcester Police Chief Over Road Rage.” The lede:
Former Worcester police chief Steven Sargent was the subject of an independent investigation over a 2019 road rage altercation with a city resident, but former city manager Ed Augustus Jr. rejected the findings, calling them "not conclusive," according to internal documents received by Worcester Patch under a public records request.
The investigation documents a 2019 incident in which Sargent was driving to the grocery store one September day when he was inconvenienced by a man pulling a car out of a driveway.
The homeowner told Gardner in an interview that Sargent got out of his car and walked into his driveway. When the man went to see what Sargent was doing, the chief began swearing, calling the man a "f--king fat ass" and other epithets, according to Gardner's investigation. The homeowner also reported smelling alcohol on Sargent's breath, information he later relayed to a 911 dispatcher.
The altercation grew so loud that it drew the attention of a neighbor walking her dog and the homeowner’s wife and children.
Sargent maintained the man had “committed traffic violations,” justifying the screaming and such. He also “denied drinking immediately before the incident, except possibly two beers earlier in the day, the investigation said.”
I put together a handy guide for what “two beers” means around here.
Charged with investigating a 911 call made by the homeowner about Sargent’s behavior, several police officers—including Saucier!—pretty clearly conspired to make the thing go away. An officer who went to Sargent’s house to “follow up” texted him after to apologize for doing so. He texted the chief: “Embarrassed that I went to ur house and disturbed u eating w ur family. I wanted to see u in case this goes further. Now this fool cannot claim we did nothing.”
No one got the other side of the story, however! Not until an independent investigator hired by Augustus in October cracked the case back open a month later.
(The investigator’s) conclusion was that the chief's story was likely not accurate, and found evidence that Sargent has a quick temper. The chief grew angry at one point when Gardner mentioned talking to a former assistant city manager, according to the investigation.
Gardner also found fault with Ryder and Saucier's role in upholding department Policy 500, which governs how complaints are handled.
Ryder, Saucier, and Sargent failed to “ensure that a citizen complaint was properly investigated, including giving the citizen the opportunity to file a written complaint, preparing necessary reports about the incident and failing to refer the matter to the Bureau of Professional Standards,” he wrote.
Gardner also concluded that Sargent violated several key department rules, including engaging in conduct unbecoming of an officer and not being truthful. He also found Ryder in violation of department rules for disparaging the homeowner in the text exchange with Sargent.
So what did Augustus do with this report? Nothing. In a memo that city officials say was written a month ago (some four years after the incident) Augustus, now Governor Maura Healey’s housing secretary, wrote:
“I discussed this with the chief and expressed my strong displeasure that he had put himself in this position. I determined that the reported evidence was not conclusive and therefore did not accept the findings,” the memo said.
Batista told the Patch that “no final disposition memorialized” for the report. Needing one to file it with the POST Commission, they reached out to Augustus to write one. But plot twist! Since Augustus wrote in that memo that he didn’t accept the findings, the city isn’t going to send the investigation to the POST Commission after all!
The investigation will not be shared with the state POST Commission because the allegations were not sustained, according to Batista's office.
So that was all from Neal’s story.
Then Brad Petrishen’s story on the matter comes out a few hours later, around 8 p.m. Wednesday: “Former Worcester City Manager Augustus shelved investigation that implicated police chief”
While it covers the same ground working off the same material, it included a few details which shed major light on Sargent’s surprise “retirement.” These two in particular:
The city released the investigation to the T&G Sept. 5, one business day after Sargent abruptly retired.
The city released the statement and Gardner’s investigation pursuant to a public records request the newspaper filed July 30, seeking all investigations into the chief since 2019.
A little inside baseball here: The backbone of investigative journalism is requesting government records. Legally, records like an investigation into a police chief’s “two beer” road rage incident are public and cannot be kept from the public. But that doesn’t mean they’re made available to the public. Such documents are functionally secret until they are unearthed by a painstaking process. You have to know what to ask for and you have to very specifically ask for it. You have to know how to ask for it and how to keep asking for it as city officials duck and dodge providing it. This cat-and-mouse game journalists and city officials play with such records can take months or years and sometimes escalate to protracted legal battles. But even when a journalist is successful in unearthing one of these records, there is a window of time in which only the city officials know the record is going to be made public, and then there’s a window of time only the journalists and the city officials know that a public record is functionally public. Finally, once the journalist reports on said record, it becomes functionally public.
In this specific instance, city officials knew the records would eventually become functionally public on July 30. On Sept. 5, they were released to the public but not publicly known, and on Sept. 13 they became public knowledge in a functional sense, via Brad and Neal’s stories. In this context, Sargent’s Sept. 1 retirement came one month after the city knew they could no longer keep the investigation a secret and one business day before they handed it over to journalists. To claim this is a mere retirement is ridiculous when you look at the timeline clearly. So let’s refresh...
September, 2019: Sargent (then police chief) got into a road rage incident with a resident that was so flagrant it warranted investigation. Saucier (current “interim” chief) and another officer “investigated” by... asking Sargent what happened. They immediately cleared him without getting the other side of the story.
October, 2019: Then City Manager Ed Augustus commissioned an independent investigation of the incident.
January, 2020: The investigator submitted findings which showed that Sargent did in fact act monstrously and probably lied about it. The assertion was backed up with evidence. Augustus took the report to be “not conclusive” and “did not accept the findings.” Unclear whether he documented the decision in any way. He certainly didn’t tell the public.
July 30, 2023: Brad Petrishen files a records request for “all investigations into the chief since 2019.”
August, 2023: News breaks that disciplinary records for Chief Sargent were—oops!—never sent to the POST Commission’s database. Current City Manager Eric Batista blamed former City Manager Ed Augustus for this and claims he was unaware.
Also August, 2023: Upon Batista’s request, Augustus writes a memo explaining the decision he made to “not accept the findings” of this investigation back in 2020. It is the only known documentation of this decision.
September 1, 2023: Augustus’ memo is stamped and dated and included at the end of the investigation document.
Also September 1, 2023: Sargent “retires,” effective immediately. Hours later, Saucier is named as “interim” replacement.
September 5, 2023: One business day later!, the investigation was released to journalists. City officials have certain leeway on deciding when they send something. They could have responded to the records request on July 30. Waiting until September 5 was a choice, and a very revealing one when considering how they marketed Sargent’s departure to the public.
September 13, 2023: The investigation is finally made public via Neal and Brad’s stories.
In Petrishen’s story, he makes a point of noting that Augustus, Sargent, Saucier and Batista declined to be interviewed. This is the former and current city manager and the former and current police chief—all stuck in the same mud, all taking the same “no comment” position.
This investigation into Sargent’s behavior is just one of 12! And it isn’t even the one that got him into this mess. The whole document is worth a look. Kudos to McNamara for hosting and embedding it in his story.
And that was only Wednesday!
On Thursday, Petrishen follows up with an attempt to get reactions from city councilors: “Embarrassing:” Councilors Haxhiaj, King say scrutiny warranted after police chief’s exit.
If you’re thinking something like “how the hell was this obviously corrupt behavior allowed to happen?” this passage is the answer:
The T&G sent emails to all 11 councilors Thursday morning requesting interviews by 3 p.m. Only King, Haxhiaj and District 3 Councilor George Russell could be reached.
All three councilors said they were unaware of the 2020 investigation that Augustus dismissed prior to Wednesday.
Russell said he was not familiar enough with the specifics of Augustus’ decision to comment on its merits. He noted that city councilors are barred by city charter from having a hand in nearly all personnel matters.
Of the 11 city councilors, only three dared to respond to Petrishen at all, and only two dared comment. The two that did are among the progressive minority on the board.
Councilor-at-Large Khrystian King and District 5 Councilor Etel Haxhiaj said reporting on multiple previously undisclosed investigations regarding the chief warrants further examination at City Hall.
“I’m just concerned [that] whatever internal practices HR, the city manager and others follow, clearly aren’t accountable and transparent to the public,” said Haxhiaj.
And King said he intends to press the city manager for a “verified account” of all this, which will at least keep the story in the news.
It’s extremely telling that the mayor and the majority of the council decided not to weigh in. They’re not in charge! The charter might say they’re in charge but the culture of the council says otherwise. The normative behavior for a city councilor is deference to the manager and even more so to the police chief. (For more on this idea: The “other five” versus the “normative six”).
And then on Friday, Petrishen hammers it home with another follow-up, this time focused on the person who’s actually in charge the way things currently work: “Batista pledges police transparency, says reporting hastened chief’s retirement” The lede:
City Manager Eric D. Batista, in a radio interview Thursday, said he and Interim Police Chief Paul Saucier are committed to transparency, and he indicated that reporting regarding the conduct of former Police Chief Steven M. Sargent had hastened Sargent's retirement.
“Let’s be an open book,” Batista quoted Saucier as telling him when interviewing for the position.
Saucier saying, as Batista claimed, the phrase “let’s be an open book” is extremely hard to reconcile with the pair of stories released the day earlier! In that investigation, Saucier appears dedicated to keeping the book closed. What’s that saying about actions and words?
Batista said he disagreed with a finding by the investigator that Saucier failed to ensure Sargent was investigated, and said he and Saucier agreed transparency would be a department priority.
How are you saying this when it’s documented in that investigation that Saucier got Sargent’s side of the story, ignored the other party completely, then called it a day? The majority of the City Council might not be paying attention but people are paying attention! This is a bad look! Not subtle!
And then this masterful line from Petrishen throwing the whole thing into the realm of absurdist theater:
“I was very adamant with the new interim that we wanted transparency,” said Batista, who, along with Saucier, declined interview requests lodged by the T&G regarding the 2020 probe.
Translation: “Transparency” is a good thing to say so long as we all agree we don’t actually do it.
The one-two punch of these follow-up stories from Petrishen—first showing the Council is not interested in oversight of the manager, then showing the manager is not interested in oversight of the police—paint an accurate picture of an overarching problem in Worcester and every other city in America. City Hall simply does not have control over the police department. It might be written that way in the governing documents, but it doesn’t work like that. The cops do what they want. City Hall gives them what they want. Sargent made that relationship a little too difficult to keep quiet. That’s why he had to go. (For more on this idea of the warped power relationship between police and city hall, which deserves significant scrutiny but doesn’t ever get it: Who controls who? The proof is in the bargaining.)
To accept this political dynamic as reality, there emerges a certain line of inquiry that’s been missing from the discourse around what happened at Haxhiaj’s home.
On Thursday, she was quoted saying:
“I am really looking forward to hearing from the city manager how he will handle the most recent reports, and what kind of internal review processes he will reevaluate and change.”
And then the next day... you know... This is not an allegation or speculation. I don’t know who threw the baseball and I’m not trying to find out. There’s all sorts of potential motivators for an act like this. But I do think this particular potential motivator warrants consideration. The timing alone! And it doesn’t seem to be coming up in the discourse. We’re stuck in a certain mental box that precludes it. This is something that happens in “politics.” It has to do with the specific race in a specific election. But what if it isn’t, you know? For obvious reasons, I suppose, no one goes there. It’s a scary thing to propose. But what makes it scary is the same thing that makes the sunlight necessary. It is worth considering, precisely because it is the most dangerous thing to consider.
I’ll leave you with a small but incredibly insane detail that Ray Mariano chucked into a recent column:
(Former Police Chief Tom Leahy) was quiet, unassuming and incredibly effective. I remember one night the police union was throwing its weight around and harassing city councilors — they blocked councilors' cars in the City Hall garage and then went upstairs and literally stood behind councilors' chairs in the council chamber. In executive session some councilors were in a panic and turned to Leahy for help. He nodded, then walked quietly out of the room. We never heard a peep from the police union again.
It’s been weeks since this column came out, but I find myself thinking about it often. How Mariano presented it as normal, how the council relied on the police chief to put an end to it, how in Mariano’s worldview it was a favor that he did, the implication they were grateful that the chief put an end to it, and the tacit acknowledgement they were themselves powerless to stop it. Fast forward to 2023: Nine out of 11 city councilors refused to even comment on a damning story about the police chief of the city they ostensibly lead.
Why is that?
“Fair and balanced” freelancers
Speaking yet again of ridiculous enemies!
Not going to spend a lot of time on this but my last post on the Worcester Guardian got a lot of play! Thank you to everyone who read and shared. Even made it onto Sam Seder’s Majority Report on Friday! And then Sam subscribed! Hooray!! Thank you!
There’s two updates: One, the Chamber of Commerce removed the “about” page they plagiarized. They didn’t change it they just deleted it from the website (big lol). Another good catch from Kevin Ksen. U
nfortunately for the Chamber of Commerce the Wayback Machine exists.
Two: The new outlet (which they’re very careful to say is not a mouthpiece for the Chamber of Commerce it is definitely independent and definitely journalism) is hiring! Sort of! In a release Thursday:
The Worcester Guardian, a new nonprofit independent news organization, is hiring freelance journalists with a strong interest in community news.
Which is it? Are they freelance or are you hiring them? Unclear. But not to worry:
Experience is not required, but the ideal candidates will be engaging writers with a proven track record of producing accurate, fair and balanced journalism.
Freelancers must be able to work on a deadline, capable of taking photos and comfortable using social media. Remote work is available. Competitive pay.
Interested freelancers should email a resume and area of interest to Dave Nordman, consultant to the Worcester Guardian, at: firstname.lastname@example.org
No editor yet but “competitive pay” for freelancers! All you have to do is email our ummm consultant. Like we said there’s no editor. Make sure you’re “fair and balanced” though. Like we said we’re not a mouthpiece for the Chamber of Commerce. We’re independent. But if you’re going to apply you should be “fair and balanced.”
In my breakdown of the preliminary election results, I took a quick look at the at-large council race in November. Breaking down the political positions of each candidate, I put At-Large Council candidate Guillermo Creamer in a “wildcard” position, based on whether he withdraws from the mayor’s race:
Progressives: Domenica Perrone, Johanna Hampton-Dance, Khrystian King, Maydee Morales, Thu Nguyen
Center: Joe Petty, Bill Coleman
Crank: Donna Colorio, Kate Toomey, Moe Bergman
Wildcard: Guillermo Creamer Jr. (His status as “center” or “progressive” depends on whether he stays in or withdraws from the mayoral race. More on that whole thing another time.)
Well, now we have our answer, I suppose. He’s not withdrawing. The deadline to do so was Tuesday. The mayor’s race is set: a five-way contest among Petty, King, Colorio, Coleman and Creamer.
Creamer’s decision to stay in the mayoral race makes him a center candidate—not because of his personality, his politics, his messaging or his stated allegiance. It’s because of who his mayoral candidacy benefits and who it hurts. I can understand why he’d feel otherwise, and a little subtweet of this analysis last week demonstrates he does. He wrote: “It’s wild to me that I’ve been labeled as “center” when all of the policy (and work I’ve done over the years) I have put out is progressive and progressive-leaning. Democracy requires choices. Folks are not entitled to seats, they earn them. Guess I’m just a wildcard.”
A misunderstanding, albeit an understandable one. Worcester politics has long been an arena in which candidates are assessed individually. Though there are clear factions in the political landscape, the claim that city elections are “non-partisan” dissuades consideration of movements. The movements exist, of course. But recognizing they exist is a privilege reserved for people “in the know.” The general public doesn’t get to know about the movements because it’s not “objective” for the local press to talk about them. Joe Petty knows. Tim Murray knows.
I have tried very hard in this newsletter to wiggle past that rhetorical barrier and develop a vocabulary for understanding local politics as a competition between factions. And the factions themselves as expressions of wider political movements. The three basic factions I’ve identified—“The Cranks,” “The Center” and “Progressives,”—are useful for getting past the lie that municipal politics are “non-partisan.” They’re useful for explaining split votes on the council floor. They’re useful for explaining who really has power, and who that power serves. They are not at all useful in assessing the character of individual candidates. “Progressive” is especially useless in this regard because anyone in Massachusetts besides the crankiest of the cranks can just say they’re “progressive” without catching any flak. But when you look at the current City Council as four “Cranks” and four “Centers” aligned against three “Progressives,” all the 8-3 split votes over the past two years come into a certain focus.
Similarly, if you look at this election in terms of competing factions and movements as opposed to a contest between self-interested, non-partisan individuals, the mayoral race comes into clarity. There is a clear avatar for the center faction in Joe Petty. There is a clear avatar for the progressive faction in Khrystian King. There is a clear avatar for the cranks in Colorio. But for Creamer to also run, positioned as a progressive, complicates and weakens the progressive faction’s ability to articulate itself as a movement. Creamer becomes a “center” candidate by deciding to stay in the mayor race because it was good for the center that he did that. It muddies what could have been a clear expression of contest between two political visions in Petty vs King. While Petty is a crystal clear avatar of the center faction, the progressive faction heads to November without one. And via that lack of internal discipline and coordination, we’re all too primed for the usual death knells of left-wing movements: in-fighting and purity testing.
This is the last comment I’ll make on the choice between King and Creamer, unless I’m forced to make another: King is the obvious choice for mayor and should have been the only choice. Both Creamer and King are good people with good intentions and it would be foolish to suggest otherwise. The only difference that matters is one has a strong claim to the position of avatar of a serious progressive movement. The other does not. My choice is King. I wish Creamer the best of luck and I think he’d make a fine city councilor.
The King vs Creamer debate is the absolute worst place to invest any of the time, energy and passion required to ensure a progressive win in November. Any attempt to center it should be met with skepticism. If you like Creamer that’s fine. But there should be no attempt to recognize his candidacy as a legitimate contest. It simply isn’t.
If Colorio had dropped out, as was rumored to happen, the Creamer wrinkle would have taken on an added significance. But she didn’t! We dodged a bullet there. And it leaves Petty less motivation to track rightward, which is also good! We all know he would have if he had to. But Creamer’s candidacy still leaves us with the impulse to indulge the sort of cannibalistic behavior that historically destroys left-wing movements. I don’t care who’s the “better” progressive, I don’t care who’s identity narrative is more compelling. I want a win.
Odds and ends
Long one today so I’ll keep this short. Please subscribe!
Ummmmm that’s all folks! Til next time.