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The Chicanery Begins
The Eric Batista anointing is off to a predictable start
Over the past two decades, Worcester politicos have not demonstrated they’re capable of appointing a city manager in a normal way. Not even close.
The appointment of Ed Augustus eight years ago and the appointment of Mike O’Brien well before that both read like transparent cronyism wrapped in low-grade political scheming. More on that later but for now it’s important to understand that Mayor Joe Petty, the guy set to lead this current “search” process, was intimately involved in both of those appointments. So it inspires very little confidence that Petty will handle things all that differently this time.
He has, after all, gotten away with this chicanery twice.
In case you missed it (or missed my past two newsletters which are quite related), Augustus announced his resignation from the city manager post last Tuesday. Then on Friday, by way of a set of agenda items for yesterday’s meeting, Petty announced Augustus’ successor—erm, sorry, “interim city manager”—for City Council approval. The guy Petty tapped is Assistant City Manager Eric Batista, and it came as no surprise whatsoever to anyone paying close enough attention to city politics.
Batista is perhaps best thought of as a good soldier, a guy who rose through the ranks of City Hall in a relatively short span of time while usually avoiding the spotlight. He’s been at City Hall since 2012 in a variety of increasingly powerful positions. All, if not most, of his relevant professional experience was earned on the third floor of City Hall. Petty’s play to install Batista came in three parts: an order to appoint him to a nine-month “interim” term starting June 1; an order asking for a report on “the procedures and timelines followed during the 1993, 2004 and 2013-2014 City Manager searches and appointments” and a motion to go into executive session (read: private meeting) for the purpose of discussing Batista’s contract.
However, at the beginning of the meeting, Petty announced that the appointment has been “held” and he prevented anyone from speaking about it. Every councilor is allowed to delay an item for a week under a process called “holding under privilege.” Usually, this happens during the course of the meeting. But sometimes councilors tell the mayor beforehand that they want to “hold” something, and the mayor announces ahead of the meeting that it’s held. The latter happened last night, and Petty didn’t say who held it or for what reason.
The enterprising reporter I am, I confirmed it was Thu Nguyen who held the item and, importantly, requested only that the appointment be held. Nguyen held it for “community process and feedback before moving too fast,” which is completely valid. They also confirmed they only wanted to hold the appointment.
However, Petty prevented Councilor Khrystian King from speaking on the item related to past procedures for hiring past city managers, saying that was being held as well. He didn’t allow any conversation whatsoever related to the matter, leading to a Bizarro World meeting that went on as if Petty had not chosen his successor and culminated in a corny and forced standing ovation for Ed Augustus spearheaded by Councilor Kate Toomey.
All this inside baseball stuff to say things are not looking like they’re going to proceed in a professional and above-board manner.
The normal course of business for hiring a chief executive is to have a national search led by a search committee run by a contracted search firm, then winnow down candidates to semi-finalists and then finalists, then have a winner chosen by the City Council (the city manager’s boss, in theory). The process is ideally as public as possible with input allowed from community organizations and hiring priorities publicly articulated by councilors.
Already, with Petty’s proposed appointment of Eric Batista as “interim” city manager, we’re veering from that process. There’s no provision in the city charter for an “interim” manager. This was a term invented to bring on Ed Augustus. The city charter only allows for an “acting city manager.”
The language here sorta prohibits the “acting” city manager from becoming a “new” city manager. But that’s exactly what they did with Augustus so they had to make up a new word. The word “interim” does not appear once in the 49-page city charter in any context.
Augustus in his resignation gave the city 70 days notice. His contract only requires 30. Augustus has pitched that to the council and thereby the public as him going out of his way to do the city a solid. But really, it’s just a shitty contract. It goes to 2025, but Augustus can resign whenever the hell he wants with no consequences. A contract which took into consideration the future changing of hands would not allow Augustus to leave whenever he wanted with only 30 days notice… unless of course the powers that be have their own little formula worked out for picking the next guy without a transparent process.
So, that said, we now find ourselves in the position of needing an “interim” city manager because we did not require Augustus to give fair enough warning so that we could hold a search process and pick a new manager before he left. Augustus, naturally, did not take it upon himself to give that fair warning either. And if you think Augustus had nothing to do with Petty’s decision to appoint Batista, I have a minor league ballpark to sell you.
So what this does is frame the appointment of an “interim” city manager as necessary for the continuity of government, but it’s really just sloppy and throws a big ol’ wrench into any effort to follow a proper process.
There are a few ways the meeting next Tuesday could go, but the most likely is that Batista is handed his “interim” contract and he takes charge in June and then, at the end of his nine-month contract, the council goes ‘ah to hell with it’ with any half-hearted search process they put together and just hand him a full, multi-year city manager contract. Maybe even one that allows him to step down any time he wants with 30 days notice.
I say that’s the most likely outcome because that’s exactly what happened last time—and we have, for the most part, the exact same power brokers involved with the exact same amount of power.
So let’s go back to 2013 and see how it happened last time. For this, I’m going to refer to Nicole Apostola’s stellar reporting because she was there for it and she knows what she’s talking about.
Mike O’Brien, the manager before Ed, announced his resignation in November 2013 with the intention of leaving in January 2014—a similar two-month window to the one Augustus is leaving us now.
“In very short order, we found a new city manager. Not an acting city manager – a real, live city manager with a short (9 month) contract,” Apostola writes.
Wow, a nine-month contract for a replacement found in short order, you say? Why… that’s exactly what’s happening right now! What a weird coincidence, wouldn’t you say?
When you look at the motion which brought Augustus’ tenure into reality it is strikingly similar to the set of motions filed Tuesday and guess who filed it? You guessed it. Joe Petty.
Mayor Joseph M. Petty request the City Council accept the Letter of Resignation from Michael V. O’Brien as City Manager, effective January 5, 2014, and further, request to proceed to discussion concerning an interim and permanent replacement City Manager, and further, request the City Clerk provide the City Council with details regarding the process and timeline followed during the 1993 City Manager search and appointment process.
Change a few dates and a name or two and that’s exactly what Petty filed last night. The only major difference is that this year Petty decided to name names whereas in 2013 he kept it vague. Back then, he let Rick Rushton do the talking. Rushton said “bottom line is Augustus will be city manager.” And voila that’s what happened.
An important difference to remember is that unlike Batista, Augustus was not a City Hall employee and as such could not be named the “acting” city manager as I laid out earlier in the post. So instead, they called him an “interim.” The problem at the time, as Apostola writes, was that there was no one at City Hall willing or able to take on the “acting” city manager role.
“In the absence of anyone in the city government willing or able to take the position, how then did we find someone with the executive experience to run a medium-sized city? Spoiler alert: we didn’t!”
Augustus publicly said he would return to Holy Cross after the nine months and even signed a document to the effect which stated that he “be disqualified for consideration for reappointment following the term of the contract.”
As Apostola writes, “those words and two dollars will get you a ride on the Red Line.”
Nine years later, and Batista is looking at the exact same “interim” nine-month contract which allowed Augustus a veritable lifetime appointment (for christsake in the most recent contract they signed him until 2025). And he’s not hampered by the whole legal issue of not having been a city employee.
In fact, Batista is such a natural fit for an “acting” city manager, as laid out in the city charter, that it’s a little strange Petty was careful to call him an “interim” city manager in all the language around his appointment, isn’t it? If Petty really wants him to be an “interim” manager, of course, and is not doing something like, oh say, obviously angling to hand Batista the same lifetime appointment Augustus received.
This passage of Apostola’s reporting is especially important given that basically everyone involved in hiring O’Brien and Augustus are still prominent political figures in Worcester, chief among them Joe Petty and Tim Murray.
It took three months for the Municipal Operations subcommittee to start having meetings about what citizens wanted in a new city manager. This was on purpose, of course; many of those who supported Ed Augustus were also behind the Mike O’Brien coup, and they knew the longer someone was in the temporary position, it would only be a matter of time before the incumbent became permanent. In the meantime, elected officials could berate residents for speaking about actually answering the question they were asked.
The press remained convinced that Augustus didn’t want the job (except, of course, he did); by March, rather than ask when we’d be hiring an executive search firm, at least two city councilors were desperately trying to extend his contract past October. (Pair seek to retain Augustus – Rivera, Rosen call for extended pact; March 30, 2014)
From the time Mike O’Brien resigned, it took over six months to hire an executive search firm. When a firm was hired, it was responsible for the most embarrassing, unprofessional job posting imaginable, and it took the attention of yours truly and Dianne Williamson for the job posting to be corrected and re-posted. (While we waited for the resumes to roll in, citizens had a fun time once again talking about a strong mayor form of government!
Take another look at this video—all the breathless and self-effacing adulation for Augustus—and tell me you have any confidence anything will be different this time.
Of course, Batista does not have the public profile Augustus did when he took office. Augustus was a known political figure, having served a few terms as state senator several years prior. However, Batista is a member of Augustus’ boy band of dapper, well-dressed, and well-groomed public servants and that could well prove to be enough for this council and its propensity for Augustus worship.
What’s really going to give the game away is if we have a councilor come out publicly, as Rushton did, to anoint Batista in the press. If that happens, then they’ll have followed the Augustus playbook to the letter.
My money is on Kate Toomey.
Anyway, much to think about as this all unfolds in the next several weeks. As always please consider a paid subscription to allow me to keep doing this as a job.
Did you see the story in the Worcester Business Journal about what the chief diversity officers in Worcester were getting paid? It sort of tells the whole story.
Adding in the city manager, assistant city managers, and the city solicitor, those nine city employees made an average of $166,737 in 2020, about $74,000 higher than Williams’ salary that year.
Williams' annual salary increased in 2021 to $103,875, said City spokesperson Robert Burgess, although that is still lower than any of her chief colleagues made in 2020, even not accounting for raises those employees may have received. Salaries for other city employees in 2021 are not publicly available.
Beyond providing Williams' 2021 salary, Burgess declined to provide further comment for this article.
Although she received the lowest salary compared with her c-suite colleagues, Williams was the highest-paid chief diversity officer in Worcester’s history. Suja Chacko, who served from 2018 to 2020, made a salary of about $70,000 annually, according to data from those years. Malika Carter, who was the City’s first CDO and began her role in 2016, made an annual salary of $63,000.
Seems like consistently paying your chief diversity officer the least of anyone in your cabinet despite high turnover is pretty indicative of… an administration in need of a chief diversity officer.
Not the biggest deal in the world but this piece from Curbed Magazine from a real estate agent in Worcester was pretty funny and also sad.
The Worcester that a guy like this thinks is sexy is not the Worcester I want to live in. Give me the patently unsexy Worcester. Give me the Worcester that’s so fashion-negative it comes out years ahead of trends by accident. Give me the Worcester that’s cheap enough for weird and creative people to be weird and creative, and spare me the EZ Bake Urban Experience that a real estate agent like this makes a quick buck on.
Ok on that note bye