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The Council doesn’t make decisions, it launders them
Municipal broadband, Old Sturbridge Village, a new mayoral contender, psychos in the Brookfields, fare free WRTA
An awful lot of interesting stuff happened this week! In this post I focus most heavily on municipal broadband, but there’s other good stuff after that. Please consider a paid subscription to Worcester Sucks so these posts continue to flow.
Now for the main feature.
“The way things are done”
In Worcester’s quirky political system and the even quirkier set of unwritten cultural rules followed by the class of people who control it, the city manager has a sort of soft veto power over pretty much everything that does or doesn’t happen at City Hall. It’s not written that way in the charter. Quite the opposite. It should be the City Council making those sort of grand “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” decisions on given issues via an open and democratic process. As designed, the city manager carries out what the council decides should happen. An executor of the public will, as articulated by the councilors elected to interpret it.
But that is very rarely if ever how things actually work. Decisions of real importance are, as a general rule, made privately on the third floor of City Hall or over dinner at the Worcester Club or by some other private process involving private stakeholders on an invite-only basis. Then and only then are such decisions introduced to the public process, such as it is.
You’d be right to say this analysis sounds reductive or fictitious because it sounds that way putting it plainly. That’s Can’t Really Be How It Is. Wish it wasn’t! But unfortunately there are countless moments which support the theory and precious few which discredit it.
Here’s how it goes: Once a decision is privately made by the people who actually matter, it hits the city council’s agenda as a report. The agenda gets posted on a Friday afternoon with the reports attached. Reporters read the report and write the story. They call it a “proposal.” It’s “headed to the Council for approval,” they say. The following Tuesday, the City Council starts that process of “approval” which appears democratic and appears to allow for public input. But really, it’s laundering a pre-determined outcome through a sham democratic process. Really, the “proposal” wouldn’t reach the “public process” unless it was privately decided to be a sure thing beforehand. The public is an afterthought, the process a formality.
This is how Eric Batista got the city manager job, like Ed Augustus before him. This is how budgets are drafted. This is how Polar Park came to be. This is how the city’s feckless inclusionary zoning version passed over a stronger and more popular proposal. This is why the routine homeless encampment sweeps continue. Why the police department’s budget increases every year and why they get every new piece of surveillance technology they ask for, cost be damned. This is why the schools can’t pay teachers enough to stick around. This is why Councilor Thu Nguyen’s order for an ordinance on the deceptive tactics of crisis pregnancy centers has faded to obscurity after the council voted to have it drafted.
The city manager does what he wants to do and simply ignores what he doesn’t. The council could reprimand that behavior but they don’t. Absent the threat of accountability from the one body capable of applying it, the manager acts unilaterally. The council merely pretends to have authority.
If one of these unilateral decisions proves unpopular—like the city’s inclusionary zoning proposal, most recently—the council’s job becomes absorbing and diffusing the public opposition. Again, this is not written in the charter but very much written into the entrenched political culture at City Hall. It’s just a thing that’s understood by most of the councilors. Normative behavior upheld by a majority vote. More on that “normative six” in this post from last year.
They do this diffusing and absorbing by giving the impression there’s a genuine democratic contest of ideas—for added effect, they drag it on usually for months—but they ensure it always ends with the public opposition losing out over the City Hall consensus. Most of the time, it’s not necessary to put on a big show. Without opposition, this laundering can all happen more or less invisibly.
On the inclusionary zoning issue, the public opposition was so strong it nearly smashed the council’s ability to carry out its traditional laundering role. Came the closest I’ve ever seen to doing so. Of course it failed in the end, as was always certain.
But in this particular failure, I think we were able to see this entrenched culture in a uniquely clear way. There’s a reality which was laid especially bare to the naked eye by the progressive councilors and community members who opposed it. And it’s this: In Worcester, the City Council is not a democratic body but an expressly anti-democratic body. It doesn’t make decisions. It runs cover for the people who do. Not an expression of public will but a shield against it.
That isn’t written anywhere in the City Charter and it’s not how Plan E is supposed to work. Quite the opposite. A mirror opposite, really. But a system’s design cannot account for how a group of people will use it. And when it’s more or less the same group of people using it toward the same ends for decades, as it has been in Worcester, a very peculiar set of understandings and norms and traditions can grow around that system. Like kudzu vines on a tree. Left untrimmed, the kudzu will cover it completely, leaving nothing but a vague silhouette. Just a shape. An implication. You know the tree’s under there but after a while you start to forget what it looks like.
Such is the way a small and entrenched political class has come to this strange interpretation of the design of our city government: Kudzu on a tree. A parasite seeking only to grow larger. It has no other concern.
Pretty good metaphor for the growth machine concept we discussed in here a while back, I think. Extending the metaphor, exposure to sunlight is to the kudzu what property value is to the growth machine. This old guard is merely a growth machine, and a rather unsophisticated one, honestly.
While the inclusionary zoning struggle threw a spotlight on the wriggling vines of this warped and self-serving political culture, you start to see it everywhere once you know how to look.
Accepting that decisions of any real significance for the city are made in private well before and far away from “the public,” you start to notice a little subgenre of local news stories: “Mayor/Manager Goes On The Radio And Tells Us What’s Been Pre-Decided.” These stories always come from the Talk of the Commonwealth program and likely because the program’s host, Hank Stolz, is the kind of guy who’s “in on it” and “knows how things work.”
The most famous example is from last September, when Mayor Joe Petty went on the radio while the council was still claiming to consider doing a national search for a new city manager and just said it’s going to be Batista.
Recently, Batista did it himself. In no uncertain terms and with language that suggests he knows full well that he’s beyond reproach, Batista went on the radio last Thursday and declared the idea of municipal broadband “very impossible.”
“I have desires to do something like that but it, it, it would be very impossible for us to do that. So right now that’s not the direction the city’s going towards,” he said.
Translation: Not gunna happen! It’s been determined. Conversations were had. With who? That’s not your concern. If I say i’s impossible, it is. End of story. This Week In Worcester pulled the audio. Kudos!
Municipal broadband is a neat idea in the abstract and I’ve been meaning to write a deep dive on it. Smart and long-range thinking with the noble objective of making Internet access the widely accessible public utility it should be. Everyone hates the cable companies because everyone is getting ripped off with almost no recourse. So even just trying municipal broadband is good politics—an opportunity to demonstrate to residents that the city administration recognizes and actually wants to fix a real problem in their lives.
Other cities have done it and it’s an increasingly popular policy idea across the country. In Worcester it had some traction. It wasn’t the far fetched and impractical idea Batista portrayed it to be on the radio. There was a task force assembled in 2021. The Worcester Regional Research Bureau wrote a favorable report, articulating an obvious need. Many residents—one in five!—cannot reliably access the Internet. This would fix that. Sen. Ed Markey encouraged Worcester to try. The city even got a state grant to the tune of $237,500 from the Baker administration, according to This Week In Worcester. Before he left, former City Manager Ed Augustus earmarked $250,000 for a feasibility study on the subject out of ARPA funds. Inexplicably, that’s no longer happening. This Week In Worcester’s story includes this line tiny and infuriating line about the study in question :
“The City of Worcester formed a broadband task force in 2021. It has never issued a report.”
What changed between then and now? Where did that earmarked money go? Why is it all of a sudden “impossible” when just a year ago it was worth a quarter million dollar peek under the hood?
Batista doesn’t say and Stolz doesn’t ask. All he says is it’s too expensive. He cites the example of Chattanooga, Tennessee as a cautionary tale. He says how they spent so much money, as if to highlight the impracticability. He omits however that it makes way more money than it cost to build. This Week In Worcester filled in the gap quite nicely:
“In a 10-year review by the City of Chattanooga in 2021, it found the city-owned provider created and retained 9,516 jobs and realized value that exceeds costs by over 440 percent, providing $2.2 billion of value to the city.”
Not even the most cartoonishly optimistic economic projections in support of the claim Polar Park would “pay for itself” promised a 440 percent return on investment.
But Batista casually characterized the Chattanooga project as some expensive trap some other city fell into which Worcester would do well to avoid. Against easily available evidence to the contrary! He really couldn’t have picked a worse example.
But Batista’s claim it’d be too expensive went by unchallenged. A settled matter, sufficiently justified. Instead, he said the city’s decided to attack the problem a different, better way: “increasing competition.” Verizon is expanding internet services throughout the city, he said, giving residents a choice between two competing private companies where before there was only one. Never you mind the fact it’s in neither company’s best interest to lower the rates. There’s consumer choice now! Problem solved.
There is no evidence that anyone besides Batista was involved in making this decision to abandon municipal broadband. Really, there’s no evidence besides this short clip from last week that shows such a decision had ever been made. In fact everything else in the public record suggests the opposite. I mean for crying out loud the idea is still being discussed in a City Council subcommittee. The Standing Committee on Urban Technologies, Innovation and Environment is meeting next monday and municipal broadband is on the agenda.
How is the City Manager going on the record and curtly saying that municipal broadband is “very impossible”—pronouncing it dead without disclaimer—while the body which is supposed to be his boss is still actively evaluating it? In public meetings with public agendas? He didn’t say he doesn’t like the idea personally. He said it’s impossible.
Had This Week In Worcester not pulled this audio, it’s possible Batista’s comments would have faded unnoticed into obscurity, but it wouldn’t change the fact that The Decision had been made. We just wouldn’t have gotten the heads up. The private decision would have stayed private but it would still be the decision. That’s how it works, after all. Every single time.
Batista knows who his boss is and he knows it’s not the city council. He knows the municipal broadband issue is over even if the council doesn’t. And it doesn’t really matter what the council thinks about it. If he lets it slip on the local radio show that The Decision Has Been Made, no big deal. He can pronounce it dead with such an air of unilateral authority while undermining the council because he has unilateral authority. And if anyone takes issue with that, there’s a rock solid majority on the City Council ready and waiting to shield him from accountability. The kudzu continues to grow unabated, as is the goal.
When stuff like this happens on a near daily basis, it’s hard to understand and even harder to believe that the class of people who comprise this political culture around City Hall are more vulnerable now than they’ve ever been. But it’s true. They are. They’re just not acting like it.
I don’t think they even understand how many people resent how they use their power, and how hungry the community is for a new model being laid out by the progressive minority. “The way things work” attitude of the old guard, happy to defer to the city manager and quick to ignore residents, has produced a whole lot of enemies over the years and this November there is an actual shot at taking City Hall from its grasp. A progressive majority, even a simple 6-5 position, instantly shatters the old guard’s ability to impose their warped interpretation of the council’s job as the way things are. A progressive majority instantly blows up the premise and allows us to start acting like a proper city—like it’s 2023 and not 1980—and do the things we should already be doing.
That new political reality is only three seats away.
Quick look at the math: Right now, the old guard has an 8-3 majority. Two of them aren’t seeking re-election. So let’s call it a 6-3 advantage heading to November. Of the challengers, there are at least five which I would generally align with the progressive bloc. Maybe more, maybe less. It’s still early. We’ll see. Conversely, there are only two challengers I’m certain would align with the old guard, and one of them is already blowing it because he can’t stop posting online about the evils of pronouns.
If a few incumbents lose their seats, it’s just statistically more likely those seats are picked up by progressives. The simple odds are in our favor. Plus, the wind is at our backs after two surprisingly good elections.
What I’m saying is it’s actually possible! For the first time in years! Maybe ever!
This old guard of Petty/Murray et al. has held dominion over City Hall for at least two decades. The past three city managers have been “their guy,” each plucked from the old guard ranks and appointed in slightly different but equally spurious ways. They’ve never had to navigate a minority position and neither have any of their chosen managers.
It’s hard to underscore how even a narrow 6-5 position would totally upend the undemocratic authority the old guard has solidified over the years. It would be new territory. Significant barriers to progress would disappear. The prospect is exciting! A worthy cause which needs enthusiasm and volunteers and donation money if it’s going to actually happen.
The trick now is shaking off the feeling the council is doomed to be useless and hostile to progressive ideas in perpetuity and there’s nothing for it. Difficult to do, considering the weekly bludgeoning of progressives we’ve seen before over the past two years. Not to mention the longer historical record.
But we have a real shot here. A good one. We owe ourselves an earnest go at it. We don’t have to be punished for caring about this city. In a matter of months we could even be rewarded.
Where the City Council is controlled by a feckless and deferent majority, the School Committee continues to be a model for how to actually use its power for good.
Last week the School Committee voted to suspend any sort of relationship with Old Sturbridge Village, which mostly means no more field trips to the place where actual children cosplay as old timey child laborers in exchange for real modern wages.
It might seem like a simple act of retribution after losing the fight against the Old Sturbridge Village charter school proposal but it’s a lot deeper than that. The School Committee, if you’ll remember, is also calling on the state auditor to look into the obvious ethical problems with OSV’s charter proposal. Problems like outright saying you’re going to use state education funding to cover your museum’s operating costs. So it’s not that the School Committee is snubbing Old Sturbridge Village as payback as much as they don’t want to be spending school resources on a museum which is deliberately trying to steal money from public education.
Jim Donahue of Old Sturbridge Village, quoted in the Globe, decided to reject that framing and instead call it simple revenge. In his best interest to downplay the “stealing education money” angle, I imagine.
“I’m disappointed by it,” he said. “I think it’s a shame. I think that it’s unfortunate that the students of Worcester are being used, in my opinion, as a political football by the School Committee.”
It would be crazy if Donahue was himself using the students of Worcester. Imagine? For clearly stated personal financial gain? That would be wild.
Really hope the State Auditor Diana DiZoglio digs in on this soon!
WTF, North Brookfield?
I think we all sort of intuitively know that the nether region between Worcester and the Pioneer Valley is the dominion of conspiratorial Qanon psychos, Rifle Coffee enthusiasts, preppers and other people who drive their Ford F250s to office jobs at Hanover Insurance and/or the Worcester Police Department.
So would it surprise you to hear that the North Brookfield Board of Selectmen is engaging in Florida-style culture war politics against drag queens? From Neal McNamara at the Patch:
The select board in March approved a permit for the Small Town Pride event, including a drag performance. The board re-voted on the issue on April 11, giving the OK to the gay pride event minus the drag show, according to the ACLU.
The ACLU sent a letter to the town asking it to reverse the decision to pull the drag performance from Small Town Pride, which is set for June 24.
Board of Selectmen Chair Jason Petraitis said during a discussion about the letter Tuesday at a selectman meeting that drag performances are "vulgar and rude," according to the ACLU.
I like to think about what happened between the first vote in March where it wasn’t a big deal and the second vote in April where they said no drag shows. I’m sure it was totally normal over in North Brookfield during that intervening month! I’m sure the climate was not hysterical or psychotic in any way.
Fare Free Future
The Worcester Regional Transit Authority’s board voted to keep the buses free for another year. Good! Now do it in perpetuity. It’s no coincidence I think that the WRTA was the only regional transit authority to see a ridership spike post-COVID. The Worcester Regional Research Bureau ran the numbers:
“The WRTA’s exceptionally speedy ridership recovery, with 140% of 2019 pre-pandemic values by the end of 2022, may be due in part to the fare-free service begun in March 2020,” the report says.
The city bus being a reliable and reasonably practical form of public transportation in the future is a chicken and egg type deal. More riders need to use it and there needs to be more buses on more routes with more consistent schedules. Keeping it fare free is a smart way of getting that dynamic moving.
Creamer’s going for mayor
Mayor Joe “Very” Petty has his first stated challenger. In an announcement video Guillermo Creamer announced his bid on a platform that heavily centers housing affordability.
I imagine Creamer won’t be the last mayoral challenger. Game on!
Odds and Ends
Just a few more quick things to get to. As always please consider a paid subscription!
By comparison head on over to this MassLive story about how the renaissance is alive and well and a good thing with no downsides or need for criticism. See what a more expensive subscription to that website gets you!
And check out the new Worcester Sucks Power Hour podcast on Patreon!
Next Thursday I’ll be playing with Born Without Bones at Ralph’s Rock Diner! I’m told there are only a few tickets left for that. Then we’re hitting the road for a little weekend run.
Ok, that’s all for now. Talk soon!