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The “other five” versus the “normative six”
I'll explain what I mean by that I promise
Sometimes it really do be feelin’ that way. And that’s how I felt yesterday when I sat down to write this post. I had absolutely nothing of substance to tell you but this newsletter is my job god damn it and I’m a workin man. I was entirely prepared to step away from the desk with nothing worth posting, but once I got in the swing, the ideas started coming, and what I’m sharing with you I think is pretty neat. It’s one part event coverage, one part political analysis and then another part that’s maybe best classified as an ethnography? I dunno. But I like it. It feels new and useful.
The table of contents is also in three parts, but each of the three previously mentioned “parts” are spread around these three parts of the table of contents in a non-linear way whereas these three parts are pretty linear. Capice? Part 1: An EAW action on Thursday. 2. On “Ed Augustus Way” and Plantation Street. 3. A look at the upcoming City Council meeting.
1, 2, 3 GIVE ME MY MONEY
The situation is starting to get a little testy as contract negotiations between the Education Association of Worcester and the School Committee drag on.
Union members gathered outside City Hall just before the School Committee meeting Thursday demanding a fair contract, then took the rally upstairs to the Council chambers where they sought to address the committee directly.
Yahaira Rodriguez went first, explaining that the pay offered to teachers assistants and other “para-educators” as the union calls them, is woefully insufficient. She said she’s often felt shame in having to choose between paying for electricity, her car or rent in a given month.
“But then I realized I should not feel ashamed,” she said. “You should feel ashamed.”
She challenged anyone on the School Committee to try to live a year on less than $40,000. No one can, she said, and that’s why the district is bleeding paraprofessionals.
“We are losing educators,” she said. “At the end of the day we can make more money going to Walmart and Starbucks.”
After Rodriguez spoke, Mayor Joe Petty—likely looking out at the dozens of similar educators in the room with similar stories—tried to nip the demonstration in the bud. He said there’s no agenda item related to contract negotiations, so per the rules, they can’t allow discussion.
But Hannah Weinsaft, a union rep and Worcester Public Schools teacher, quickly countered.
“If the negotiations were moving forward we wouldn’t be here speaking with you,” she said.
So Petty let two more people speak. Another para-educator, Melinda Martin, made the same observation Rodriguez did: continue to pay para-educators what you’re currently paying, and there won’t be many left. The district made its first offer only a week ago, she said, despite being in negotiation since January. And the offer wasn’t quite there.
Martin pointed to educators in Malden and the one-day strike they did earlier this year.
“If you look at what malden just settled, it’s phenomenal,” she said. Para-educators there went from $30,000 starting salaries to $38,000, she said.
Martin is a single mother and has to work another job to support her children.
“No one should have to work two or three jobs to put food on the table to get heat in the house,” she said.
Weinsaft followed Martin by expressing frustration not just for the staff, but for the students, as the problem of instructional assistants getting pulled for substitute teacher shifts worsens amid thinning ranks.
“We’re here because we want to work with those students every day,” she said. But the economic reality makes it difficult. She cited an example of a man who took a job as an instructional assistant this year, but is already looking for work elsewhere because he came to the conclusion he just couldn’t swing it.
“He teaches in the room next door to me,” Weinsaft said.
While this action from the EAW suggests a growing frustration, leadership hasn’t given any indication they plan on striking. But you just have to take a look around to see that the threat of such an action is in the air. In Haverhill, teachers had been on strike for the better part of the week, even violating a judge’s order to do so, before the administration offered a contract they could agree to. Malden teachers went on strike for 11 hours on Monday to win the contract which Martin so lavished with praise. In those communities, as in Worcester, educators complained that contracts were not keeping up with the cost of living. It’s not hard to imagine Worcester teachers following the example of Haverill and Malden if these contract negotiations continue to stall. If that’s not on the minds of district officials, it should be.
Something to watch over the next couple weeks, for sure.
Ed Augustus (No) Way
But while we struggle to find more money for para-educators, we’re certainly not struggling to find time to express our weird idolatries. Or maybe we are?
City officials put out a press release on Thursday announcing that at an upcoming ceremony, they’d be “ceremonially” changing the name of Library Way to Ed Augustus Way so as to honor our recently resigned and as-of-yet unreplaced city manager.
The event, scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 1, would honor Augustus’ accomplishments in his eight-year tenure. Two accomplishments were cited in the release: the WooSox, of course, and “guiding the city through the COVID-19 pandemic.” The release also cited the library renovation, perhaps as a way of justifying why they chose Library Way to ceremonially rename.
It’s unclear whose idea this was or who approved it or what “ceremonial” even means in the context of renaming a street. And then the whole thing got even more unclear when, just a day after the initial announcement, city officials canceled the event. In an email sent to press on Friday, city officials announced the event has been “postponed until further notice,” but didn’t provide any indication as to why that is. Who knows!
What we do know is there are a few factors that make such a ceremony transparently goofy. For one, we haven’t even selected a successor for Augustus. While Mayor Petty and probably the majority of the council think they have their guy in current Acting City Manager Eric Batista, they haven’t yet made the play to formalize that spuriously undemocratic arrangement. Seems to me that spending your time idolizing the former guy while simultaneously delaying any action on picking the next guy—for like two months straight—is not the best look. Perhaps that was a factor in delaying the event?
Or is it that the City Council just recently decided to tell UMass Memorial to kick rocks on its request to rename Plantation Street to something a little less slave-y? Maybe someone in City Hall decided it was a bad look to rename a street after voting down the possibility of even considering changing the name of Plantation Street? When it first came up, I decided very deliberately to not write about it. Exhausting. So for the unaware here’s what happened: Several weeks ago, Che Anderson, a former City Hall guy now working for UMass, put a petition on the Council agenda to consider changing Plantation Street (as well as a Plantation Boulevard and Terrace, I believe? Don’t care enough to check) due to the connotation of the word. The conservative wing of the Council and the contingent of reactionary townies they represent took this as a personal affront and thus we were made to endure three torturous hours of red-in-the-face bloviation before it was voted down by more or less the same split that we see on every vote lately.
Should the vote have gone the other way, it wouldn’t have meant an immediate change to the name of the street. It just would have moved the idea to subcommittee review, and a process of public hearings where the public could have been heard and options could be weighed. Despite the pains Anderson and some councilors took to point this fact out, it was ignored by the conservatives, who opted instead to shut the conversation down before it could be started.
One of the fiercest opponents was District 2 Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson. Her comments on the matter were extremely telling of the way she perceives her position as a city councilor and how things ought to work around here. It pains me that I have to revisit the tape to get a transcription, but there’s a good point to be made here and this is the sort of self-inflicted torture for which you pay me the big bucks.
Here’s what she said on the matter at the Oct. 12 City Council meeting, transcribed, painfully, in full:
“I’m not going to repeat what my colleague has already stated. Im going to spare my colleagues those same details. However I am going to stand here and say tonight that I have never ever ever… in the years that I’ve represented this district… UMass has never behaved in this way. They have never… When we change a light over there, they ask me to call them long before it goes on an agenda. They didn’t even so much as give us the courtesy of that.
When they talk about communication… You know what, UMass used to be very very good about that. There wasn’t a week that went by that they didn’t call and ask about different things. Something that is this big, that it reflects on 6700 individuals that live on Plantation Street, along with over 100 businesses, along with many, many… we can’t even count how many physicians are over there on Plantation Street, along with therapists over there on Plantation Street, along with the mental health workers over on Plantation Street. And this school made a decision not to say a word to any elected official in this room. Or not to one of the state elected officials. They never said boo.
That has never, ever been the practice of UMass. That’s what’s appalling tonight. Is they could have done a much better job. They could have reached out like they used to reach out. They could have come to the neighborhood meetings and they could have gathered with the businesses but they made a decision to take on a whole neighborhood—and it is a neighborhood—they made that decision. They made a decision not to talk to people, and they made a decision to say, ‘We don’t care what it costs you.’ For all of the businesses that are up and down Plantation Street. Because you know why? They probably don’t even know who’s up and down Plantation Street. And Mr. Chairman for me, with the way that this was handled, I go along with my colleague that this item should be filed. Thank you.
Bolded is what I consider the real substance of this diatribe. In these three thoughts, peppered as they are amid what we might generously call a policy argument, Mero-Carlson reveals what she’s really upset about: UMass didn’t ask her permission. How dare they! What changed?! Indeed, according to her, asking for permission is a tradition. It’s the way things work around here, and UMass seems to have forgotten that. If you don’t adhere to these traditions well then buddy I got news for ya: Nothing you want done will get done. Kiss the ring or kiss my ass.
So on those grounds, Candy voted to file the Plantation Street proposal. As I’ve already explained, her vote wasn’t against changing the name, it was against having an open and democratic process to consider the idea of changing it. A city council is ostensibly a democratic body and evaluating the merits of a petition from the public is part of the role as outlined in its charter. But that is clearly not how Mero-Carlson sees it. According to her, UMass shouldn’t have tried to engage in this democratic process before engaging in the very undemocratic process of privately asking her permission to do it.
Now, with that in mind, let’s circle back to the indefinitely canceled ‘Ed Augustus Way’ ceremony. Take a look at this invitation that was sent out to the sort of people who get invitations to such things.
Since, like almost everyone who lives here, I am not a person who receives these sorts of invitations, I only got my hands on it by way of a little birdie. That happened on Wednesday, and who knows when these invitations first started going out. The important thing is they went out at least a day before the public at large was informed, which was on Thursday. That this event was made known to a select group of people before the public is a perfect little example of the tradition so dear to Mero-Carlson, and the one which UMass had so grievously skirted with the Plantation Street petition. The tradition is this: the people that actually matter are brought in before the public, as a matter of course. Whether it’s a simple little ceremonial event like this, or a hugely consequential policy decision like pursuing the Pawtucket Red Sox, the tradition must be adhered to. The “stakeholders” must lend their “buy-in.” And that happens anywhere besides the public square, well before it lands there.
You’ll also notice Candy’s name takes up significant real estate in the top left-hand side of the invitation. A space as big as the mayor’s! In this design choice, we see evidence of Candy’s ring having been sufficiently kissed. Whoever was behind “Ed Augustus Way” is in no danger of getting blasted by Mero-Carlson the way she blasted UMass.
While we’ve got proof of Candy’s blessing we don’t have any sort of indication of where the idea of “Ed Augustus Way” came from or who signed off on it. Nothing. And that’s not just my memory. I asked a bunch of people who pay attention to city politics if they remember seeing or hearing anything about “Ed Augustus Way” before the announcement this week. No one I talked to had a clue. One simply said “anything goes in Worcester.” A search of council agendas and minutes, as well as Twitter and Google News, similarly produced big fat nadas. No hits. The only thing even close was a petition back in April from resident and frequent mayoral candidate Bill Coleman to name the senior center after Augustus. That petition was ignored, as most citizen petitions are. On the specific idea to turn “Library Way” to “Ed Augustus Way,” there was no such petition or anything at all.
So we have no idea how we got to the point of this event being scheduled, just as we have no idea why it was canceled, or what exactly “ceremonial” means when it comes to the name of a street renaming. It’s all opaque. The result of a set of decisions that were not deemed fit for public evaluation.
Don’t want to give anyone the impression this is some sort of big deal. I couldn’t bring myself to care at all about Plantation Street and I sure as shit do not care what the street in front of the library is called. I’d suggest a very deep breath if you have any opinion at all on that. By itself, the decision to rename a street after a recently resigned city manager is merely a tiny demonstration of how the role is much more overtly political than it should be in the design of Worcester’s form of government.
But just one example in a big ol heap of examples, and an unremarkable one at that.
However, when these two insignificant little street name-related situations are taken together, they paint a very interesting picture of the culture of the City Council.
When UMass asked the Council to consider facilitating a public evaluation of the term “Plantation,” the majority of the council showed that they would rather not. They didn’t personally like the idea of the name changing, so they weren’t going to allow a debate to happen. Mero-Carlson took this mentality to a logical extreme when she decided to rail against not just the idea itself, but that the institution would propose it without first getting her permission. She said so publicly! And it wasn’t vague! She attempted to portray UMass as the heel of the story because they tried to bring an issue to the city council via a process designed for it. That’s what petitions are literally for! That is why they exist! Yet Mero-Carlson sought to portray it as a clear violation of a universally accepted norm. Like she was a restaurant server talking to other servers about a party of typically generous regulars who didn’t tip this time. What gives? Just as a server would with other servers, Mero-Carlson spoke about UMass’s transgression with the comfort of someone safely within a cultural norm, aggrieved by another party who is clearly outside it. Here’s the thing though: She’s dead right to believe that.
As viewed from most angles, UMass went about things by the books. Legal? Perfectly. Allowable by the city charter? Absolutely. Would an expert on government transparency find it sketchy? I don’t think so. Is it in line with the ideal of direct democracy? Certainly. But in the culture of the Worcester City Council, is it normative behavior? Not at all. Within that context, UMass was out of bounds. Big time. Mero-Carlson was right. It was totally unacceptable and offensive behavior. Taboo, even. Candy may have been the only councilor to say as much out loud, but I’m sure she wasn’t the only one thinking it, and the outcome of the vote supports the hypothesis.
The normative behavior for UMass in this instance would have been to approach Mero-Carlson et al. directly and privately negotiate. If the private negotiations lead to an agreeable outcome, then you can introduce it to the public process. But if there’s no agreement? Forget about it. You tried and you lost. It’s possible they did attempt that route to no avail. But to fail in that process, and then try the actual democratic process defined in the city charter? Not cool. Not allowable within the confines of the council as a culture. A personal affront.
So UMass put a petition on the agenda which was legal, followed the city charter to a letter, and didn’t at all sniff of secrecy or undemocratic behavior. But it washed against the culture of the Worcester City Council like a tepid wave against a hurricane stormwall. How is it that we have a governing body that showed itself to be so reflexively opposed to a proposal which is legal, appropriate, transparent and democratic? It’s the culture, stupid!
As designed, the city council is the forum by which public will is expressed and leveraged over the people paid to do the day-to-day work of running the city. But in practice, it’s something entirely different. A set of competing fiefdoms, maybe. Or perhaps even that assessment is lending too much credit. Of course, it could work the way it’s designed. But that would require at least the majority of councilors earnestly trying to do so. That’s not what we have. Over the decades and decades of different people holding council seats and all their different interpretations of how to use it, we’ve arrived at a cultural understanding of the job which is quite different from the original design.
That cultural understanding needs to be shattered, burned, torn up, shredded, tossed in the garbage. It is an albatross—a bigger barrier to change than any piece of language in the city charter, and it’s also harder to amend. The only path toward getting rid of the culture is to replace those who subscribe to it with people who don’t.
And that’s why we have elections, no?
Now this culture might be the prevailing culture on the board, but not every councilor subscribes to it. The vote tally on this is useful for showing who does and who doesn’t.
Those councilors who voted in favor of “filing” the petition: Mero-Carlson, Kate Toomey, George Russell, Moe Bergman, Donna Colorio and Joe Petty.
Those against: Sarai Rivera, Etel Haxhiaj, Khrystian King, Thu Nguyen.
Sean Rose was absent, but I think I’m pretty right to assume he would have voted against.
So 6-4 in reality, but 6-5 in spirit. The outcome should look familiar to those following the Council closely. Pretty much every split vote since January has split along that axis. So maybe this cultural theory of the council I’m proposing here makes a certain amount of sense to you. Six councilors, representing a majority, subscribe to a cultural understanding of the job that is antithetical to its designs. The other five councilors, to varying degrees, see the job differently. And as such they varyingly violate the board’s norms. This minority, what we might call “the other five,” are relatively young and diverse compared to the “normative six.” Indeed, all four councilors of color are in this “other five,” whereas the “normative six” are all older and they’re all white.
In this same meeting where we saw Candy Mero-Carlson blast UMass, we also saw Rivera nearly freak out she was so mad at the board and its norms. And I don’t say that dismissively. It was refreshing to see her let it rip like that. Here’s a bit of what she said.
She references an idea in there, proposed during public comment, that the city should take a page from the Department of Defense and do a complete audit of all its street names and landmark names and such, rather than taking them one at a time. That’s a really good idea, which means that it’ll probably get shot down by the Normative Six.
She also, at another point in her comments, said for the millionth time that what we ought to be doing is thinking about removing the Christopher Columbus statue in front of Union Station, which is something the Normative Six have shot down time and time again.
And that brings us to Topic #3
Doin it all over again
The City Council is meeting Tuesday (agenda) and in line with the misery of the past couple months we’re set to talk about a number of things which keep getting held.
One new thing, however, is an order from Sarai Rivera regarding the Columbus statue.
I’m sure this is going to hit the Normative Six like a load of bricks, and I expect it will be shot down 6-5. There’s no real reason to believe otherwise, and this order is likely just a continued expression of the frustration Rivera showed at the last meeting.
The big thing on the agenda, which I’ve written about ad nauseum, is the city manager search process. It looks like the board is finally going to actually vote on whether or not to do a national search. Like everything else, this vote is going to come down to the Normative Six against the Other Five. The Normative Six don’t want to search for someone. They’d rather continue to keep the job “in the family” and just offer Acting City Manager Eric Batista a full contract. The Other Five aren’t so unified in what they want, but they all agree that we should at least do a search, which is what a responsible city council under the designs of the city’s government would do as a bare minimum. So this is yet another situation where the culture of the Normative Six is in direct opposition to the design of the city council.
The key question is whether the Other Five can peel off at least one of the Normative Six to make a search happen. Unfortunately, a real and earnest search, like what the School Committee did earlier this year, is off the table. The council has already been so resistant to the idea it’s very hard to imagine they’ll go at it earnestly. But, if we can peel one of the Six toward entertaining a search, we can at least put Batista in a situation where he has to actually describe what it is he wants to do with the job, which hasn’t happened at all yet. Totally normal.
I’ve heard some rumors and speculation they’ll be able to get one of the six over, but it remains to be seen whether it’ll actually happen. The agenda this week is rather light, and this question is by and away the most important to watch for. On and on we go.
Thanks for reading everyone! If you’re subscribed for free that’s great but there’s also an option to subscribe for $5 a month or $69 a year and to quote Matthew McConaughey’s creep of a character in “Dazed and Confused” it would be a lot cooler if you did (do a paid subscription).
And remember that me and the Wootenanny Comedy boys stream every City Council meeting on Twitch. So we’ll be live on Tuesday night over on that channel about 6:15 p.m. You don’t need anything but a web browser to watch it, and I maintain that it is the only tolerable way to watch a City Council meeting.
And while I’m taking the time to hustle let me just take a moment to recognize someone else’s.
I really love the little bit on the second page about how one of the tree workers came over and did some tricks on his skateboard. That’s real fricken community journalism right there if you ask me.
If you have like 20 minutes to kill, I’d suggest watching this talk by Kurt Vonnegut which was at some sort of college commencement I think. I haven’t been so moved by something in quite some time.
I’ll leave you with that. Toodles!