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The Telegram tells on itself
What's more important, the heat death of the human race or Madison Properties' fiscal returns?
Hello everyone! Hope your summers are going well. Local news-wise, this is a sleepy time of year, but there’s a City Council meeting tomorrow that has a few interesting wrinkles to it. We’re going to focus on that today.
It’s been a few days longer than I’d like since my last dispatch. That’s because I failed frankly, spending the better half of last week and the weekend working on an ambitious piece about the upcoming election and movement politics and atomization. It just isn’t quite there yet and the combination of it being not quite there and having to post regularly is stressing me out something fierce. So I’m going to put it aside for now. Hopefully I’ll share it soon. Today, we’re going to focus on a few more immediately pressing story lines.
First thing’s first we have to go over a significant update to the unfolding mystery of why City Manager Eric Batista’s administration is refusing to do anything at all about crisis pregnancy centers, despite a Council vote from last July compelling them to do so.
In a story headlined “Worcester Crisis Pregnancy Center Law: Solicitor Evaded Council Order” Neal McNamara over at the Patch laid out some text messages between City Solicitor Mike Traynor and a representative of the Attorney General’s Office regarding the order. The texts are damning, conflict public statements, and should be grounds for firing. On Instagram, Councilor Thu Nguyen posted screenshots of the text message exchange, saying “This is absolutely ridiculous that they refuse to protect people from these fake clinics.” Amen.
Some background is needed to truly understand the substance of the texts. In my last post, I put together a handy timeline of everything that has happened and hasn’t happened since Nguyen requested a draft CPC ordinance in July 2022. It wasn’t until just a few weeks ago—after a lawsuit filed against a Worcester CPC put us in the national spotlight—that the city manager commented in any way on the ordinance.
"The city solicitor spoke with a representative in the Attorney General’s office who informed the solicitor that they were not recommending municipalities act for a variety of reasons," Batista's office said in a statement.
The Attorney General’s Office has since denied that they advise municipalities on local ordinances.
The new texts show that Traynor did speak with an assistant attorney general, but they don’t show that the AG’s office told them not to do the ordinance. In July, Traynor said he had “great reservations” about the request. Then, in November, Traynor used the passive voice to say he was “told not to bother with it” and that he “does not intend” to draft an ordinance. In March, he tries to get the AG’s office to tell him what they told Nguyen and the AG’s office declined to do so.
Here’s a transcript of the texts:
Monday, July 25, 2022
Assistant Attorney General Margaret Hurley (AG): Hi when are you scheduled to provide opinion on legality of CPC ordinance?
City Solicitor Mike Traynor (MT): I don’t know. Starting a two week trial today. I have great reservations about the request
AG: Ok good that’s all I needed - I may try to connect again on this though - good luck with trial!
Friday, Nov. 18, 2022
MT: Hi Margaret, back in July you asked me when I was going to opine on the request for an ordinance re crisis pregnancy centers. I was told not to bother with it but now I need to do so. Did you have some information you wanted to share with me? Feel free to call if so.
AG: Oh yes..would Monday work?
MT: Sure. Thanks and have a good weekend
AG: You too! No draft ordinance has been drafted yet right? Are you doing a written opinion ?
MT: No ordinance and I don’t intendent on drafting one. But I need to meet with Eric about the whole matter. I have struggled to put pen to paper so far.
AG: Ok thanks
Monday, Nov. 21, 2022
AG: Hi sorry still waiting for info internally on this. Do you want to schedule a time to talk tomorrow and I’ll at least share what I had from a few months back?
MT: Sure, an no problem. Other than 10-10:30 I’m available tomorrow. What works best for you?
Tuesday, March 14, 2023
MT: Can I call you later?
MT: In a mtg
MT: I meant to ask you, can you get and forward a copy of what gets sent to the councilor? Or simply let me know when the response gets sent?
AG: We don’t plan to respond in writing we are just calling her (not me burt our policy and government team) that call was going to made this afternoon after 4:30 - about same time I called you
MT: Got it. Thanks
AG: *thumbs up emoji*
Here’s how Batista responded to the Patch:
City Manager Eric Batista's office did not respond to a set of questions about the texts — or about the larger policy feelings about regulating CPCs — but said in a statement that it's routine for city department leaders to consult with state and federal officials on policy issues.
Batista's office also threw cold water on any possible future ordinance.
"The options before the city are to draft a local ordinance that would likely be challenged, leaving the city exposed to potential fees and litigation, or an ordinance that provides no further protections for residents than state law currently does," the statement said.
(A report submitted to council this week by Traynor says the city has spent $13.57 million on legal settlements over the past five fiscal years.)
The translation of this response is “I don’t want to do it.” He hasn’t bothered to even tell the City Council that. He acted unilaterally, circumventing the council’s authority and the whole premise that what happens in City Hall is democracy. And the reason why he did so could well be an ideological one. I do think we need to start having that conversation. If the city manager is, on his own accord, nixing policy ideas meant to protect people from the pernicious and intrusive and deceptive practices of anti-abortion zealots, he should at least have to answer as to whether he himself is an anti-abortion zealot. We deserve to know that.
If anything, I think what we’re seeing here is a city manager content to throw anyone he can under the bus and who doesn’t consider himself beholden to the City Council. You don’t have to believe anything else to believe that’s bad leadership.
Tonight, Nguyen’s request for a CPC order has been refiled on an already stacked City Council agenda. It’s going to be very interesting to watch what happens!
Sort of a stretch
It was nice of the Telegram to remind us of its values! To look at a recent story headlined “Specialized 'stretch code' for energy efficiency in buildings worries local developers” is to read about “stretch code” as some unfortunate and pointless burden on developers.
Here’s the first few paragraphs:
A new building code could land in Worcester, potentially driving up costs for developers. The result could be a drag on the number of projects in the city, both residential and commercial.
It’s called the specialized stretch code, and city officials are expected to ask the City Council to adopt it. That was supposed to happen Tuesday, but John Odell, the city's chief sustainability officer, said late Friday afternoon that the public presentation will occur later this month.
The state's specialized stretch code is an opt-in. That means a city or town can adopt it by a vote of a city council or select board. So far 18 communities have adopted the code, including Boston and Cambridge, but none in Central Massachusetts.
I’m going to focus more on the article than the building code itself. Put simply as possible, this new building code is an effort to reduce the emissions of buildings as part of an overall emissions goal. And, because this is Massachusetts, they’re letting towns decide whether to “opt in,” leaving this bit of climate action in the hands of Parks & Rec extras who are terrified of having to actually lead. Like Joe Petty.
While the policy is interesting and deserving of attention, I’m going to focus on the way the Telegram decided to write about it. It’s a very useful example of the reason why good ideas like this building code do not happen in Worcester.
So let’s break down that lead sentence, looking at the basic “who, what, where, when, why” it leaves the reader. The “when” and “where” aren’t interesting. The “what” is interesting in what it isn’t. Portrayed simply as “a new building code,” the nature and objective of the “what” is is omitted. That’s important! The objective—combating the ongoing climate disaster—could have easily been the “why.” And the “why” is the most important question for understanding the intent of a given news story. It’s where the writer gets to decide what makes something “news.” And in this case the writer was given a choice between the climate and developer investment.
Climate could have easily been the “why’ here. Such issues have been very much “in the news” of late! Whole cities and towns recently destroyed and not too far from us! Just look around! But climate is entirely omitted from the framework established in the lead, only appearing in a later passage in cursory fashion. Instead of climate, the “why” in the framework is “driving up costs for developers.” The reason it is news, as decided by the writer and editors involved, is the possible negative impact on developers. The stretch code “could be a drag,” as explained in the second sentence, reinforcing the thesis. This isn’t presented as one side of a “both sides” treatment pitting climate action against developers. It is presented as only cause for concern!
This framework is presented in the tradition of “objective” news reporting and it requires both careful reading and prior knowledge of the subject matter to understand it’s not objective. The framing is in itself a statement of opinion. That developers are granted the position of “who” in relation to the “what” is also the product of subjective decision making. Without saying so directly, the story reflects a set of values in which economic growth is a more significant concern than climate. But this value judgement isn’t conveyed to the public as an opinion among opinions. It’s made to look like the reality of the situation.
After establishing that the developer is the subject, the rest of the story serves to illustrate the developer as victim and the policy proposal as perpetrator. After “bad for developers” is established first, the next point is “city council will decide on adopting the bad thing.” Then the details of the bad thing are briefly explained, as are some statistics about emissions and buildings producing them. An explanation of why emissions need reducing is curiously absent. Look at the abrupt transition between these two paragraphs:
Roughly one-third of carbon emissions in Massachusetts emanate from the state’s 2 million existing buildings, according to the Massachusetts Climate Action Network. In Worcester, 65% of the city emissions come from all buildings, said (John Odell, chief sustainability officer.)
Odell acknowledged some pushback to the specialized stretch code could come from developers.
After that first paragraph, there’s a perfect moment to include something—anything at all!—to illustrate a climate-focused perspective on the policy. Even if it’s just an “activists say” sort of line. Instead, there’s an abrupt non sequitur transition back to developers and ”pushback,” followed by quotes from two developers articulating their opposition. No such space is given to anyone in support. The opinion that developer concerns are less pressing than environmental concerns goes entirely un-articulated while developers are given the position of main character. While time was taken to get developer perspective, the only voice in support of the policy is the city official tasked with proposing it. He suggests it has support but also validates the concern.
“Any time you change things, there is going to be some pushback, which is understandable,” said Odell. “Changing systems can be a challenge, but we think there’s a lot of support in the community for this.”
In the framing of this story, we see the local paper of record as sharing a core priority with City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce and the rest of the prevailing political apparatus: the developer is to be facilitated fully and never interfered with. Anything that presents even a risk to a developer’s return on investment is automatically off the table. There is no concern more pressing than growth and the developer’s pursuit of it. While other concerns can be acknowledged and acted upon, solutions cannot interfere with the interests of developers. But, on the other hand, there are countless examples of compromises made on other concerns for the sake of the developer. The most obvious example is inclusionary zoning and how it was neutered into fecklessness so as to not inconvenience developers. One of the most clearly articulated reasons the City Council hired Eric Batista as city manager without a search or interview process was the fact the developers know him and like him.
So now, we’re looking at a policy to address the climate crisis working its way through City Hall, putting the city’s newspaper in a position to decide on what to do about that fact. Is it news? What makes it news? What’s the impact? What’s the “hook”? Every news article is the product of these decisions and the subjective experience of the people making them.
Is the hook in this instance the devastating floods to the west and north of us? The fact a tornado touched down in North Brookfield? Is it the fact the climate crisis is at our front door, what with flooding devastating an area not far from us? Certainly a valid hook in this moment! Climate is very much “in the news” currently. Some would consider the current situation a “big deal.” Very newsworthy!
But the Telegram opted instead to frame the story around local developers and the potential hardship that climate mitigation might cause their bottom line. That was a decision. They decided the interest of developers was the more “newsworthy” framework than climate. That decision is inherently political. The presentation as “news” leaves that political decision buried in the subtext and difficult to see as a reflection of values. On the face, it appears a matter of fact—outside the realm of debate, hardly worth mentioning. Impact to development is “news” without further explanation. They don’t have to explain why they think the most important part of the story is the concern of developers. It’s just “news.” On the other hand, the opinion that action on climate is the more important priority is not articulated at all. The writer didn’t include it and the editors didn’t ask for it. That was a decision as well. The perspective that action on climate is of tantamount importance is not fringe. It is widely felt. That it was not provided as the “other side” in this narrative feels a bit more pointed than mere oversight.
In the framework of this story we see quite clearly the Telegram as an apparatus for the prevailing political class, holding fast to the central commitment of ensuring that growth and the flow of investment is never negotiated against. While the city manager and majority of the city council are responsible for squashing threats to that commitment directly, and the Chamber of Commerce serves to provide the council cover for doing so, the Telegram is tasked with presenting a narrative framework for the enterprise and a spectrum of acceptable opinion that keeps it out of the spotlight. In the discursive box the newspaper creates, growth is an unquestioned cause for celebration, while the consequences are made “issues,” unfortunate yet unavoidable. Officials are quoted as “taking the issues seriously” but root causes go unexamined. To point directly at the pursuit of growth as a cause of problems is out of bounds. Affordable housing is a problem. That’s fine to say. The affordable housing crisis as the direct result of the city’s policies and priorities is not. It’s useful for those who personally benefit from the unimpeded flow of capital to make sure growth is never directly challenged in such a way, and the newspaper is important for ensuring those connections aren’t allowed to be drawn. At the same time this line around growth prevents us from doing so many things that could really help people. There’s no way to discuss even modest interventions against growth. For the growth machine, the line is more important than anything else. Those who would challenge that line must be made into the problem. When they call people “divisive” that’s what they mean.
So long as they have the power to maintain that line, even tepid proposals to address real issues will not be possible. It needs to be acknowledged, called out and smashed. And it’s been there a long time. It will not be easy. But every time they’re made to defend that line directly, it becomes easier to see.
Remember that “standoff” the other week on Colby Street? It was heavy to watch the predictable narrative emerge after the fact. Love to be put in a position of feeling genuinely relieved the cops didn’t kill someone. Love to see “not killing someone” celebrated as remarkable and brave police work. Love to know the cops have complete power to define the narrative of events in such a situation and they’re allowed to lie with impunity as a general rule and you just have to accept that you won’t ever really know.
At the City Council meeting tomorrow, we’ll get to see that depressing story unfold even further. Kate Toomey is using the occasion to ask for a police robot. I mean…
And Moe Bergman is similarly inquiring about how we might need drones with more advanced capabilities.
I just can’t with these people. Enough is enough.
The meeting tonight is going to be so so so terrible I can’t wait.
Odds and ends
That’s all for today folks again please consider a paid subscription. Also I am writing this on spotty wifi from the atrium at St. Vincent so... if you see any typos, no you didn’t.
And shouts out to the West Side Bobcat! And an even bigger shouts out to Tara Overton, who gave this quote to the Telegram.
“It’s his neighborhood, too,” Overton said of her four-legged visitor.
Ok that’s all for now, but I expect there will be much much more for later this week, especially after this City Council meeting tonight.