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A tale of two city councils
I’ve been meaning for a while to touch on the subject of our new and exciting progressive bloc on the City Council and the fact they really haven’t been able to get anywhere. No fault of their own, they just don’t have the numbers yet, and they’re up against a political culture which is not only resistant to change but resistant at its core to the idea of doing anything at all with the powers afforded them.
We saw it with Councilor Etel Haxhiaj’s push for a local eviction moratorium, which was processed to death and transformed into something so neutered and tepid it hardly bears explaining. We saw it with the proposed moratorium on new gas station construction, an idea so good it didn’t stand a chance. We saw it happen with the proposed vaccine passport system, similar to what Boston implemented, and the massive blowback it produced before dying a quiet death. These are just a few examples, and we’ve only been at this a few months.
More than any of those examples on their own, the tail end of the council meeting yesterday offered a crystal clear portrait into the political culture of the board. It offers a clear way into understanding what has to change if we’re to have a City Council that’s of any use to us at all, and I’m going to do my best to lay that out. It was also, frankly, hilarious. But I’ll get to that.
Long story short, the progressive coalition simply does not yet have the votes to impose its agenda. There are three reliably progressive councilors in Haxhiaj, King and Nguyen. There are four reliable conservatives, in Mero-Carlson, Bergman, Toomey and Colorio. In between, there are four councilors who to varying degrees fall in the middle. George Russell is more likely to side with the conservative wing, while Petty, Rivera and Rose shore up a sort of middle posing as progressive. This has resulted in a good deal of 6-5 votes on proposals that the middle and the progressives can agree on, and more often it results in the middle, through the power afforded Petty as mayor, stymying the proposals which “go too far” from their perspective with process. With a truly progressive council, for instance, the city manager does not get to go out and say, a day ahead of its hearing at the City Council, that the city is not going to adopt a vaccine passport. With Petty shoring up the middle, he does.
But back to the meeting.
The council spent the bulk of the meeting squabbling over a resolution in support of a national nuclear disarmament campaign. The resolution, put on by Councilor Sean Rose, was a purely symbolic gesture—and he said as much, asking his fellow councilors to “symbolically and publicly sign onto a resolution that suggests a platform around compromise.”
The council routinely signs on symbolic petitions like this and it almost always passes unanimously and without discussion. Most of the time, it’s understood that these resolutions are something of a formality and, as far as the council’s responsibilities goes, very trivial. All this would do is add a number to the organization leading this effort’s pitch to federal lawmakers. “X amount of City Councils and Y amount of State Legislatures and Z amount of governors offices signed on to this resolution,” they’ll say.
However, on this particular resolution, about half the city council seemed to take it as a foreign policy decision that they themselves had authority over and that their vote carried significance when in fact it would matter about as much as a high school Model UN or maybe even less. But for them, it was as if the Worcester City Council was voting on whether to destroy the United States nuclear arsenal and The Whole World Is Watching.
First, George Russell tried to wrestle with Mayor Joe Petty on whether such a petition is allowed by the council’s rules. There is a rule about not putting things on that are outside the council’s purview, but Petty said he checked with the clerk who okayed the resolution and that was that. As I said before, the council routinely takes up resolutions on big issues like this.
After King and Haxhiaj spoke in favor, Russell again sought to blow the matter out of proportion, saying he disagrees with Petty’s decision to allow the order, intends to vote “present” and has “faith in the president,” a train of thought as dubious as it is hilarious. George Russell trusts Joe Biden, so he’s not going to vote in favor of a symbolic resolution calling for international nuclear disarmament. Uhhhhhhh… K.
Donna Colorio then echoed Russell’s concern. She said she’s not qualified to vote on such a matter despite how much she’s “against war.” Literally anyone is qualified to vote on a symbolic resolution which carries no weight or significance whatsoever. If you don’t think you’re qualified to vote on a resolution, where does that leave us with any of the votes the council makes which actually do affect people’s lives?
Then, Candy Mero-Carlson tried to hold it another week, saying she needed more information. Petty shot the idea down, basically telling her to read the packet of documents which comes with every council agenda—something I’m sure she does every week. Definitely.
When it came time for Kate Toomey to speak, we really jumped the shark. “I know that nuclear war is a very scary thing for all of us,” she said, as if her vote meant literally anything at all vis-à-vis nuclear war and the prospect of it. She then, bewilderingly, launched into a semi-coherent rant about the Cuban Missile Crisis, then said she would hate to put the United States at a disadvantage in a nuclear arms race with Russia, something a councilor in a mid-sized American city has to really think about these days! Thank god Kate Toomey, Worcester City Councilor, voted against—sorry, “abstained” from—this resolution, or else Russia’s gonna have all the nukes. What then? It’s a very scary thing indeed. Thank you Kate for your service.
Moe Bergman picked up where Toomey left off. The Nazis, he said—and I just gotta say, you know an argument has jumped the shark when you invoke the Nazis—had a pact with Russia. Then the Nazis broke the pact and invaded Russia. So, he said, geopolitical agreements can’t always be trusted. That’s why he’s voting against the purely symbolic resolution endorsing the idea of nuclear disarmament which is something that would literally take a benevolent dictator of the world to achieve but it’s nice to try anyway. That’s why he can’t in good faith endorse the idea of nuclear disarmament in the abstract. And that’s why he had to embarrass himself by using his time on the floor of the Worcester City Council to give a little history lesson about Nazi Germany, Russia and Poland. You can just vote no, Moe, and not make a stink about it. He however did make a stink about it and then voted no effectively by way of voting “abstain,” which every councilor in opposition to this order ended up doing.
The vote passed 6-5, or, in technical terms, unanimously with five abstentions. A fuckin’ masterclass in how to build a mountain out of a molehill if you ask me.
The Telegram, in its reporting, said the war in Ukraine weighed heavily on the councilors’ minds as they deliberated on this issue, and that may be well and true. There was lots of talk about the war as the councilors needlessly deliberated on what should have been a routine formality. But the Telegram missed a bit of context which makes the whole thing even more petty and obnoxious. Enter: Rick Cipro.
Cipro, for those blissfully unaware, is the right-wing psycho and Worcester police officer who ran against Sean Rose for the District 1 City Council seat last fall. And that’s Cipro posting ahead of the vote yesterday in the local police union facebook page where Mero-Carlson and Toomey are active.
Cipro enjoyed the support of quite a few sitting City Councilors. You may remember Mero-Carlson’s meltdown on cable access about Joe Petty not giving her the chair of the economic development subcommittee because she supported Rick Cipro in that race.
From my piece on that:
“I have no issue whatsoever with the person I supported,” she said. “As everyone knows, I come from a strong labor background. As a member of organized labor… and our organization made a decision to support Rick Cipro.”
She says “all her other colleagues” supported Rick Cipro but she got singled out for publicly donating to his campaign. It’s great, in that context, to watch Moe Bergman awkwardly squirm next to her.
When she talks about “all her other colleagues,” who is she talking about? Good chance she’s talking about Bergman, Colorio and Toomey, maybe even Russell too!
These are coincidentally all the councilors who decided to make major hay about the resolution and vote against it by way of abstaining.
On the floor, Moe Bergman invoked The Nazis, Kate Toomey talked about the Cuban Missile Crisis and George Russell said who am I to question our great president? But the real reason they didn’t want to vote for this resolution is because Rick Cipro turned it into yet another petty pissing match and Rick Cipro is their guy.
This is the theater of absurdity we’re used to with the Worcester City Council. They’re content to leave the business of government up to the City Manager while they grandstand every Tuesday night and spend the rest of the week playing Mean Girls for townies.
It’s a theater of absurdity the progressive coalition has to break through and overpower if we’re ever going to get anything done. Councilors King and Thu Nguyen showed us a small glimpse of how, after suffering through the entirely pointless political theater around Rose’s resolution.
At the end of every City Council meeting, after they’ve gotten through the formal agenda, there’s a time called “under suspension,” where councilors can bring up things that weren’t on the agenda. Typically this time is used for little stuff like “Thank you to the DPW for working so hard to plow the streets after the recent storm.” Stuff like that.
Last night however King used it to press the city manager on the recent departure of Stephanie Williams, the city’s third chief diversity officer to leave the job since the creation of the position back in 2016. He asked the city manager for a detailed report on the position and retention and also asked for highlights from exit interviews.
Petty tried to cut him off but King sharply fired back, “I have a few more minutes, Mr. Chairman.”
“The revolving door is disappointing,” he then said.
Thu Nguyen joined King in calling for a serious examination. I’m going to leave most of their comments here untouched. I just think they’re really good.
We need to figure out why we’re falling flat. A lot of the times I hear that the system is just replicating the status quo. That it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. Which is, you know, continue a racist system. And I don’t think that that’s what we want, right? I don’t think anyone here wants that. So I think we have to wonder why are we fitting the bill of people not staying in such a crucial position? As well as are we causing harm when there’s a person in that position. Especially when we’re trying to counter the harm that’s caused for our community. So I think one of the demands is that we not hire someone until we do some reflection. I think it’s worth the assessment and I also think that perhaps we think of hiring consultants and people who can really lead us in the right direction, so that we can do this deep analysis that we all want.
This is what city councilors are supposed to do. They’re supposed to steer the city in new policy directions. They’re supposed to identify what is working and what isn’t. They’re supposed to make the city better. Retention at the chief diversity officer position is a serious problem. Why have we already lost three CDOs—all of them Black women—in this short span of time? While half the city council was content to use their position to dress up some townie beef like it was a matter of national security, King and Nguyen used their position to press the city manager to do better.
The progressive coalition doesn’t have the votes to command the city council, but every week they’re offering a different vision of what the council could and should be doing, and it stands in stark contrast to the petty antics of the old guard.
It’s important we hold onto that vision as we endure the next couple years of taking Ls, because if we can add just a seat or two to the progressive bloc in 2023, we’re primed for a takeover.
It’s maybe a bit unconventional to be telling my readers this, but I’ve started digging into the chief diversity officer problem as well. I filed a bunch of public records requests related to the matter today, and if you know anything we don’t, you know where to find me!
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And I just gotta say I’m happy for Frank over at Vincents and him taking ownership of a new bar… but R.I.P. to Nick’s! One of my favorite bars in the city. Selfishly, I’m really hoping the vibe stays more or less the same. But we shall see.