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We’re finally asking the right questions
What is the point of the Worcester City Council?
Hello! The piece today is a very tightly focused look at something that’s lacked a certain focus. It felt necessary to give it a minute and look at the Council meeting with some critical distance. Hopefully you find it to be a nice “Sunday read.” And of course if you do so, please consider a paid subscription!
Also: Major Merchandise Alert! Me and Worcester’s favorite tattoo artist Katie Nowicki collaborated on a limited run of Worcester Sucks tie-dye shirts! Each one is unique and there’s only 30 of em and we are NOT doing this ever again. The link’s going in here for readers before it’s going on social media: Get em while they’re hot!
If you’ve been waiting on a different merch order from me thank you for your patience. I’ll be making a big all-encompasing trip to the post office in the coming week.
Ok, now onto the main event.
We’re finally asking the right questions
For months now I’ve been working on an underpinning analysis for understanding Worcester’s municipal government and why it’s so... Worcester.
Back in April, I think I got pretty close in “The Council doesn’t make decisions, it launders them”.
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.
The showdown at City Council Tuesday night over Thu Nguyen’s request for a crisis pregnancy center ordinance was hugely significant for understanding this. (I’m not going to spend any time explaining the overall CPC/ordinance issue. Start here for background.) It caught a lot of attention, drew some new fault lines, sparked a lot of political positioning, prompted a lot of takes, and, most importantly, begged a lot of questions. One of those questions is really the question, and I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a moment in which it’s been asked so pointedly by so many people: What is the point of the Worcester City Council?
This is the question I’ve been wrestling with for months. It should be easy to answer! The role of the City Council is clearly spelled out in the city charter. There is a clear idea and a clear architecture for how the idea is achieved. However, the City Council that meets every Tuesday in real life looks very, very different from the City Council spelled out in that document. How is it different? Why is it different? And who benefits? These are the important questions to be asking. It’s rare to see them asked. Rarer still to get an answer. On Tuesday night, Nguyen pulled off the remarkable feat of both asking an important question and getting an actual answer.
The question: can the city manager disregard the will of the council if he so chooses?
The answer, as illustrated in the comments of all but three city councilors, as well as the comments of the city manager himself, is very clearly yes.
One exchange, which starts around the 2:15:00 mark, is very illuminating.
Nguyen: “Is the city manager just able to decide at their own will to not follow the political will of the council? Through the chair?”
A brief silence.
Mayor Joe Petty: “Can you repeat the question?”
Nguyen: “Is it at the discretion of the city manager to just decide to not follow the political will of the council?”
Petty looks between City Manager Eric Batista and City Solicitor Mike Traynor to see who wants to respond.
Petty: “Mr. solicitor or… I don’t know how to answer that.”
After a beat, Traynor takes the question from the podium.
Traynor: “Well, Mr, Chairman, I would just say that there are requests that go to the city manager and as the chief administrative officer he makes the decisions on putting things forward. In this instance he declined to put that forward. He thought he was on solid ground for doing so. The council can tell him otherwise and then we’ll revisit the issue.”
You sure about that? Does the council really believe they can do that?
Nguyen’s next question was also interesting.
Nguyen: “Who told you not to draft the ordinance?”
Traynor: “Through the chair you just heard the manager say to not draft the ordinance. To hold off.”
In Nguyen’s whole interrogation of the manager and solicitor, the council as an idea and the council as a culture were called into direct conflict. Adherents to the culture were made to defend an unspoken cultural assumption. Without being pressed by a minority of councilors who do not subscribe to the prevailing culture, they wouldn’t have had to do so.
The people in power know that happened and they don’t like it. They’ve been doing everything they can to make sure the general public doesn’t understand the moment as such. Most recently, they’ve tried to save face by saying yes, actually, the CPC ordinance will go to a vote.
After initially declining to present a draft ordinance that would regulate so-called crisis pregnancy centers in the city to the Worcester City Council, City Manager Eric Batista said Thursday he will bring two draft ordinances before the council.
Batista was speaking to Hank Stolz, the host of Talk of the Commonwealth, when he said he will bring the two draft ordinances and any other documents his office has been working on related to crisis pregnancy centers before the council at its next meeting on Aug. 22.
And, of course, we learned that via the radio! How many “Batista speaking to Hank Stolz” stories have there been versus “Batista filed a report to the council” stories? Someone do the math. At one point Tuesday Batista accused Nguyen of “going to the media” meanwhile the local radio station and Batista’s going to it is the only way we figure out what Batista is going to do.
In the days before this about face turn, they tried to steer the discourse in another direction — make it a story about decorum and behavior. They tried to center the conversation around whether Nguyen was right to ask City Manager Eric Batista if he lied. Calling someone a liar, they said, is not civil. But the question was valid and remains valid. Nguyen asked whether Batista lied when he told them he had a draft ordinance ready to go last September. Batista maintained he was telling the truth. But two months after Batista told Nguyen he had a draft ordinance prepared, City Solicitor Mike Traynor sent a text message which pretty fuckin’ clearly suggests otherwise. On Friday, November 18, a member of the Attorney General’s Office asked him directly if an ordinance has been drafted yet. “No ordinance,” Traynor said. “And I don’t intend on drafting one.” Not a lot of wiggle room here. Batista was pretty obviously caught in a lie. But we didn’t really focus so much on that. Instead, we focused on Nguyen and whether it was good manners to call someone a liar. It’s less bad to lie than to call someone out for lying I guess.
It was not subtle that the mayor et al. took this approach, nor was the local media’s complicity in centering it. If the rubric for scoring politicians is confined to the ability to act out the bit character of “respectable public figure,” the politicians don’t have to worry so much about actually doing things people want and the journalists have easier stories to tell. It takes a manner of digging and conviction and apathy toward the allure of “access” to write about the lie. On the other hand, a story about whether it’s good to accuse someone of lying is very easy, relatively risk-free, and has a flare of drama. Bonus points if such a story is useful for people in power. The sympathetic narrative can be traded in for access and access is how you climb the ladder. The distinction between public relations and journalism is quickly relegated to salary and benefits.
So that’s how the Joe Pettys and Eric Batistas of the world get away with focusing negative attention on the Thu Nguyens of the world. The earnest pursuit of doing good easily becomes a crime when it crosses the line of maintaining appearances. Meanwhile, a politics which would be very unpopular if properly understood is allowed to happen invisibly. Something like, say, an affordable housing crisis can be intentionally and recklessly triggered without scrutiny. If, years later, the people who triggered that crisis identify it as an issue, they are allowed to speak about it sympathetically, as if earnestly searching for solutions to a problem of unknowable origin. They pursued an economic development strategy which was sure to produce a housing crisis without any mitigation and they were assisted by a local press that happily swallowed the line. The Worcester Renaissance. The decision to do so was made privately by a small group of powerful people far away from any democratic process or public input. While it wasn’t just Polar Park, it’s the most useful example of the overall strategy which led to it. The park didn’t reach the City Council as a possibility for consideration. It was a “done deal.” The Council vote was a mere formality. There was no true expression of public will. There was the appearance of one in press coverage, in turn used to declare victory. Any criticism was easily bludgeoned with personal attack on the person doing the criticizing. It wasn’t a democratic city government which made that decision or any decision of significance in recent memory. It was a decision made by a culture—a group of people comprising a loose social network of influence and power around City Hall. It sort of functions as an aristocracy, though that gives too much credit. It certainly has a feudal quality, though. There are lordships and titles and a certain propertied class. For this class, there is no downside to juicing property values, no matter how recklessly. Disagree on anything else, they can agree on that. Making sure crisis pregnancy centers don’t ruin people’s lives is not so free of downside apparently.
When you hear “stakeholders” and “the city family” in the rhetoric of local officials, this is who they mean. It is detrimental to a career in politics or journalism to say this stuff out loud, but it’s not a secret for anyone involved. Decisions of significance are decided by this culture well before they’re announced to the public. Key positions of structural power are kept “in the family,” so to speak. The Chamber of Commerce and the mayor and the city manager are able to work together without having to say so. If you want more status in this social structure, being a good soldier about how you use your city council seat is one way to do so. Power lies in this nebulous network in a way that has nothing at all to do with the City Council as a democratic expression of the public will. The council’s general way of doing business has been contorted and neutered over decades of unquestioned control by this vague power elite. City manager evaluations and budget approvals are taken as opportunities to cheerlead where real expectations could be set and real oversight applied. On the other hand, the most reliably contentious issue, seen as something of a political Superbowl by councilors, is setting the split tax rate. While the council takes it very seriously and all manner of speeches are prepared, it’s really not that important. They like it that way.
You need only look at who the past three city managers have been and the way in which they were hired to see the council for what it is. This culture of local elites merely uses the institution to keep the city manager job “in the family” and they do because the majority of councilors are in on the unspoken agreement that they’re not really in charge. With the general understanding that the council isn’t there to lead, the councilor role attracts people who are bored and like attention and want to feel like they’re part of the team. Kate Toomey is the perfect example. All she wants is a pat on the head from the police and she gets the most votes every year. The low turnouts in municipal elections are not a bug, they’re a feature. Extremely unpopular and unlikable people are allowed to sit in those chairs and feel important so long as they know the lines that are not to be crossed. The public is allowed to comment when they’re unhappy about something. The anger gets directed at the council, who then suck it up like a sponge and diffuse it. This allows the city manager to pursue a real political project with no concern for the public will.
The way power works in Worcester is an enigma. Some six or so years of writing about it, I’m still figuring it out. I’m not alone, of course. Remember that WGBH article about what makes the council so weird? “‘A chaotic mess at any turn’: Why Worcester City Council meetings can be a spectacle.” I mean what a headline! People know it’s messed up and broken, and this usually steers people to say we need “charter change.” After Tuesday, it should be especially clear that the broken thing is not the charter but the people who use it. It is a cultural problem, not a system problem. Earlier this year, I used the analogy of kudzu vine:
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.
Kudzu makes no discrimination between different trees. This culture will do what it did to Plan E to Strong Mayor. There needs to be a cultural change before anything. Every battle on the Council floor over the past two years is best seen as a contest between two distinct cultures. The prevailing culture has a solid majority and as such has bludgeoned the progressive culture over and over and over. But in every failure there’s something to learn about the opponent. Right now all we can hope to do is learn the moves. This week we learned a lot in that way.
Like all battles in this 8-3 power differential (Nguyen, Haxhiaj, King vs everyone else), the battle over the CPC ordinance is a losing one. It has always been a losing one. The City Council might have voted in the affirmative last July during that post-Dobbs moment of self-congratulation for being Democrats, but someone like Joe Petty could be sure it would disappear quietly like everything else. The council would get a newspaper article that looked like they were “taking action” while knowing they would never have to actually take action. Before the last election, it would have worked. We would have never heard about the CPC ordinance again after that vote in July. That’s how things have worked for a long time. Everyone who’s been around a while understands as much. Joe Petty, Kate Toomey, Candy Mero-Carlson, Donna Colorio, Sarai Rivera, Sean Rose, George Russell — they all know the score. The council makes suggestions, not demands. It doesn’t set expectations, it nudges. The council doesn’t hire, fire or evaluate the manager, they support him. The manager presides over the council. This is understood. It is a norm of the council as a culture. It is deeply held and needs not be spoken. This norm is a real norm. It is probably felt in a genuine way by most if not all of the normative councilors. To believe it’s a conscious, cynical posture is probably lending too much credit. To understand this deference to the manager as a social norm was an “Aha!” moment for me that made a lot of bizarre behavior understandable.
What Nguyen did on Tuesday has been characterized in about as many different ways as you could characterize such a moment. A lot of it has been very racist, either openly or subtly. In a now-deleted tweet, local crank Marc Peabody described Nguyen as a “thug.” A lot of it has been in bad faith and frankly stupid. A lot of the positive takes have also been pretty stupid. People do not know what to make of this. There’s no consensus. But it’s clear it captured attention.
The reason for all the buzz, to my mind, is that we saw a moment of innate leadership from Nguyen that was stunningly honest and true and free of compromise to the “professionalism” that disincentivizes saying what you mean with clarity. Nguyen consciously and unapologetically broke a deep social norm of the city council. They did so in public, without conceding or apologizing or making any appeal to what the culture expects of them. They were entirely unconcerned with belonging. That is not an easy thing to do. The strength of conviction, purpose and moral clarity it takes to not cave in to social pressure in a moment like that is rare. It was stunning to witness.
Not only did Nguyen challenge a norm, they challenged the number one norm underpinning the perversion of the system. The real sunlight for the kudzu: the unspoken agreement that the manager is more powerful than the council. It’s the thing which allows the culture to keep one of their own in the position, doing what the culture decides. The appearance of a real city council is necessary only for laundering purposes. Nguyen called this out effectively and made them address it out loud. We watched Batista chug an entire bottle of water in about 30 seconds. They were sweating.
That Nguyen approached the subject in a manner so strikingly at odds with what’s socially expected of a city councilor forced the normative councilors into a situation where they had to say the quiet stuff out loud. Besides the three progressives, every other councilor danced around the basic fact they are content to forgo oversight power. Without really saying so, they said so. They all operated within the box that the city manager was right to make a decision on his own and not even tell them.
To see the council as a clash of two cultures, this becomes the central difference. The progressives are there because they want to lead and want to use the processes of the council to do so. The normative majority is there because they want a position in a power structure that’s not the council, and which they understand they do not lead.
While there are plenty of things to discuss about Tuesday night, the thing that made it truly a moment was the pointed audacity with which Nguyen used the structural power afforded a city councilor in a way that was alien to a group of people who pursue their position in an anti-democratic culture of power by foregoing their power as councilors.
The anger and moralizing this prompted from the political class is evidence of a deep nerve well struck. But there’s something else that made it worse: it was a young person of color who does not adhere to the hegemony of binary gender delivering this deeply cutting critique of a social norm. For a certain type of person, this strikes an even deeper nerve—the sort of person who’s maybe learned not to say out loud that people have certain acceptable places in the social hierarchy, but still cling to their relative superiority. They might know that “racism is bad” and “equality is good” but cannot abide their assumed superiority being challenged. The people who live in a “good neighborhood.” Who process their social position as a matter of superior “manners” which lower positions inherently lack. Who claim authority on what’s “proper decorum.” In order to belong in an esteemed institution like the City Council, you have to capitulate to this concept of “manners” first and foremost. Especially if you come from a lower position. You don’t have to be born to it but you do have to conform to it. So this sort of person, put in the position of watching someone they automatically perceive to be of lesser status—who has to demonstrate an exceptional quality to deserve respect as an equal—for whose equality you are the judge—to see that person not capitulate to your superiority but rather criticize it directly? That’s “bad manners.” Not “respectable.”
In that way, there is a deep and quiet racism behind the impulse to make Nguyen the heel of the story. The only vocabulary for it is “decorum.” But it’s not decorum, really. That’s not what makes people angry. It’s the ability to define what’s “acceptable decorum” and who gets to define it. It’s easy to celebrate “diversity” as a matter of skin color and say it’s a good thing. But what happens when a “diverse” person doesn’t capitulate to the “manners” that justify your perceived superiority? If you know in your heart they are beneath you inherently, you’d expect them to want to “advance” to your place in the status ladder, and that means adopting your “decorum.” Because you know in your heart that their status is worse and they desire to be in your world. And you know in your heart you get to be the judge of whether they’re allowed in. You expect a certain seeking of approval. But what happens when someone you perceive as less than decides not to do that?
Well, I think if you carried that sort of view of the world, Thu Nguyen would piss you off something fierce. It would be very “divisive.”
When Nguyen left the council chambers late Tuesday night, I was watching the video, and I saw them walk past Kate Toomey, who nodded at Nguyen and said something unheard. Turns out Toomey said Nguyen’s behavior was “unbecoming of a councilor.” Luckily, Nguyen posted about it on social media. Otherwise we would have never known.
It must have been eating at Toomey all night, watching this person who she didn’t give permission to be in this place—where they should be grateful to be—act in a way she wouldn’t. It must have made her so mad. She just had to say something. She felt compelled—I bet she really felt it—to speak to Nguyen from a place of entitlement. As someone who knows better. When she said Thu was “unbecoming,” what she really said is “I know in my heart that my manners are better than yours, and that makes me entitled to say yours are lacking.”
There’s so much bound up in that word. “Unbecoming.” Such a long and violent history. The target of the colonial missionary. The subject of reform schools on reservations. The tool of center over periphery. “Becoming” as a claim to superiority. “Unbecoming” is an assertion of inferiority. A word which defines the expression of whiteness and warrants its supremacy.
In saying such a thing, Toomey presumes to understand more about ‘becoming’ behavior than Nguyen. Why is that? She presumes Nguyen desires to be seen as ‘becoming’ by Toomey’s definition. Why is that? Nguyen is a person she knows she has a right to criticize. Why is that?
I’ll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusion. But to me it’s pretty obvious. You could say it’s pretty black and white.
Odds and ends
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Also thank you to State Sen. Robyn Kennedy for actually wanting to do something about CPCs.
This did psychological damage to me...
Also check it out! Worcester Sucks made it all the way to Korea! We goin’ global!! (Shouts out to reader @imsuaim for these pics they made my day!)
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