Looking Back: 2008 (Commentary part 2) Open letter to the Charter Review Committee

On January 1, 2009, in Uncategorized, by The News Staff

William C. Shelton

opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News
belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect
the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

(November 2008)

To the Charter Review Committee,

sincerely appreciated the opportunity to give testimony at your Nov. 10
public hearing. I hope you are not discouraged that, from mildly to
passionately, all but one person who spoke was critical of your
preliminary recommendations. That may explain why the hearing, which
was scheduled to be broadcast at least five times on the city's cable
channel, never was.

I respectfully suggest that you might have
begun the work of your committee by gathering evidence on how
Somerville government is benefiting or injuring its citizens and,
therefore, how it should be changed. In just five meetings, you covered
a truly remarkable range of topics. Yet I detect scant mention in your
meeting notes of the Somerville-specific historical context and
conditions that inform your judgment. So please consider my own view.

were times when Somerville's government was more explicitly rife with
patronage than it is today. It has been over two decades since city
officials went to jail. But even then, citizen watchdog groups, a
vigilant local press, and extensive, diverse, and politically active
relationship networks helped keep city government honest. They have
faded away. In their absence, the executive branch has steadily
accumulated more power. The legislative branch has disappeared in all
but name.

For as long as anyone can remember, our mayors
withheld city services from the wards of disobedient aldermen and
worked for the election of obedient ones. But in the absence of
vigilant watchdogs, aldermen have become more vulnerable to such

This parallels and is fed by the enormously increased
size and volume of donations going to mayoral campaign funds,
particularly from interests living outside of Somerville. The current
mayor won his position by spending $35 per vote, more than any
municipal campaign in Massachusetts. By comparison, aldermen seldom
spend more than $2 per vote.

The resulting autocracy expresses
itself in many ways. The current administration refused to release
elected officials' ethics statements as required by law. In response to
a Freedom of Information Act action, they released them with key blocks
of information blacked out. They offer the laughable excuse that the
Massachusetts Ethics Commission does not require the release of
officials' phone numbers.

From 1975 to 1985, the Board of
Aldermen vigorously debated and passed legislation regarding at least
twenty major issues, often with five to six votes. In the last ten
years, I count two significant pieces of legislation originating from
the Board. The rest were the mayor's initiatives, submitted by a Board
member. Dissenting votes were rarely more than two or three.

eclipse of aldermanic power, trends in campaign financing, and the deal
making that takes place outside of the public eye are, taken together,
troubling. So many significant decisions over recent mayoral tenures
flaunted the best relevant evidence, suggesting the extent to which
they were influenced by political considerations. Their outcomes speak
eloquently to their quality.

Over the past century, the response
advocated by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Louis Brandeis to such
conditions was a council/manager municipal charter. So I was
disappointed by your easy dismissal of it. At your July 9 meeting, you
had "agreed to research and discuss a city manager [i.e., a
council/manager] form of government." Then at your Sept. 10 meeting,
"the committee agreed that there is no desire to move away from a
mayoral form of government."

When I asked what your research on
council/manager government had involved, your response was that some
committee members read the book, The Adapted City. When I asked what
your discussion had involved, you said that committee members had made
these observations: there is a trend among municipalities toward a
mayoral form of government; some committee members believe that an
elected mayor is more responsive to the voters; some believe that
council/manager government is more appropriate for homogenous, suburban
cities, while strong-mayor government is better for diverse urban ones;
and some believe that our strong-mayor government is working well, so
there is no need to change it.

I would suggest that

trends mean little without understanding the historical reasons for
changing governmental forms specific to each municipality that
comprises the trend;

• over the decades, our own strong-mayor government has become unaccountable to the voters;

• you should actually examine objective conditions before you pronounce Somerville government to be working well;

and Lowell, Worcester, and Cambridge are all larger and more diverse
than Somerville, but have done quite well with council/manager

Lowell and Lawrence had very similar economies
when Lowell adopted council/manager government, as did Cambridge and
Somerville when Cambridge did the same. It is fascinating to compare
the subsequent trajectories of these two pairs of cities' fiscal
health, political participation and general wellbeing.

then there is diverse and urban Chelsea, whose strong-mayor corruption
and incompetence made it the first U.S. city forced into receivership
since the great depression. In fact, only about 10 percent of
Massachusetts' municipalities have strong/mayor governments, but they
account for all but one of the Commonwealth's significant municipal
corruption scandals. I imagine that your colleague Gerry McCue can
describe how Chelsea has steadily come back since it adopted
council/manager government.

Somerville citizens now have no
real means of redress other than by voting for a mayoral challenger.
Without an incumbent's bulging campaign coffers and patronage-based
army, a challenger's chances are miniscule. If you summarily dismiss
consideration of council/manager government, then I am astonished you
have not recommended initiative and referendum, which do not exist in
our charter.

I do applaud your recommendation to finally grant
the Board of Aldermen authority to appoint their own staff. How about
their own counsel? Your fiscal and financial recommendations are very
much appreciated as well.

The notion that a person of color
appointed by the mayor could effectively represent fifty ethnic groups
is dubious, however, as is the notion that School Committee members
should possess some kind of "expertise" other than speaking for their

Taken together, the recommendations you have made
thus far are feeble in the context of our history and objective
conditions. Council/manager government is not intrinsically superior in
every situation. But its adoption would leaven an inertial,
old-boy-network political culture that excludes the recruitment of
fresh and diverse talent, perpetuates patronage, and fails on your
criterion of benefiting all citizens. Somerville's structural fiscal
deficit is one of its products.

When our nation's founders
decided to change their form of government, they began the Declaration
of Independence by stating that "a decent respect for the opinions of
mankind" required them to state their reasons for doing so. They
defined the values that would guide the transformation of their
political institutions. And they cited the history and resulting
conditions that compelled that transformation. I would encourage you to
do the same.

There are many among Somerville's citizens who
would simply like unpoliticized consideration of their job applications
and performance, impartiality in service distribution and zoning
decisions, or a city government that tells the truth, the whole truth,
and nothing but the truth. Most do not enjoy the luxury of
dispassionately discussing forms of municipal governance.

you believe that the conditions they experience are unworthy of your
consideration? Do you believe that the recommendations you are offering
will transform those conditions?


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