Monday, May 04, 2009

Mayor THIS!...

Although time remains for another contender to throw his hat into Springfield's mayoral ring, it seems at this point that the likely candidates will be incumbent mayor Domenic Sarno, City Councilor Bud Williams, and "non-establishment candidate" David Parkhurst. Certainly somebody else could appear, but this is how the field looks today. However speculation about a potential run by City Councilor Bruce Stebbins ended Thursday when the Springfield Intruder broke the news that Stebbins was neither running for mayor nor running for an at-large or district council seat.

The Valley Advocate's Maureen Turner recently produced some in-depth analyses of the impact of
increasing the mayor's term and whether mayors are the answer at all. As everybody knows(except you under a rock people, you), Springfield is in store for nothing short of an upheaval at 36 Court St. With only five at large seats available for the seven at large candidates still possibly interested in running again and eight district seats, the entire dynamic of municipal elections will be unlike anything seen in over two generations. Pile onto that the ruckus the mayoral election will have with Sarno defending his record against not one, but two challengers and, boy howdy, have we an election.

However, as Turner points out an equally important ballot question will be before the voters in November. If approved, starting in 2012, with the swearing in of whomever wins the 2011 election, the mayor's term would be four years long. The question was placed on the ballot as part of the Springfield Rescue Bill, which extended the repayment time the city would be given once the Control Board packs up. The bill itself was fraught with infighting amongst the Springfield delegation, some members of which appeared more interested in their own political ends than the welfare of the city.

Turner's article goes on to describe some of the process, which pushed this proposal into the public forum. It traces back to the Affiliated Chambers of Congress of Greater Springfield. The Chamber seemed to agree that a longer term would give the mayor more time to govern before the specter of reelection turns him or her back into a pumpkin. The downside, the article points out would be a situation as in Boston where the mayor can amass a huge war chest and blast his opponents with professional political operatives, all the while defending none of this record. However, Springfield found itself in a similar ditch when former Michael Albano was mayor and easily reelected every two years.

The proposal has received some support from officials like City Councilor Tim Rooke and Co-Founder of Arise for Social Justice Michaelann Bewsee. However, there exists a concern on the part of some that the drive for this change originated with the Chamber of Commerce. From a strictly philosophical viewpoint, that concern is valid. However, in reality, a great deal of campaign cash for the city's elected officials, both municipal and state, comes from outside the city. Residents of Longmeadow, for example seem particularly generous to Springfield's elected officials winners, losers, sinners, and saints all. The argument might be made that outside forces already have quite a hand in the city's inner workings that transcends its business community.

A longer term does have its benefits for the city, however. As Rooke and Bewsee mentioned in the Advocate, it gives the person in the position a greater length of time to enact an agenda and shepherd projects through. What do you do, however, when the mayor starts pushing something down the throats of the city that it may not really want. For the politically good, a longer term could reap great rewards for the city. For the politically vile, it could lead to the rape of the city.

Additionally, the concern must be addressed for what would become midterm elections. City Council and School Committee elections would face chronically lower voter turnout if the Boston 2007 Municipal Election is any guide.

Turner's Second Article, however, raises the question about whether a mayor is even necessary. After all, in the first article, Turner mentions how legislators seemed intent on dictating policy to the city via the General Court. The second article focuses on Plan E, or the Council-Manager system under Massachusetts Law. Under a Council-Manager system, according to the article, the council hires a professional manager for the city. Although responsible to the Council, a manager is often hired under a contract and therefore insulated from the political pressures put upon a mayor. However, nothing could stop the council from hiring or seeking qualifications for managers that might be inclined to bow to public employee unions or business interests.

The article pulls back and even asks whether local government is even relevant. In Massachusetts, where counties became political anachronisms soon after the last square inch of the commonwealth was incorporated, a "no" answer is not immediate. Additionally, New Englanders as a whole, tend to have a greater identification to their hometown, only generalizing when they leave the Northeast. The irony may be, however, is that New England cities and towns are all creations of their respective states and guaranteed little rights under their constitutions. Nobody is suggesting restoring the old inefficient counties in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, where counties are basically null.

However, as voters remained apathetic during municipal elections, it might provide the room to expand some services (like education) beyond town lines by legislative fiat. Cities like Springfield, Boston, Lawrence, Holyoke, and Lowell will never be able to raise enough money without taxing themselves into oblivion in order to correct half a centuries worth of accumulated urban problems and flawed policies. Moreover, blurring the lines of municipalities might limit the risk these cities have in losing business and development to the suburbs.

Back to Springfield's November decision. The office of Mayor of Springfield is not going anywhere. A wider charter revision, often appearing in the constellation of Springfield Political Speculation, is unlikely to recommend abolishing the office. At best, it might seek to limit some of the mayor's authority or rework how commissions, which often do much of the work of gov't, are operated. However, the legislature may want to consider some changes, too. The state's local government laws have permitted absuridities like a near-prohibition on the Boston City Council to hire its own lawyer without mayoral approval.

In any event, the ballot question, as Turner points out may be a referendum on Sarno, too. Whether reelected or not, Sarno's rocky term may discourage voters from taking a risk on longer periods of bumpy governance. The question may not get the fair analysis it deserves from voters scared to death of four years, rather than two, of disappointing, if not crooked government.

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