Sunday, August 09, 2009

Re-Ward for Springfield?...

As can be expected in the midst of Springfield's governmental shakeup, a great amount of interest has been generated in most if not all of the new races for Springfield City Council this year. While the mayoral race will attract attention, which has since been narrowed down to incumbent Domenic Sarno and City Councilor Bud Williams, the new ward seats are in the limelight.

Bill Dusty's Springfield Intruder has been keeping
tabs on who's running for what both for the City Council and the School Committee. Some seats will require primaries races and others will not. All but four incumbents in the city council are running again, all for at-large seats, namely, Tim Rooke, Kateri Walsh, Jose Tosado, and Jimmy Ferrera. Only a total of nine candidates have met the requirements for the at-large seats, thus not requiring a primary there. For those who do not know, although all municipal races in Massachusetts are non-partisan, if more than two candidates meet the signature and residency requirements by the deadline, a primary must be held to narrow the list to two for the November general election.

In a rare burst of
explanatory reporting, the Republican today gave a little history on ward representation in Springfield. It noted among other things, that the switch to an all at-large format for the city council was an attempt to modernize the archaic and probably sluggish 26-member city council of old. A strong mayor system was instituted and ironically, the man who would later bring ward representation back, Charles Ryan, was the first elected to the position.

Councilors had opposed reform for years, but as demographics changed, possibly endangering their political future anyway, the binding resolution to reinstitute ward-representation made it to the ballot with the Council's blessing. The only votes against, Bud Williams and Tim Rooke, remain on the scene. Oddly enough, however, four of their colleagues on that vote in favor of ward representation are not on this years ballot. It should be noted, however, that some of the candidates this year have been on the council before and certainly some of the today's incumbents could make a comeback in the future.

Supporters of ward representation spoke about re-enfranchising thousands into municipal politics. Minority populations were diluted or outright ignored under the at-large only system, they charged. While that may be true, the change will not attack the route problem, which plagues America more generally, but certainly Massachusetts particularly. Without an informed and interested electorate, whatever their reasons for not being so, real change cannot occur. Although councilors will need to be from more of the city neighborhoods, they will probably be elected by the same folks that showed up in those wards in the past.

What has been good about this change is the immediate shake-up in 2009 for the city council. Although, the Republican recalled the 1963 election, the second after at-large only came into being, as devoid of the political competition of two years earlier, the lower threshold might encourage more challengers. Conversely, will a ward rep get the ear of the press as readily as the at-large councilors do?

Moreover, the Republican article relates the fear of some that Ward Reps may become enmeshed in "pothole politics" and subject to conspiring with other reps to get projects in their respective wards. The concern about the latter, called logrolling in poltical culture, is real. However, there remains a hearty reality that Springfield does not have very much money and its Representatives in Boston already do a "good" job sending pork home. Moreover, the City Council cannot write the budget or include earmarks like the Mass General Court and Congress can. The City Council can only cut.

The pothole politics problem is more complex, but could have a positive side. It may encourage voters to pay attention to what their rep is or is not doing. It could even encourage heated races. They might be as banal as "she doesn't fix the holes as fast as I could." Even if they are, it will give neighborhoods a clearer connection to the government that fixes potholes and plows snow. This is particuarly important for the neighborhoods wherein present councilors do not live.

That, too, may affect the existing political machine that gets folks, both bad and good, into office. Today it is based heavily in Wards 5, 6, and 7. These are the whitest and wealthiest wards in the city and the best evidence the proponents of ward representation had. Wisely, the powers that be had connections in every other ward, such as to ensure victory and give them some kingmaking power in other elections like for the Massachusetts House and Senate whose districts criss-crossed the city. Other wards may have not had such connections, however.

Consider Ward 8. While Indian Orchard is only part of the ward, that neighborhood is almost entirely in the House District of Thomas Petrolati of Ludlow. With no City Councilors from the at-large system from Ward 8 and a House District controlled and based in Ludlow, what would be the point of building up any political infrastructure there at all? Somebody might have some pull, but who knows? We won't until Novemeber.

In an era when even the word "change" may seem tired and used and the media both good and bad, are shallow and insufficiently informative, the full effect of ward representation in Springfield may not meet expectations. The real test is not the 2009 election, but the 2011 election. Who will face competition? Does the electorate, beyond the damn fools that kept voting in the clowns that sent the city to hell in a handbasket, trust public officials any more? Are more people voting, particularly where ward rep proponents say voices are most often silenced? When these and other questions are answers, we will know whether this local great experiment has been a success.

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