Equal Branches of Government?
Mayor Exercises Power
At Expense of Council
By Edward Shanahan
A new year prompts downstreet.net to take an outsider’s look at what we might expect from City Hall.
We anticipate some political friction in River City in the coming months based on the fractious beginning for the new City Council, with bruised feelings evident in the not-so “unanimous” election of Michael Bardsley to a third term as Council president.
Councilors James Dostal and Raymond LaBarge sat on their hands for the vote, with both long-time councilors quoted in the newspaper offering some unflattering views of Bardsley. Gazette reporter Dan Crowley quoted LaBarge as saying he had not spoken with Bardsley outside of Council chambers in two years, and Dostal oddly likened Bardsley to the former discredited House speaker Thomas Finneran.
Maybe new Council members David Murphy, David Narkewicz, and Maureen Carney can bring about some reconciliation among the divided veterans but the leadership issue might worsen rather than ease.
In an interview with downstreet.net on the eve of his departure from the Council, Alex Ghiselin, who served three terms, described the Council as “rudderless” and “without strong leadership” which has led to a diminished role in areas where Mayor Higgins has expanded and consolidated her authority.
He cited as an example the non-role the Council now plays in dealing with parking issues, noting the Council’s parking committee is totally defunct and without an oversight function.
Meanwhile, Mayor Higgins heading into her fourth term has handed over all responsibility for all parking matters to William Letendre, who answers only to her, not to the Council. He works for the mayor, period.
Letendre can more or less be characterized as the city’s parking czar, a role he appears not only comfortable playing, but one he thoroughly enjoys.
Ghiselin said that Letendre “is doing nothing that the mayor hasn’t asked him to do, he’s done what the mayor has wanted, the mayor is the only oversight.”
For example, the Council learned of Letendre’s plan to pay the Honor Court nearly $20,000 a year to empty downtown trash containers only the night the financial order came before it, without being placed on the agenda beforehand, something of a thumb in the eye for councilors.
Ghiselin said he admires the mayor and her grasp of municipal issues, and has consistently been her supporter, but he believes a weak Council or legislative branch is not good for the city.
Other areas where, he said, the Council has yielded authority to the mayor - or had it subtly taken away – is in many decisions dealing with city property.
Perhaps the most glaring example of running roughshod over the Council, he said, was the last-minute “bait and switch” tactic of the mayor to push through the Council, without review or Council debate, funding for the new Council on Aging’s senior center. Instead of paying the full cost of the center with existing federal block grant funds, as had been promised during the entire planning process, almost a third of the cost, or some $1.5 million, will now be taken out of capital improvement funds. This will thus reduce the money which will be available for other worthy municipal projects in the years ahead. “I was outraged,” said Ghiselin. “You would think it would be hard to get outraged at this point in the game.”
“The mayor is gathering momentum all the time,” said Ghiselin, noting that her six years on the Council and six more years in the mayor’s office have given her the upper hand in dealing with a Council that increasingly is adrift.
Institutional change is badly needed by the Council, Ghiselin said, if the legislative branch is to deal with the mayor on an equal footing.
And, of course, from the mayor’s point of view a weak Council likely makes her job easier, free of nagging questions and petty challenges.
But there is the danger, too, that with a fourth term in office Council and popular support for the mayor will begin to erode, as a kind of political fatigue sets in. It seemed to have happened in the final term of Mary Ford’s administration and, before that, the last two or three years of David Musante’s tenure were marked by increasing bickering and negative feelings between Musante and some Council members.
I liken it to television viewers who tire after several years of watching the same sitcom week after week and begin to want a new program with different actors.
And, with mayor’s recent election to be incoming president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, it appears she may be turning her focus more statewide than local. This was somewhat apparent to those who heard or read carefully her recent Inaugural Address. Much of it stressed the challenge before her to work on issues that will affect all of the communities in the Commonwealth.
There were only glancing references to specific issues in Northampton, other than the perennial lament of tight local finances, tax limitations, and the need for more economic development and commercial growth. There was far more attention in her presentation to a stingy state government, which needs to provide more help to cities and towns or municipal services will continue to deteriorate.
There were also several references to the “comprehensive planning process called Sustainable Northampton,” but not much detail about better police protection, or cleaning up the streets and downtown sidewalks, or more attention to growing traffic safety concerns, improving the schools, undertaking beautification initiatives, or continuing to tackle the tough issue of making Northampton an affordable place to reside by those who grew up here, not just for those lured here from elsewhere.
The overall speech was surprisingly general – let’s talk about what kind of city we want and what kind of partnership with the state government we favor.
In some ways, it looks as though the mayor is preparing for a performance on a larger political stage. Perhaps this is the beginning of a move upward and onward, while the weakened Council she leaves behind tries to figure out what its role is and how to go about playing that role.