by Edward Shanahan
A With its recent refusal to appoint a new face and a loud, skeptical
voice to the part-time position of assessor, the City Council decided
in the end it would be business as usual.
Motivated either by fear or cowardice, the council voted to re-appoint
David Murphy to the four-hour-a week position on the board of assessors,
and rejected the candidacy of newcomer Leslie Fraidstern, who in
recent months has raised troubling and fundamental questions about
the fairness of the city's assessing practices, which favor business
property owners over homeowners.
In offering himself for the position, Fraidstern made
a far-reaching and withering critique of the current approach to
assessing. He claims that homeowners now provide 77 percent of the
tax money to run the city, while commercial and industrial property
provides 22.7 percent. The reason for the huge imbalance is that
in the last decade residential property values have grown; commercial
assess-ments have remained stagnant.
Why? Good question.
Fraidstern, a retired social worker from New York, suggested ways
the city could ensure that more complete information is obtained
from business owners so the full value of their property goes on
Murphy, a long-time real estate operative and political conservative,
essentially told the council he saw no problems with current assessments
and, any way, the job he performed required "tunnel vision" rather
than policy making.
During the hour-long open discussion, comments by Councilors William
Dwight, Frances Volkmann, Maria Tymoczko, and Marianne LaBarge,
whose Ward 6 constituents are largely middle-income homeowners hinted
that there was some genuine support for Fraidstern's position and
some serious questions about how well and how fairly the current
system is working.
Briefly, it appeared that the council might opt for change, might
go with the outsider who had the intelligence and determination
and, if appointed, fearlessness enough to ask tough questions, while
working in a hostile, entrenched environment.
For a moment, it appeared that an engaged, principled citizen could
make waves and ultimately make a difference.
One very odd and questionable moment came when Councilor Raymond
LaBarge asked Finance Director John Musante which of the two candidates
he would recommend. Whereupon Musante launched into a spirited campaign
pitch for Murphy, which seemed totally inappropriate. Musante should
have kept his mouth shut, just as Mayor Clare Higgins did. The decision
was the council's to make, not that of City Hall administrators.
When crunch time came, Tymoczko nominated Fraidstern and Dwight
offered a second. Councilor Raymond LaBarge nominated Murphy with
a second from James Dostal. At that point, once Councilor Alex Ghiselin
gave the Murphy bandwagon a little shove downhill, it started to
roll, finally flattening Fraidstern by a 6 to 2 margin. Even Dwight,
who had seconded the Fraidstern nomination, caved in and jumped
to the winning side.
Fear or cowardice, which was it? Fear that a vote against Murphy
would be viewed as anti-business. Heaven forbid. Or cowardice -
lack of courage to appoint someone who just might shake things up.
Wouldn't that be terrible to contemplate.
Which was it, fear or cowardice? I say let's go with both.