We absolutely need a sixth City Council district
If not, what a mess
So last week if you caught it the City Council took a vote to change the way we elect our School Committee. Per the vote, which was 7-4 then subsequently changed to 11-0 “so the community knows we’re all in this together” as Mayor Joe Petty put it (lol), the School Committee will move from an at-large system to a hybrid district and at large system.
What that means in normal human English is this: Currently, there are six School Committee members elected by any registered voter in the city who cares to vote, which is usually about 15 to 20 percent of them. Now, per the Council vote last week, that’s going to change. The city will be divided into six geographic districts, much the same as the City Council (but with one extremely important difference). People will vote for a School Committee member who lives in their district and for two candidates who run “at-large,” meaning you get to vote for them no matter where you live.
One map will look like this….
And another will look something like this…
Very different! Not intuitive!
How we got to this point is long and confusing and later in this post I’ll do my best to explain it.
The extremely important difference is that there are five City Council districts and this plan calls for six School Committee districts. That means two different maps. That means you could be in District 2 as far as City Council business is concerned and District 5 for School Committee business. Or District 1 and 4. Or District 2 and 3. Or whatever combination and we don’t know because we haven’t drawn and can’t draw the School Committee map yet. That means you’re going to vote for the same City Councilor as your neighbor but maybe not the same School Committee member. That means you have to understand how you’re technically in two different districts and if you ask why, be prepared for a 10-minute answer that, if you don’t follow city politics closely, will leave you saying “ohhhhhhh” and you still won’t understand. That means you have to know the difference between the two maps! That means you’ll have voters who assume (rightfully) that they’re in District 2 like they always have been so they’ll pay attention to the District 2 School Committee race and whoops nope you’re actually in District 6 as far as the School Committee is concerned! Sorry!!
If the two conflicting maps are allowed to stand, the city will have sixteen different ballots and nine split precincts, which means two different ballots in the same precinct depending on where you live within it.
What I’m saying is it’s going to be a fuckin’ mess. We’re lucky if we get 20 percent of the city’s registered voters to show up for the municipal elections, and of those voters I’d venture to say that a good percentage are only dimly aware of the candidates and their political positions. A larger portion still vote solely on name recognition and a knowledge of family trees that rivals The Shire. I can’t prove that but also prove me wrong. Adding a layer of confusion will not help this problem.
If we leave it this way—five Council districts and six School Committee districts—it’d take a well-intentioned reform and turn it into an albatross around the neck of an electoral process that already fails to engage the electorate. We’d have nothing to do but marvel at the new hole we’ve managed to shoot in a foot filled with holes.
But we can fix it!! It’s not done yet!! The City Council meeting tomorrow will be crucially important in this regard. Midway through the agenda, there’s an item which reads “Request the City Council duly consider changing the City Council’s method of electing City Council in order to align it with the chosen electoral system for the School Committee.” They were supposed to take it up last week but Councilor Khrystian King delayed it a week, perhaps for more discussion or perhaps for further delay. Who knows!
It would be nice if a bunch of us called up and said please add a sixth district councilor pretty please. Here’s a script “Hi I’m Bill (Hi Bill) and I live in Worcester and I’d like it if more people voted. Making the process of voting needlessly confusing is contrary to that goal so just keep that in mind when you think about making it so there’s two different district maps, sixteen different ballots and nine split precincts. Please don’t do that.”
We’ll have to wait and see how the Council approaches this one, because if they have talked about it and if there is a consensus, it was determined privately. It’s going to take a little background to explain what I mean by that.
All the way back in February, a group of organizations sued the city saying the way we elect our School Committee violates the federal Voting Rights Act and denies communities of color a fair chance at electing someone who represents them. Eventually, the city decided it wouldn’t fight the lawsuit, but rather willingly comply and set about the process of changing the structure of the School Committee. But the first several City Council meetings on the matter were private. They met in what’s called “executive session,” a format for private meetings the Council can legally use to discuss either legal matters or personnel issues. It wasn’t until about a month ago that they began discussing the issue publicly. It felt, at least to this City Council watcher, like being dropped into the middle of a long and confusing conversation, and that feeling remains. We still don’t know what the Council discussed in those meetings, but we will eventually, as they’re legally required to release the minutes after the issue is resolved. It’s entirely possible that changes to the council were discussed, but as of yet we don’t know. Tomorrow’s conversation, if it’s not again delayed (entirely possible), will be our first real glimpse at what, if anything, they plan to do.
This isn’t likely to be something decided tomorrow, either. There’s still a bunch of hoops left to jump through to formalize the School Committee change, and plenty of opportunities to ensure a change in City Council comes with it. Per the city’s lawyer, Mike Traynor, the new plan for a district-based School Committee goes to the state Legislature in the form of what’s called a “home rule petition” and the Legislature will have to vote it through. What it would do is essentially amend the city’s charter, a document which is more or less the city’s constitution. Then, after all that, the city has 30 days to come up with a new map for six districts, and, per the lawsuit, two of those districts have to be composed mostly of people of color, at least as far as voting-age residents are concerned. I’m no lawyer but it seems that at any time the Council could easily vote to send another home rule petition adding a sixth district councilor and smooth the whole thing out, and it would give the added bonus of two majority-minority City Council districts!
But in order to do this, you’d have to have at least a few of the city’s five district councilors vote to change their districts before knowing what the new districts look like. Though the vote to change the School Committee last week was split, there was a general consensus that majority-minority districts are a good thing, that there should be more equitable representation and lower barriers of entry into public service.
And maybe you’ve noticed I haven’t talked much about the merit of a district School Committee system and that’s for a few reasons.
One, it’s a done deal. The city needs to comply with the lawsuit and this is how they chose to do it and the public was offered three nearly identical options of how it would be done.
Two, I’m of half a mind that this is not the best way to achieve the desired outcome. We could have satisfied the lawsuit with a single transferable vote system which would allow for greater representation and lower barriers to entry and made coalition building easier. Nothing would change besides the way we tally the votes. Single transferable is a tough concept to explain and I’m no expert. I’ve spoken with people who are much smarter than me who believe this is the course Worcester should have taken. But it’s a moot point now. That option was off the table long before the Council brought this issue into the public.
Three, I’m nervous that after electing the most progressive School Committee in recent memory this new system could allow for a sharp righward reversal. The Return of Dianna Biancheria looms heavy in my mind. Cue the Darth Vader theme!
But I’m just some guy. The groups who sued the city did so in good faith with the goal of rectifying a longstanding problem, and there’s significant research out there that says district-based School Committees are good for representation. On a basic level, I’m in agreement with the coalition that the School Committee has been too white and too concentrated in the city’s affluent neighborhoods for too long. Something needs to change.
This was also the stated consensus of the district councilors. At the meeting last week, District 1 Councilor Sean Rose said it. “We’re going to inspire so many young people to be energized by municipal government,” he said. District 2 Councilor Candy Mero Carlson said it. District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera said it. District 5 Councilor Matt Wally didn’t say it but what does it matter, he’s out of here. District 3 Councilor George Russell said it, but he also cautioned that he’s concerned about how the maps will be drawn. “We need to be very careful about these maps,” he said.
Talk about saying the quiet part loud! Everyone loves the idea of equity and fairness, but how strongly would you hold to those principles if they threatened your self interest? Which would be more important to you? It’s no wonder we haven’t heard much about the council side of things lol I mean it’s exceedingly obvious that the only good way to do this is to have the Council and School Committee maps align but there’s four people (can’t count Wally) on an 11-person City Council that have a vested interest in preserving the current Council map.
It would be a damned shame if we let the self interest of a handful of people put the city in a position of further disengaging an electorate that already can’t be bothered. And the irony of doing that in pursuit of more racial equity, more balanced representation, and more engagement… well it’d just be so Worcester it hurts.
If you found this post useful or insightful that’s great that’s my job and the only reason it’s my job is because of all the people who elect to throw me a little bit of money each month to keep doing it. That could be you! And if it is you, thank you so much.
The above post isn’t even the big-ticket item of the Council meeting this week. There’s a lot going on! The manager’s plan for spending COVID relief money is in and we’re gunna spend it all on more horses for the cops. Just kidding! There’s some good stuff and some bad stuff. Expect a post on that this week. There’s also the plan to replace cops in schools and that’s um… about what I expected. Another thing to watch out for and another thing you’ll soon hear from me on.
If you’re not already hip to it, there’s only one tolerable way to watch the City Council and that’s Worcester Council Theater 3000, a weekly Twitch stream I do with the Wootenanny guys and a revolving cast of special guests. Last week, we had on School Committee member Tracy Novick and Councilors-elect Thu Nguyen and Etel Haxhiaj and ne'er-do-well Brendan Melican. We had fun!
Tune in tomorrow at 6 p.m. Here’s the link.
Woo Tenanny @WOOtenannyCome watch tonight, you sickos. https://t.co/1BZWy0C7TB
Also this newsletter has an Instagram account now pls follow. I’m very hands off with it. I’ve captured a lecherous little Gen Z ghoul and forced him to toil away, Building the Brand in exchange for his eventual freedom. Every new follow affords him another small ladle of gruel. He is oh-so hungry.
But anyway speaking of Haxhiaj she was part of a group of activists and community organizers and concerned citizens who fought like hell to block a short-sighted and silly proposal for a gas station at the corner of Park Ave. and Chandler St. at the Zoning Board of Appeals last week. After considerable pressure, the applicant withdrew their application and now we have hope that the vacant lot next to Walgreens will go to good use—one that benefits and adds to the neighborhood—and not to the 25th gas station in a 100-yard radius. A small victory, but an important one. The neighborhood stood up and said ‘nahhhhh we can do better,’ and it worked. More of that please! And kudos to everyone involved.
I have a very exciting plan for this whole Worcester Sucks project heading into the new year and I’m not ready to totally reveal it but some of you might remember a time long ago when I wrote the weekly Worcesteria column at Worcester Magazine and what if instead of reading that… you listened to it?
Ok on that note buhbye!