Holyoke & Springfield Have Questions, We Have Recommendations…
In Pioneer Valley cities this municipal election year are a number of questions submitted to the voters. Some are binding and some are not, but all could have an impact on how Holyoke and Springfield and how they each govern themselves.
Question 1 (nonbinding/advisory)
The City Council, dead set on getting itself a four-year term to match the mayor’s, and striking out on a binding measure on Beacon Hill have ordered a nonbinding one. This question, which asks voters whether Springfield city councilors’ term should be coterminous with the mayor i.e. four years. Currently councilors serve two year terms. This proposal should be rejected.
A two-year term lets voters register disapproval during the mayor’s four-year term, which we do support—for Springfield. Pointing to 2013’s dismal election turnout, some argue the city would save money by foregoing an election every four years. Even for cash-poor Springfield, elections are not so expensive that we must sacrifice democracy in the name of frugality.
Only two city councils in Massachusetts have four-year council terms and both have staggered terms thus there is a municipal election every two years anyway.
Councilors also argue that their effectiveness is neutered because they must begin campaigning again before settling into office. This, too, is unconvincing. Springfield’s Council would benefit from something Boston’s council—also elected every two years—has: staff.
Currently, the dedicated staffers in the City Council’s office serve to maintain the flow of information—agendas, minutes, notice—among councilors and between the Council and outside entities. They are not experts in law, finance or any of the myriad issues before the Council.
A four-year term will do nothing to improve councilors’ trust of mayoral officials. It will do nothing to improve constituent services. It will do nothing to assert the body’s proper role under the charter.
Money is tight and the mayor controls the budget, but if councilors want be more effective, they need staff accountable to them, not more time between the inconveniences of democracy.
Vote NO on Springfield’s Question 1.
Question 2 (nonbinding/advisory)
The next question groans under the sheer weight of the policy it concerns. Last month councilors approved a question on whether Massachusetts should jettison the Common Core education standards, an educational standards project developed by private entities but embraced by the Obama administration. The standards, particularly their emphasis on testing, have drawn jeers from both the left and the right, but Springfield’s right-wing activists were critical in getting the question on the ballot.
Voters should reject this question, not because of who proposed it or because of Common Core’s virtues, about which we take no position. Rather, we argue, this referendum will provide no guidance for those on the state level who will actually make a decision on Common Core.
There is a larger, nebulous public movement against the standards and a coherent one about Massachusetts sacrificing its educational achievements. However, there has been no public debate in Springfield on the merits of Common Core or its shortcomings. Thus, this vote in Springfield, whether for or against, will not be an earnest assessments of residents’ true feelings as proponents argue.
While we do not care right-wing voices egged on this question, their apocalyptic language leads us to suspect this is more about Obama than anything else. Absent any public debate, all we see little more than cynical manipulation of the referendum process.
Vote NO on Springfield’s Question 2.
Compared to Springfield, of Holyoke’s five questions four will be binding. However, most deserve the dustbin for the reasons laid out below.
Question 1 (binding)
Holyoke’s charter is over a century old and its age shows. The structure of the City Council is one way. Written when Holyoke hoped to grow to rival Springfield, a City Council of 15 members—8 at-large and 1 from each of the city’s 7 wards—was established. That growth never materialized, but Holyoke’s Council remains large. Question 2 would reduce the at-large seats from 8 to 6. Voters should approve it.
The large number of at-large seats allows higher-turnout areas to have an outsized influence in the Council chamber. The city being heavily Latino, that is wrong and will likely lead to a Voting Rights Act lawsuit.
This question addresses heads off legal trouble Holyoke might face if haled into federal court. The wards, not the overall city, would hold the council majority. Ideally, the number of at-large seats should go down to four, to mirror the balance in Springfield or Boston’s councils. However, politics = is about compromise and this is a fair one.
Some reformers would like an even tinier council with fewer ward councilors, too. While more council seats means more, ahem, personalities can affect city governance, less ward seats is a bad thing. Firstly, the number of ward seats is reasonable and represents disparate and unique areas. Cramming them into fewer wards would limit voices and perhaps only reopen the VRA risk as at-large seats could again dominate.
Holyoke’s City Council, which approved the reduction in at-large seats, wrote one wise ballot question. Holyoke residents should approve it and vote YES on Holyoke’s Question 1.
Question 2 (binding)
The avid engagement—or virulent rage—in Holyoke’s politics is nothing unique, but it does complicate how a mayor governors with elections ever-around the corner. To counter this, Holyoke has asked its residents whether the mayoral term should be four years. Right now, we feel it should not.
Compared to councilors or legislators, there is wisdom in four-year terms for mayors. Forty-eight governors have four year terms as do the mayors of most major cities and of course the president of the United States. However, Springfield’s situation is instructive. Turnout in 2013 fell without a mayor’s race and Holyoke, perhaps more than Springfield, would only lose from lower election turnout among races for Council—who should retain a two-year term. Before Holyoke considers four-year mayoral terms, it must ensure residents are engaged with every election.
Even at that, we are skeptical of smaller cities like Holyoke having a four-year mayoral term. Yes, Holyoke’s smaller neighbor to the north, Northampton, did this, and yes smaller-city politics can be just as aggressive as those in their larger brethren. However, we are not convinced that longer mayoral terms are the answer. We are open to it, but not now.
Vote NO on Holyoke’s Question 2.
Question 3 (binding)
Like its Springfield counterpart, this question would increase the council term form two to four years. Unlike in the City of Homes, this question is binding, but it is no better-thought out. For all of the reasons we panned the four-year Springfield Council term and the four-year Holyoke mayoral term, we urge voters to reject Question 3 in Holyoke.
While Holyoke’s size limits realistic increases in Council support staff, the body has tools Springfield’s Council does not. It can confirm and, despite our concerns, appoint several city officials, whereas Springfield’s Council largely cannot. The Holyoke Council also labors under massive agendas it could more expeditiously consider, leaving it more time to focus on broader and more pertinent matters.
This question is fatally flawed in other ways. The School Committee would continue to have elections every two years, making even that daft money-saving argument irrelevant.
Like Springfield, Holyoke will not have a better Council a better government if its councilors serve four years instead of current three. Holyoke voters should vote NO on Holyoke’s Question 3.
Question 4 (binding)
This question is as much about policy as it is about politics, although it drips with both. The final binding question on Holyoke’s ballot is whether the city Treasurer should move from being elected to being appointed—by the City Council. Voters should pass on that proposition.
We are not fans of excessive elected executive offices. On a state level, it works, if there are not too many offices. But in municipalities, non-mayor elected positions are rigidly constrained by state law, leaving little room to make significant changes. Yes, it puts accountability directly into voters’ hands, but they are often unable to scrutinize these esoteric offices.
That said, this question solves a problem by going entirely in the wrong direction. Another hallmark of Holyoke’s arcane charter is the semi-parliamentary nature of its Council, which can appoint many city officials. Unfortunately, it sometimes does not exercise the appointment powers it has, never mind additional ones. When it does, too often the Council favors connectedness over quality.
It is not that Council should make no appointments, but day-to-day financial powers are in mayors’ hands under state law. Holyoke’s fractured government produces a schizophrenic reesult regardless, but we’ll take the status quo of an elected Treasurer pending a saner solution. Vote NO on Holyoke’s Question 4.
Question 5 (nonbinding/advisory)
Holyoke’s final, nonbinding question queries voters as to whether Holyoke should consider a council-manager form of government. Voters should vote no.
Of Massachusetts five biggest cities only Boston and Springfield elect strong mayors, the other three endowing a Council-hired manager. There are strengths to this system, but drawbacks as well. Managers may be politically connected insiders like Worcester’s Ed Augustus, a former state senator. Mercifully, Augustus takes his job seriously and by many accounts executes it well. Such is not always the case. Lowell labored under years of poor managers appointed by its establishment-laden council before hiring a competent, since retired manager who oversaw the old mill city’s revitalization.
No one has discussed any of this in Holyoke. Rather, the motivation for this question is about a particular mayor than the idea of a mayor in general.
Holyoke residents should vote NO on Holyoke’s Question 5.