Thoughts About Municipal Government; or, What I’m Considering when Making My Endorsements in 2021

Hello Ward 2! We’re just a few weeks from our 2021 municipal election, and I’ve been asked (quite a few times) to write out my official endorsements in long form, with justifications for why I’m supporting these candidates.

But before I get to the individuals, and why I’m supporting them, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the bigger picture of how we approach municipal affairs and why that matters to me when making these individual choices for endorsements.

The past 18 years of the Curtatone administration have seen city government grow significantly more complex (“sophisticated and data driven”) but we have also seen city services and maintenance degrade over that time. The city’s data tracking and data management initiatives have won awards from various industry groups, but those awards mean nothing to residents watching their city decay around them even as it prices them out of their homes. To us as residents it doesn’t matter how well-calibrated our street-condition model is if the City isn’t actually paving sidewalks and streets… and we’ve averaged about 1 mile per year recently. Unfortunately, I see a city that spends more money and effort studying problems than on fixing them.

Another consequence of this approach has been the gradual privatization of public goods and public works. I could cite the rinks or the SCATV building in Union Square when it comes to physical public buildings and spaces. I could cite the city’s street sweeping, sewer repair, tree care, parks maintenance, trash collection, and recycling contracts on the services side. All of these things should be the business of the city, employing Somerville residents, paying a living wage, and providing the benefits we all deserve. That’s how we build a stronger working class here in Somerville, and it’s how we can get our city taken care of properly. After all, no one is more motivated to take care of your neighborhood better than the neighbors who live there; that’s who we should be employing at DPW and other departments, not bidding these jobs to out-of-town or out-of-state contractors.

In short, we’ve seen the consultant and management budgets explode over the past 18 years, while critical city maintenance positions have seen stagnant wages and reduced benefits which result in a condition now where our DPW and Water/Sewer departments are dangerously understaffed and struggle to meet the basic requirements of the jobs we need them to tackle. Similarly, instead of relying on robust resident input from our volunteer Commissions (like Fair Housing, Human Rights, Commission for Women, Commission for People With Disabilities) the City has defunded these Commissions and come to rely upon consultant reports and contracted expertise instead. This puts decision making farther from the “ground level”, and we can see the results all around us.

We face enormous challenges and projects locally – stormwater and sewer infrastructure, street and sidewalk reconstruction, city building overhauls and repairs, building public housing, building senior housing, gaining full ADA compliance, and much more. We can continue to bid these jobs out to lackluster results (see how badly Beacon St was mismanaged, how hard it has been to get paving contractors to fix bad jobs, problems with school upgrades and contracts), or we can commit to rebuilding our capacity here in Somerville to take care of the daily nuts-and-bolts of city government and maintenance.

This is a problem that we will need to revisit at the core principles to resolve, and it directly connects to equity. We can set and meet equity hiring goals as a City; we can’t guarantee that with contractors. We can build a diverse, deep, and talented team of skilled labor, technical, and managerial talent here at home, if we commit to hiring, training, and retaining that talent as we face these issues. We truly do need to Build Back Better. We need a mayor who is committed to changing how we tackle these issues, and we need City Councilors who understand these fundamental principles and are willing to stand firm and insist upon them when bonding (borrowing) requests come forward.

We’ve been “studying” these problems for decades. It’s time for the city to get to the work of fixing them. We’ll make missteps as we do that if we really begin to act with urgency, but every day that we continue along our current trajectory sees us get farther from the goal of a robust local working class that takes care of our infrastructure and neighborhoods; every day sees more of our neighbors pushed out, priced out, and just plain walking away as they feel the City isn’t here to take care of them anymore.

That’s what I think we need in our Mayor and City Councilors: people who recognize the basic responsibility of municipal governments to care for the city and its residents, and who recognize the ways in which our City has failed to do so for the past decade and more. We need Councilors who understand at their very core that municipal government is a vehicle for creating more equitable access to services and opportunity, for creating more stability and security, and for creating a place where we are each free to live in peace and pursue our own happiness.

Along with that shared understanding, I’m also looking for Councilors with the passion and skills to implement good policy through zoning and ordinances, and the determination to use our budgetary authority to ensure that those policies are being implemented by the Mayor’s administration – whoever that Mayor ends up being.

With that in mind, I’ll be following up with another post shortly sharing my endorsements for the Mayor, At-Large Councilor seats, and a few Ward races.

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