Monday, June 8, 2020
Timely Thoughts on Three Topics
I try to communicate in as many ways as possible with constituents, including social media. In local political circles the last couple of weeks have been busy, disappointing at times, frustrating at times, and overall a bit of a whirlwind. Outside of meetings I have been a bit more silent as I wanted to take it all in and reflect. But, here are some random (but related) thoughts on the happenings of the last couple of weeks:
I am going to start with the George Floyd tragedy, because other issues seem trivial in comparison.
· The issues emerging from the incident in Minneapolis resonate everywhere, and for so many reasons. The obvious struggle we continue to have as a nation with policing and racial profiling once again rightfully becomes front and center. In this case the behavior was so horrific and so easily accessible through video, no one can deny the issue. I hope the tragedy results in good and impactful discussions on the philosophy of policing and allows us to make the changes we need whether it be local or nationally.
· Mayor Spicer has said she intends her voice to be heard on these issues and that makes sense. I have no direct insight, so I am wondering if she decides to join other Mayors making specific new initiatives locally. She announced she will be holding a community hour on the topic with Somerville’s Mayor on June 9th here in Framingham. Mayor Curtatone of Somerville has made some far-reaching proposals towards changing policing, including establishing civilian oversight and considering asset reallocation. To date I have seen Mayor Spicer as very supportive of police, increasing their budget significantly, so I find it hard to believe she will embrace his approach. Nonetheless it is an interesting choice of colleagues to bring to Framingham. Whether it is an indicator or just coincidence we will soon see.
· The public response and activism resulting from the tragedy has been remarkable. Although there have been some unfortunate incidents in Boston and nationally that took away from the cause at times at the outset, the demonstrations in Framingham have been well organized and thoughtful. Not only have the local rallies allowed for our friends and neighbors to express their concerns, for the most part they have been organized and promoted by new and previously unknown local leadership. That is a positive that grows out of a negative that we have to capitalize on.
For once the budget is not at the top of my list, but it is at a critical stage.
§ I remain concerned that the proposed budget is not truly balanced, nor does it make the structural changes necessary. There is too much one-time funding with no future plan to replace it. There are no innovations or new approaches. Continuing with the status quo is not going to work out well in the current economic environment.
§ There are lots of budget opinions out there and it makes for great discussion. One city council colleague has written about the budget and said that some Councilors want to make service cuts. I have to take exception to that as I have not heard any Councilor suggest this. I personally believe we could reduce some mid-level administrative positions by restructuring our operations and save a significant amount of money. To date the administration has laid off a few random positions but resisted any cuts to management positions. To me the approach to date fails as a strategic approach. The average salary of the laid off positions is about $35,000. The administration has also defunded vacant positions, but again I question the strategy as not every position that was currently vacant is necessarily expendable. Reduction in force is sadly necessary at times, but if we do it strategically, we will not impact services at all.
§ Budget discussions are always going to be sensitive and evoke emotions, especially when reductions are being considered. I think overall the Finance Committee was able to keep that in check. We agreed in many areas but were unable to agree on potential restructuring of government. We recommended by a 3-2 vote that several departments be funded only for six months. This approach was not to save money, because ultimately the balance will be funded, but to put a real deadline on the administration to make recommendations for efficiency and savings in those departments. Unfortunately, I suspect these proposals will ultimately not be incorporated in the final budget and we will be sticking with the status quo. Even one of the members who voted against this proposal stated that he felt the administration has not done enough to make modifications to our government over the last three years. We need to find a way to make it happen.
§ To double back to the issue of budget related service cuts, I believe we can continue to avoid service cuts with a strategic approach. One approach I have advocated for was to consider furloughing people who were unable to do the job they were assigned during this period through no fault of their own. My idea was to furlough people, allow them to collect the enhanced unemployment benefits, and continue to pay their health benefits. We could have leveraged the federal unemployment money and any employee making $70,000 or less would have been receiving the same or more on furlough. It would have cost the City nothing. The money we saved we could have used to pay salaries in FY 21. This window is closing as we begin to reopen service, but it represents the kind of strategic opportunities we need to take advantage of to get through this.
§ The way the world has changed over the last three months is stunning, for better and worse as always. I suspect the way people run their businesses and do their jobs will change to some extent forever. There have been efficiencies found in many areas. Just one example, consider all the commuting time that has been saved! I hope we can learn from it locally and take advantage of the experience to make our municipal operation more efficient and flexible by utilizing approaches we had never thought of or been forced to consider.
For those of you who have been following social media and the like closely, the “restaurant letter” has caused a lot of controversy.
· As I said at our meeting last week, I get it. In a perfect world it may have been approached somewhat differently, and I think it would be next time. As Chairman of the Council I should have foreseen some of the issues and hurt feelings and done more to avoid that outcome.
· That having been said, I think some perspective is important too. The letter did not break any written rules and some of the comments saying it did are a bit exaggerated. One activist has been stating online that it was sent out on official City Council letterhead that had everyone’s name on it, but only five signatures. That is the kind of dialogue that people start just to stir controversy. Either that or they say things without checking the facts. Our official stationery does not have our names on it in any instance. The letter in question was not on official City Council stationary, though I acknowledge the casual reader probably would not realize that. So again, I understand the objection, but let’s not let that get in the way of the facts.
· Last thought on the “restaurant letter.” Even if it could have been better executed, it had an impact. The current administration is often a bit deliberate, some may even say slow, on decision making and getting processes and programs in place. Despite the small firestorm, I believe this letter sped up this process and made it possible for our struggling restaurants to reopen easier and more efficiently than otherwise may have been the case. Again, I know they would claim it was well under control without the letter, and maybe it was, but the track record would not support that position. Our restaurants are in a better position today and that is what matters.
There is a lot going on and if you got this far, thanks for reading! As always I welcome any feedback you may want to offer me.