Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Springfield starts planning how to implement ward representation

Should city and school committee councilors from wards be paid the same as at-large councilors? How much more will it cost to print eight ballots, one for each ward, instead of just one for the whole city? How much more support staff will be needed in various city departments? And how will thirteen councilors fit into a space designed for nine?

Tonight the City Council's Civil Rights and Race Relations Committee started laying out these and other questions that have to be answered before the city's new, mixed ward and at-large system, can be put into place for the November, 2009 elections. It won't be easy but it won't be difficult, and in any case, the voters mandated it in the 2007 elections.

As City Attorney Ed Pakula said, "It's not many issues that win 75% of the vote."

A few community people were at the meeting to see what the city had in mind for moving ahead., including five of us from Arise and OutNow! It was an odd feeling to hear ward representation talked about as a reality, not something still to be won. Thirteen years of work! Winning ward representation in this city has certainly followed the "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, etc." path. I have a lot more gray hairs now than I did in 1995.

Relevant department heads talked logistics and budgets, and most agreed to get preliminary plans back to Committee Chair Jose Tosado in six to eight weeks.

The two most interesting questions concerned the School Committee and the potentially changing relationship between neighborhood councils and civic associations and the City Council.

Under the old at-large system, six School Committee members were elected for four years in staggered terms. The new system calls for two committee members at-large and four representing two wards each. The three School Committee members elected last fall, Antoinette Pepe, Chris Collins and Thomas Ashe expected to serve four years, but there doesn't seem to be any way to implement ward representation for the School Committee in 2009 except by bringing an end to the staggered system and electing all six members at the same time-- everyone starting off on the same foot. I know Antoinette, Thomas and Chris don't want it that way, but no one's been able to think of any way around it. I certainly hope they wouldn't try to hold up ward representation so they can serve their full terms.

Near the end of the meeting (as always!), we citizens had a chance to speak. Walter Gould of the Outer Belt Civic Association asked, What will the relationship of neighborhood councils and civic associations be to the city council once there are councilors representing each ward? The councils and associations are used to having the ear of the entire council; it's a system they've gotten used to and don't necessarily want to see changed, and, in many neighborhoods, it's a system that has provided those neighborhoods with a vehicle to be heard. Will councils and associations now have to go through their councilor to reach the city? What if they don't like their councilor?

There are no legal ways to answer Mr. Gould's questions; new relationships and alliances will have to be formed. Some fear they will lose power and influence with the city. But having been elected to the McKnight Neighborhood Council twice, I can tell you that not all councils have ever had the ear of the city. Well, as the people said in the last election, More Democracy, please!

I'm just remembering political consultant Tony Cignoli being interviewed on television the night before last November's historic ward representation election. It really doesn't have much chance of passing, he said. Ha! Remind me not to recommend him to any friend considering a run for public office.

Photo: Urban Compass

1 comment:

Tom said...

Ward representation won't be a totally perfect system - what is? The possible problems however are dwarfed by the definite improvements.