It’s hard to keep track of all the misinformation printed in the Sun day after day, when one is just trying to do his best in the job he was elected to do. Yet every now and then there are charges made–or made up–that are so egregious as to require a written response. Recent articles in the Sun seem to suggest that I have taken the issue of public safety lightly, that I am somehow unconcerned with the violence around me. I’d say that nothing could be further from the truth, but then I’ve yet to read tomorrow’s newspaper.
The charge centers on the “vacant” public safety chairmanship created with the departure of Councilor Broderick. The problem with the charge published Wednesday, however, is that Councilor Martin had already agreed to become chair of the subcommittee on Monday, when informed that incoming Councilor Leahy had requested that he not become its chair. Councilor Elliott had also requested in an email that I call a special meeting for the Tuesday before last, which I disagreed with for two reasons: 1. By the time of his email, a special meeting would not have been in compliance with the open meeting law, and 2. Not much would have been accomplished by a special meeting for the cameras other than the appearance of having done something. Instead, I suggested in response “that a motion for the next regular meeting, and perhaps a subcommittee meeting, will satisfy the need for this discussion. I also trust that Superintendent Lavallee and his department are working, regardless of any Council action, to address this issue.” Nevertheless, a motion was never filed for the last meeting, and in order for any subcommittee to meet, there must be a motion referred to it. We’ll see what happens this week.
If all of this seems very trivial, it’s because it is. In February, I did call a special meeting to address the disorder downtown–prior to the Fortunato’s incident–because I thought the Council could play an important role in improving the situation. I will do so again if I think it to be effective. But whether understood or not, the most important role in public safety that the Council has in the short term is appropriating the appropriate level of funding. The major decision in this year’s budget was a reduction of $100,000 from the police overtime budget, which had been earmarked for smart policing efforts targeting hot spots during the most troubled hours. The city did hire a few police officers, but in a comparison between funding for more officers and funding for overtime, the amount of effective policing hours through overtime, when and where they are needed, far exceeds that for more officers. In a short-sighted scramble to achieve a 0% tax increase (the possibility of which was due largely to sound fiscal management of the administration and policy decisions of prior councils), the Council reduced that policing overtime by $100,000 in a 5-4 vote. To be clear, the decision was a political one, and all the speechifying in the city cannot hide that fact.
Unfortunately, the city inevitably pays for such decisions. Failing to fully support our law enforcement professionals affects their planning of where and when to devote resources and personnel. In this way, saving a dollar or two on the average tax bill will only hurt efforts in marketing and business development, and encouraging families to live and work here, by making our streets less safe. Indeed, after then-Councilor Caulfield held a public safety subcommittee hearing, which the paper lauds in their article as a positive one, the only tangible Council action to follow was the appropriation of an additional $100,000 for police overtime, brought forth by the City Manager.
Another public safety issue that was subject to this political calculus arose last week, with five councilors voting against the lawful implementation of a fire-alarm monitoring ordinance aimed at protecting the resident families of buildings with 13 or more units. An annual monitoring fee of $275 has not been charged to those landlords owning properties of 13 or more units since 2009. In an effort to portray themselves as taxpayer- and business-friendly, councilors voted to not implement the existing fee, which will have one of two effects—either the city will not have the resources to monitor non-emergency signals separately in these at-risk buildings (a threat to public safety), or the monitoring costs for these few private end-users, these 13+unit landlords, (whose business is to provide safe housing for residents) will be instead subsidized by the average taxpayer and other small and large commercial taxpaying businesses and enterprises they purport to protect. The amount raised by this small user fee (when compared to those levied in many other communities) could, quite ironically, exceed $100,000. As I have said before, we are lucky to have two professional department heads, Superintendent Lavallee and Chief Pitta, working to protect the residents of the city, regardless of any Council action.
On the tired issue of subcommittee assignments and perceived “snubbing” of Elliott for chair of the public safety, finance and auditor/clerk oversight subcommittees, I can only say that the purpose of these is to discuss substantive issues, and that my appointments are meant to reflect a preference for workhorses over showhorses in those roles. On public safety, the Police Superintendent himself will tell you that two issues raised by Elliott last year (proposals later overturned by the state legislature and state court respectively) were a distraction from the more pressing problems we face. Elliott’s shortcomings on finance and public safety issues are crystallized in his motion a couple years ago to cut all departmental budgets–including police, fire, health and inspectional services—by 2.5%, thereby endangering federal grant funding because of reductions below the required staffing levels, and putting our community at greater risk, financially and otherwise. During the issues last fall with the clerk’s office, Councilor Elliott was absent from all four ad hoc Clerk Oversight meetings, and this February was absent from our first Special meeting on Clerk Oversight. Accordingly, these assignments were placed in more capable hands.
In short, subcommittees are not to support one councilor’s psychic need for media attention, but to do work, discuss difficult matters, hear residents’ concerns and suggestions, plan for long-term substantive changes that can impact people’s lives. I have been disappointed that these have not been widely used for policy discussions. The School Committee has used its subcommittees to great effect this year. And while our role in public safety may be limited in the short-term to appropriations, in the longer-term there are a number of issues to consider. Some have been raised. Motions regarding the License Commission, recreational programs, parks and facilities, after-school programs will all help to increase public safety in years to come. I hope that we can focus on those important decisions, even as the newspaper and its allies do their best to distract us from our job.
All the best,