INCOMING COUNCIL, SCHOOL COMMITTEE HAVE A DUTY TO BE ‘DISHARMONIOUS,’ FOR THAT IS WHERE THE BLADE OF DEMOCRACY GETS SHARPENED … plus … SCHOOL COMMITTEE MEMBER-ELECT FARRON PREVAILED IN LAWSUIT AGAINST CITY, HAS OTHER LEGAL ACTION PENDING BEFORE MCAD
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, FRIDAY, NOV. 8, 2013) — The point of democracy is not harmony in communion but hammering out consensus. THE PLANET finds the recent calls for “harmony” in council-mayor relations to be at best poorly phrased and at worse a call for a clampdown on political opposition. It reminds of of similar calls for “civility” in and after Hathaway-Ruberto II, in the wake of Mayor Sara Hathaway‘s first term.
The problem here isn’t disharmony and disruption; it’s that Pittsfeld politics doesn’t know how to agree on anything or disagree on anything. What passes for polemics looks more like kids in a sand box arguing over who took Tommy’s red pail. That being said, though, in such a depleted argumentative state, by far the best symptom to look for in government is disagreement (not to be confused with its counterfeits, namely, stalemate, gridlock, and dysfunction).
Disagreement, debate, discussion, and deliberation are as part of the democratic legislative process as a sanding stone or grinding wheel is part of ax sharpening. That’s why THE PLANET found what Mayor Dan Bianchi did with his unopposed free ride to be the true disharmony of Campaign ’13. Bianchi used his “Pass Go Free, Collect $200” card not to build consensus or to work on the many issues plaguing the city (failing schools, rising taxes, shrinking tax base, diminishing services, etc.) to hammer his political opponents rather than, as a statesman, try to hammer out consensus with and among them.
We truly hope that the incoming 2014-15 city council will take up its responsibility for action instead of rolling over and playing dead upon the command of the administration’s orders. Bianchi is trying to spin the election results as a mandate for “harmony,” and it has the Boring Broadsheet as the corner office’s leading propaganda sheet. It has produced a chilling effect. The mayor wants a government of uniformity of views. He wants no opposition. He wants no questioning. He is attempting to set up a Fifth Column to subvert any chance the city has of reversing its present course to fiscal disaster and getting back on its feet.
My, how different the Dan Bianchi of today with the Dan Bianchi of Ward 6, who made a living making noise, especially going after Gerry Doyle and Jimmy Ruberto. Councilor Bianchi’s opposition did serve a useful purpose and did the city good, the battle over the Civic Authority being one example. [ED NOTE: We feel obliged to state that the vote on the Civic Authority was not a referendum on a new stadium. Unfortunately, the stadium became a pretext, a Trojan in an attempt to establish a permanent, mayoral-appointed board with far-reaching, unrecallable power].
As mayor, Bianchi sees the role of councilors differently.
According to Mayor Bianchi, the council should keep its mouth shut and approve without question every mayoral action. When the mayor sneezes, the council should be there with the chicken soup. As we say, the effect is chilling. all the more reason, then, for THE PLANET to remind every official just elected to office beginning in January to be mindful of their duty. Their first obligation is to the citizens, not the mayor. They must not be compliant. They must be conscientious and outspoken.
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The mayor will be surprised to hear that not everything he proposes will be dipped in gold and frosted with confectionery. He doesn’t expectorate nectar from the gods. He gobs just as much as the next guy. That’s where the council comes in, to right-size the mayor, who has — to the surprise of all — let power go to his head. Without an independent, free-thinking legislative branch, the city of Pittsfield might as well take the “democratic” path of Goma, Congo. Such a council, however, will provide Mayor Bianchi with his best chance for good government. THE PLANET still believes that is possible, and we still believe Bianchi can go on to redeem his awful first term.
Lisa Tully, Kevin Morandi, Chris Connell, Nick Caccamo (if allowed to serve), Jonathan Lothrop, John Krol, Tony Simonelli, Churchill Cotton, Melissa Mazzeo, Barry Clairmont, and Kathy Amuso have a duty to citizens, constituents, the mayor, and themselves to provide such a council. THE PLANET will be watching closely, because that council will be the last to operate without a mid-term political vice to squeeze contrariness out of it, courtesy of the new charter, which three-quarters of 25% of the electorate voted into effect. In other words, the document came alive with only 20% of the entire electorate voting for it, with 80% voting opposed or not voting at all. In November 2015, Pittsfield voters will elect a two-year council and a four-year mayor. During this election cycle with his free pass, Mayor Bianchi gave voters a preview of how a political performer will handle it as opposed to a genuine leader.
This same responsibility olds true of the newly elected Pittsfield School Committee. The members of the new board — Kathy Yon, Dan Elias, Josh Cutler, Pam Farron, Tony Riello, Cynthia Taylor, and Bianchi — must understand their job is not to rubber stamp the administrative wish list but to provide the “loyal opposition” that seeks as its goal the highest performance possible for every buck spent on the schools.
That’s more than $90 million, with more than 85% of it never touching the classroom. The outgoing school committee has two meetings left, and at least it had Terry Kinnas, who by far led the league in what can be termed political leadership. He eschewed the “popular” stances and pursued outcomes based on analysis, study of data, facts, and a relentless desire to represent bedraggled taxpayers. Kinnas, and Kinnas alone, proved to be honestly for “The Children.” The others, once again, enabled the administration to use “The Children” as human shields to shakedown more money out of poor taxpayers despite the continuing loss of academic competence.
That must end.
There are two specific, doable policy changes the new school committee can enact that will immediately turn this fractious, failing system around, and THE PLANET calls upon Cutler and the other new members, especially, to initiate these changes:
(1) Refuse to accept any meeting agenda that come with “Administrative Recommendations.” This lousy practice has been in place for at least two years, and maybe longer. It took Kinnas to spill the beans and let the public know what was going on. It’s illegal to have two versions of the official agenda available for school board meetings; nonetheless, that’s what this group has been doing. The public and press get a version that lists the orders of business. The school committee members get agendas that have the administrative “recommendations” on them for action items.
The only way for those recommendations to be there is if the superintendent (or his designate) meets privately with the school committee president (or his designate). That’s a no-no. Remember what Kinnas has been trying to teach everyone with his successful actions re: the state’s Open Meeting Law — The public’s business must be done in public. Administrative recommendations must be done in public. In this case, “recommendation” translates as “orders.” In other words, in sending back committee agendas marked with “recommendations,” the administration is sending not-so-subtle “friendly advice if you know what’s good for you politically” to committee members. We call upon the new committee chairman, and if not her (it will likely be Yon), the new members, to force this change. It won’t cost taxpayers a penny, and it will at least be a baby step toward independent governance. THE PLANET also calls upon Supt. Jake McCandless to show leadership in this case. Jake, please end the “recommendations.” They’re illegal and insulting.
(2) Begin the process that will lead to uniforms in the public schools. The days of “anything goes” have to end. This can start with the two high schools or it can apply across the board, grades K-12. The debate is over. The many public school districts across the country that have made this switch (involving tens of millions of students) report a host of benefits, including better behavior in classrooms, increase in academic performance, elimination of “clothing” issues, and lower clothing costs for parents. Like (1), this change will not cost much, if anything.
ANOTHER ‘ONLY IN PITTSFIELD’ MATTER: SCHOOL COMMITTEEWOMAN-ELECT FARRON HAS LEGAL ACTION AGAINST SCHOOLS
Farron … Farron. Why was Pam Farron’s name ringing a bell? Then, a commentator to THE PLANET answered this for us: The new school committeewoman-elect was one of the four former Reid Middle School English teachers that sued the school department and won rehiring and back pay.
In May 2011, an arbitrator sided with The United Educators of Pittsfield and against the school department. Arbitrator Tammy Byrne ruled that the teachers, among them former mayor Sara Hathaway, were “significantly and substantially prejudiced by, among other items, the failure to provide required notice of performance issues and the lack of opportunity to meet [principal Morgan] Williams‘ performance expectations.” The other two teachers were Nancy Manes and Ramsay Steward.
We won’t try to translate that gobbledy-gook into English. The more pertinent point is that, to the best of THE PLANET’s knowledge, Farron and the others still have a current complaint of discrimination pending against the schools. All four of the fired teachers were middle-aged women. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), the last we heard, still has that case. That case claims that the dismissal of the four teachers represents age and gender discrimination.
We wonder how this “first” will play out. Even by Pittsfield standards, the situation is an awkward one: a newly elected member of the school committee has legal action pending (the MCAD case) against her employer after having already one one lawsuit against the city. Does this prevent Farron in any way from fully exercising her duties as a member of the school committee? Just a question, but it’s an important one that should be fully explored by the city before the new committee begins its work in January.
THE PLANET is surprised, but then again we aren’t, that this issue didn’t come up for Farron in the campaign. We would think it fair game for any of her opponents. On the other hand, the seven candidates for the six seats never had a doubt about the six winners. The teenager never campaigned and has no shot at the office. That allowed the six remaining to complete for the six seats to be all lovey dovey. Six into six goes once, as you may recall.
No word on how much the lawsuit by Farron and the others eventually cost the taxpayers. They were awarded one year of back pay as well as benefits compensation. At the time of the arbitrator’s announcement, then-superintendent Jake Eberwein III said, “To be honest, we don’t have any idea of what the damages are.” Things like that were always easy for Jake to say. Easy come, easy go: That’s why the school department has taxpayers.
Will taxpayers be on the hook if MCAD rules against the city? Stay tuned.
“She’s acting single, so I’m drinking doubles.” — Greatest country-western song line of all time.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.