Sunday, January 31, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 1

City School - A Great Idea

I expect to attend all 10 weeks of City School here in Northampton, Massachusetts. You may ask, what, pray tell, is City School? To give you an intro, please see my previous post. To summarize and save you time (although my ego would appreciate it if you read that post and send me your comments or post them at the bottom of my blog or link directly to my blog from your blog or - and this would be best of all - you could run with idea and try to get something similar started in your community.). See I haven't even summarized yet, so here I go.

City School is an education program for the citizenry of a municipality to acquaint them with how their city works and perhaps inspire them to volunteer their time or share their experiences with others. When I find out the origins of City School, I will share this. When I find out, I will not be surprised that the idea is simply the result of a stroke of brilliance by a civic-minded citizen of our town. Currently it is attributed to our mayor. But as I learned during our first week of City School, our Mayor is very busy - perhaps too busy to come up with this great idea.

I might as well say here, that I do not expect to be particularly particular here. I don't expect to criticize deficiencies that I encounter. (OK, I might point out something.) I will not strictly be a cheerleader. I know that most of the people doing the work here at City School are unpaid or under-paid and overworked. I have the easy end of things. I show up and listen. I ask questions and they are answered - no questions asked. (Errr, am I allowed to write a sentence like that last one?) I might treat the whole thing like my own private reality show. Except there are no cameras and I'm learning the reality of smaller end of government. Hey, this would make a great reality show - unfortunately there's not enough drama and no gimmick.

One more thing, I don't expect to put all my notes here. Sorry, but don't think I can deal with listing all the details, and I doubt you want to read it all.

Week One

OK, I've done two weeks of City School, and I had better do my homework here and catch up on this chronicle. We don't have real homework, although we were told that there might be some information that we would receive ahead of time, so we might be prepared. One advantage to being prepared would be that we could have good questions for the presenters.

Week One started off with me meeting the 17 other students and an aide to the Mayor of Northampton. Karen has been arranging all this, something I appreciate since she doesn't work full time and probably has better things to do at 6 o'clock at night.

School Committee

We had a presentation from Stephanie Pick who is on the School Committee. People elsewhere might call this the School Board, just like they call the "PTA" here the "PTO". The School Committee is elected. There are 9 members - one for each of our 7 Wards and 2 elected at-large. The Mayor chairs the meetings and also gets one vote. The committee also has a yearly joint meeting with City Council. Stephanie said that during elections most seats are unfortunately uncontested. (It's my impression that there is a theme in city government that if any seat is open, then it is likely to be contested, but otherwise the incumbent is likely to get a free-ride.) She spoke about how she first ran for School Committee - she was asked to run. She said how helpful it is to have a contested election - you visit constituents, debates issues, etc. (This is something I'm sure I will hear again.)

Stephanie had a few take-aways for us. One is that 61% of the city budget dollars go to education - $28 Million dollars. The allocation of this comes down to these 10 votes. Not enough people realize this. If you care, the you should get involved. If you care about an issue, speak up. They meet monthly on that 2nd Thursday of the month at JFK Middle School. They also have subcommittee meetings and special meetings. They review contracts and hire the superintendent of schools. They do many things. Stephanie said that unfortunately the always need to make do with less money each year. Even if they get a level-service budget, costs for everything will go up, so there will need to be cuts. Stephanie said that she has deep regrets cutting anything and also that once a program is eliminated, it is hard to ever restore. (This makes sense, since to bring it back, you'd be starting from scratch.)

It's my sense that the the people on the School Committee are parents, educators, and all are people who care about students and education. They are making very important decisions for our community and our children.

Mayors Office

Regrettably, the Mayor was not at our first meeting, but I am sure we will hear from her in the future.
(I actually have a syllabus, but I'm not about to type it in here. Plus it's top-secret. Just kidding about it being secret. BTW, I haven't named our Mayor here, maybe I'll name her later or after we finally meet in class. I've met her in the super-market - actually the Food Coop. Hey, it's a small town - that's one of my themes here if you haven't already guessed. Anyway, I will refer to her as 'her' or 'she' or 'the Mayor'. I've also chosen to capitalize whatever I want, so it stands out. I realize I could make it bold or put it in italics, but I probably won't. Oh, one more thing, as you may notice, I may include healthy digressions like this one.)

Representing the office of the Mayor was Chris Pile Finance Director of the City of Northampton. I will be missing some information here, as promised, but to summarize, our Mayor is busy. We have a 'Strong Mayor' form of government. This is something that has been in place since the city was incorporated in 1884. OK, it may have came after that, but it's in place. It's in the current city charter.

A 'strong Mayor' does everything. She is the Energizer-Bunny of the city. Here's a non-exhaustive list: the Mayor chairs City Council and the School Committee, signs contracts and city council documents, prepares agendas for same, does labor relations with the City's 14 unions, evaluates and supervises department heads and meets weekly with most of them, negotiates health insurance - with insurance companies, belongs to various advocacy groups like the Western Mass Mayors Association, the Mass. Municipal Association, and is spokesperson of the city. She is our public face. She meets with the Chamber of Commerce, local Representatives, presents the Budget. The budget includes a capital program to maintain city assets. (We'll learn more about finance later.) She mediates and meets with constituents. And from what I hear, she mediates a lot. Actually, everyone here mediates a lot (another  small town thing.) In all this, we were told that the Mayor is very busy. For contrast, the City of Worcester, Mass. has a "weak Mayor" (no offense intended). They hire a manager who does the heavy lifting and leave the Mayor in to represent the city in some way.

City Council

You thought I might be done, but no, there's more. We have a City Council. Like the Mayor, they were recently elected. David Narcewicz is the very new President of the City Council and gave us some information about it. There are 9 members, representing the 7 Wards plus 2 at-large seats. The Mayor chairs meetings and this is one of only 2 or so cities in the state in which the Mayor does so. This is by statute in our city charter. (In fact, all those weird duties of the Mayor I mentioned before are mainly based on what she has to do by law. In this case, it's city law, which being a city charter which actually makes it state law. If you are like me and not the lawyering kind, then you will wonder about the woven fabric of law. I feel like a little of it is starting to make sense to me. Perhaps I will look into the subject of Law a little more.)

The City Council can approve or reduce the Mayor's proposed budget. In other words, they are not allowed to mess with it or submit their own budgets. They can only do what I said back there 2 sentences ago. They approve major official actions by the Mayor. They meet the 1st and 3rd Thursday every month. Narcewicz who was elected by the rest of the Council as Council President gets to appoint people to committees. There are a dozen or committees and most everyone wants to be part of 2 or 4 committees and likewise there are 3 committees which nobody wants to be on. Narcewicz mentioned that we was about to make the appointment announcements and most Councilors will get their first choice, often Ordinance and Finance are popular, but some would end up on committees they were not interested in. To me, Appointments sounds dull, but then again you get to review potential appointments around the city and interview people, so perhaps it might be fun.

The Council is subject to the Open Meeting Law which requires an agenda, 48 hour notice, and minutes for meetings. It has been a subject of recent controversy of late. I'm pretty sure that emailing and texting to make decisions is a no-no. Generally, my sense is that usually is on the ball about this stuff. NCTV, our public access TV, records the meetings, and the Council seems willing to embrace new technology to meet the requirement to record them.

Much of this information was prepared by Narcewicz ahead of time, but as we are City School, many of the people in the class asked many good questions.

City Charter

OK, I can sense you are getting weary. I am getting weary. I think this has been a long class for you, so I'll try to finish up. Council President Narcewicz spoke to us about how city charters work. I can only give you my take. Basically to change the city charter, you need to elect a charter commission, then vote on their proposals. Alternatively, for some changes the City Council can adopt a change and then get the Massachusetts State Legislature to approve the change. Cool, eh? There is a new city charter review committee forming. They are simply going to read that long document and see if anything is antiquated or cumbersome considering it's been over a 100 years since the first version was written. You could see if you'd like to join it. Just call up City Council or the Mayor and see if they need help. If you want to read our city charter and all of its amendments, you will find it here. It's in a hypertext form. There are real things in the City Charter which maybe should go. We actually have this on the books:
In accordance with the provisions of the laws of the commonwealth, the Mayor and City Council shall annually in the month of January, and from time to time as may be convenient, appoint:
A. One or more Measurers of Wood and Bark and other articles.
B. One or more Weighers of Coal and other articles.
C. One or more Surveyors of Lumber. 
And the city does do it because they are obligated by the Charter.

Government Organization

We were given some organizational charts as to the structure of City Government. I may digest this for you in a different post, or if you are lucky, I'll never get around to it. Actually, if you are lucky, I'll find a copy of the chart on the web and and let you browse it at your leisure.

So that ends our first class. See you next week!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

City School Northampton: thinking about the government

OK, I've been thinking about the government. I've had for me what is becoming a typical convergence of events.

Consider this:

As you know, I moved to Massachusetts a few years ago, a state (or commonwealth as we call it here) where some of the seediest of seeds of our nation were first sown.

This week my step-father-in-law just completed and published a book (now available as a PDF on CD). His book is a time-line of Massachusetts history. The last 1,000 years worth. It covers events and people from the original inhabitants, to those tourists on Mayflower cruise, to the real Tea Party, to the toll house cookie, to the Big Dig. He has written other books including a definitive citizens guide, Your Massachusetts Government. It unfortunately is out of print, and for some reason a copy is selling for $100 used. I'm reading this book, since the author kindly gave our family a well read copy when we moved here.

We recently had our newsy premature election of Republican Scott Brown to represent us in the US Senate, so our state is back in play as they say. Those of you who think the outcome was a bit odd should recall that we had four Republican governors before the present Democrat one. The prior Democrat governor was Michael Dukakis. And now that I have totally digressed on the subject of Governors, I might as well add that our first governor was John Hancock. (Hancock should be famous enough, or at least his eponymous signature is, if in-fact a signature can be such, that I won't need to find a special web link for his name.) Even Calvin Coolidge was a governor of Massachusetts. Sorry, a few more digressions are coming, but there's a point somewhere. Coolidge was President, as you know, but he also was Mayor of the city of Northampton - the City that I live in. A city older than this country - though technically it was a town back then. Which brings us back from my Scheherazade moment to the title of this entry.

You see, I'm attending City School. I'm not sure of the actual history of it, but our city first offered this "school" on how our city government works last year. And I enrolled this year. I've taken two classes, and I've learned quite a few things. Actually, none of it is the stuff I wrote about above. In City School, there are classes once a week. Each class is in a different location around our city and at each class city employees, officials, or volunteers make presentations on the workings of our local government. I just finished week 2 and so far we have met at City Hall and the Lilly Library. There are no strings. We get to ask probing questions like "How much do you earn?". FYI, City Councilors get a $2,500 stipend. Not much, considering they are elected, meet several times a month, and get calls and emails from their neighbors complaining about things like missing street signs. (My spouse did just that last week, and this week we have a new sign.) Back to City School. I heard that this program was so successful last year, that other municipalities have approached our Mayor to see if they can copy this model. So far, we have met with our City Council President, Mayoral staff, a School Committee member, librarians from our two famous libraries, the head of our Arts Council and our Health and Recreation Departments. I had nothing like this experience before and where I grew up (suburban Long Island) and later lived (New York City) there was no chance that I would get to do this.

Soon, I hope, I will try to tell you more here about what I'm learning at City School and perhaps promote the value of educating citizens.

See you next week!