Jack Yunits, the former mayor of Brockton, offers his recipes for success, but it would be nice to have more that could be duplicated elsewhere.
Urban Mayor–Making a City Work
By Jack Yunits with contributions from Lees Yunits
Boston, Acanthus Publishing
THE COMMONWEALTH’S GATEWAY CITIES have enormous potential, which explains why state officials, after years of neglect, are making educational and economic development investments in these municipalities to increase job growth beyond Boston. Former MassDevelopment president and CEO Bob Culver liked to talk about the “great bones” of Gateway Cities, meaning that, even though they struggle economically, they nevertheless have the critical building blocks of impressive architecture, major hospitals, and transport routes that form the foundation of prosperous communities.
The nascent literature of Gateway Cities, largely confined to shorter studies, lacks an overarching guidebook, an insider’s look at the problems these communities face. That’s why I looked forward to reading Jack Yunits’s book. As the mayor of Brockton from1996 to 2006, a period when the term Gateway City was not yet in vogue, Yunits has the right resume to write the right stuff.
The closer to Brockton Yunits gets, the better he writes on matters both small and large. For example, Yunits offers sage advice on snow plows in this super-storm age: “The quantity of the vehicles is important, but the quality of the equipment and the blade size is crucial, which is why preferred plows are paid more.” He later helpfully notes the import of maintenance and planning, banal line items that budget writers nevertheless often overlook.
Yunits talks about admiring paintings in City Hall and having an expert analyze them. The paintings turn out to have a worth exceeding $1 million, and Brockton ups its insurance on them. Here, Yunits nicely executes a telling anecdote that illustrates how a city can capitalize on its inherent, if occasionally obscured, advantages, a more picturesque example of the great bones of the Gateway Cities.
Yunits offers a compelling take on the disproportionate impacts of changes in the state budget on residents of higher-income municipalities as opposed to those in a poorer city like Brockton. “The Gov. Paul Cellucci tax cut meant an average $1,600-per-household cut in Sudbury, and because the cut was not proximately related to income, a $200 cut to a Brockton household. Meanwhile, the hit to Brockton’s local aid to pay for the tax cut averaged about $14 million annually, which…negatively impact[ed] the…delivery of services to the city,” Yunits writes. Too few elected officials, even former ones, have the courage to oppose tax cuts on these grounds for fear of being accused of inciting class warfare or offending their campaign contributors.
Under Yunits, Brockton adopted a pay-as-you-throw waste disposal program, which encourages recycling by requiring residents to pay a fee for each bag of trash they put at the curb. This green initiative, which too few communities even today have adopted, receives a moving treatment from writer Yunits in terms of the personal abuse he suffered as a result of pushing for his plan. But ex-Mayor Yunits falls short in not offering tips on how other cities could implement such changes. In fact, Yunits later contradicts this concrete case of strong leadership in the face of widespread opposition with a dubious declaration “that good policy is only good if the public embraces it.”
Instead of mining more of these policy nuggets picked up from City Hall, Urban Mayor goes off course with an interesting, albeit dated, perspective on the Commonwealth. Looking at House Speakers and Senate Presidents, for instance, Yunits sees the governor as “number three on the totem pole in terms of legislative change and statewide agendas,” an assessment that Governors William Weld and Deval Patrick, among others, might dispute.
Yunits seeks to settle old scores that many others may have long forgotten or had thought decided. Take Tom Finneran. Within a dozen lines, Yunits sees the former speaker as “not dishonest,” blames Finneran’s “unmitigated confidence” as the cause of his conviction for making misleading statements under oath about redistricting, and concludes (in a new paragraph) that “some elected officials think they are above the law.” Is Yunits blaming Finneran or exonerating him? Outside of Howie Carr and Finneran’s family, who still really cares?
Yunits nicely acknowledges that while media attention often focuses on the mayor to the exclusion of staff, strengthening a city requires the concerted efforts of a team. He characterizes his school superintendent as having “more common sense than any educator I have ever encountered,” his CFO as having “the best financial mind in Massachusetts,” and two of his city solicitors as “brilliant.” But he offers no prescriptions for finding such smart staff.
Yunits clearly has issues with groups such as the Brockton Education Association, which represents the city’s teachers. “I recall several difficult bargaining sessions [and] one in particular [that] began so bitterly that we could not even agree on a place to meet for establishing ground rules,” he writes. Unfortunately, he does not report how he and the association got to yes except to write, “Negotiations were competitive and creative, but we found a way to make it work.” The failure to document what made the negotiations work feels even more frustrating given Brockton’s seemingly successful emphasis on literacy and writing across all subject areas.
The chapters conclude with contributions by Lees Yunits, Jack’s wife. Lees provides many, but not all, of the unexpected insights into the burdens that an entire family must bear when a parent assumes elective office. Jack nicely sets the stage for this discussion in the first chapter by referring to himself as “the missing chair” at gatherings of loved ones because he was elsewhere working for Brockton.
We learn more from Lees about the outcome of union negotiations than we do from Jack, in particular how he resolved a sticky situation with firefighters and residency. She personalizes the tale by adding that she and her husband discussed the solution while Jack was shaving and she was bathing, details that may be too much information for some but add a nice human touch to a wonky work.
While Lees complements Jack as an author, an attentive editor would have benefitted both. In the first chapter, Jack recounts a pre-election warning: “The worst thing that could happen to you is that you might be elected!” Six pages later, Lees writes: “[T]he worst thing that can happen is you could win!” In chapter three, Jack writes of a storm, “They called it a downburst.” Who are they? We learn two pages later, when Lees observes, “[T]he weathermen called the storm a ‘downburst.’” In chapter 14, Jack and Lees, separately but with an identical phrase, sum up the quest to bring professional baseball to Brockton by noting that, in any case, the city would have “the best damn high school field in the country.”
Jack struggles with his own record. In chapter two, he writes that he “won twenty-seven of twenty-eight precincts in the primary,” but a page later he says he took them all. Chapter nine, entitled Municipal Finance, the book’s longest chapter, could have used some critical pruning. Yunits includes both a footnote explaining the derivation of the phrase “cherry sheet” (a listing of state aid to municipalities on colored paper) and a short paragraph making the same point.
The three-paragraph epilogue serves as a microcosm of the strengths and shortcomings of Urban Mayor, with its concise list of impressive accomplishments, generalities about doing the right thing (spiced up with a pithy acronym on how style trumps substance for many elected officials who practice “GPS-government by political sensationalism”), and a concluding paragraph asserting that activism beats apathy. The failure of Jack Yunits to follow the lead of Lees Yunits and do more showing and less telling keeps Urban Mayor from successfully portraying how Gateway Cities can build on their great bones and grow.Mark S. Sternman is director of marketing and communications for MassDevelopment, a sponsor of MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth. Sternman’s opinions do not necessarily represent those of his employer. (Disclosure: He has met Jack Yunits at least twice, and his employer has worked with the employer of one of Yunits’s sons.