If and when Worcester converts its municipal government from city manager to “strong mayor” rule—a change some hope will take place as early as next year—it will be easy to pinpoint the moment when the move got its start. It was March 16, the day the Worcester City Council unceremoniously dumped City Manager Thomas Hoover, who had served in his post since 1994. Earlier in the day, Hoover received a letter signed by eight of the 11 city councilors demanding his resignation. At the weekly council meeting that evening, Hoover gave it to them. A few weeks later, a group calling itself Voters in Charge launched a petition drive, demanding for a change from manager to mayor. “Worcester needs a leader, especially now,” declared Marianne Bergenholtz, chair of Voters in Charge, in a May 25 announcement. “And our history of the past 20 years shows that managers manage, they don’t lead.”
It was not the first time the city’s legislative body had fired its CEO. If anything, the dismissal of Hoover’s predecessor, William “Jeff” Mulford, was more dramatic and bitter, the climax of years of quarreling between the manager and the council. And it was not the first time city manager government has been called into question. Worcester has long been obsessed with its method of municipal organization, with all manner of civic complaints—about representation, leadership, accountability, and especially economic development—channeled into one question: Mayor or manager?
But it could be that the question is finally going to be resolved. That’s because Hoover was relieved of his post not due to disgrace, scandal, mismanagement, or even a political grudge. If anything, the reason was disappointment.
The city’s weakened economic state is especially evident in the downtown area, which has been touted as being on the verge of a comeback for years now and has little to show for all the promising rhetoric. The long-troubled million-square-foot Worcester Center mixed-use complex, located just behind City Hall, is beginning its second major overhaul in the past decade. Business and political leaders are hailing two just-started development projects (a new full-service hotel and a new state courthouse) as signs that Worcester, once derided by The New York Times as “the utility closet” of New England, is on the move. But even these steps come at a time when Worcester’s business community—whose activist nature had once been one of the city’s key strengths —is coming apart at the seams.
A switch to strong-mayor governance is something that Worcester has considered on three other occasions over the 55-year history of city-manager government—known here as Plan E, after the alphabetized options for city government allowed under state statute. But now, a shrinking business tax base and a longing for a kind of entrepreneurial leadership that has been lacking under the Plan E system have the conversation about charter change once again picking up steam, with even some longtime defenders of professional—i.e., nonpolitical—city management now giving up the ghost.
But questions remain: Does Worcester really need a strong mayor? Or does the city need a strong leader? And if it’s the latter, will changing the form of government make any difference?
“There’s always this question, ‘Is the format [of the government] the correct format?'” says Worcester attorney Frederick Misilo Jr., head of the strategic planning committee for the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. “I think it’s a question of leadership.”
Under new management
There has been a great deal of tinkering with Worcester municipal government over the years, in response to a range of political, economic, and social pressures. Under the first city charter, adopted in 1848, Worcester was governed by both an 11-member board of aldermen and a 30-member common council, along with a mayor who enjoyed limited managerial authority. Mayor Henry Marsh tried unsuccessfully to obtain the power to hire and fire city officials, but a new charter approved by voters in 1893 did give the mayor the right to veto appointments made by the common council. Worcester operated under this system—essentially a “weak mayor” form of government—for another half-century, until the city once again caught the charter-reform bug.
In the boom years immediately following World War II, Worcester was forced to face up to the widespread perception of a corrupt City Hall and the reality of a city infrastructure that had been falling apart for a long time. The reputed head of Worcester’s Italian mob was rumored to have his henchmen delivering bribes in paper bags to the mayor’s office in broad daylight, though the city’s two-edition newspaper of record, the Worcester Telegram and Evening Gazette could never verify it, according to Albert Southwick, a retired chief editorial writer for the merged T&G who now pens local historical columns. “Illegal gambling parlors, specializing in horse betting, flourished [downtown] and in other locations,” wrote former publisher Robert Achorn in a 1999 T&G column. “When there were complaints, the police couldn’t seem to find the joints, even though the customers could.”
At the same time, Worcester’s schools, roads, and water and sewer systems suffered from years of neglect, according to Southwick. One reason: the city’s cumbersome bicameral legislature, and especially the common council, which consisted of 30 members—three each from the city’s 10 wards (which have since been reduced to five wards)—who fought bitterly over which neighborhoods construction projects should be steered to.
In 1947, the Republican power structure joined forces with academic and good-government reformers—including the heads of Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and the T&G—to push for a new form of municipal government, one that had been added to the options available under state law in 1938. Plan E consisted of an elected city council (nine members, all of whom would be elected at large) and an appointed city manager, who would actually run municipal operations. That November, Worcester voters approved the binding ballot question by a vote of 42,000 to 22,000—a margin of nearly two to one.
Man for the plan
Worcester’s first city manager was George Merrill, who took office in 1950. Merrill, the head of a local steel company, accepted the office on a temporary basis and left after 15 months. After much debate about whether to conduct a nationwide search—a scenario that has played itself out two of the three other times Worcester has replaced its city manager, with Hoover the only out-of-town talent ever hired into the job—the brand new city council picked Merrill’s right-hand man, Francis McGrath.
McGrath was not well known at the time (the backing of Merrill was crucial to his selection), but he would become a legendary figure in Worcester politics, serving for 34 years, the longest tenure of a city manager in US history. While Plan E was supposed to remove party politics from City Hall, McGrath was anything but apolitical. “The number of wakes and weddings he attended must have numbered in the thousands,” Southwick wrote about McGrath in a T&G column last year. “Local celebrations and large public events alike usually found him on hand. Wherever he went, he was greeted by name by persons of all walks of life, as the saying used to go. He was scrupulously honest and, for all his prominence, unassuming. It never went to his head.”
city manager for a record 34 years.
Under McGrath, Worcester saw the construction of a huge shopping and office complex (Worcester Center), a city-owned civic center (the Centrum, which was built only after two brutal ballot-question fights in the mid ’70s), 22 new schools, a new main public library, a new police headquarters, a new outdoor sports stadium, nearly 3,000 units of public housing, and 3,600 units of government-funded private housing. All of it, Plan E supporters never fail to point out, was done without a hint of corruption. Upon retirement, in 1985, McGrath proclaimed that his proudest accomplishment was that “no shenanigans” had occurred during his third-of-a-century at the City Hall helm.
(McGrath’s most notable failure was not getting a Worcester exit on the Massachusetts Turnpike when the highway was built in the late ’50s. That mistake cast a shadow on the city’s economic-development prospects for nearly a half-century—until last year, when a new “Worcester” exit located south of the city, at Rte. 146 in Millbury, was completed. Set for completion in 2007, a massive interchange connecting I-290 to an upgraded Rte. 146—a project locals call the “Little Dig”—would make downtown Worcester a straight shot from the Pike for the first time ever.)
For supporters of Plan E, McGrath proved the virtue of council-manager government, but that didn’t mean the system went unchallenged during the McGrath reign. In 1959, voters rejected a binding ballot question to dump Plan E by a margin of just 4,000 votes—35,000 to 31,000. Three years later, a similar proposal for mayoral rule went down to defeat by a 12,000-vote margin—42,000 to 30,000. Each time, the proposed shift drew ferocious opposition from the nonpartisan Citizens Plan E Association, a good-government group that defended the council-manager system for a quarter-century.
It was when McGrath retired that Plan E began to unravel in Worcester, though it has not done so completely. Back in the early ’80s, Worcester Fair Share, a citizen-action group, held public forums to highlight the fact that the vast majority of the members of the city council, the school committee, and other city boards and commissions lived on the city’s affluent West Side. Fair Share’s political-education campaign led the city council to appoint a charter commission.
In 1985, the charter commission produced a compromise that seemed inherently unstable: keep a “strong” city manager but allow voters to directly elect the mayor—a post that, as simply chairman of the city council, was previously little more than ceremonial. To become mayor, a candidate would have to win office as a city councilor, then in a separate mayoral tally, outpoll any other city councilors who also declared themselves candidates for mayor. The voters approved the binding ballot question—which also called for 11 city councilors, five to be elected from districts rather than at large—by a nearly two-to-one margin that November.
In a sense, Worcester’s hybrid form of government is the weakest possible “weak mayor” system, since the mayor has no true authority beyond wielding the gavel at the Tuesday night council meetings, but it also weakened the city manager. The mayor is actually a “super-councilor,” empowered by voter mandate as the titular head of Worcester municipal government. The appointed city manager has the legal power, but the elected mayor has the political power. The result is a two-headed government, with ample—and frequently realized—opportunity for confrontation and gridlock.
Firebrand City Councilor Jordan Levy became Worcester’s first directly elected mayor in 1987. The shotgun wedding of Levy and William J. “Jeff” Mulford, McGrath’s assistant city manager and immediate successor as city manager, produced marital spats that were legendary. “His responsibility as manager is to find ways of getting this city moving forward for the monies that he can afford to spend,” Levy once said of Mulford, as quoted in the now-defunct Worcester Monthly. “And you don’t do that by sitting on your rear end, week after week, and doing business as usual.”
Manager Thomas Hoover the door earlier this year.
At first, Mayor Raymond Mariano, elected in 1993, and City Manager Thomas Hoover, appointed the following year, got along famously, but over time they separated, like oil and water. The current mayor, Timothy Murray, got along no better with Hoover, though, unlike Levy, Murray did his blowing up mostly in closed-door meetings. That was, until Hoover’s last year in office, when the mayor began to treat the manager to what one observer calls “sophisticated public floggings.” It was Murray who, along with city councilors Paul Clancy and Philip Palmieri, engineered Hoover’s ouster earlier this year.
By 1999, in fact, the governmental meltdown that was occurring under the hybrid Plan E—Worcester is the only city in the Commonwealth with such an arrangement, as Cambridge and Lowell maintain traditional council-manager governments—led to yet another push for a switch to a “strong” mayor with the power to run city government. This time, the campaign was driven by not only much of the city’s political establishment—with the assistance of University of Massachusetts pollster and veteran political consultant Lou DiNatale—but also some prominent business leaders, including John Nelson, former chief executive of Norton Co. and Wyman-Gordon Co. Nelson was the kind of establishment figure that used to make up the Citizens Plan E Committee, which disbanded about 25 years ago. But run by power brokers more used to operating behind the scenes than in the spotlight, this campaign for strong-mayor government was over before it started.
For much of Worcester’s history, people like Nelson did a lot more than defend council-manager government. They determined, for good or ill, the city’s economic—and even civic—prospects for generations.
Following World War II, Worcester’s captains of commerce and industry drove the city’s business and economic development. Chief among them was Robert Stoddard, head of manufacturer Wyman-Gordon and owner of the T&G, not to mention one of the co-founders of the virulently anti-communist John Birch Society.
Stoddard and his ilk are all deceased now. But in their day, they dominated the Worcester landscape in a way that the city’s present-day business leaders can only dream of. If you wanted to get something—anything—done, you had to make your way to that stuffy citadel of power and influence, the Worcester Club. (If you were a woman, you had to go through the side entrance.)
Back then, Worcester’s power elite included the chiefs of the city’s top three manufacturers (Wyman-Gordon; Norton Co., an industrial abrasives manufacturer now called Saint-Gobain; and Morgan Construction, builder of steel-rolling mills around the world); the top three law firms (Bowditch& Dewey, Mirick O’Connell DeMallie & Lougee, and Fletcher Tilton & Whipple); and two large insurance companies (State Mutual, now Allmerica, and Paul Revere, now UnumProvident). Of those eight companies that once dominated the Worcester economy, only five—Morgan, the law firms, and Allmerica—remain headquartered in the city. Two of them, Morgan and Allmerica, have been struggling in recent years, so their CEOs have been too busy putting out fires in their core business to spend much time on Worcester affairs, whether economic or political. At the same time, as a result of buyouts and mergers, no major regional banks are now headquartered in Worcester, which once had five (Guaranty Bank, Mechanics Bank, Peoples Savings Bank, Worcester County Institution for Savings, and Worcester County National Bank). In essence, Worcester has lost much of its executive class.
Even with this decline in corporate clout, Worcester has continued to be, in a sense, a company town, with the business community exerting its influence—and leadership—through the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, long billed as “New England’s Largest.” Well into the past decade, the Worcester chamber had a full-time staff of two dozen people, who not only advocated for business interests but also developed several industrial parks. Chief among these is the Massachusetts Biotechnology Research Park, a sprawling campus second only to Cambridge’s Kendall Square as an incubator of biotech firms.
But Worcester’s chamber of commerce, too, has been falling apart in recent years. William Short, the chamber’s formidable chief executive, led the business group in the 1980s and ’90s, but declining health forced him to resign in 2000. Since then, the once-dominant business group has been at sea. Six years ago, the chamber spun off its development arm, the Worcester Business Development Corp., leaving it without an important source of revenue, as well as leverage. Under Short’s successor, Mark Love—an accountant by trade—the chamber’s membership morphed from a healthy mix of small, mid-sized, and big businesses into a group of almost exclusively small firms, one that could not support the organization’s own operations.
Early this year, the chamber’s executive committee forced Love to resign, replacing him, on an interim basis, with chamber official Julie Ann Jacobson, who had several years of experience in city government. Then, this summer, Jacobson returned to City Hall, as assistant city manager. The executive committee hired another interim replacement—longtime Worcester business executive Richard Kennedy, pulled out of retirement—while it completed its second strategic plan in five years.
New mayoral push
It is this leadership vacuum—both economic and civic—that is prompting the state’s second largest city (population 175,000) to once again raise the question of municipal governance.
“We’ve lost our democracy.”
On its face, council-manager government in Worcester is intact, if not exactly flourishing. Upon Hoover’s departure, the city council installed parks-and-cemeteries director Mike O’Brien as interim city manager; three months later, it made his appointment permanent. The well-regarded O’Brien seems to have the full support of the council, and especially of Mayor Tim Murray. But dispensing with the kind of national search that, 10 years ago, gave Hoover a managerial mandate (seemingly, at least) hardly qualified as a ringing endorsement of O’Brien.
Meanwhile, a nascent campaign to overthrow Plan E is underway, though its prospects are unclear. Behind the move is Marianne Bergenholtz, a former small-business owner and Worcester resident since 1987 who has never been involved in city politics before. But she says alienation from city politics has become the norm in Worcester.
“We’ve lost our democracy in this city,” Bergenholtz says. “There are so many layers to go through, if you need to get anything done, that [residents] are completely frustrated. If you want to save your sanity, you do drop out. You say, ‘Well, I’ll take care of my yard and house, and that’s all I’m going to do.'”
LOW RATINGS FOR WORCESTER
|Worcester is near the bottom of the heap when stacked up against other major New England cities, according to Cities Ranked & Rated by Bert Sperling and Peter Sander. The book, published earlier this year, ranks 331 metropolitan areas in the US and Canada in 10 categories: economy and jobs; arts and culture; climate, cost of living; crime, education, health and health care; leaisure, quality of life; and transportation.
|Type of Government||2002 Estimated population||Overall Metropolitan-Area Ranking|
|Cambridge, Mass. (included in Boston)||City Manager||101,355||71|
|5.||New Haven, Conn.||Mayor||123,626||149|
|7.||Lowell, Mass.||City Manager||105,167||230|
|11.||Worcester, Mass.||City Manager||172,648||286|
|Sources: Each municipality’s Web site; US Census Bureau; Cities Ranked & Rated.|
In June, her group, Voters in Charge, announced “an unprecedented petition-signature drive” to place a binding referendum for strong-mayor government directly before the voters, bypassing any charter commission. The plan, at that point, was to petition the city council this fall or winter to approve the switch, which would then go before the Legislature, and finally the voters, in a special election next spring. But far fewer voters tend to participate in special elections than general ones. For that reason, Voters in Charge is now thinking about putting the question on the November 2005 municipal-election ballot, when the mayor and city councilors are elected to two-year terms, instead. That, says Bergenholtz, “would cause more excitement about the election, and it would get many more people involved.”
But it might also cause confusion, since it would raise questions about the position voters are electing a mayoral candidate to. Would it be the weak mayor of today, or would voters approve the new charter and elect a strong mayor? To further complicate matters, even if Worcester voters approve a strong-mayor charter in that election, the state Legislature would still need to act on the matter—and that might occur after the new mayor takes office in January 2006. In that case, the city manager would still be running the show at City Hall—at least until the Legislature finalizes the charter change.
Bergenholtz, for one, is not worried about the confusion. “Well, it’s already confusing for most people because they think we [already] have a mayor,” she says.
Presented with this scenario, city solicitor David Moore says that if voters approve a strong-mayor charter in a November municipal election, the first election of such a mayor would take place in the next municipal election—two years later—and not in the same election in which the charter change occurred. But he also says that he would need to look into the case law on the matter to be sure.
Change of heart
Perhaps more important than the incipient grass-roots campaign is the erosion of support for council-manager government among establishment figures, many of whom are now making rumbling noises in favor of a strong mayor. Take Philip “Flip” Morgan, scion of a prominent and wealthy Worcester family and now chief executive of Morgan Construction. In the 1970s, Flip Morgan headed the Citizens Plan E Association, and in the 1980s his father, Paul Morgan, chaired the city’s last charter commission. But Flip Morgan has become disenchanted with the hybrid his father helped put in place.
“What we have now is an abortion of a Plan E system,” declares Morgan.
business leadership, now favors a strong mayor.
Another business leader who supports a move to a strong mayor is P. Kevin Condron. If Morgan represents the old guard of Worcester’s business community, then Condron—chief executive of the Granite Group, which does business as Central Supply Co., a wholesale purveyor of plumbing and heating supplies—typifies the new. Unlike Morgan, Condron was born and raised outside the Bay State, and he married into the business he now runs. But Condron has become a key player in Worcester, having chaired three of the city’s most powerful business and economic-development drivers: the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Worcester Redevelopment Authority, and, until earlier this year, the private, nonprofit (and relatively successful) Worcester Business Development Corp., the chamber’s development spin-off.
Oddly enough, Condron traces the decline of city-manager government to the days of Francis McGrath. “He kept ceding power to the council to be able to continue in his role,” Condron observes. “As the council developed that power, they didn’t want to give it up—and they haven’t given it up.” The result, he says, is gridlock.
“There should be only one [steering] wheel on a bus, and then somebody drives the bus,” says Condron. “Here we have 12 drivers, including the [city] manager, with 12 different agendas.” Because of that, Condron notes, City Hall stumbles over its own feet when it comes to new commercial/industrial business and development. Businesses and developers looking to invest in Worcester “find it difficult because of that multi-headed monster,” he says.
Many current and former Worcester politicos agree with the assessments of these businessmen and others. Former mayor Jordan Levy—who hosts a weekday talk show on radio station WTAG, in addition to being chief executive of Parker Affiliated Cos., a Worcester manufacturer, and a board member of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority—says Worcester needs a strong mayor like Boston’s. “Watch Menino!” he declares. “People make fun of the way the guy speaks—the guy’s just coy. He’s a master at what he does. He’s a neighborhood mayor, and he’s effective at doing it.”
Worcester’s current “weak” (but directly elected) mayor, attorney Tim Murray, agrees with Levy. Murray, who’s been on the City Council since 1997 and mayor since 2001, also points to “a leadership void” on economic development initiatives. “There isn’t anyone who can say, ‘Hey, listen, I’ve been charged by the voters to drive this thing through, and I’m going to build a coalition by begging, borrowing, pleading, stealing, and kicking in the ass,'” he explains.
Is mayor the ticket?
But, as always in Worcester, the fears of strong-mayor government—centering on machine politics, corruption, and mismanagement—run as deep as the yearnings for it. Opponents of strong-mayor government don’t talk about Tom Menino; they drop the name Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, the former mayor of Providence, RI, now serving time for City Hall racketeering. And they talk not about Boston but about Springfield, now near bankruptcy and operating under the supervision of a state-appointed financial advisory board, one step short of receivership.
says a strong mayor will
deepen machine politics.
When it comes to projected political machinations under mayoral rule, the defenders of Plan E also invoke Worcester realities, past and present. Take City Councilor-at-Large Konstantina Lukes, an eight-term officeholder known for her contrarian views. A Democrat, Lukes got tossed off the Democratic City Committee a few years ago after she backed a Republican, Paul Cellucci, for governor. She says strong-mayor government would mark a return to the ethnic warfare of the ’40s, with all politics funneled through the Democratic Party. With the GOP practically nonexistent in Worcester, she says, it would be “so impossible to run for office that only a person who has the blessing of the Democratic City Committee and the labor unions [would be] eligible to run because of money and people.”
Lukes conjures up the corrupt ghosts of Worcester Past in decrying the city’s ruling political structure today, and what that structure would mean for mayoral rule. “What we have developing in Worcester is a political machine, which is really a throwback to what happened years ago,” she says. “It’s an ethnic machine, a Democratic machine, and it’s marked by personal bonding of the people in that machine to each other. It [runs] from the congressional level, to the county, to the state, to the City Council.” A switch to a strong mayor would make matters only worse, she says. “That machine will accept only certain people,” Lukes predicts. “The strong-mayor form of government is going to get [Worcester] locked into a partisan form of government [with] a very clear structure and pecking order. It will isolate people [from city government] more.”
Even for some who are now longing for a mayoral strongman, the ideal municipal leader seems to be more an empowered city manager than a glad-handing pol from the neighborhoods. City Manager Mike O’Brien, says industrialist Morgan, “is off to a great start, and maybe he could be your mayor.” Condron says much the same thing about the new city manager. “I think he’s a great, energetic young person who would make a terrific strong mayor of the city,” says Condron. “And I felt Tom Hoover would have made a great strong mayor of the city.”
Or is it really Francis McGrath they’re all pining for?
“Some people claimed he really was the mayor,” recalls Demitrios Moschos, a Worcester attorney who served as McGrath’s right-hand man from 1968 to 1980. “He envisioned his role in a political context—not as an administrator and not in simply seeing that things were accomplished, but also in developing support for things to be accomplished.”
The first thing Worcesterites want to see accomplished now is the transformation of Worcester Center, a 1960s-era shopping-and-parking complex that failed as a retail mall in the 1980s and, after reopening in 1994 as an outlet mall, failed again less than a decade later. Last June, Berkeley Investments of Boston purchased the 20-acre site with the intention of redeveloping it into 900 condos, 450,000 square feet of office space, and 300,000 square feet of retail stores.
Whether, in its latest resurrection as a downtown residential and commercial district, New Worcester Center will succeed is up for grabs, but the city clearly needs more of that kind of ambition and energy on the development front. Attorney and business leader Frederick Misilo says a strong mayor is not necessary for that. All that’s needed, he says, is a chamber of commerce whose prime directive is driving economic development—not just pitching group-insurance plans and breakfast-club tickets to its membership—teamed up with a city manager strong enough to strike deals with local, state, and federal officials. In other words, all it would take to put an end to the strong-mayor talk, he says, is for City Hall and the business community to become functional again.“To the extent that there is achievement, success, and development—certainly that would reduce the level of dissatisfaction and thereby reduce the level of chatter,” says Misilo.
Steven Jones-D’Agostino was editor of Worcester Business Journal from 1992 to September 2004, and before that a reporter for Worcester magazine and managing editor of Business Worcester.