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Weak case for a strong mayor.

The puzzling search for a new city manager has led to talk of revising the city charter. A small group says it only wants a "discussion'' of the issue. Oh sure!

The first city charter was authorized in 1848, when the town of Worcester was undergoing big changes. It provided for a mayor, a common council and a board of aldermen. It was approved by the voters on March 18, the election was held on April 8, and on April 17, former Gov. Levi Lincoln Jr. assumed office as mayor.

That 1848 charter lasted 45 years. But in 1893, Mayor Henry Marsh found it too restrictive. He wanted the power to appoint and dismiss city officials, including members of the License Board. It was the first pitch for a "strong mayor'' charter. But the board of aldermen was opposed to that idea. License Board appointments were a source of juicy politics.

A charter commission was set up and duly made recommendations. Then the state Legislature got into the act. Then the board of aldermen. By the time the rehashed charter was presented to the voters, the charter commission disgustedly recommended a "no''vote, the Worcester Telegram was opposed to the whole idea of charter change. It called the whole idea "a fad born of hysterics.''

But on December 12, 1893, the voters approved it. It was basically a typical weak mayor system. (Mayor Marsh did not get the power to appoint officials, but he was given the authority to veto City Council appointments, which was something).

The city got along with that jerry-built charter for the next half century. In the 1940s a wave of reform swept the land. It stemmed from the Progressive movement earlier in the century. One progressive proposal was the council-manager form of government for cities and towns. The old system of aldermen-council-mayor was regarded as too cumbersome and corrupt.

Hundreds of communities across the land had opted for city managers, and Worcester was ripe for change. There had been plenty of log rolling and pork barreling in the years after the war, and a reform movement quickly gathered steam.

George F. Booth, editor and publisher of the Worcester Telegram and the Evening Gazette, threw his weight behind the reformers. In 1947, Worcester voters approved the new plan by almost two to one -- 42,179 to 22,154.

I came to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette as an editorial writer in 1952. During many of the next 34 years I was chief editorial writer. So I had a bird's eye view of the battles over Plan E for the next 20 years. We supported Plan E all the way. City Manager Francis McGrath was a frequent visitor.

That new Plan E government gave responsibility for administering the basic functions of the city to a professional city manager. The mayor's role was reduced to presiding over city council and school committee hearings, and to representing the city in various ways.

But it also changed the election procedures. Members of the City Council (the board of aldermen was eliminated) were to be elected by proportional representation.

It was an ingenious idea and it helped preserve minority representation on the council, but it was too complicated by far. The count of ballots, with a complex system of transfers, sometimes took days. The people voted proportional representation out in 1963.

Thanks to the extraordinary career of Francis McGrath, city manager for 34 years, a world record, the council-manager system became solidly entrenched. In the first 20 years under the new system, Worcester built 24 new schools, an airport, a new sewage treatment plant, a new reservoir, and miles of new roads and improved sidewalks, all without a single major scandal.

It was a contrast to the experiences of two nearby cities with so-called "strong mayors'' -- Springfield and Providence. Springfield barely averted bankruptcy a few years ago after years of mismanagement and corruption. Providence's flamboyant mayor ended up in jail.

Worcester avoided that sort of thing and the voters appreciated it. They came to see Plan E as far superior to the old system with its arcane politics and hints of corruption. Some old-style pols like George Wells hated Plan E, but their efforts to change the charter to a strong mayor system failed repeatedly. But the old-line pols kept trying.

In 1985, a new charter commission was appointed. It came up with the current arrangement. The mayor is elected by popular vote, six councilors are elected by district, the rest at large. Maybe it is an improvement. Hard to say. The essential council-manager setup remained intact. The mayor presides over meetings of the City Council and the School Committee. The manager runs the city.

The one system that Worcester has never tried is the strong mayor arrangement, where the mayor has authority to appoint members of the city administration without council interference. But this community has never endorsed that idea -- not in 1848 or 1893 or 1947 or 1960 or 1962 or 1985.

Would it be an improvement? Not likely. More than 1,000 communities across the land have council-manager systems, some for many years.

As the old saying has it: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it.''

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 11, 2014
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