An all-star panel of former Chelsea leaders and regional leaders convened on Tuesday evening for a well attended forum to discuss the city manager search.
More than 100 people were in attendance at Bunker Hill Community College’s Chelsea Campus to observe the panel discussion that kicked off the forum – sponsored by a coalition of several Chelsea non-profit organizations. The primary interest, though, was on former Chelsea Receiver Harry Spence who spoke at length about his time rebuilding the City after it went bankrupt – marking one of the few occasions he has spoken publicly about the experience in recent times.
However, great interest was also placed upon the other panelists, which included Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, former Lowell City Manager Bernard Lynch and former Chelsea City Councillor Marta Rosa.
The forum kicked off with a question for Spence about explaining how Chelsea came to have a city manager form of government, which he helped put in place before leaving his receivership post in 1995.
He first expressed his pride in seeing Chelsea become such a success story after the absolute lows he saw it fall to in the early 1990s.
“Chelsea was viewed as a joke in the region,” he said. “We would struggle because the Herald would just continue to write terrible editorials about Chelsea, even when things were starting to turning around. I think Chelsea has gone from being the butt of the region’s jokes to being an exemplar of how a City should be run…People often ask me why Chelsea suffered from so much corruption. It’s because democracy was stolen from the people of Chelsea, sometimes at the point of a gun. It was stolen, and I always had confidence that when the people of Chelsea regained control again from the corruption and the threats of violence that often accompanied that corruption, that they would produce an extraordinary government and you have.”
He pointed out the two All-American City awards and said that there would always be a part of Chelsea living in him from his years spent at City Hall.
He also went into the history of his work here, noting that he was appointed deputy receiver and then receiver by then Gov. William Weld from 1990 to 1995.
That assignment started in the fall of 1990 when the Chelsea Schools could not open for classes because the City was so broke it couldn’t pay the teachers. Soon, he said, his simple assignment to just open the schools turned into an all-out war against a generation of ingrained corruption at City Hall.
“We soon realized the five prior mayors of Chelsea had been indicted and found guilty of taking bribes,” he said.
After bringing things back to fiscal health, Spence said, he formed a Charter Commission of Chelsea residents to craft the new form of government. After about one year of deliberations, they decided upon having a city manager form of government with an elected City Council.
In a vote of the people that brought out 60 percent of voters, that new form of government – which still exists today – was instituted.
Lynch followed Spence in speaking about what a city manager does, and said that the idea goes back 100 years.
“The idea was to bring in a professional with the required education and experience who would be non-political and would execute the operations of city government like a business,” he said. “A huge part of being city manager is managing the finances. It’s about working toward the long-term projects that are best for the city and not a short-term fix that gets someone elected or re-elected. I made a vow we would treat the City of Lowell like a business because it is a business – the people’s business.”
That brought up a discussion of the idea of residency – whether or not the City should require the next manager to live in the City or whether it should grant a residency waiver.
Lynch said he has done it both ways.
He said when he was the manager of Chelmsford, he moved in later. At one point, the school his kids attended needed a new roof and he moved quickly to replace it.
“Obviously, it set off the comments that there was some sort of favoritism taking place, but I assure you there was not,” he said. “Being the manager of the City you live in has its benefits because you share experiences with residents, but when I didn’t live there I was able to look outside the community much easier…It has its pros and its cons.”
Spence added that he doesn’t feel it’s necessary to live in the place you manage.
“I manage the courts now here in Massachusetts and so every week I get out and go to one of the courts to see how things are going,” he said. “I visit the court and observe it, but I don’t need to live in it. In many ways, it’s the City Council that brings the force of local issues. The manager knows how to manage. The deep expression of the community is what the Council brings and that works with the managing experience of the manager.”
Driscoll – who was once the deputy city manager of Chelsea – said if someone doesn’t live here, they must feel pride in the community.
“I think it’s critical the next city manager value the place,” Driscoll said. “If you come here and only see the negatives, you won’t fit in. You have to come in and feel like you’ve won the lottery in being able to come here.”
Rosa related that she was on the first Council that chose the first city manager, Guy Santagate. She said to include everyone in the process and that will help to make the right decision.
“When the first council had to make a choice we weren’t sure Guy was the one,” she said. “It turns out it was exactly what Chelsea needed at the time. It needed healing and fiscal management and bringing people back into the process that hadn’t been involved. Chelsea is in a really good place so make this an exciting process and include everybody – including the youth and children. They do live here too…People have to feel that their voice matters.”
A question and answer session following the forum was a little less productive, as many in the standing-room-only audience seemed to not understand the baseline process or the recent history.
One person felt it was corrupt that there was a system where the people couldn’t vote for a manager.
Another man, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter (who indicated she cleaned up his commentary), said he believed that the current city council might be in cahoots with the old Board of Alderman and shouldn’t be allowed to make the decision for fear they would take the City back to bankruptcy.
Another man, who was well prepared but misunderstood the purpose of the forum, wanted to know why Chelsea didn’t have a Christmas tree.
A more pertinent question was asked about how the process could uncover how candidates feel about the City’s diversity and the fact that Chelsea is a Sanctuary City for illegal immigrants.
“The best prediction of what somebody will do in the future is what they’ve done in the past,” said Spence. “When it comes to diversity issues, ask them what their experience is with diversity and what have they done. Also, ask them how good a learner they are.”
The forum was moderated by School Supt. Mary Bourque.