The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ravosa Was Right

Another flashback.

It's hard with the distance of time to recall just how vilified former Springfield City Councilor Anthony Ravosa Jr. was in the 1990's when he single handidly waged war on Springfield's corrupt Democrat Party machine. The level of attack on Ravosa by the powers that be was merciless, and sadly, Ravosa was unable to hold up under the assault. Ironically, in later years Ravosa himself got caught up as a minor figure in the Enron scandal. Yet in matters involving his political career in Springfield, events have proven him more than correct on all the major issues. Here is an old essay about Ravosa from the February 1997 issue of The Baystate Objectivist but much of it still reads as if it were written this morning.

Tony Ravosa 1994

Recent developments in local politics, such as the final steps taken in the privatization of Municipal Hospital, the mysterious persistence of cost overruns in public school building projects, plus the newest suggestions of sleazery at the long troubled Springfield Redevelopment Authority, have all provided me with reasons to reflect on the career of former Republican City Councilor Tony Ravosa. Yet for better or worse, what you're most likely to remember about any given situation is whatever happened that was the most weird. Therefore, I regret that my clearest memory of Ravosa is the occasion when we watched a woman urinate on the lawn of Court Square at high noon.

It was the summer of 1992, and I was in Ravosa's office, which is located just above the famous Ravosa marquee that hangs over the entranceway to the courtyard of the family's downtown estate. Ravosa was running (unsuccessfully, it turned out) for the congressional seat held both then and now by Richard Neal. Ravosa had the Republican nomination without a challenger, but there was a rock 'em, sock 'em Democrat primary race that year that featured Councilor Kateri Walsh attacking Neal from the right, and liberal activist Charles Platten challenging Neal from the left. Also in the mix was Ross Perot supporter Thomas Sheehan running as an independent.

I did not play a major role in the Ravosa for Congress campaign, but I did help out on a few small writing projects that required me to meet with Ravosa and his staff on a couple of occasions. I recall that one day I was seated in his office as Ravosa spoke to me and several staff members while pacing around the room. At one point Ravosa stood facing the large windows in his office which face onto Court Square, when suddenly he paused in mid-sentence. We all turned to look out the window at whatever had caught his attention.

Looking in the direction of Ravosa's gaze we saw an overweight woman of no decernable age, squatting in the sunlight with her jeans around her ankles, urinating in plain sight as casually as a dog at a fire hydrant. What was most remarkable was the expression on her face, which showed such a bovine indifference to what she was doing and where she was doing it, that it seemed as though only the most powerful drugs or soul destroying despair (or both) could explain her behavior.

Yet as repugnant as this sight was, there was a mildly humorous aspect to it provided by the presence of two lawyerly types sitting on a bench nearby. They appeared to have been sharing a take-out lunch when the woman came and squatted almost directly in front of them. They quickly got up and hurried away, dumping their lunch in a trash barrel. Ravosa shrugged off that incident as all too commonplace. In fact, Ravosa's father had asked, in vain, for the city to set up a Port-A-Potty on Court Square for the homeless.

Ravosa being sworn in as his wife and father look on.

There was a lot on Ravosa's mind that summer. Across Court Square was City Hall, where Ravosa was engaged in a bitter feud with Mayor Robert Markel, as well as several key members of Markel's Administration. Further down Main Street, out of sight but never far out of mind, was the Springfield Newspapers, the local outpost of the Newhouse Corporation's media and real estate empire, whose publisher, David Starr, was Ravosa's arch-enemy. On the occasions when I visited Ravosa's offices, I sometimes perceived an almost bunker-like mentality, a sense that Ravosa and his supporters felt continuously under seige, but I could never dismiss that attitude as mere paranoia.

Ravosa's enemies were very real, and it is useful to reflect on the powerful forces that tried to silence Ravosa, humiliate him and destroy him financially and politically.

It was Ravosa in 1992 who waged a lonely battle to warn the city that unless it privatized Municipal Hospital on State Street immediately, Springfield would encounter serious financial difficulties. In response to his common sense warnings Ravosa faced brutal criticism from detractors who tried to portray him as the Ebenezer Scrooge of local politics. Ravosa did not ask, like the subject of that Dickens novel, whether there were no prisons for the poor. Nor did he give a speech calling for the privatization of the hospital with his foot on the neck of an elderly person. Not once did he kick over a wheelchair or push an old lady to the ground. It was only the tone of the press coverage he received that would have caused you to assume that Ravosa had done such things, or at least wanted to.

Four years after Ravosa endured such abuse, the Albano Administration announced that the mushrooming expenses of subsidizing Municipal Hospital had reached such a point that if the hospital was not transferred almost immediately into private hands, the city would have to close the hospital by the end of 1996, regardless of the consequences to the mostly elderly patients. Unfortunately, this reality placed the city in the worst possible position as far as getting a good deal on the hospital, since it was impossible to bargain from a position of strength when every prospective buyer knew in advance that the city's back was to the wall.

In the end, the only way the city could get a half decent deal was to put together an early retirement package that allowed over 50 employees to retire before the private owners had to fire them in order to make the hospital profitable. While this solution side-stepped the ugly political fall-out that such lay-offs would have created, it certainly did no favor to the taxpayers or the city's pension fund, which now has to pay millions of dollars in extra retirement benefits based on a benefits formula reflecting years of service that those in the early retirement program never actually served.

If we had listened to Raavosa when he first suggested privatization back in 1992, instead of demonizing him as a cruel, hard-hearted Republican, everyone would have been better off. Today, let's at least own up to the fact that for all the criticism Ravosa received during the privatization controversy, the passage of time has proven that Ravosa was right.

Then there's the matter of school construction cost overruns. It was back in 1993 that Councilor Ravosa first raised the issue of whether there were political shenanigans going on surrounding the city's school construction projects. The case he cited as the best example was the land purchases surrounding the building of the Rebecca Johnson School in Mason Square. In that controversy, an auto repair shop called Action Auto, which was far behind in its tax payments to the city, received a huge payment for its land and relocation costs (although it never did reopen) despite the fact that the city could have simply seized the property for back taxes at no cost to the public. Even more intriguing, Action Auto was owned by an individual with close personal and political ties to then State Representative Ray Jordan.

Ravosa took an interest in this controversy, and brought his information (complete with his trademark oversized charts and graphs) directly to the site of Action Auto, where he held an outdoor press conference. However, City Councilor and Jordan defender Morris Jones showed up, and ordered Ravosa to leave the premises. When he refused, Councilor Jones threatened Ravosa physically, saying he would put Ravosa "on the ground" if he didn't stop his presentation to the media.

Whether Mo Jones would have actually assaulted Ravosa is something we will never know, because it was then that Jones realized that the entire incident was being filmed by WGGB-TV, at which point Jones suddenly became more reasonable. The footage of Jones making his threat was aired repeatedly on Channel 40, yet Jones was never reprimanded by the council or anyone else for his aggressive behavior (although it's interesting to speculate how Ravosa would have been treated had it been he who had threatened to assault Jones).

Despite Ravosa's efforts to keep the Action Auto controversy alive, it was finally buried by a report that stated that by strict legal technicality nothing illegal had taken place (the city has the right to waste its money if it wants to) although the logic behind why the city would want to pay handsomely for land it could have had for free was something no one was ever able to explain.

Whatever the truth may be, it was Ravosa who first suggested, to an indifferent public and a hostile political establishment, that much greater scrutiny needed to be paid to the process behind public building projects, in part to avoid the risk that the projects might be subverted for political reasons, as many suspected might have occurred in the Action Auto case. Had we subjected the school projects to the scrutiny that Ravosa first warned us we ought to, then enormous sums of money might have been saved on later projects that experienced widespread cost overruns. In other words, once again Ravosa was right.

Of all the foggy bottoms in Springfield politics, no bottom is foggier than the one at the Springfield Redevelopment Authority. It was his struggle to open up the SRA to public examination that proved to be Ravosa's most bitter battle, and the one for which he received the most abuse. When the local real estate market turned sour in the late 1980's, the SRA was left holding a lot of bad investments. That was when a mysterious rash of fires began striking the SRA's insured properties. Valley Advocate reporter Al Giordano quipped at the time that Springfield should be renamed, "The City of Arsoned Homes."

Ravosa demanded that the SRA turn over its records for examination by the City Council. At one point SRA chief Dominic Sarno questioned Ravosa's sanity, and demanded a City Council investigation into whether Ravosa should be expelled from the Council as psychologically unfit to serve. Sarno's demand was denied, but Ravosa never received the documents he was requesting.

There is some question whether the documents Ravosa was seeking even exist. State Auditor Joe DeNucci held a press conference in which he called the SRA's bookkeeping "the worst I have ever seen." According to DeNucci, in just one year alone (1993, the year in which Ravosa was most fiercely attacked) nearly four million dollars had vanished without a trace. So was Ravosa "insane" for having pressed for an investigation into the SRA? Once again, Ravosa was right.

In 1993 Ravosa stood for re-election. He was clearly hoping to be re-enforced in his struggles by winning re-election by a wide margin. Instead he barely survived, holding on by only a few hundred votes. One small consolation however was that the voters threw out Morris Jones, the councilor who had threatened to assault Ravosa over the Ray Jordan scandal.

It was a few month after that election that I had my last conversation of any length with Tony Ravosa. Jay Libardi and myself were sitting at the Tavern Inn on the riverfront (the official watering hole for politicians at the time) when Ravosa and his wife stopped in. They joined us at our table after informing us that they had just stopped in to kill some time before they had to leave to pick up Ravosa's father at the airport. In the course of our conversation it became obvious that Ravosa was disillusioned by his narrow election victory. After all he had endured on behalf of the public, he felt it was embarrassing to have just eeked by like some newcomer fighting for a seat.

His razor thin margin also deprived him of the mandate he needed to continue to press his issues. As we talked I saw little of the firey determination that in the past had sustained him through so many battles. When I asked him what he foresaw as his agenda for the new term, he was vague and non-committal. After Ravosa and his wife left, Libardi turned to me and said, "This is Tony's last term."

And it was. Around this time Ravosa got a job in Boston through Governor Weld, and the to-ing and fro-ing from the Hub everyday left him more and more out of the loop in local affairs. His wife then became pregnant, and Ravosa began focusing more of his attention on family matters. He had little time to conduct investigations. Near the end of his term Ravosa began missing council meetings altogether, something that would have been unheard of in the past. When he finally announced that he would not seek re-election, no one was surprised.

But his slow fade from the scene can not erase the number of times when Ravosa was almost the only public official who had a clue as to what was going on. He warned us to sell Municipal Hospital while the market was still good, but the city refused and suffered major losses. He demonstrated how school building costs could be politically inflated, we ignored and paid through the nose. He led a fight to expose mismanagement at the SRA, today we know that his charges were just the tip of the iceberg.

That is why we must now state clearly, even though perhaps it must be said in the tone of an apology, what we should have acknowledged long ago.

Ravosa was right.

Tony Ravosa checking in at the old Springfield Civic Center in 1994. Note controversial dealmaker Heriberto Flores on the far right. Below is a video of Ravosa addressing the Council in 1989.

It appears that the controversy over the allegedly indecent images on a safe sex poster at UMass is not over, despite demands by the UMass authorities that they be taken down. As you can see, it was still up this afternoon when I took this photo, placed in a location next to a drawing of a person with a chain over their mouth. (click photo to enlarge)

To read the latest article in the UMass Collegian on the ongoing censorship stalemate, click here.

This afternoon a sudden snow squall broke out at UMass as I was approaching the Southwest tunnel.

I laughed when I saw these "Freudian Slippers" in the window of a Northampton novelty shop.


Bill Dusty said...

Unsettlingly familiar to the indifference voters showed towards Stebbins in the last election. Of course, Stebbins' first term lacked the drama of Ravosa's years in office, thanks in large part to the FCB and the FBI.

Sam said...

Hi Tom-

My belated condolences for the loss of your father. During a busy time of the year for me at work I make it a point to read your latest posts.

My favorite pieces were the Ogulewicz Chronicles as well as your recent posts about Anthony Ravosa. These articles truly portray how incompetent and corrupt Springfield city government has been in the past. If good people like Mitch Ogulewicz and Anthony Ravosa were serving this city for as long as some of the current clowns (I agree with you on the good and bad ones) on the city council, there probably would never have been financial and operational issues which caused the city to become financially insolvent.

One interesting issue which was raised by Councilor Tim Rooke a while back was that the state technically owes the city $75 million for busing expenses incurred since the mid 1970’s in order to comply with court ordered integration in public schools. If I recall correctly, the idea of persuing the busing money was to negotiate with the state to forgive its loan in exchange for the city giving up its claim to busing reimbursement. If in fact the city is really owed this money by the state, then the $52 million bailout loan from the state should be forgiven completely.

This reminds me of a larger issue here in Massachusetts. We have no more county government in our state. I notice in other states, particularly in the Deep South, that county government collects sales, excise and income taxes directly at their own level in order to fund its operations and services like schools, police, fire departments, jails, and highways. Since county government serves a smaller area than a state, it is theoretically able to respond better to the fiscal needs of the departments that provide these services provided that it is given taxation powers. Here in Massachusetts, cities and towns by law are only allowed to levy personal property and real estate taxes.

The cities and towns are at the mercy of their “cherry sheet” the monies that they can expect to receive in state aid. The only services with the word county in them are the registries of deeds, the sheriff departments and the jails. All of these “county” entities are under the direct control of the state. Our sales and income taxes we pay go directly to Beacon Hill only to be distributed mostly to the well represented and affluent eastern end of our state. Western Massachusetts should secede from the state!!!

Fuck Beacon Hill!!!


Ravenswing said...

I read your post with interest; from the late 80s to 2003, I was a Springfield homeowner. I ditched the Republican party in disgust in 1980 -- I wanted no part of a party that claimed that Jesus Christ not only had a political position on who owned the Panama Canal, among many other bits of insanity, but claimed they knew what it was.

But it would take a true idiot not to acknowledge that Springfield politics in that time was mobbed up and corrupt. Tony Ravosa said things no one else dared say, and held to a standard of honesty no other Springfield pol in that time seemed to be able to manage. Springfield was the poorer for him leaving politics.