The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Party Last Time

Next year will be Springfield's 375th birthday! I sorta remember the 350th bash, when Jay Libardi and I went down to the riverfront for the big fireworks display, but my memory is hazy because we were both pretty high at the time. I do recall that at one point they played the Jefferson Starship's "We Built This City" while the fireworks were going off.

Someone else who attended the 350th anniversary, and who saw it from the perspective of an informed insider, was former Springfield City Councilor Mitch Ogulewicz. In the now out of print "The Ogulewicz Chronicles" he recalled that celebration, and the unexpected controversy that surrounded the organization that put it on:

1986 was the City of Springfield’s 350th birthday. The year long party was put on by the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs (MOCCA). Everyone agreed that MOCCA and its energetic director Judith Matt had done an outstanding job in putting on a series of special events to commemorate the occasion. As a public official, Mitch was required to attend most of these festivities, and he was proud to represent the city and share the pride over Springfield’s achievements over the centuries. Yet, ironically it would be Mitch who would later look at MOCCA’s financial records, and what he would uncover would cause still another controversy to unfold.

One day Mitch received a letter from two longtime Springfield printers, John and William Santaniello. Their letter suggested that something was very wrong in the Mayor's Office of Community Affairs (MOCA). The Santaniello's had been invited by MOCA to bid on some flyers they were printing for a community event. MOCA was a semi-independent entity that raised money to put on special events, such as the Fourth of July fireworks, the Pancake Breakfast and the Taste of Springfield.

According to the Santaniello's they had presented the lowest bid for the work, and yet had been passed over for a higher bid offered by an outfit called Italia Printers. They were furious, but were told that the lowest bidder did not have to be picked, but only someone from the best three. Of course such an arrangement begged to be abused, since it meant that bidders could be granted contracts for political instead of just financial considerations.

While there was little that could be done for the Santaniello's, Mitch discussed the matter with fellow Councilor Vincent DiMonaco, who had already expressed concern about MOCA and prided himself as a defender of the small businessperson. Together they decided to look into the finances and management of the Mayor's Office of Community Affairs.

What they discovered was that MOCA had been stiffing small businesses all over the city and was in debt to the tune of over two hundred thousand dollars. Ogulewicz and DiMonaco demanded an explanation, while freshman Councilor Kateri Walsh called for an audit of MOCA's finances. The Neal Administration became extremely defensive.

MOCA was headed by the nearly universally praised Judith Matt, a dynamo of energy and a brilliant organizer of large-scale events. Yet by her own admission, Matt was more of a doer than an administrator, more concerned with pulling off a successful event than worrying about how to pay for it.

Technically, MOCA had no budget from the city, although it often received free services from city departments and Matt herself received a tax-funded salary. But the vast majority of MOCA's money came from private fundraising, which made their cash flow unreliable and therefore left many of the businesses they dealt with waiting in line for their money long after the events the services were purchased for were over. Many business people did not know of or understand MOCA's unique arrangement with Springfield and considered themselves to be working for the city, which tarnished the city's reputation when they didn't get paid in a prompt manner. MOCA was causing Springfield to gain a reputation as a municipal deadbeat.

The solution was to make MOCA an official part of the city government with its own budget, and that was what was eventually done. What was strange about the incident however, was the overreaction to the proposal by Mayor Neal. At a hearing held to resolve MOCA's difficulties the Mayor lashed into Ogulewicz, denouncing him for committing "character assassination" by daring to raise questions about so noble an organization as MOCA and having the audacity to suggest it might be run better.

Vincent DiMonaco further enraged Neal when DiMonaco suggested that Neal himself may be partly to blame for MOCA's troubles by constantly ordering MOCA to do things without any thought of how to pay for them. Neal angrily lectured DiMonaco on the duties of a chief executive, an odd thing to do considering that DiMonaco had been in office when Richie Neal was in diapers and probably knew first hand more about city government than anyone living.

It was as if Neal were wrapping himself in the flag and declaring himself immune from criticism, a position that baffled those in attendance. Why was Neal taking a simple inquiry into a troubled department so personally? Indeed, Judith Matt, who presumably had the most to lose in the controversy, was actually grateful that her longstanding financial problems had been brought out in the open so that it could be finally resolved. Far from feeling that she was the victim of character assassination, she even sent Mitch a note thanking him for helping her organization.

There were other incidents that year in which Neal showed the same strange behavior. In mid-August Ogulewicz received a phone call from someone whom he knew who was working as a lifeguard at one of the city's pools. The person told him that rumors were rampant that all pool workers were soon to be unexpectedly fired and the pools shut down. Mitch placed a phone call to Park Department head Larry Dowd who assured Mitch he knew of no such plans.

Yet, two weeks later the pools did in fact shut and the workers were told they were fired. As it turned out, so many people had been hired to work for the pools and parks that the money had run out prematurely. Once again there was shades of the MOCA scandal, with Neal ordering things to be done such as hiring pool workers with no money to pay for them.

Yet another incident arose involving the economic development group Springfield Central, headed by Springfield Newspaper publisher David Starr. Under a suspension of rules, Neal brought before the council the debt for a city beautification program that had been handled by Springfield Central. Many councilors were furious with Neal for spending the money first, and then asking the Council to cover the bills later, when their only choice was to cough up the cash or stiff the people who Springfield Central had hired to do the work. Vincent DiMonaco was especially mad, claiming that Neal had the legislative process "half-ass backwards" by spending the money first, then authorizing the spending later. He even suggested that Neal's behavior might be illegal, but refrained from pursuing it further.

Historians can only speculate what might have happened if it had been looked into further. Let's just hope that next year's celebrations are not marred by similar controversy.

Speaking of Richard Neal, after spending over two million dollars on his re-election campaign, Neal still was unable to win a landslide victory last week over his penniless opponent Tom Wesley, who still managed to get a solid 43% of the vote. A class act until the end, Wesley released the following statement this week:

Despite the fact that Massachusetts did not pick up a seat on Capitol Hill, there were many inroads into restoring strength on Beacon Hill. Perhaps voters were more comfortable swinging towards more two-party balance in the Statehouse than in adding to the new majority in the US House. At least for this year’s cycle. At the Congressional level, the incumbents depleted their enormous war chests to hold off challengers who were outspent by factors of 20-1. That treasure is gone and it is not coming back now that the Democrats have lost their majority.

We gave hope to 91,181 voters who have not had a choice in 14 years. Maybe our incumbent will be a little more responsive in his behaviors to his constituents. Something tells me that 2012 can be a great year for any number of seasoned challengers.

You made this possible. I was honored to carry the banner and I am humbled by the experience.

The people of our Valley owe a great debt of gratitude to Wesley (and his primary challenger Dr. Jay Fleitman) for the wonderful role they played this year in returning our Valley to a fully functioning two party democracy after 14 years of Neal's unchallenged incumbency.

A horse and wagon crossing the UMass campus.

Me, Paul Revere and his horse at Raos in downtown Amherst.

Bowie in a downtown Northampton window.

Making beautiful noise in Goshen, Massachusetts.

Showing off tattoos in Amherst.


Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Springfield!

Tim said...

Cripes Tom,

You kind of resemble Paul Revere. And like him, you cherish your freedom. With Paul it was "the British are coming." Whereas with you its "the machine is coming!"

Anonymous said...

What was the date springfield was founded 375 years ago?

Tom said...

July 15th.