The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ideology of a Pothole

Back in the early 1990's I attended some sort of public meeting devoted to changing the charter of Springfield in a number of ways, but primarily to allow for ward representation. Ward representation did indeed come to Springfield many years later, but not as the result of anything that happened at the dull affair I'm referring to. In fact the only reason that I recall that meeting at all is because of an interesting exchange that took place between the then Mayor Robert T. Markel and a citizen (Fred Whitney?) who wanted a change in the charter to make the city's non-partisan elections reflect the political party the candidates belong to.

In response to that suggestion, Markel said that he felt it would be an unnecessary distraction to introduce party politics into municipal affairs, because he thought that there was no real philosophy of government behind most local issues. "There is no ideology to fixing potholes." Markel said.

I believe that the Mayor was wrong on several points. First, it is silly to say that because the city elections are officially non-partisan, that party affiliation doesn't matter. If you doubt that, ask anyone who ever tried to run for office or get a government job in Springfield who wasn't a part of Springfield's Democrat Party machine.

But even in the specific context of what Markel referred to - the fixing of potholes in the streets - there are profound philosophical questions that must be answered before one can cast the first shovel of pitch into the hole. For example, whose responsibility is it to fix holes in the street? The public or the people who live on the street? Who should pay for it? Taxpayers in general or the people who drive on the road? Who should do the repair work? City workers or a private firm hired to fix it? There is even a moral dimension: Where does the city get the material to fix the pothole? From the lowest bidder or from a firm with political connections? Who will be hired to fix the pothole - the most qualified person or a politician's unemployable brother-in-law? All these questions and more, and how you answer them, are directly related to what political ideology you believe in.

So actually the reverse of what Markel suggested is true. Not only is there an ideological dimension to even the smallest matters of government, but the smaller the matter, the more clear the ideological issues are and therefore the more passionate the feelings of the electorate. It can be easy to get lost in the complexities of a big tax bill being debated in Washington D.C. but everybody knows what the issues are when a pothole is being repaired (or failing to be repaired) and the public reaction is likely to be much more fierce.

Take for example the trash fee controversy in Springfield. It is hardly an issue of enormous importance in the range of Springfield's problems, but it has none the less been the subject of a long, bitter debate. The trash fee dates back to when Springfield was placed under a State Control Board. The Board's job was to sort out Springfield's finances after several decades of grossly incompetent management by a corrupt Democrat Party machine that had driven the city to the brink of bankruptcy. In trying to raise some desperately needed cash, the Control Board decided to temporarily charge an extra fee to residents to get their trash picked up.

The public was righteously pissed-off. For one thing, picking up the trash had always been just another public service included with the price of your property taxes. To suddenly treat it like a special service requiring a special fee felt to most citizens like an obvious rip-off. But more importantly, it was just plain wrong, after all the money that had been stolen by Springfield's crooks, to then turn to the long-suffering taxpayers and demand that they cough up the cash to cover the resulting shortfall. Whatever Springfield's problems, absolutely none of them were in any way caused because the residents of Springfield were under-taxed. On the contrary, the struggling remnants of the city's business community were (and still are) the most highly taxed of any of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts. To many observers, the trash fee seemed like a case of punishing the victims.

So it was no surprise that the public debate has been very heated over the years over the trash fee, in many ways more passionate and more personal than any other issue in Springfield. The only silver lining was that the trash fee was, at least technically, supposed to be temporary and due to expire in June of next year. Of course no one believed that it would actually be temporary. Rainbows, summer days and orgasms may be temporary, but never taxes.

Therefore it is no less than miraculous that the Springfield City Council (or Clowncil, as it is generally called) actually voted the other night to let the trash fee die as scheduled in the spring. If the vote sticks (nothing is necessarily permanent in the Alice in Blunderland world of Springfield politics) then the ideology of good government will finally have triumphed, at least on this one issue, over the ideology of insiders playing the public for a sucker any way they can. Then perhaps at last the infamous trash fee can be permanently dismissed as just another sordid chapter in the perpetual mismanagement of Springfield.

Saulmon/Murray graphic

At UMass I noticed this fading fragment of a political sticker on a lamppost. I'll be damned if that isn't a leftover from the Vietnam War era!

There's Waldo!

Unite? Behind what?

Damon in Northampton.

Sasquatch in Amherst


Anonymous said...

Springfield is where nothing can be done right until it is done wrong a hundred times!

Larry said...

"ALL politics is local." - Tip O'Neil.

Anonymous said...

You know, I have to disagree on a couple of points. The trash fee was never charged to businesses because it only affected residential trash pickup. Second it served to provide equity among taxpayers because lots of slumlords and irresponsible owners let their propreties rot and get away with paying almost nothing in property taxes. That same council also lowered the business tax this week.

Second, while I think we can agree cuts to the tune of 3.7 million, if the state decides to put the hammer down on local aide (which we know they will), finding more cuts may then prove disastrous. Remember most of aid (and the budget) is for schools and the council can't touch that, but more money will likely come out of the other side.

Finally, the issue with a partisan system is one where the primary, where few peopel vote becomes the more important election. You see it at work in Philly, which makes Springfield look like the perfection of Athenian Democracy. Oh, and Bruce Stebbins, a Republican, I hear works at City Hall now.

Tom said...

Thanks, Larry, that quote defines in four words what I was trying to say in four paragraphs!

Anon, almost in spite of itself, Springfield is sorta stumbling in the right direction. May it continue to do so.