A couple of days ago, I got a letter from city activist Karen Powell (co-founder of the Citizens Action Network, or CANE) that she was hoping to submit as a letter to the editor.
Unfortunately, the letter came just a bit too late for publication in this week's Advocate (the last one to come out before the Nov. 3 election), because Powell was writing about an important electoral issue that's gotten very little public attention: ballot Question 1, which asks voters whether the Springfield mayor's term should be extended from its current two years to four years. If passed, the change would go in effect beginning with the 2011 election.
The push for the change began with Springfield's business community-namely, the local Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber had pushed to get the ballot question included in a bill, passed by the state Legislature in January, that extended the city's repayment schedule on the $52 million state bailout loan it received back in 2004. The idea had sprung for a Governance Study Committee, put together a couple of years by the Chamber to discuss ways to ensure stability in city government after the exit of the state-imposed Finance Control Board, which took control of city finances in 2004 and left the city this past summer. The committee had also pushed for the creation of a chief administrative and financial officer for the city.
In an Advocate article last spring about the ballot question, Springfield Chamber President Victor Woolridge said, "Having a chief executive of a city the size of Springfield being in office only two years simply was not effective. It was counterintuitive and counterproductive in terms of the long-term planning and management of the city."
A longer mayoral term would allow future mayors to make long-term plans and execute long-term projects "without having to look over their shoulders" at potential challengers, Woolridge added.
"I think a four-year term would be a logical choice, to allow for the natural decision-making process to take place, where you're making decisions for what's best for the city, and not what's best for you politically," City Councilor Tim Rooke, who worked with the Chamber committee, said at the time. "It would insulate the mayor, whoever he or she would be. Knowing you're there for four years, you have plenty of time to implement your plan for the city."
Under the current, two-year system, Rooke noted, the mayor is constantly aware that another election is just around the corner. "You do your work for the first year, and the second year you're busy campaigning, trying to get elected. … And every decision you make you think, 'I hope I didn't piss off this guy or that guy,'" he said. "That is always in the back of any mayor's mind. I think it would be difficult to disagree with the logic that that prevents you from always making the best decision. Because a lot of elected officials are self-serving-they want to get re-elected, not move [the city] forward…."
While there had been some unease expressed about the ballot question's origin-specifically, the fact that it came from the business community, and not regular citizens-there's apparently been no organized opposition to the proposed change. Meanwhile, the "Yes on One for Springfield" committee shows a lengthy list of supporters on its website, including a good many local businesses and Chamber members, representatives from neighborhood and community groups, and a couple of elected officials, and would-be elected officials (City Councilor Bruce Stebbins, who's not running for re-election, and Keith Wright, a city teacher and candidate for the Ward 6 Council seat).
In her letter, Powell writes that a four-year would allow a mayor "more time spent focusing on projects we need to improve local services and create local jobs-and less time spent on political campaigns. This will be an important and positive step forward for Springfield. …
"This question does not change the current powers of the mayor or any other aspect of the mayor's job, and it does not change the power of the voters to remove a mayor who is not doing a good job for the city," Powell added. "It simply updates the length of the term that future mayors will serve, beginning with the regular city election of 2011."
Many other Massachusetts cities already have four-year mayoral terms, Powell noted. (Over the past decade, Lynn, Malden, Salem and Revere all switched from two-year to four-year terms. The mayors of Boston, Brockton, Lawrence, Melrose, Newton, Waltham and Weymouth also serve four-year terms, according to the Mass. Municipal Association and the state Elections Division. Greenfield's mayor is the only one in the commonwealth to serve a three-year term.)
The pro-Question 1 committee's website www.YESon1forSpringfield.com.