Fixing Ferguson (and beyond)

I can’t stop looking at Ferguson through the lens of my own experience in local government.

I understand how things work in my beloved Town of Arlington, a 5.2 square mile New England town with a population of about 43,000. Ferguson is more suburban than Arlington, in that it has 21,000 people living in 6.2 square miles. (Our neighboring town of WInchester, MA also has 21,000 people living in 6.2 square miles.)

Taking a spin through Ferguson on Google Maps Street View, I see lots of well kept single family homes with more lawn than almost any neighborhood in Arlington. Having done lots of political door knocking in Arlington, I see Ferguson as a flat, pleasant place for a good old fashioned political canvas.

Yes, I am looking at this as a political problem. I know of no other way to view the whole situation. How can a police department think it’s okay to hunt down and shoot unarmed jaywalkers? Who is holding the police department accountable for their actions?

The line of accountability is through the political process. The police chief needs to answer to the mayor and city council, and these elected officials are accountable to the voters.

The crisis we are witnessing began with the murder of Michael Brown, but was fueled by the lack of an appropriate response from the police chief and the elected officials of the City of Ferguson.

A sick police culture
News reports describe the area surrounding Ferguson as a patchwork of small municipalities where African Americans complain of being targeted by the local police. The system is designed to produce this result.

The New York Times reports that the City of Ferguson receives a quarter of its revenue from court fees. This creates an incentive for the mayor and council to expect significant revenue from traffic fines, putting pressure on the police to generate revenue instead of acting in the best interests of the public it is sworn to protect.

Ferguson is not alone in this regard, as the Times reports that some surrounding cities generate half of their revenue from court fees.

Allowing a municipality to keep and budget traffic fines is nothing more than an invitation for trouble. Consider the notorious little city of Hampton, Florida, where they incorporated a 1260 foot stretch of US 301 for the purpose of turning it into a cash cow speed trap.  In Hampton, it was easy for the police to point their speed guns at out-of-towners. They had no remorse for victimizing “those people” in order to generate barrels of cash for a corrupt little city.

In St. Louis County, “those people” who are the targets for the traffic fine revenue scheme are mostly guilty of Driving While Black. White cops, black motorists, and a white political structure that is happy with the cash flow being generated by strict, racially motivated traffic enforcement. The ground rules poison the political culture, poison the community, and leads to a culture where a police officer thinks its acceptable to fire six shots into a jaywalker who happens to be one of “those people.”

In Massachusetts, cities and towns are not allowed to keep revenue from moving violations. Massachusetts cities and towns cannot balance their budgets and raise revenue through strict traffic enforcement. If Missouri is serious about abolishing the toxic culture that produced this crisis, they will act immediately to eliminate traffic fines as a municipal revenue source.

A political failure
My television has been filled with a stream of really good folks, who reside in Ferguson, who are appalled by the actions of the police, the response by the police chief, and the condoning silence of the mayor and city council. Three layers of failed accountability.

St. Louis County reports that the last election (April 2, 2013) in the City of Ferguson attracted 1,614 out of 13,745 registered voters, an 11.74% turnout. I am not writing this to scold the folks who didn’t vote in the city election (most cities and towns don’t do much better). I am merely pointing out how easy it is for the community to exert greater accountability over this whole mess.

Ferguson elects city council members by ward, and in 2013 the winning candidate in Ward 1 got just 518 votes. The winner in Ward 2 got 497 votes. The Ward 3 candidate ran uncontested and won with 162 votes. This is not a sign of a huge political establishment that has a stranglehold on the city. This is a small city where a half dozen folks willing to put their names on the ballot, a few dozen dedicated volunteers, and about 1800 new voters can make all the difference in the world.

Local elections matter. Local elections define the quality of local services, including police and public schools. I am sure the good folks of Ferguson have come to a very real understanding, and they know what to do when the next election rolls around. I guarantee the days of sleepy, low turnout elections in Ferguson are long gone.

Ferguson will get this right.

What about the rest of us?

Please vote for Martha Coakley, Tuesday, September 9

Paul with Martha Coakley

The September 9 Democratic primary offers the choice of three outstanding candidates for governor. I genuinely like all three candidates. I am impressed by the work of Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman as constitutional officers, and Don Berwick’s passion for progressive politics tugs on my heartstrings. However, as much as I like all three candidates, I find it obvious that Martha Coakley needs to be our nominee and needs to be elected governor in November.

Those who know me also know of my passion for K-12 education and local governance. The governor has extraordinary influence over cities and towns, particularly with the appointment powers for a powerful state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Much of the governor’s work is in the weeds of regulations and funding formulas, but this work makes a big deal of difference in our ability to deliver quality services at the local level.

Martha Coakley will be a thoughtful and effective partner for local governments and school districts.

In my conversations with Martha Coakley, I find that she speaks with clarity and specificity on issues of concern, particularly those raised by educators and municipal officials. The reason is obvious. I first met Martha Coakley before she was elected Middlesex D.A., when she lived on Rawson Road. I remember when she visited Town Meeting as she prepared to run for District Attorney, engaging in thoughtful conversations about the office with everyone she met. Ever since she won her first election, she impressed me with her willingness to listen to folks at the local level, to ask questions, to engage in partnerships. She has earned a reputation as an outstanding leader and manager.

Martha Coakley has never been the kind of top down official who would use the power of her office to force thoughtless and arbitrary mandates onto cities and towns. In sharp contrast, Charlie Baker has a longstanding record of disdain for K-12 school districts, and a track record of supporting widespread privatization of local services. His work as a founder of the Pioneer Institute, and his record as a member of the Board of Elementary & Secondary Education, give us significant warning that Charlie Baker would bring us right back to the Pioneer playbook that did so much damage to Arlington during the Romney years.

Charlie Baker is a huge risk to progressive, pragmatic, and sound local governance. I want to elect the candidate who is best able to counter Charlie Baker’s privatization agenda. I know that Martha Coakley is best able to present and support sound, pragmatic arguments that will resonate with Massachusetts voters. Martha Coakley best expresses my values, and is our best hope for taking our commonwealth in a pragmatically progressive direction that supports excellence at the local level.

Please join with me in supporting Martha Coakley for governor in the Democratic primary, Tuesday, September 9.

How to get away with murder

Viola Davis

Note: Since this was posted, The Boston Globe is reporting that the parent company of Hannaford is bidding for Market Basket. Are they trying to buy themselves into the boycott?

If corporations are people, perhaps Professor Annalise Keating has been consulting with some miscreant in the assault on Market Basket. The good professor, played by Viola Davis, is the lead character in the new TV series, How to Get Away with Murder.

We are watching the crime right before our eyes. The stores are on life support. No produce. No customers, except for the few who venture in to get a box of corn flakes or a can of tuna.

I am sure that Professor Keating could talk about motive and opportunity, which all seem to point to Arthur S. and his family’s 51% share of the corporate votes. Plenty of opportunity, and the intra-family animosity would seem to provide significant motive for a crime of this nature.

The evidence also suggests that Arthur S. and his side of the family wants to sell the chain, and they don’t want Artie T. to be the successful buyer.

Market Basket may have been an attractive takeover target a couple of weeks ago, but that’s not the case when customers are entrenched in a boycott unless Artie T. prevails in the current dispute. Not very attractive if Piggly Wiggly wants to expand into New England, because your entire local operation would be a collection of stores that nobody will want to visit.

The customer abandonment of Market Basket brings joy to the owners of Hannaford’s, Stop & Shop, and Shaws. They are probably praying for this dispute to linger into eternity. Might even be worth a billion or two to buy the chain and kill it off. A couple of weeks ago, this may have been a good strategy for one of the competitors, but every day customers are becoming more stubborn supporters of Artie T and the Market Basket workers.  A complicated buyout might have flown under the radar, but if an active competitor buys Market Basket, that competitor would also become a target of the boycott. Thus, we have this interesting triangle in which:

  • Hannaford would be thrilled to see Stop & Shop or Shaws publicly buying Market Basket, with the boycott expanding to their stores.
  • Stop & Shop would be thrilled to see Hannaford or Shaws publicly buying Market Basket, with the boycott expanding to their stores.
  • Shaws would be thrilled to see Stop & Shop or Hannaford publicly buying Market Basket, with the boycott expanding to their stores.

If a mysterious buyer appears and wins Market Basket, one would need to wonder who is behind a Blissful Supermarket Trust, why they would want to buy Market Basket, and why a majority of the board would rather put it in the hands of this outside party instead of a group headed by Arthur T.

Clearly, with the customer boycott in full force and former Radio Shack CEO Jim Gooch at the helm, Market Basket’s death under new ownership could be quicker than an Oklahoma execution. Why would an outside bidder come in to kill Market Basket, and why would the Board of Directors push the chain into a rapid and painful death? We will probably need Professor Annalise Keating to supervise the autopsy and unravel all the details of the crime. Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to that.