Outgrowing the Town Hall

Produced by Andrew Caffrey

radio graphicWBUR Reporter Andrew Caffrey talks to Framingham Selectmen John Stefanini and Kathleen Pendergast about the changing face of local government and its responsibilities. To hear a sound clip click on the radio. (au format; 95 secs.; 1.4 mg)

Tip O'Neill used to say, "all politics is local." The '90s version of the late speaker's bromide would go like this: Washington can't solve your problems anymore; it's up to your community. This week WBUR is examining how one Massachusetts community is responding to the challenge. In today's installment, WBUR'S Andrew Caffrey reports on how the town of Framingham is trying to reorganize its own government to assess and resolve community problems.

On Walnut Street in Framingham, Building Commissioner Lewis Colten is leading an unlikely tour. Amid the tidy middle class homes in this neighborhood one stands out, its decrepit condition obvious behind the ungainly weeds that grow like trees through the front shrubs. The condemned property is more than an eyesore - it's a metaphor for how the town of Framingham could let something go so wrong, and how it's now trying to get its house in order. The deadbeat property owner here is the town of Framingham, which seized the house years ago for non-payment of taxes. Then, a ccording to Colten, a town worker moved into it, and essentially became a squatter.

The house stood abandoned until Building Commissioner Colten decided to embarrass deadbeat landlords into cleaning up the growing number of rundown properties in town. He began with his employer, the town of Framingham.

That's just not the way things used to be done in Framingham. An activist, sometimes confrontational approach to problem-solving now marks a town hall that used to operate in a casual manner. Framingham may be a borderline urban community, but its politics and governance were decidedly small-town friendly. Historian Steven Herring traces the tradition to Framingham's past as a series of villages spread out over a large area.

As if to mirror Framingham's geography, the town government lacked a center as well. Theoretically, town meeting serves as the political heart, pumping money and policy into government machinery. But there are so many other elected and appointed boards and commissions, each with its own level of autonomy and priorities, that the government sometimes seems lost in a maze of democracy: there's an elected board of selectman, parks commission, town moderator ... John Delprete is one of 5 elected cemetery co mmissioners.

For years this medusa-like government allowed Framingham to coast along in suburban stability; what's more, residents liked the familiar face of town hall, of officials they knew, touched and could talk with across the backyard fence. It was exactl y the kind of accessible, citizen-run government Newt Gingrich likes to mythologize as he talks about transferring political power from Washington to the community level. But according to selectman John Stefanini, Framingham may not be ready for the job House Speaker Gingrich has in mind.

Framingham has been wrestling with how to reshape its government to fit today's issues and problems. The debate has largely focused on whether to incorporate as a city, or to remain a town, and consolidate power among fewer executives. The goal is to st reamline the government, and improve accountability, so taxpayers know exactly who's responsible for what. But while the politically active have been arguing the city-town, mayor-manager format, the government already has undergone a makeover. A new, yo unger generation of professionals has been elected or appointed to municipal offices. Thirty-five-year-old George King knocked off a three-decade incumbent to become town clerk, and immediately set about modernizing the office.

The town clerk's new voice-mail system might be a little jarring for residents used to chatty clerks, but signs of progress abound in Framingham. The town is on a tear upgrading its physical plant after years of neglect, spending millions of dollars for new police, fire and school buildings. What's more, officials are constantly exploring job development projects in an effort to exert more control over Framingham's economic future. The government is clearly more activist, which is ironic since one of the tenets of Speaker Gingrich's political philosophy is that Americans are tired of too much government. Despite the obvious benefits, a more efficient government has not exactly electrified the electorate. Selectman Stefanini says voters have not been clamoring for a revolution.

In fact, Framingham suffers from the same voter apathy that afflicts the country; there's a heavy vote for national and statewide races, but when the ballot is limited to local issues involving taxpayer money, turnout is often light. That's not a good s ign if the town is expected to assume more responsibilities passed down from Washington. Framingham's growing minority community is even more politically distant. The influx of Latinos and changing demographics in town raise questions about how, and whe ther, Framingham's political system works; it also pricks uncomfortable racial and social issues. The town is host to numerous social service agencies, mostly on the south side, where low-income minorities live. Some fear Framingham is becoming a welfar e magnet. Selectwoman Kathleen Pendergrast feels the town has too many subsidized apartments, treatment programs and social services.

Pendergrast worries that most of the federal devolution of powers will go to the state government, which in her view is responsible for locating too many social support services in Framingham. She feels the state already is not compensating the town enou gh for the present services, and worries the problem could worsen in the future. Right now, officials like Pendergrast don't know if, under devolution, Framingham will be administering health services, regulating the environment or providing fair welfar e benefits. In the absence of such specifics, officials have been left to speculate that Washington will just cut federal funding, and expect communities to provide the same level of services. If there are, in fact, reductions in housing subsidies, wel fare assistance and health services to the poor, it could exacerbate tensions between the poor - minorities especially - who might want the town to offset the cuts, and taxpayers who feel Framingham is generous enough. But Latina activist Argentina Arias argues that it's in Framingham's interest to reach out and help low-income minorities.

An abandoned fire station on the south side is the setting for a small drama in Framingham's race relations. The firehouse is just around the corner from a large Latino neighborhood, and outside on this hot night, teenagers are lazily steering bicycles t hrough traffic, or hanging out in front of the convenience store across the street. Worried that too many of these kids have no outlet for their free time, Latino residents such as Jorge Organdonia are lobbying the town to convert the firehouse into a co mmunity center.

The firehouse symbolizes the challenges facing Framingham in the future. Some residents, especially from the more prosperous north side, question whether a new community center would duplicate youth activities offered elsewhere in town; others point out that Framingham did not provide culturally specific services to previous waves of immigrants who settled the town. But minorities see the community center as an important test of how the government will serve a growing portion of the town's population, albeit a politically disenfranchised one. Like other Framingham residents, Latinos have not exactly marched on town hall. But Jorge Organdonia says he's found municipal officials more attentive to the Latino community.

For now, the firehouse is on track to be converted into a community center that Framingham's Latino community can expect to use. It's another example of how younger officials are trying to make Framingham more responsive to today's issues, to modernize i n this technology-driven age. But amid the whirl of change are some anxious voices, among them long-time town official John Delprete. Although Delprete acknowledges the town needs to become more efficient, he worries that government is losing its human touch.

The intangibles that John Delprete worries about don't fit neatly on a government reorganization chart, nor are they easily legislated as part of a federal shift in power to the community. But they remain a part of Framingham. The town may have trouble exciting its electorate; its new computers may actually serve as a barrier. But this is still the form of government closest to American taxpayers, and no matter how Framingham evolves in the future, it will have to deal with the human face of politics.

For WBUR, I'm Andrew Caffrey reporting. Tomorrow: Framingham and loss of jobs.

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