On May 23rd, the Public Works Commission, barring any last minute changes, had its final meeting. There were only three things on the agenda: public comment, approval of the minutes, and “Discussion with Mayor Narkewicz regarding the Public Works Commission.” I don’t know what he said to them, since the minutes aren’t ready yet and the Mayor is out of his office today. He probably thanked them for their service.
Since time immemorial the Commission has been meeting on the second and fourth Wednesdays to review DPW’s budget, set water and sewer rates, and set the department’s budget. It was also a chance for the general public to attend and be listened to. A place to complain about potholes. Attending those meetings as a new councilor was no fun, since they lived to make you crawl and beg. They had the power to veto or ignore all kinds of routine things that your constituents wanted, like stop signs and stop lights and sidewalk repairs. I remember that the ceremonial dish that was passed around were butterscotch candies. It was an “old boy” network, and I think that women over the years had a rough time clawing their way onto the board and once on the board, getting a word in.
I ran across the seemingly archaic term in our charter: “The committees serves at the pleasure of the Mayor.” A phrase that sounds as if we still are stranded in the eighteenth century. And maybe we are. Evidently the Mayor didn’t derive much pleasure from the Public Works Commission since once the city charter was changed and the commission became advisory in nature, it met less often. The powers it had were transferred to Department personnel, the Mayor and the City Council. A new committee of the City Council was created to oversee public works and Utilities.. It is composed of Bill Dwight, Dennis Bidwell, David Murphy, and whoever is elected to fill the vacancy of city councilor-at-large. The composition of this committee bothers me. Long time city insiders, no expertise at all in engineering matters, two councilors who are members of the Chamber of Commerce. People who are stretched thin already, so they will rubberstamp what staff recommend.
And then there is how this was done. An administrative order delivered to the committee being replaced, no public hearing. No public announcement to date that I knew of. Ryan O’Donnell reached out on the campaign trail thinks that a public hearing on this administrative order is required by the charter. Bob Reckman, who used to be on the Commission, said that he understood why the Mayor needed to make this change, but wonders who is going to be there to advocate for the department the way commission members did, and former city engineer Jim Laurila did. Terry Culhane, former chair, did a great job spearheading the storm-water effort. This reorganization will mean that one vital part of the mission of the DPW is missing. We’re losing quite a few talented people here, people who have the expertise to advocate for the many unglamorous parts of DPW’s mission like preventative maintenance. Fixing existing equipment and infrastructure before it breaks down. Unsexy stuff historically underfunded. Keeping up our parks and cemeteries, maintaining our infrastructure including storm water and waste-water. So lets thank the people dismissed.