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Globe Editorial

With carrots and sticks, state can improve cities’ governance

Lawrence mayor William Lantigua inherited an estimated $20 million deficit when he was elected last year. Lawrence mayor William Lantigua inherited an estimated $20 million deficit when he was elected last year. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
December 19, 2010

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Fourth in a series of gateway-city editorials on Sundays

TWO MAJOR strands of Lawrence’s history are visible in the neighborhood right around City Hall: The many stores and cafes that cater to Latino customers underscore the city’s long-standing status as the “Immigrant City,’’ while streets named for Boston industrialists — Appleton, Jackson, Lawrence — speak to its origins as a planned industrial community. These dueling identities led to some tumult even in the city’s heyday; the Lawrence History Center records a clash between Irish immigrants and native-born residents in 1854, just seven years after the city was incorporated. Tensions between immigrant factory workers and the mill barons exploded in 1912, when 30,000 people went on strike.

In the century since, the city’s economic base eroded, while successive waves of immigrants have brought greater diversity but also added to the unruliness of the city’s politics. It’s a challenging combination, especially because an ebbing economic tide leaves other obstacles to running a city well: As manufacturers depart, so do many middle-class residents and the businesses that served them. As the pie shrinks, entrenched interest groups quarrel over who gets what. And problems proliferate; in the past two decades, Lawrence has endured everything from shockingly high unemployment to an epidemic of arson.

More than most of the other gateway cities — the once-prosperous mill and port cities that dot Massachusetts — Lawrence has struggled to manage its own affairs. Its case underscores why state government, with its deeper pockets and greater powers, needs to play a broader, more constructive role in steering all of the two dozen gateway cities toward more open and responsive government. Just as Massachusetts created an elaborate system of incentives and requirements to press school districts to better themselves, the state must seek a new compact with the gateway cities — one that rewards them financially for better management and budget reforms.

Right now, state officials rarely enmesh themselves in a struggling city’s financial affairs until it’s in deep trouble, and then they improvise a solution on the fly. That’s how Chelsea ended up in receivership in 1991, and how the Legislature came to put Springfield under a tough financial control board in 2004. And that was the situation last year when Lawrence’s newly elected mayor, William Lantigua, went to Beacon Hill for help after inheriting a budget deficit that was estimated at $20 million.

The debate was ugly. While Governor Patrick’s administration wanted to leave the new mayor some room to maneuver, critics of a so-called “Lawrence bailout’’ pressed for a financial control board. Lantigua, a state representative who had made history as the first Latino to be elected as a mayor in Massachusetts, badly undermined his city’s cause by initially refusing to give up his legislative seat. In the end, he gave in, because his fellow lawmakers demanded it. His city got permission to borrow up to $35 million to keep itself operating and pay a yawning budget deficit, in exchange for submitting to review by a state financial overseer.

It never should have reached that point. What Massachusetts needs is a systematic way to spot troubled communities and step in earlier. The finances of local governments are already subject to review by the state auditor, and cities can already request financial-management reviews from the Department of Revenue. But these agencies should dig into local finances far sooner — such as when a city’s cash reserves are plunging, or rating agencies view its debt as a dicey investment.

A tense standoff this summer between Lawrence and its firefighters over proposed contract concessions illustrated the difficulty of bringing costs under control. But the lure of more state money can make it easier for cities and towns to enact reform. The Pioneer Institute, a think tank that played a leading role in education reform, has proposed a set of benchmarks for public safety, education, economic development, and financial management in the state’s mid-sized cities. A city’s local-aid allocations could rise or fall by up to 3 percent, depending upon how it performs. While a single, one-size-fits-all formula is too restrictive for the varied needs of the gateway cities, linking greater local aid to a clear set of benchmarks is essential.

A new compact with the gateway cities should also press them to contemplate alternative forms of government. Cities with deeply contentious politics may fare better by limiting the powers of their mayors, and hiring a professional manager instead; the chief executive post then becomes a job to be performed well, not a trophy to be captured by one of many competing factions, and the temperature of city politics decreases accordingly. The council-manager model has worked well for Lowell, whose arts community and plethora of loft condominiums mark it as among the most successful gateway cities. Chelsea adopted a similar system in the 1990s after two former mayors were convicted on obstruction-of-justice charges, a third was jailed for lying to a grand jury, and a fourth admitted to taking payoffs — a powerful argument that another arrangement, maybe any other arrangement, would work better.

Regardless, the fate of a city can’t be left to its elected leaders alone. Just as vital are loud voices from the private sector and civic groups, which provide accountability for government in ways that individual citizens cannot. While this kind of leadership has been slow to emerge in many of the gateway cities, the goals in any new compact between the state and the gateway cities could provide a rallying point for healthy local activism.

When asked this fall what state government could do to be most helpful in Lawrence, Lantigua replied, “I don’t want anything from the state government.’’ Yet elected officials sometimes bring a skepticism about outside interference that average citizens don’t share. And Lawrence, like Springfield and Chelsea, offers a cautionary tale of what happens when the state lets its most troubled communities languish for years on end.