Saturday, January 01, 2011

Turner/Darling and the Daddy Ploy

Home rule...doesn't that sound empowering? Don't count on it, boys and girls.

Massachusetts continues to stifle and subjugate cities and towns with this archaic, paternalistic set of laws and procedures. Just now, ousted Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner is making a last effort to hide behind this illogical and demeaning atavism.

Let's call it as it is. The legislature has kept the power to run any municipality as it sees fit. Cities and towns can't raise their own money or make any single fundamental change to their governance without the General Court's approval. Home rule means the GC rules.

If Boston or any town wants any change to the way it works, it must plead with the legislature. If the lawmakers feel like it, they will set up an ad hoc comission to look at the municipality's whole charter. Then if the comission approves the entreaty, it may allow the change.

Any change? Go through it all again!

This odious process arose again in the Council's special meeting to consider Turner's status after he was convicted a few months ago of four felonies related to accepting a piddling $1,000 bribe two years ago. Then his friend Councilor Charles Yancey showed his hand in setting up the current drama. He opined that if the body expelled Turner for his convictions, there'd be a lawsuit.

He, Turner and Turner's pro bono lawyer, Chester Darling, hold that the Council has no power to toss one of its own. Instead, they claim that it would have to go to Big Daddy GC, go through the home rule process and get permission. The outline of the history of the expulsion is in the suit that Darling filed here.

In contrast and to me far more logical and legal are the positions of the city's corporation counsel, William Sinnot, and then body president, Michael Ross. Read the material Ross distributed before the special meeting to see the justification for acting like adults. The short version is that when the feds indicted Turner, the Council realized they had no procedure in place for such cases. They researched and discussed this at length and as a body. They turned to their existing powers for the Council to decide who could be a member. The body voted unanimously (including Turner) to make this process a Council rule for the current year. Then when Turner was convicted on all four felonies, they followed the procedure by holding the mandated hearing and voting over two thirds to oust Turner.

Many note that when Turner gets his sentencing hearing on January 25th in federal court, he is certain to receive prison time. A single day in prison triggers a state law that removes elected officials in such circumstances.

Yet as certain as that is to happen, it does not deal with this dreadful home-rule mess. The fact is that city and town governments should not be treated like minor children by the legislature. Sure, they have to be limited in making regulations or other acts that would conflict with state statutes or commit the state financially, but those are already covered by other limits and case law.

It is singularly offensive that Yancey, Turner and Darling would take this approach. Now that they have, the best outcome would be for the hearing official, Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf of the First District of the U.S. Court to let them have it. It will not be adequate for him to decide simply that the procedures the Council follows were proper. The decision should also find that the city governing body does not have to return to the legislature for any application of procedures already in place under the existing charter.

Even if that happens, the home-rule skunk remains in the basement. General Law 43B needs serious updating. The people who run municipalities should not be treated like ill behaved kindergartners. Instead, Massachusetts needs to make clear its guidelines and the legislators should spend their time doing something useful instead of playing micromanaging parent.

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