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Editorial: No Passing Grade on Democracy & Citizen Engagement…

Springfield School Committee with Superintendent Daniel Warwick in June. (via Focus Springfield)

Springfield School Committee with Superintendent Daniel Warwick in June. (via Focus Springfield)

Springfield has long suffered from a staggering small “d” democratic deficit. Turnout is hopelessly low, especially so in municipal elections. Many things, socioeconomics to name one, are responsible, but one way out is better engaging the public. The process to replace Calvin McFadden, who resigned from an at-large seat on the Springfield School Committee on September 30, did not do so.

Four days after McFadden’s resignation took effect, the Committee had unanimously chosen Norman Roldan at a special meeting.

Roldan is a perfectly respectable choice. This blog does not challenge his credentials or commitment, but our city badly needs citizen engagement, which a public solicitation for candidates to replace McFadden could have encouraged.

Former School Committee Member Dr. Calvin McFadden (via Springfield Public Schools)

A minister and college administrator, McFadden sought and won an at-large seat in 2013 elections, edging out veteran member Antonette Pepe. Normally, runners-up fill vacant at-large seats on the School Committee and City Council under the city charter, but Pepe died suddenly last year.

That kicked the decision to the School Committee’s remaining six members, Mayor Domenic Sarno, at-large member Denise Hurst and the four district members.

Roldan had previously served on the School Committee, joining during the city’s first ward-based municipal elections in half a century. He won the seat representing wards 1 and 3 unopposed, but Rosa Perez defeated him four years later in 2013.

Holyoke recently filled a vacancy on its Council, but took a different path. Its charter grants councilors—or the Council and the School Committee where the latter’s empty slots are concerned—the power to fill vacancies.

Diosdado Lopez's selection in Holyoke was fraught with politics. But the process engaged residents. (via Facebook/non-campaign)

Diosdado Lopez’s selection in Holyoke was fraught with politics. But the process engaged residents. (via Facebook/non-campaign)

Deep political divisions in the Paper City led councilors to sidestep the highest-placing runner-up from 2015, Mimi Panitch, and choose former councilor Diosdado Lopez. Yet, the body publicly solicited resumes and held an audition for candidates during a regular meeting. Springfield did not, it seems.

Aside from Pepe, Roldan is the only other former committee member elected under the body’s ward representation structure. In many ways he was an obvious choice. His recent service puts him closer to the issues before the Committee. A prominent figure in the North End and Latino communities—he is president of the New North Citizens Council—his selection also maintains the Committee’s diversity.

However, in a city of 150,000 people, troubled schools, voter and resident apathy, and other problems, a more thorough search could have been an opportunity. Yes, elections to the Committee are only 13 months away, but broadening participation could have helped break down notions that city government is inaccessible to residents.

There is an irony that had such a search happened, Roldan may have been the best candidate anyway. However, at least residents would have been brought into the process.

Nightfall on Springfield Civic Virute? (WMassP&I)

Nightfall on Springfield’s Civic Virute? (WMassP&I)

Springfield’s democracy is sick. Lame turnout in last year’s mayor election is only the latest example. Of the city’s 150,000 residents, roughly 2/3 are eligible to vote, but only about 50,000 will vote in this year’s presidential election. Slightly more appeared in 2012, but only amid the massive turnout effort put forward to elect Senator Elizabeth Warren.

This problem is not new either, complicating any diagnosis of the cause. In the 1980s when the city’s populace was not as poor, turnout was about as bad. While improving the lives of our city’s residents—and better informing them as this blog tries to do—could boost turnout, other steps are warranted. Springfield residents need to feel ownership of their city.

It is not enough to put the onus on the people to engage City Hall. Officials must engage the people. They can do that by reaching out into the neighborhoods and soliciting interest to serve on city boards. Appointing authorities like the mayor cannot sit around and wait for people to send letters of interest.

We express no criticism of Roldan as a School Committee member. We trust he will serve honorably and well. Our concerns go beyond that. This vacancy on the School Committee could have been a chance to breathe some life into Springfield’s flagging civic virtue. Instead it became more proof of our city’s gasping democracy.