Idella Hazard can tick through one memory after another of bizarre moments from weekly Worcester City Council meetings.
There have been times when speakers have cursed out counselors. And when the mayor has threatened to have people arrested for speaking too long during the public comment period. Last year, councilors debated international nuclear weapon disarmament.
“I don’t know what the heck that has to do with the city of Worcester,” said Hazard, who’s been regularly watching the city council meetings for more than four decades. “I’ll be honest, I’ve sat there a couple times laughing out loud and getting dirty looks from a couple of the councilors and the mayor.”
She’s far from alone. Local journalist Bill Shaner calls himself the “Jane Goodall of the Worcester City Council” and organizes weekly council watch parties.
“I kind of like to default to watching it like a reality show,” Shaner said. “Just sort of see the humor in all of it.”
Traditionally, council meetings like Worcester’s are a way elected officials in Massachusetts cities and towns oversee local operations and pass new policies and laws. But Worcester’s meetings are unique because they can be an unpredictable spectacle.
They often run for at least three hours and can involve long discussions about trash and rats, passive-aggressive barbs between councilors, and votes on issues as minute as whether to place a single accessible parking spot in front of an apartment complex.
“It could become a mess, a chaotic mess at any turn,” Councilor Thu Nguyen said. “There’s meetings where I’m like, ‘Oh this is going to be a 45-minute meeting.’ And the next thing you know, it’s three hours.”
The cast and characters of the “reality show” include all 10 councilors, the mayor, city manager and city clerk, along with guest stars from the public. Although the drama during the meetings sometimes involves more significant issues like housing or policing, it more often arises from drawn-out discussions of minute problems that impact small groups of people.
Take the story of the Indian Lake watercraft ban. People with homes along the lake asked councilors to ban motorized boats and personal vessels, like Jet Skis, in 2021. And they did. When the ban came back up for renewal a year later, a city council subcommittee recommended councilors continue it. Instead, councilors delayed a vote on the issue using a procedural maneuver known as a hold. They then engaged in an hours-long debate over two meetings on the ban, which eventually passed 9-1.
“People hold a lot of things and it just prolongs things,” Councilor Sean Rose said. “That can be frustrating.”
Another common practice that takes up time? Shaner and Hazard said councilors constantly repeat each other during debates — even if they agree on the issue.
“There's no way of knowing which item is going to be one of the items where everyone has to speak on it,” Shaner said. “There's a tendency for Worcester City Council to see themselves as deserving of the limelight that the position affords — that the point of the job is speech time.”
While the time spent on random, less significant issues can be a form of theater for residents watching, Nguyen and Rose said the meetings take a toll. Nguyen, a first-term councilor in their second year, has suffered from anxiety as a result of the unpredictability of meetings each week. The councilor usually tries to manage through the meetings with coffee, chocolate or gummy bears.
“It gets tiring,” Nguyen said. “It’s really hard to focus. Sometimes I just start doodling.”
Rose added when he first joined City Council about six years ago, he was so excited for the meetings that he ran into City Hall for them. Now, it’s more like a slow “Army crawl,” he said.
A lack of City Council staff
Worcester councilors and officials attribute the length and unpredictability of the meetings in part to Worcester’s form of government. Unlike Boston and dozens of other cities where a mayor is in charge of all operations, a city manager is the chief executive in Worcester. City councilors and the mayor hire and oversee the manager.
However, Rose said because council positions are part-time and councilors share just one full-time staff member, they have little time and assistance to supervise the city manager on a day-to-day basis. As a result, city council meetings are a main opportunity to seek information from the manager on mundane issues like pothole repairs and snowplowing.
For comparison, city councilors in Cambridge and Springfield are also part-time positions, but both councils have more people working for them. The staff help the councils keep in regular touch with city leaders about municipal operations, letting councilors focus more on bigger policy issues during meetings.
“[Meetings are] always extremely efficient,” Springfield City Clerk Gladys Oyola-Lopez said. “There’s always real work that’s getting done. … For [Worcester’s] council to not have a dedicated staff, that would be a huge problem.”
Worcester City Clerk Niko Vangjeli has looked into staffing in other municipalities at the City Council's request as a step toward possibly hiring additional staff. However, the council has yet to take action on the information.
Some Worcester city officials and watchdogs say there are benefits to councilors meeting so often and discussing such a wide range of issues. David Rushford, who spent 37 years as Worcester’s city clerk before retiring, said the meetings help make the city’s government process more transparent.
Still, he added that modifications other than hiring more staff may be necessary to help City Council meetings run smoother. He suggested councilors go along with subcommittee votes more regularly. Each committee consists of a different group of councilors. Too often, Rushford said, the council holds long debates on issues that a committee has already discussed and made a recommendation on — like the Indian Lake watercraft band.
“The rules are [that subcommittee] is where the work is done,” Rushford said. “If the councilors are routinely taking up items in council that were already handled in committee, then they're making life miserable for themselves.”
Idella Hazard, the longtime City Council watchdog, would appreciate more efficient council meetings. She values City Council as an essential party of democracy, and she walks 15 minutes from home to City Hall every Tuesday to send a message to councilors that the public is watching them. But sometimes she fantasizes about doing something else on a Tuesday night.
“I would go to the library and do some arts and crafts there,” she said, adding that attending meetings every week is “exhausting.”