How the Worcester City Manager Controls City Council

This campaign for a commission to review the Worcester City Charter, and the content on this page, is not about any individual. The issues described below are not the fault of any current or former city official.

Also, this page does not describe, accuse, or insinuate any ethical failure, wrongdoing, or anything of the sort to any person. 

This page describes how part of Worcester’s system of government functions, and why it is problematic.

Controlling Access to Data

Reports and Reports and Reports, Oh My

Anyone who has watched a Worcester City Council meeting has likely seen councilors request report after report from the administration. 

At the most recent city council meeting at the time of writing, May 14, 2024, city councilors requested 11 reports. At its previous meeting, on May 7, there were 20 reports requested. 

As Worcester City Councilors are part time and have little support staff, the council has no ability to gather its own data. That leads to so many reports requested by councilors from the administration, they couldn’t possibly fulfill them all. It is common that requested reports never come back at all.

Without information, the council can’t make informed policy decisions.

This reliance by council on the administration enables the city manager to shape council’s agenda. Naturally, the administration is going to prioritize its own agenda when prioritizing the reports it provides. We should want people in government to have ideas and fight for them. We mitigate against the harm too much ambition can have through co-equal branches of government and a legislature with strong oversight powers. 

A review of the two most recent meetings available of Boston City Council, on May 8 and May 15, show no request for reports from its councilors

May 7 & 14, 2024
Worcester City Council
Reports Requested
May 8 & 15, 2024
Boston City Council
Reports Requested
Boston City Councilors have Power to Aquire Information
Worcester City Councilors Request Information

Comparing Worcester and Boston

Boston is much larger than Worcester, with a much larger budget. However, when you compare the two cities as a percentage difference in council resources, a huge disparity emerges. 

Boston % Larger
Total Proposed Buget FY 25
City Council Buget FY 25
Council Staff

The Boston City Council also has key powers that the Worcester City Council does not have.

Meaningful Hearings and Subpoena Power

The most important power for any legislature is the legal authority to access evidence. 

"The city council may summon witnesses, administer oaths and require the production of evidence at any hearing before it relative to any matter about which it has a right to inquire."

This authority extends to Boston City Council’s committees.

The authority to subpoena is rarely used. Simply having that power indicates that council has a right to acquire information.

Worcester City Council has no such power. Its committees cannot require any administration official to appear before them and cannot administer an oath that requires truthful testimony under the law. In fact, council is required to ask permission for an administration official to appear at its meetings. Committees do not hold hearings in Worcester. 

Without those powers, there is no oversight in Worcester. 

Oversight is not Optional

When an executive, like a president, governor, city manager, or mayor, investigates within the organization they are atop of, that is supervision and management. That is not oversight. 

Oversight in government comes from outside the management structure. At the federal and state level, the legislative branch is co-equal to the executive branch. In the largest city in Massachusetts, Boston, the legislature has robust powers of oversight. 

The purpose of oversight isn’t only to act as a watchdog against waste and corruption. The process of fact-finding informs city council on the laws it creates. Public oversight hearings also inform the public. 

In the second largest city in Massachusetts, oversight does not exist. 

Budget Power

In Boston, the mayor submits a proposal for an annual budget to the city council. By majority vote, council can change that budget. It cannot increase the total budget, but it can move funds from one department to another. 

For example, if the council believes the mayor allocated more funds than reasonable to its Department of Public Works, it can reduce that department’s budget and allocate those funds to education. It could also just reduce the budget of one department and not allocate those funds, which would reduce the overall budget. 

The Mayor of Boston has veto power over acts of the council. If the mayor doesn’t like the changes by council, the mayor can issue a veto, City council can override the mayors with a supermajority vote of the council. 

In Worcester, the City Manager submits a budget proposal to the city council. The vote of a majority of city councilors can reduce funding in any area, but it cannot allocate those funds to another area. Its only power is to reduce the budget. 

Once Worcester City Council allocates funds to a department, it has no control over how it is spent. We saw this happen in Worcester recently. 

When the Worcester Police Department sought to buy an unmanned aircraft (aka a drone), it used funds already allocated to the department. Councilors believed those funds were for the department canine program when they allocated those funds. 

The majority of city council ultimately voted to approve the purchase of the drone, but that vote was symbolic. It had no power to prevent the purchase. 

Think about that: your elected officials have no ability to control how the government spends taxpayer funds. 

Worcester City Council Cannot Write Laws on its Own