FRAMINGHAM – In the same weekend that citizens heard that civility could be returning to Washington DC and national politics, the opposite was occurring in local politics in the City of Framingham.
On Friday night, Vice President Joseph Biden told the nation, as he waited to be confirmed as the winner in the presidential election, the “purpose of our politics, the work of our nation, isn’t to fan the flames of conflict, but to solve problems,”
President-elect Biden was speaking about President Donald J. Trump, and his years of Tweets and mean statements about his opponents, but he could have been talking about Framingham politics in that instance.
On that same Friday, text messages between the City of Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer and Chief Operating Officer Thatcher Kezer III showed the Mayor attacking the City’s legislative branch of government.
In a text message, during an October 5 City Council meeting Mayor Spicer texted “Some of them I swear are some of the most disgusting human beings I have met.”
“You know I can’t take this because they’re assholes,” texted the Mayor to her #2 in command in the City of Framingham.
Editor’s Note: The text messages became public due to a Freedom of Information Act request by the news media outlet. Why the outlet requested the texts is at the bottom of this report.
After almost four years of President Trump, voters may have come to expect uncivil behavior from politicians, but voters want effective government and politicians to be better human beings, according to recent studies.
A 2016 Civility in America survey showed 79 percent of respondents believe incivility in government is preventing action on important issues.
In 2019, a Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service Civility Poll showed 90% of voters were concerned about the “uncivil and rude behavior of politicians.”
The dictionary defines civility as “polite, reasonable and respectful behavior.”
The texts between the City of Framingham first mayor and the City of Framingham first COO don’t fit that civil definition and it is not what most municipal and government organizations expect from its leaders – both on the executive (mayor) and legislative (city council) branches of government.
Mayor Spicer texted to Thatcher “He takes it as a badge of courage that he stayed on the board (referring to the Zoning Board of Appeals). He is an asshole. Phil Ottaviani is an asshole,”
“These Trumpian tactics have no place in our local politics,” said District 6 City Council Phil Ottaviani.
Spicer’s texts with the City’s Chief Operating Officer not only take aim against those she has battled with in the past, but also Councilors, who typically support and vote for her agenda,
Mayor Spicer texted the COO “I have a meeting tomorrow with (District 7 City Councilor) Margareth (Shepard) I’m going to call her on her bullshit — help me understand how you helped immigrants.”
Spicer also texted Kezer that City Councilors Robert Case and Shepard are “disappointments.”
“I was elected to represent the residents of District 5. That has been and will remain my top priority. I am not, and never have been, on the council to serve the will of the Mayor. Her opinion of my work as a Councilor is not important to me, as long as we can work to move Framingham forward. The only opinions that concern me are those of the residents of District 5,’ said Councilor Robert Case to SOURCE.
During another text exchange between Thatcher and Spicer, Spicer covers the faces of some City Councilors with a “Post-It note” and shared it in a text writing under the screenshot “current situation.”
“The Mayor and the COO are entitled to their sophomoric chatter. Their private discussions are not surprising to me and reflective of how I have understood their view of the Council since day one of our city. I could overlook their caustic comments more readily had they been blazing a trail of success and innovation. I hope we can get past the vitriol and turn our attention to making this city more efficient and effective, which is what is most important to me,” said City Council Chair George P. King Jr., in response to a request from SOURCE.
“I was disappointed to read the content of the text messages sent between the Mayor and various city officials during our City Council meetings. The tone of these texts unfortunately represents a level of tension between the two branches of our city government that has been there since we became a city,” said District 3 City Councilor Adam Steiner.
“Framingham’s Mayor ran on the Slogan of being the ‘People’s Mayor.’ This is the winning campaign face Yvonne Spicer showed to the public. In a “Message From the Mayor” on the Framingham City Website, Spicer writes ‘I am honored to serve as your first Mayor in our new city of Framingham and to set the vision for our residents, businesses, and dedicated municipal leaders and employees. As your Mayor, I will set the bar high and lead by example. The cornerstone of our city will be transparent government that inspires community involvement,'” said former City Councilor Judith Grove. “Sadly, now we know that the Mayor has a different, deceitful face when she is not in the public eye. This face speaks angry, insulting words.”
But this is just not mean texts or the Mayor showing her frustration with the Council.
The texts show her administration unwilling to work with some of the Council.
During another text exchange, Chief Operating Officer said he has no intention of answering certain councilors questions or working with certain councilors.
“While we ask questions and hold opinions on these issues now is not the time for petty and personal politics,” said at-large City Councilor Janet Leombruno. “I am deeply troubles by the lack of willingness to work with us.”
So what collaboration should there be between the executive and legislative branches of city government?
“Beyond being polite and respectful, civility also includes engaging in robust, and respectful, debate, and actively listening to various viewpoints without attacking one’s character. Civility does not mean compromising values or that agreement is certain or required,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“We have to remember the purpose of our politics isn’t total unrelenting, unending warfare,” said Vice President Biden Friday night in Delaware.
But politics in Framingham appears to be a blood sport since the very close city vs town vote in 2017.
Taxpayers and Framingham residents are perhaps the casualties in the political battlefield of the City of Framingham, as little has been accomplished in 2020.
Framingham has been a high-risk community for COVID. Few initiatives have passed this year that benefit residents and businesses, many of whom are struggling.
The United State Conference of Mayors, of which Mayor Spicer is a member, included in its 2020 vision document this goal: “Revive civility and respect by listening respectfully to people who have different views, supporting efforts to work together across ideological and political lines, and working to rebuild civic trust through civil discourse.”
SOURCE emailed Mayor Spicer for a statement on the text messages on Friday, November 6.
No response was received as of 11 p.m. Sunday, November 8.
The City Councilors and the Mayor are not always going to agree on every issue.
In fact, there has been a strong 6-5 split on the City Council since it has taken office in favor of the Spicer administration.
But with such distasteful texts by the City’s Mayor about at least 5 City Councilors, including those who have supported her on multiple votes this year, can residents expect a stagnant city government for the next 12 months, until the Mayoral & Council election in 2021?
Voters will elect a Mayor, for 4 years, 9 district Councilors for 2 years and 9 School Committee members in November 2021. At-large City Councilors Leombruno and King serve on the Council through 2023.
The Institute for Civility in Government, a non-profit organization based in Texas, defines civility as “more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreement.”
“We all need to do more to be kinder to each other and to work together to get the people’s business done,” said Ottaviani.
“We were all elected to represent the people of Framingham,” said Leombruno. “We are expected to come together and get things done on the issues Framingham is facing, from fighting COVID-19 to keeping Framingham affordable.”
“I remain singularly focused on delivering meaningful results to those I represent as the City Councilor for District 4, and in my roles on the Finance and Economic Development Subcommittees. The most successful projects I’ve been a part of, whether community-wide or neighborhood-specific, were the product of true team work and genuine collaboration,” said District 4 City Councilor Michael Cannon to SOURCE in response to the text messages published on Friday.
“Framingham is a great community with the people, resources and ability to be even better. Residents rightly expect their leaders to collaborate in a respectful and transparent manner to build community, solve problems, remain affordable, and improve our quality of life. We need to put aside petty political behavior and focus on making our community a better place to live, learn, work, and play,” said District 8 City Councilor John Stefanini.
“Our neighbors should expect more from their local government than the dysfunction they are getting,” said Leombruno.
“Poor behavior impedes the democratic process encourages hard feelings and divisiveness, contributes to voter alienation and aversion to government, and creates a liability for cities and towns,” wrote the Massachusetts Municipal Association its its member communities in January 2020, including the City of Framingham. “Fostering a climate of respect among public officials is at the heart of work performed in the public interest.”
What can be done in the next 12 months to improve relations between the Mayor & the City Council?
Maybe the City of Framingham should look to the new President-elect Biden, whose speeches on Friday and Saturday spoke as much about the nation as they could be about Framingham.
“We may be opponents, but we’re not enemies,” said Biden. “We’re certainly not going to agree on a lot of issues, but at least we can agree to be civil to one another.”
SOURCE asked City Council Chair King, “Is there a way for the Council and the Mayor to still work together and accomplish tasks before the next election a year from this week? As chair what can you do?”
King’s response – “I am not all that optimistic. It has not been a very constructive relationship the first three years so to have it change much this next year may be unrealistic, but we can always hope. I am personally going to advocate for the Council to be more assertive about city operations. It is not our role to manage them, but we can ask more questions and undertake deeper probes than we have to date. If we do that, I think it will allow us to make better budget decisions.”
School Committee Chair Adam Freudberg believes City leaders need to re-commit to be collaborative for its resident to make government work.
““Three years ago this weekend, our first city government was elected. That night I wrote: “We now have a unique opportunity to reset the way we as elected officials lead the way…We need to work collaboratively and seek continuous improvements with measurable progress.” That statement is still true today. Voters put trust in each of us to put personal issues aside and get the job done. The disrespectful tone found in our federal government leader has no place in Framingham. Now is the time to recommit ourselves to a more inclusive and collaborative process,” said Freudberg to SOURCE.
“Based on my experience of 13 years working in all levels of government, I suggest a Mayoral governance style emerge which includes a consistent policy development strategy, government affairs strategy, communications strategy, and stakeholder engagement strategy with a culture of no surprises, mutual trust, and positive intent,” said Freudberg.
This does not mean everyone agrees and that there are not strong disagreements.
Instead the National Conference of State Legislatures said “beyond being polite and respectful, civility also includes engaging in robust, and respectful, debate, and actively listening to various viewpoints without attacking one’s character. Civility does not mean compromising values or that agreement is certain or required.”
District 1 City Councilor Christine Long and the Spicer administration have disagreed strongly on the apartment moratorium, which the City Council passed overwhelmingly, and on the re-organization of the City’s planning and economic development division.
The COO Kezer texted to Spicer “Christine need to get off that horse. She is opening trying to destroy the Division now that she can’t run it.” Spicer texted back “absolutely.”
LONG did not respond to SOURCE’s request for a statement on the texts or a statement on how the Council and the Mayor can work together over the next 12 months for the people.
A couple of other Councilors also chose not to respond to SOURCE, including District 2 City Councilor Cesar Stewart Morales, who was texting Mayor Spicer during one of the City Council meetings.
The City Council has approved more than 90% of the Mayor’s appointments to boards, committees, and commissions, but there have been major battles over certain board.
The first City Council rejected the Mayor’s choice for Zoning Board of Appeals not once but twice. That meant that Ottaviani served on the ZBA more than a year longer than his term, even though Spicer wanted him off the Board. Former Councilors offered compromises but the mayor was not interested.
During this Council’s term, again more than 90% percent of Spicer’s nominees have been approved, but there has been a battle over appointments to the Disability Commission and the Parks & Recreation Commission.
“We are not always going to agree on how to get something done – and that’s ok as long as we listen, find areas of compromise, and stop all instances of “my way, or the highway” attitude,” said Councilor Case.
The Mayor in her platform when she ran to be the City of Framingham’s first-ever mayor said she would “set an example for sharing this power collaboratively and fairly across the government.”
“I was disappointed, but not surprised, to read the text messages between the Mayor and the COO this week. I think it shows how dysfunctional our city government is currently. We have been a city for 3 years now, it is past time this ended. What is needed is for City Council and the Mayor to work as a team: collaborating, cooperating, effectively communicating, bridging divides, practicing civility, and gaining the trust of our community. Running local government successfully is hard work. Together, they have the potential to become great change-makers in this city,” said School Committee Vice Chair Tiffanie Maskell, when the news outlet contacted her over the weekend.
“We can move forward and get things done for the people of Framingham if we stop the petty name calling and the attacks, and start treating every member of our municipal government with mutual respect. There has to be more proactive communication, and a willingness to start having even the tough conversations. I believe every member in the legislative and executive branches of our local government has only the best intentions for Framingham,” said Case to SOURCE.
“”Everyone needs to try to work better together for the needs of Framingham residents and the future of our city. It is my hope that we can reset this relationship, but it is going to require that everyone is willing to make an honest commitment to mutual respect and listening to one another. When we work better together, we do better work,” said Council Vice Chair Steiner.
If incivility is a disease, relationship-building may be the cure.
The Village Square, a civic organization that encourages civil dialogue on divisive issues through its unique and humorous programming, believes that nurturing civil relationships helps “people to develop empathy for others, then strive to reciprocate kindness, leading to the best behavior of man toward fellow man.”
The City of Framingham’s City Council and its Mayor Yvonne Spicer struggled to build a relationship during its first two years of the City.
Seven of the first 11 Councilors chose not to seek re-election.
In 2020, a second City Council began working to building a relationship with Mayor Spicer. That relationship is strained.
“Relationships aren’t built in a day. They develop over time and are often seeded by a common interest and an understanding of someone’s values or life experiences,” suggested Village Square.
The common interest between the Mayor and the City Council, is its people and the City of Framingham.
Why did SOURCE request the text messages?
During the October 6 City Council meeting, Kezer said he was texting the Human Resources Director during the meeting. That night SOURCE requested the text messages by the COO and also text messages by the COO for a couple of meetings in September 2020.
Under a Freedom of Information Request, the City is supposed to respond within 10 business days.
The City asked for extended time to produce the text messages.
They arrived on Friday, November 6 – one month later.
SOURCE received dozens of text messages via the FOIA request, including the texts between Kezer and the HR director, but the news outlet also received the texts between the mayor and the COO.