Visitor views of City Council meeting

Earlier this evening I visited a UMass Lowell intersession class on Community Psychology as I have for the past four years. It’s always a fun class because the dozen or so students, few of whom are ever from Lowell, have just attended their first-ever Lowell city council meeting the night before and always have plenty of questions about what they witnessed. Tonight was no different. The students were fascinated by the meeting but also sensed that because they were brand new to Lowell politics, they were unable to fully comprehend the many currents that were so obviously flowing beneath the surface of what was said and done on the floor of the council. The students looked to me to provide some context. I was happy to oblige. Exercising complete academic freedom, I held nothing back, sharing past incidents and conflicts and my analysis of how they influenced last night’s events. Not surprisingly, that took a long time since there was much going on last night.

After that discussion, a student question about the “representativeness” of the city council in light of our population launched us into a discussion of the power of voting. I returned to my favorite statistic – the disparity in voter turnout in city and state elections – and shared that if just one-tenth of all the people who voted in the just-past state election would vote in the city council race, it would completely change the dynamic of that contest. In the 2012 state election 33,583 votes were cast vs just 9,946 in the 2011 city election, a difference of 23,637 votes. Consider that in the council race, the fist place finisher received 5,305 votes and the ninth place finisher received 3,460. Adding 2,364 more voters (i.e., 10% of the 2012 overage) to the council race could certainly shake things up. That is not to say that it would result in wholesale changes to the council (although it might). What it would certainly mean is that the councilors who were elected, even if it were all nine incumbents, would be much more responsive to and considerate of the interests of these new voters. My message was: if you vote, politicians pay attention to you.

The UML students had already made a related observation. Several said that during the meeting they were repeatedly surprised to hear councilors cite individual phone calls or emails from constituents as reasons for voting for or against something. The students had been of the impression that a single voice would carry no weight in local affairs; what they saw last night showed them otherwise.

The other thing about the council meeting that surprised many of the students was the high level of friction that existed throughout the meeting. They arrived expecting a courtly and polite process but observed something very different. Interestingly, they found this to be a plus not a minus. The evident friction, they felt, added a sense of authenticity to the proceedings and they were impressed by the level of passion displayed my many of the meeting’s participants.

So that’s the feedback from the UML focus group that attended last night’s council meeting. The students tonight were great and hopefully I was able to help them better understand what happened at the council meeting. I know that’s what they did for me and for that I feel quite fortunate.

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