Report ID’s barriers to Northampton civic service 

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 05-14-2023 4:30 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A perceived lack of transparency, a need for child care support and a fear of having to conform to prevailing ideologies were some of the reasons given by residents surveyed by the city to evaluate potential obstacles to serving on Northampton city boards and committees.

Those findings were revealed in a report presented at the city’s May 3 council meeting by the Northampton City Council Select Committee to Study Barriers to Serving on City Boards, which began last June to investigate how to work with residents to overcome obstacles that might prevent community members from taking part in city governance.

The findings were based on a survey put out by the committee to 150 members of the community, including current and former members of city boards and committees, along with those who applied for positions and were not appointed to them.

Javier Luengo-Garrido, who chaired the committee, said that a commonly recurring theme was that for many who applied for city positions, it often turned into a waiting game to hear a response back from the city on their application’s status, sometimes not hearing back at all.

“People felt lost after sending the first email in learning what happened with their application, knowing if they are going to serve or not,” Luengo-Garrido said. “People were asking not even for a human touch, they were asking for an automated system so that they would not be there waiting.”

In response, Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra said there already is an automated system for responses, and apologized to those who felt ignored by the city regarding their applications.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

“I’m sorry if people felt like they weren’t acknowledged when they applied, because that would never be my intention,” she said.

Another recurring theme in the survey was that many felt that in order to serve on a city committee or board, they would have to conform to the dominant opinions of members of the City Council or the mayor’s office.

“At present, it feels like there is a requirement to be deferential and mostly in agreement with city officials to be able to serve,” one person surveyed said, according to the report. “While I think adversarial relationships with city leadership can be equally unhelpful in sitting in positions of service in the city, I believe a culture that promotes diversity of opinion and collaboration would be needed to actually change the application process.”

Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore, in response to hearing those concerns, denied that ideology would be a barrier to serving on any city board or committee.

“I’m not sure how the city would even know that exactly,” she said. “I did not expect that, so that’s some interesting information.”

Luengo-Garrido said that child care support was also a pressing topic for those wishing to serve.

“One of things we were finding in those conversations was single mothers or single fathers, they come in after a full day of work,” he said. “They have a problem being able to get out of the house again because they don’t have a babysitter.”

The findings were echoed by Ward 6 Councilor Marianna LaBarge, who cited the case of the city’s police commission.

“We lost two women because of long meetings, and we were told there was no communication on the length of the meetings,” she said. “It’s a big problem.”

To solve these issues, the committee recommended changing the application process to give applicants greater knowledge of how much workload a position entails, using a uniform rubric to screen potential applicants, and creating a system to help those serving pay for child care and other needs.

Those who applied for Northampton’s most recently created commission, the Commission to Study Racialized Harms Perpetrated Against Black Residents and Workers in Northampton, will be eligible to receive child care support, thanks to a private donation.

“The reality is that Northampton is a vibrant community, and people are really, really into serving the community,” Luengo-Garrido said. “They like to live here, they like to serve and they like to be useful to our city.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

]]>