Bay State City to Vote on Self-Rule

Effort to get Chelsea back on track, after months in receivership, finally seems to be working

CHELSEA voters head to the polls tomorrow to determine how local democratic control will be restored to their city after 33 months of government by a state-mandated receiver.

Three years ago, a $9.5 million budget gap and pervasive political corruption finally drove this already poor city of 28,000 into civic meltdown. Public officials openly discussed the possibility of bankruptcy or annexation to the nearby City of Boston. In September 1991, the Massachusetts legislature placed Chelsea in receivership.

``It was pretty devastating to have someone come in and take over your city,'' said former Chelsea schoolboard member Elizabeth McBride. ``But it had to happen to get us back on the right line.''

Chelsea residents resent their city's status in the news media as poster child for the dysfunctional city. A recent episode of CBS's ``Sixty Minutes,'' citing convictions of the city's last three mayors, characterized Chelsea as ``the most politically corrupt city in the nation.''

``That news is three-years-old,'' insists Nadine Mironchuk, a former local editor now on the receiver's senior staff. ``The story isn't how Chelsea had failed, but how it is succeeding.''

The first state-appointed receiver, James Carlin, cut personnel, consolidated the city's 30 departments and 40 checking accounts, negotiated new contracts with police and firefighters, and brought in professional financial managers. His successor, Lewis Spence, launched an economic development initiative that has generated municipal and private construction projects worth $250 million. Next week, the city breaks ground to rebuild all the city's schools - with the collaboration of Boston University.

But tomorrow's vote represents an effort to solve what may be Chelsea's deepest problem: restoring confidence in the city's ability to govern itself.

``This is very much a vote about how Chelsea as a community characterizes itself and its future,'' Mr. Spence says. ``There's been a very dominant political element in the culture of Chelsea whose basic motto is `just say no' to everything. Their politics is always based on a theory that everything is a conspiracy against Chelsea. I think the people of Chelsea are getting sick of that. They saw where it took them. It took them right straight into receivership. I think they're prepared and anxious in fact to repudiate that.... One thing we've tried to do as a receivership is give evidence of the benefits to the community of people rethinking that posture, he adds.''

Special elections to approve a new city charter are not mandated by the terms of the receivership. Mr. Carlin drafted a new form of governance for the city four months into his term in anticipation of a state requirement to report back to the legislature no later than June 30. But Spence set aside the Carlin draft and hired the Brookline-based mediation firm of Susan Podziba and Associates to oversee public involvement in a new draft charter.

The objective of the new process was not just to produce a document, but to attract new faces into the city's public life, to ``actively seek out everyday people as well as political people,'' Ms. Podziba says. A criteria for membership on the charter-preparation team was a commitment to ``city-wide interests'' and ``a willingness to operate by concensus.''

This eight-month consultation involved three rounds of public meetings, a survey of registered voters, call-in cable shows, a charter hotline, and four months of marathon sessions by a 19-member charter-preparation team. ``Nothing has ever been done with this level of public participation in Chelsea's history,'' she adds.

The resulting draft charter would switch from a mayor to a city-manager form of administration, establish clear lines of authority and a code of ethical conduct.

Vocal critics on the Board of Aldermen denounced the process as an illusion. Early in the process, Alderman Marilyn Portnoy held up a copy of the Carlin draft charter at a televised Board of Aldermen meeting and insisted that the December 1991 document proved that the consultations were bogus, that the charter ``was a done deal.'' Alderman Robert Shoemaker was appointed to the charter preparation team but later resigned. ``There was so much emphasis on an appearance of inclusiveness, I thought they would put this through without a vote. So I asked to be removed.'' A June 6 board meeting on whether to go on record approving or disapproving the charter generated such heat that the aldermen called for television cameras to be turned off.

Charter opponents, including Ms. Portnoy and Mr. Shoemaker, are running half-page ads in the Chelsea Record urging voters not to be ``fooled or threatened'' and suggesting that the charter team's ``refusal'' to insert the words ``United States citizen'' as a requirement for voting is proof of a ``hidden agenda.''

They are joined in opposition to the charter by Marta Rosa, president of the Commission on Hispanic Affairs. She explains: ``These ads are frankly racist. For some reason, many in Chelsea think the charter gives noncitizens the right to vote or that it opens the door for more Hispanics to run for office. That's the wrong reason to vote against the charter, and it's false.'' She is opposing the draft charter because ``it doesn't have any more guarantees for enhancing participation of the Hispanic community.''

Charter supporters reject such criticism. ``These ads aren't Chelsea's racism,'' Ms. Mironchuk says. ``This is the [Vote No] committee's racism, and that tactic will go back to where it belongs, in the sewer.''

``If we don't see new people running [for office], we won't be a city much longer,'' says Jesse Guevara, another Chelsea resident recruited to the receiver's senior staff. ``The Anglo community no longer has the luxury of minimizing, patronizing the Latino community; the Latino community no longer has the luxury of isolating itself behind cultural barriers. We need to focus on leadership development in the final phase of the receivership.''

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