Over the past 70 years, Worcester city managers have had their defining moments. How they responded to major challenges the city faced during their tenures is how they are best remembered.
Francis J. McGrath had the extremely powerful June 1953 tornado, which cut a wide swath of destruction through the north end of Worcester, and the Blizzard of ’78, which paralyzed the city for days. McGrath is remembered for how he got Worcester back up on its feet after being knocked down by Mother Nature.
The challenges William J. Mulford faced were much different but just as impactful. He had to keep the city running in the aftermath of devastating budget cutbacks resulting from the statewide tax-cutting law known as Proposition 2 ½. Major changes had to be made in how city government operated and with far fewer people.
Then, just when it seemed that Mulford had gotten the city back on track in terms of its fiscal stability, he had to deal with the recession of the early 1990s, which wreaked more havoc on city finances. But Mulford was able to keep the city up and running through his steady leadership, even when the city’s fiscal picture seemed to be changing daily.
Thomas R. Hoover, meanwhile, faced yet another different kind of challenge – pulling the people of Worcester together emotionally after six firefighters died while battling a fire at the former Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building.
Hoover described it as probably one of the worst days in Worcester’s history, and one of the worst days in his life, both professionally and personally. The city was in mourning for days, but he was able to help the community get back on its feet emotionally through his quiet and compassionate leadership.
Michael V. O’Brien had a combination of challenges to deal with. He had the death of a firefighter (Jon Davies), a national economic downturn in 2008, and Mother Nature seemed to throw everything at the city but the kitchen sink during his tenure.
There were historic blizzards, floods and hurricanes, as well as the infamous ice storm in 2008 that crippled the city and left parts of Worcester without electricity for days. In addition to all that, there was the invasion of the Asian long-horned beetle, the destructive, tree-killing insect that led to the cutting down of more than 35,000 trees throughout the city.
But through his relentless and tireless work, O’Brien was able to get the city through all of that and continue to move Worcester forward.
As challenging as what those city managers faced, what Edward M. Augustus Jr. is dealing with today will likely be the biggest challenge of them all. In fact, it is likely to far surpass them.
Mind you, Augustus has already had to get the city through the deaths of two firefighters (Christopher Roy and Jason Menard) who died in the line of duty in separate incidents. Now he finds himself having to lead Worcester through the uncharted waters known as COVID-19.
In a matter of a week or so, the coronavirus has turned the lives of so many people in Worcester upside down and inside out. Businesses have closed, people have lost their jobs, and everyone is at risk of contracting the virus.
The city government has not been immune from its impact. Augustus has declared a state of emergency in Worcester, City Hall has been closed until further notice, as have the senior center, the Worcester Public Library and all other municipal buildings. Even playgrounds have been closed.
Also, people are prohibited from attending public meetings, such as City Council and School Committee. Instead, the meetings are being live-streamed, and people can participate in those meetings via teleconferencing.
Councilor-at-Large Gary Rosen, the eldest member of the City Council, remarked last week how he has never seen anything like this all his life in Worcester. Indeed, it is unprecedented. The sense of normalcy that existed a week ago is now out the window and who knows when it will return.
What makes things even more difficult is that there isn’t a playbook for city leaders to follow in how to deal with COVID-19, as there is for natural disasters or other emergencies. The situation with the coronavirus is so fluid that things change by the day and even by the hour.
To his credit, Augustus has been able to keep up with all that has been going on and has even been ahead of the curve in some instances. He has taken swift, decisive actions intended to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus and keep the people of Worcester as safe as possible.
He has also done an excellent job in keeping Worcester residents informed about what is happening in their community. He and Mayor Joseph M. Petty have held daily public briefings, providing much-needed information about what is going on. They have dealt strictly with facts and have not been afraid to tell things as they are rather than downplay or sugarcoat them.
Both the manager and mayor have exercised the kind of leadership needed during challenging times.
Credit also goes to so many other city officials who have worked tirelessly during the past week, even with the city offices pretty much shut down, to come up with solutions to address issues and problems related to COVID-19.
A perfect example is the system that was developed so the public could still view and participate in public meetings. Those participating in the meetings also no longer have to be at City Hall and can now do so from remote locations, such as their home.
Another example is the sheltering program that has been developed for the adult homeless population. The goal of that program is to provide a safe and healthy environment for one of the most vulnerable populations.
Yes, that is what leadership is all about. Instead of waiting to react, Augustus, Petty and the rest of the city government have been very proactive in many areas.
The City Council also deserves credit for continuing to do the peoples’ business and keeping it open to the public as best it can, while many are things are shutting down.
The future is quite uncertain when it comes to COVID-19. This is yet another defining time in Worcester’s history, though, and history will show how city leaders were on top of things and provided the kind of leadership needed.
Contact Nick Kotsopoulos at [email protected] or on Twitter @NCKotsopoulos.