Report shows how prioritizing cities and towns and building trust was key to Baker-Polito strategy



The woes of western Massachusetts, where residents and local officials often feel overlooked by Boston state leaders, stayed with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito as she moved from the campaign trail to Beacon Hill .

But she continued to roam Massachusetts constantly in her role as “champion of municipal issues,” forging a signature board of the Baker-Polito administration’s commitment to engaging directly with all 351 cities and towns, including collecting feedback and actively connecting it to resources.

It is according to a new paper of the Harvard Kennedy School Institute for Greater Boston Report, entitled “Empowering Cities and Towns: The Baker-Polito Approach to Local Collaboration and Capacity-Building”.

Polito, as detailed in the largely positive report, recalled meeting with community leaders — particularly in western Massachusetts — who were skeptical of a new administration’s ability to strengthen state-government relations. local.

“I remember going to Western Mass. as a candidate and people were saying, ‘Thank you for campaigning here. We will never see you again,” Polito said in the report. “We knew we needed a plan that combated this and recognized that improving each part (of the state) made the whole better.”

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This mindset translated into a host of strategies outlined in the report, such as passing sweeping municipal reform legislation, boosting local funding by a predictable amount each year, and streamlining the process allowing local governments to apply for state grants.

The state has also launched so-called voluntary community pacts, in which municipalities could focus on best practices related to housing, economic development and financial management, among other constituent services. Each pact came with an average infusion of $25,000 to $50,000, according to the report.

“I literally can’t think of a time when she didn’t follow through,” Edward Augustus Jr., the former city manager of Worcester, said in the report.

As her term draws to a close, Polito told MassLive on Wednesday that she “definitely” believes the administration has overcome years of entrenched skepticism. Polito said she and Gov. Charlie Baker, who had both previously been local elected officials, took those attitudes personally as they focused on building trust.

“That kind of conversation, going to places across the Commonwealth during the campaign helped inform our community prioritization strategy when we took office in January 2015,” Polito said in a phone interview. “We deeply understand and appreciate that local government must work to deliver quality services, as they directly impact how things work for individuals, for small businesses and for families, where they live. .”

But the administration acknowledged that a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work, Polito pointed out. Choices were needed to meet the needs of gateway cities, as well as other urban and rural environments.

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To help resource-strapped communities, including those with limited city staff who can apply for state funding, the administration has helped them discover and secure smaller grant opportunities, paving the way to more significant future changes, according to the report.

“It was an incredible asset to have someone not only to advocate for you, but also to say that there is a funding option or a program that could help you,” said Julie Jacobson, the city manager. of Auburn, in the report. “From top to bottom, we knew we had the support of the administration. We could reach out to anyone and get answers and help.

During cabinet meetings, Polito said she often polls the geographic distribution of grant recipients, checking how many are based in western Massachusetts and rural communities.

Polito argued in the report that “municipalities shouldn’t be turned away, they should be enabled.”

“One of the things I heard on my travels in the west of the Masse was, ‘Why do some communities that don’t make good tax decisions get rewarded, while communities that try to do this? can be overlooked?And how can we as a small community compete for resources if we don’t have the sophisticated staff or grant writers to be able to present the request to the state government ?” Polito told MassLive. “That’s the kind of stuff that we’ve solved, through the Community Compact (Program), through the relationship building that we’ve done, and empowering not only the governor and me and our executive office, but all of our cabinet secretaries to fully dedicate their time and programs to supporting all communities.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, is heavily favored to take the corner post against Republican nominee Geoff Diehl.

Polito said the next administration must pursue an intentional top-down strategy for community development, featuring a champion — such as the lieutenant governor — from the “highest level of the executive office” who can track local progress. She also advocated for active listening and “relentless” follow-up visits, even to places where there is likely no “base population that voted for you.”

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With 623 mutual community pacts in play, Polito hailed the administration’s “successful strategy” to distribute financial and technical resources, as well as participation incentives to towns and cities, to collectively improve Massachusetts.

“In a post-COVID era where people can choose where they live and where they work, I really feel that this program, this community development strategy, is empowering people to find a community in this Commonwealth that they can afford, they can have a good quality of life,” Polito told MassLive. “They can access the internet, start a business and enjoy the beauty and grandeur of our state wherever they want in the Commonwealth. This type of asset that we have now is really important for the future competitiveness of our republic. »

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