Today, there were two important developments affecting Somerville’s financial future. First, Gov. Patrick unveiled his state budget proposals including significant local aids cuts this year and next . Second, a city press release announced that Mayor Curtatone has formed a Financial Advisory Committee
“to provide expert advice on both cost-saving and revenue-producing measures designed to help the City maintain its financial strength in the face of a deepening economic recession and impending mid-year cuts in state aid to Somerville and other cities and towns.” 
This sounds like a proactive and timely step on the part of the mayor, but is this “outside” panel of “experts” truly a good source of guidance for our city in these dire times?
Given the almost $3.2 million municipal budget cut this fiscal year alone, the city is going to have to find difficult ways to cope. Priorities will have to be set, trade-offs will have to be made, jobs will be cut, taxes will increase, services will decline, and hopefully efficiencies will be found. These decisions will affect everyone who lives, works, and plays here, including myself. We want to know that our officials and their advisors are working around the clock to look out for our best interests. So I’m wary about this Financial Advisory Committee because it is not apparent that the members are either qualified to give municipal budgetary advice or that they have residents’ best interests in mind.
Mayor Curtatone said
“We could complete this process internally, but why shouldn’t we draw on the wisdom and expertise that’s available all around us?”
Why does “all around us” mean outside the city? What about the wisdom and expertise of people who live and work here? He continues:
“We’ve never been shy about turning to outside experts for advice about municipal best practices, and I welcome the fresh perspective this distinguished outside group will bring.”
Clear, the mayor has not been shy about convening advisory groups in the past that recommended increasing the power of the mayor and concentrating power in the executive branch. Recently, he convened a Charter Advisory Committee that recommended that the mayor’s term be extended from two to four years and to replace the mayor and BOA President on the school committee with mayoral appointments. Before that he convened a Police Advisory Group that recommended that two deputy police chiefs be chosen as political appointees of the mayor rather than from the civil service.
If this is an “outside” group, then how committed will they be to their advisory role? How hard will they work to find efficiencies before recommending service and job cuts? How well will they represent the priorities and values of the people of Somerville? How distracted will they be by what goes on in the places where they live and work?
The group is called “expert”, but why? They are four businessmen and one economics professor, but what makes them qualified to advise on municipal budgetary policy?
According to the press release, Ward 2 Alderman and BoA Finance Committee chair Maryann Heuston said she thinks that
“… having an outside group involved adds an extra measure of transparency to what is going to be a challenging process – and that’s important if the public is going to have confidence in the final plan that the Mayor and the Aldermen develop.”
I agree with her that transparency is important for public confidence, but I don’t see how the fact that this is an “outside” group makes the process any more transparent. If we had transparency, we’d know how these members were chosen, we’d know whether and how the members are being compensated, and we’d know whether there are any conflicts of interest involved. We’d know whether any of the members have family working in city departments, for instance. We’d also know whether the committee’s meetings will be open to the public. But we don’t know any of that.
If the people of Somerville want to ensure that their interests are protected during this budget review, they need to get involved in the process and not leave the big decisions up to outside experts.
Somerville Ward 7
 Read more about the governor’s budget proposals in the Boston Herald story : Patrick unveils $28 billion Mass. budget
 Read the City of Somerville’s Jan 28, 2009 press release MAYOR CURTATONE NAMES SPECIAL COMMITTEE TO ADVISE ON CITY FINANCES