By Leighah Beausoleil
On the grassy steps of FSU’s amphitheater, students and faculty sat and listened to the story of Framingham Mayor Charlie Sisitsky’s political journey.
Under the day’s sunny blue sky, Sisitsky offered students advice on ways to get involved in local government while emphasizing its importance.
After receiving a master’s degree in planning, Sisitsky said he began his career proofreading contracts for an environmental science company in Pennsylvania.
When attending the American Planning Association national conference in Philadelphia, the planning director for Medford mentioned an opening for an assistant planning director position.
Not happy with his job at the time or the location, Sisitsky said he applied for the job and got it.
He added he worked in Medford for 10 years and along the way, the planning director retired, making Sisitsky the youngest planning director in Massachusetts.
“The politics got kind of messy and I was told by certain city councilors that they would like to see me gone and at the same time, I was lucky to get a job offered by the town of Natick,” he said.
Initially, Sisitsky said he worked as the planning director for Natick until he took over as the director of the Department of Public Works up until his retirement approximately 13 years ago.
During this time, he said he was the president of his children’s elementary school parent teacher organization and worked to get the city to install a sidewalk at the back of the school.
After being sent in every direction by the city and getting no results, Sisitsky said, “I finally figured out that the way to get things done is to get involved in your local government.”
On his first try, he said he was elected to the town meeting of Framingham. However, he was one of approximately 200 people serving in this role.
“It's very hard to get a role in town meetings, especially as a newcomer, and what I soon learned is that to get anything done, you have to follow the money,” he added. “Whoever has control of the money, controls power. That's how you get things done. So I got involved in the budget-making of the town meeting, and eventually, the moderator appointed me to the Finance Committee.”
Sisitsky said he then decided to run for the Board of Selectmen and was elected.
“I met a lot of people, especially people who work for the community,” he said. “And I just worked my way up and people knew who I was: I was a good guy. I didn't have an agenda - just wanted what was best for the community.”
Following his time on the Board, Sisitsky said he ran for Framingham’s first city council when it was changed from a town to a city.
He said the decision to make the change to the city was “controversial,” adding he is “still fighting those battles” with some people who are unhappy with the outcome.
Sisitsky admitted he did not enjoy his time on the council because of the mayor, and said he and six other councilors decided not to run for re-election.
“I took the next two years off, and it got so bad that people were trying to figure out who they would want to see as the next mayor and came to me, but I couldn't do it until my wife said, ‘Yes,’” he said.
Sisitsky added this is an “important lesson” because “you have to have that support, and it's worked out fantastic for me.”
After he won, Sisitsky said becoming mayor may have been easier for him than most people due to his knowledge of the city and the network he has built throughout his career.
He emphasized the importance of building relationships and using those connections.
“You have to have a good relationship with everyone, especially the city council,” he added.
“That was one of the problems the previous mayor had,” Sisitsky alleged. “She did not have a good relationship with the council.
“Everything is about relationships,” Sisitsky added.
Since coming into office in January, he said he has been looking for “competent people” to hire on his staff.
“It's important who you hire because if you don't hire the right people, if you hire friends of a friend, or if you hire someone you knew from past experience, you're not always going to get the right person for the job,” he said.
“The mayor can't do it all by himself,” Sisitsky added. “He needs, or she needs, a good backup staff to help with all these things.”
Following his introductory remarks, the floor was opened up to questions from the audience.
One student shared a safety concern they had of cars speeding up and down State Street, and asked if it were possible for the city to install speed bumps.
Sisitsky said he was unaware of this concern and will “be happy to pursue it.”
The student also asked why people were not happy with the decision to become a city and what the benefits of being a city are.
This was Framingham’s third or fourth time attempting to become a city, Sisitsky responded.
He explained how some people believe the town meeting is “the purest form of democracy.”
He said, “It's very, very cumbersome - very time consuming - because you only have a few town meetings each year.
“At a certain point, when a community gets very large, it becomes very hard to operate a government,” Sistsky said.
He added this is especially true for a community with a budget of $360 million and a town meeting made up of volunteers with full-time jobs and “none of them read the background information.
“It's all based on emotion,” he said. It “just isn’t effective. It’s hard to get important things done.”
Sisitsky said people realized a different form of government would be better and took the necessary steps to make it happen, adding it was a close vote.
Another student asked if the mayor had any advice for political science majors who want to get involved in the field.
Sisitsky said his office is working on developing an internship program that he would like Framingham State students to participate in.
He added, to enter into local government, “You have to get involved and you have to learn what the issues are - what people are interested in - and meet people and show that you have a role to play and you have something to offer.”
Sisitsky said, “It takes time to work your way in and if you work at it, people realize that you're a good person, you have a lot to offer, and they'll give you a chance.”