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No seat for Bristol County on COVID oversight panel that grilled Gov. Baker

SE Mass

SEEKONK, Mass. (WPRI) — Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker made an unusual appearance Thursday before a special legislative panel, getting grilled over his administration’s glitchy vaccine website.

The rare oversight hearing gave 17 senators and representatives the chance to question the governor about their constituents’ concerns — but not one of them was from Bristol County.

It’s unclear why legislative leaders declined to give a seat on the high-profile Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness to anyone from the state’s sixth-largest county, where roughly 8% of Massachusetts residents live and the cities of New Bedford and Fall River have been hit hard by the virus.

But it’s hardly the first time Bristol County residents have felt overlooked. Just last month, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell posted a much-discussed tweet showing that the state had opened no mass-vaccination sites south of Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. (Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito quickly promised more help for the region once Mitchell spoke out.)

Spokespersons for the co-chairs of the COVID-19 committee, Rep. Bill Driscoll Jr. and Sen. Jo Comerford, did not respond to a question Thursday about how the panel’s membership was determined and why Bristol County’s legislative delegation was snubbed.

“Sad that the South Coast continues to be an afterthought on Beacon Hill,” Evan Gendreau, chair of the Westport Republican Town Committee and a former state legislative candidate, tweeted Thursday. “New Bedford and Fall River are among the 20 communities that the state identified as the hardest hit by COVID, yet our area has no representation on the oversight panel.”

Cape Cod has a much smaller year-round population than Bristol County but got two seats on the pandemic panel: Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and Rep. David Vieira, R-Falmouth.

(Voters can’t even easily examine the panel’s membership for themselves, because it is not listed on the legislative website’s joint committees page. 12 News obtained a copy of a news release listing the appointees.)

Shannon Jenkins, a political science professor and interim associate dean at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said it makes a difference whether different parts of the state are at the table when decisions are made and differences hashed out.

“Research is pretty clear that representation matters,” Jenkins told 12 News. “Having a diversity of viewpoints involved in a decision-making process produces better results. There are a lot of ways to think about diversity. In today’s parlance, we often think of diversity in terms of racial, ethnic, or gender diversity, but diversity of place is another way to think about it.”

“While we share some concerns with other regions of the state (like the West) about lack of access to vaccines and vaccination sites in the region, this also coincides with challenges related to race, socioeconomic status, and more,” she said.

However, Jenkins noted that it’s also “hard to cover all grounds in committee assignments,” and noted that legislative leaders appeared to have taken into account other kinds of diversity beyond geography in putting together the committee’s membership.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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