April 21, 2016: Town government: on the outside looking in

Belmont Citizen-Herald: April 21, 2016

I hope telephones were ringing all over Belmont after the town’s recent municipal elections, and not simply to dissect the final vote tallies.  Persons whose phones I hope were particularly active are Mike Widmer, Mark Paolillo and Bob Reardon.

My impression of this year’s Board of Selectmen campaign was that a new, but growing, group of voters believes that Belmont’s town government does not adequately address issues important to younger community residents.  For example, the extent to which town processes are “transparent” sounds to me like an issue being raised by residents who, for whatever reason, feel like they’re too frequently on the outside looking in. It questions whether someone can meaningfully participate even if they’re not part of the old guard.

(I set aside, for now, whether the substance of specific campaign issues had merit. The point of a campaign is not simply to win an election, but to engage community members and hear their concerns.  In doing this, one can focus on the details of specific issues and miss hearing the deeper message.)

In Belmont, there should be no reason for anyone to be on the outside looking in.  There is simply too much opportunity to participate in the nitty-gritty of local governance. Concededly, I have not spoken with Town Moderator Mike Widmer, who appoints members to the Warrant Committee (that committee which advises Town Meeting on financial matters). Nonetheless, I cannot imagine that Widmer would consider it to be a “problem” to have more people asking to be appointed than he had Warrant Committee seats to fill.  That would present a particularly pleasant “problem” if applicants included a new generation of residents who had not previously been involved.

If people are concerned about the bikability of Belmont, any number of committees can influence such policies (e.g., the Traffic Advisory Committee).  As the chair of one of those committees, the town’s Energy Committee, I can unequivocally say that we would not only welcome new members, but we would relish the notion of new members who bring ideas, passion, and a willingness to work.  Bob Reardon in the Selectmen’s office is the keeper-of-lists, both of committee openings and potential volunteers.

One thing I heard from Candidate Paolillo was his intent to move forward quickly with implementing the recommendations of the long-range Financial Task Force. It would be a failing of epic magnitude, however, if that implementation committee (or committees) was populated exclusively with the usual suspects. The Selectmen should clearly beat the bushes to find residents to be involved. However, I would hope the bigger problem would involve having too many people expressing an interest.  Residents of all persuasions should be contacting Paolillo with a “please count me in” message.

In pursuing implementation of the Financial Task Force recommendations, in other words, or anything else in town government for that matter, not only is there a duty for the Selectmen to affirmatively seek new people to be involved, there is a corresponding duty on the part of community members to step forward to say, “here I am; what can I do to help?”

There is sometimes a tendency to over-analyze the significance of any given election. Nonetheless, the 2016 municipal election in Belmont may well be seen in years hence as the tipping-point, where a new generation of Belmontians began to step forward, not simply to vote, but to say, loudly and clearly, “Count me in.” “What role can I play?” The town clearly has an obligation to provide equal opportunities for all to participate. Individual Belmont residents also have an obligation to make themselves known in seeking those opportunities out.

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