January 26, 2017: Fire Department retirements: what happens next?

January 26, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

One of my pet peeves about Belmont’s town government is when issues are raised but never again publicly addressed. No report is made. No decision is presented.  People are left not knowing whether the issue was resolved; found to be without merit; or simply swept under the rug with the hope that folks would forget it was ever mentioned.  The public debate last year about the town’s continuing participation in the Minuteman High School is a good example of an exception to this process.  The issue of Belmont’s participation in Minuteman was squarely presented to the Belmont community and definitively resolved.

One contrary example involves the future of the Belmont Fire Department.  Each spring, the Town’s Warrant Committee, the committee which advises Town Meeting on financial matters, presents its report on the upcoming year’s town budget.  The report is based on dozens of hours of study by Warrant Committee volunteers of the proposed revenue and expenses for the upcoming year and beyond.  The Warrant Committee report includes not only findings, but recommendations moving forward.  The committee is intended to be a community-based financial watchdog for Town Meeting and thus for the community as a whole.

In the Warrant Committee’s report on this fiscal year, starting July 1, 2016, one observation the WC made was that “as a result of key retirements, there will be a loss of institutional knowledge and leadership in late FY2017 and FY2018 at the Fire Department.  A broader strategic process will help ensure a smooth transition that also matches Town strategic plans.”

That comment was significant because in the previous year, in its report on the annual budget starting July 1, 2015, the Warrant Committee had advised Town Meeting that “over the next three years, approximately one-third of the Fire Department’s administration will be eligible for retirement, with FY2018 representing the peak year. The Town will be able to assess in the coming two budget seasons whether this creates opportunities to reorganize or outsource non-core duties for greater efficiency while ensuring that Departmental priorities are not compromised.”

And, in the year before that, in its report on the annual budget starting July 1, 2014, the Warrant Committee had advised Town Meeting with respect to the Fire Department that “transition of staff in [the] next five years” creates an opportunity for a “dialogue for vision – ‘What are our needs in Public Safety?’ and, ‘What type of department/services would we like to have?’”

The time ticks down.  In 2014, the WC referred to the “next five years,” three of which are now in the books. In 2015, the WC referred to “the next three years,” two of which are now in the books. In 2016, the WC referred to this year and next.  Nonetheless, no public assessment has been made of a possible reorganization of the Fire Department. No “dialogue for vision” has occurred.  No public process has happened to determine “what type of department/services would we like to have.”

I’m not saying that Belmont’s Fire Department requires major reorganization (though, as readers know, I would prefer to have a single Department of Public Safety rather than separate fire and police departments). However, when Town Meeting is told, particularly when it is told in three consecutive years, that certain planning processes are needed, and that the period in which those processes should occur is time-constrained, those recommendations should not simply evaporate into the mists of time.  The time in which Fire Department retirements reportedly will occur is now nearly upon us.  Community members deserve to be informed both what planning processes, if any, for our Fire Department are expected and what public input is intended.

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January 12, 2017: Community policing: a two-way street

January 12, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

The Belmont police department is a step ahead of much of the country in the connections that exist between the police and the community.  Sure, part of that can be attributed to the fact that we’re a small town.  Even in a small community, however, the connections between community residents and the police don’t just happen.  Specific, conscious actions are taken to promote the feeling that the police and community are a “we” and not an “us” and “them.”

One important part of this connection involves stability at the top.  Police Chief Richard McLaughlin will soon reach his tenth anniversary of being Belmont’s Top Cop.  Such longevity in police leadership results in a web of personal relationships that would not otherwise exist.  It has been some time since Chief McLaughlin could count on his fingers the number of Memorial Day parades he’s marched in, the number of PTO meetings he’s attended, and the number of Light Up the Town and Town Day events he has helped celebrate.

Such events are a way for the Chief to meet Belmont residents, and for those residents to meet him. This process works best, however, only when residents avail themselves of the opportunity.  In a recent conversation I had with Chief McLaughlin, he encouraged Belmont residents to introduce themselves to him (or to any other Belmont officer) on the street or at events.   A handshake and a hello, he said, is not an intrusion on an officer’s job.  Rather, individuals engaging in such small, personal interactions make Belmont a stronger, safer, healthier place to live.

I like Belmont’s approach to “community policing.”  “Regardless of the town or city in which they reside,” BPD’s community policing Mission Statement says, “community members should have a say in what kinds of services they receive from the police.” The BPD Mission Statement states that “the problems of terrorist threats, school shootings, and identity theft add new challenges to local policing. In addition, the other community problems of speeding cars in neighborhoods, domestic violence, vandalism and school bullying are still major issues that need to be addressed.”  In responding to such challenges, the Mission Statement goes on to assert, and I not only agree, but wholeheartedly agree, “making community members active participants in the process of problem solving is imperative.”

The question, of course, is how to do this.  BPD acknowledges that “some residents may have reservations about approaching the police for concerns they may have.” BPD, however, defines part of its job as seeking to “knock down some of the barriers between police and citizens.”

One action step pursued by the Belmont police several years ago merits replication.  In 2008, Belmont police officers and community members gathered at Belmont Town Hall to discuss problems being experienced in Belmont’s neighborhoods.  It is difficult to improve upon the direct exchange of information that such an opportunity for personal conversation can provide.  The concerns that faced community members in 2008, however, may differ from those facing Belmont residents today.  Hate speech and opioid addiction, for example, are concerns that may present themselves today in a way they would not have back in 2008.

The BPD’s approach to community policing posits that “when community members are active participants in the problem solving equation, the level of service and quality of life for the community is improved.”  Much of that “active participation” depends on personal interaction, which is a two-way street, flowing from the community to the BPD as much as from the BPD to the community.  Repeating the Town Hall meeting between town residents and Belmont’s officers would be an additional important action that can be taken.

December 29, 2016: 2016 brought beginnings, endings to Belmont

December 29, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

2016 will go down as one with significant beginnings and endings for Belmont.  One of the most substantial beginnings was the start of the process to renovate and rebuild Belmont High School.  To say that the process “started” this year is perhaps a misnomer.  Belmont officials have sought a state go-ahead for years. Both repairs and expansions are needed.  In January 2016, however, state approval finally came for the expected $100 million project. The project still has a long way to go before a renovated school becomes a reality. A building committee was appointed to usher the BHS project through the design and construction process.

Another education journey came to an end in 2016.  After residents overwhelmingly voted “no” to funding for a new Minuteman High School building, Town Meeting voted further to have Belmont withdraw from the Minuteman Regional Vocational School District.  For Belmont students to attend Minuteman in the future, they will need to apply for open spaces, as do students in other non-member towns.

Chenery middle school students are eager to use their new modular classrooms.  Seven classrooms, known as “the mods,” were delivered to Belmont in October to be installed on the Chenery tennis courts.  Chenery principal Mike McAllister notes that, given the increased student population in Belmont, the mods will be used for the foreseeable future.

Multi-year projects really can come to an end in Belmont.  In 2016, the reconstruction of the Belmont Street/Trapelo Road corridor, along with the reconstruction of Leonard Street through Belmont Center, were completed.  Requisite ribbon cuttings were held, smiles were seen aplenty, and more than a few heavy sighs of relief were heard.

One Belmont initiative generated some real excitement this year.  The Belmont Goes Solar campaign resulted in the sale of more than 250 solar systems to be installed on Belmont rooftops.   Before the campaign, only 20 Belmont residents had installed solar systems.  Belmont Goes Solar generated more solar sales than through any other community solarization campaign in Massachusetts.

Intoxicants were at the center of one major controversy this year.  The Board of Selectmen approved, on a rare 2–1 split vote, a highly controversial decision to allow The Loading Dock to transfer its liquor license to Belmont’s Star Market.  Legitimate arguments were raised on both sides.  On the one hand, owners of The Loading Dock needed the money from the sale of the license to stay in business.  On the other hand, the original intent of Town Meeting was to use liquor licenses to promote economic development by small locally-owned businesses in commercially undeveloped parts of town.  Fears were expressed that granting Star Market a liquor license will harm existing small local businesses, such as Cushing Square’s Spirited Gourmet and Belmont Center’s Craft Beer Cellars.

Other issues in Belmont continued to drag on throughout 2016.  Chris Starr (finally) sold the development rights to Cushing Village to another developer; nonetheless, by the end of the year no demolition, let alone construction, had yet begun.  The community path was laid over on yet another committee for further “public input” and “feasibility study.”  Reconstruction of the old Macy’s building continues, but still disrupts Belmont Center.

2016 gave Belmont residents a reason to have a fundamental optimism about how well local government works in our community.  Streets and schools were taken care of. Irrespective of whether one agreed or disagreed with the outcome, intensely controversial issues (such as The Loading Dock and Minuteman Tech) were squarely addressed and resolved.

As we remember 2016, and wonder what 2017 might bring, we should remember Abraham Lincoln’s counsel that “the best way to predict your future is to create it.”

Happy holidays to all.