April 5, 2018 — Election Reflections

April 5, 2018–Belmont Citizen-Herald

I pulled a wadded up piece of newsprint out of my pocket earlier this week and threw it in the trash. I gave it no further thought.  Not because it was unimportant. Quite the contrary. It‘s a piece of paper that contributed to the very essence of living in Belmont. That wadded up paper ball had served it function, as similar sheets of paper have done time and again over the years.

In Belmont, we are lucky to have an organization whose very reason for being is defined as to “make democracy work.”  The Belmont League of Women Voters is a group of men and women of all ages and backgrounds who proclaim their common interest as being to  “encourage active and informed participation in government through education and advocacy.”

It is a local organization focusing on local Belmont needs.  The national League of Women Voters was founded in 1920.  In April 1936, however, one hundred Belmont women left the Cambridge League to found the local Belmont organization.  Since then, the League has sought to educate the community on topics ranging from the needs of senior citizens, to the annual town budget, to each year’s town election.

My paper ball flows from those efforts.  I cannot remember the last time I went into a voting booth without having torn out the Precinct 6 pages from the League’s annual “Voter Guide” and checked off the Town Meeting Members I intended to vote for.  In the Voter Guide, the League publishes the results of its survey not only of candidates for townwide office, but of all Town Meeting candidates as well.  The “survey” asks simply that each candidate respond to a request to “discuss an issue or two which you consider important to the future of the town, presenting your ideas for managing them effectively.”  The responses are published verbatim and mailed to each household in Belmont.

Wow. Step back and consider for a moment the work that goes into that.  With eight precincts and twelve Town Meeting slots open in each precinct, sometimes with more candidates than slots available, someone with the Belmont League is identifying the candidates, mailing each candidate the survey, compiling the responses, formatting those responses, and arranging the printing and mailing so that the responses can be delivered to every household in Belmont.  That’s not just a “few hours” of work. And they have been providing that service for years.  The League published its first Voter Guide in 1986 and has been doing it since.

It’s not just the Voter Guide, of course.  The Belmont League also sponsors the annual Candidate’s Night, where every candidate is invited to attend and be available to any community member who might wish to come advocate a position or ask a question.  Speaking of direct one-on-one democracy!

This year’s League efforts went off without a hitch. The Voter Guide was printed and delivered. Candidate’s Night was held.  And, therein lies my concern. Why is smooth sailing a problem?  My fear is that when things run so well, for so long, they become, in a way, invisible to the public.  And when things become invisible, the people who make it all happen, and the effort involved, become unnoticed. The services are “expected” rather than “appreciated.”  For example, though I use the League’s Voter Guide every year, I can’t remember even once having said to a member of Belmont’s League of Women Voters “thank you. That Guide you mail to me? It helps.”

So, let me rectify that wrong.  That publication you mail to me plays an essential role in one of the most important tasks I do each spring: deciding who to vote for in Town elections. To the leaders who steer the League; to the workers who prepare the Guide; to the supporters who help pay for it; thank you.  Please rest assured that Belmont is better off for your efforts.


February 22, 2018: Packing to move to the Board of Selectmen

February 22, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Dear Mr. Caputo.

With an uncontested race ahead of you, it looks like you will soon be on Belmont’s Board of Selectmen.  As you pack your bag to move from the School Administration Building to Town Hall, there are a few experiences that I hope you tuck in there to bring with you.  Most importantly, I hope you bring a commitment to consciously apply the following lessons from the School Committee to your new role as a Selectman.

First, let your Town Administrator administrate.  There are reasons –in terms of skills, education and experience—that Patrice Garvin is our Town Administrator and you’re not.  Some people think the job of being a Selectman has become “too big.”  It seems to me, however, that that is personality driven, not a function of the job.  Your job is to be a member of Belmont’s board of directors.  And boards set policy.  They don’t run the operations.  The School Committee interacts with Superintendent John Phelan in the same way.  No question exists about who makes operational decisions for the schools.  If there is a decision, or type of decision, that you would have left to the Superintendent on the school-side, you might consider leaving corresponding decisions on the town-side to our Town Administrator.

Second, empower your staff.  As a member of the School Committee, you would never dream of walking into one of Belmont’s schools and telling the principal how to do his or her job.  I urge you to give your department heads the same deference you would give your principals.  Belmont has long been blessed with smart, committed, talented staff.  Sure, you need to set policy to guide the ship. That’s your job.  But, you also need to let your staff do their jobs.  If you wouldn’t participate in the operational decisions of a principal as a member of the School Committee, don’t feel compelled to participate in the operational decisions of a department head as a member of the Board of Selectmen.

Third, respect the intelligence of your constituency.  One thing you likely learned as a member of the School Committee is that Superintendent Phelan is a straight-shooter.  Folks appreciate that.  If the Belmont schools face a space problem, we hear about it. If there is a traffic problem at one of our schools, we hear about it. And, when financial and/or resource constraints make available options merely adequate, rather than perhaps ideal, we’re told that.  The community can understand when we face challenges.  And we can understand that you are committed to finding the best available solutions.  What we would not understand is if you don’t respect us enough to be up-front with our problems, open about our available options and their costs, and transparent about what you decide and why.

Finally, the Schools aren’t everything, but they’re way ahead of whatever is in second place.   I talk to a lot of Belmont residents in my roles as a Citizen-Herald columnist and the producer of the Community Conversations podcast at the Belmont Media Center.  One comment that once was made to me in one such conversation really rang true.  In urging that the schools needed adequate funding, this person said “I’ve never heard a person say they moved to a community because of the quality of their streets.”  Now don’t take that as encouragement not to fix the streets.  That’s clearly not what I’m suggesting.  Belmont has (finally) begun the long, and often painful process, of repairing and replacing its streets.  Nonetheless, the merit of this resident’s observation remains valid. Please, don’t forget the value of the schools to the community as a whole, as you learned from your time on the School Committee, in some misguided belief that somehow you must continuingly “prove” to folks that you can set aside your experiences with the schools.

I will save my congratulations for a few weeks.  After all, you still have an election in front of you.  But, let me wish you the best of luck as you approach your new endeavor.

April 20, 2017: Louis Armstrong: Lessons for the Library

April 20, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Timeless. In the recent Belmont Media Center debate between Library Board of Trustees candidates, one candidate referenced how, while growing up, she used the World Book Encyclopedias as her reference source.  In contrast, I am reasonably certain that my Millennial daughter has never opened a World Book volume, turning instead to the internet as her primary information source.  The Belmont library serves both individuals, the middle-aged person who turns to books and the Millennial who turns to the internet, even though looking perhaps for the same information. As that BMC debate comment acknowledged, it is the information, not the mechanism used to record and make that information available, that withstands time.

Let’s consider, for a moment, Louis Armstrong, labelled by TIME publishing as one of the 100 most influential Americans of all time.  It was almost this day 94 years ago, April 5, 1923, that Armstrong, as a member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, made his first recording. And the world changed. According to music historian Phillip Atteberry, “jazz, more or less as we know it, could have happened without a lot of prominent people. If Benny Goodman hadn’t come along as the King of Swing, someone else would have. Something like jazz could have happened without Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie or Thelonious Monk or even Duke Ellington. But jazz as we know it simply could not have happened without Louis Armstrong.”

More than 40 years after making that first recording, Louis Armstrong was still making history. In 1964 (May 9th), Armstrong ended the Beatles run of 13 straight weeks of having #1 songs with his recording of Hello Dolly. The musical revolution in the United States wrought by the Beatles, in other words, was grounded, at least temporarily, by a nearly 63 year old man who had been playing his trumpet for 40 years.

Much can be said about Louis Armstrong’s legacy. Born in poverty in New Orleans, Armstrong became an international music icon. Even if not the originator of the jazz solo, Louis Armstrong took the jazz solo to new heights. Armstrong gave birth to the use of improvisation in American jazz music. Armstrong began his career with one instrument (the cornet), not moving to a different instrument (the trumpet) until 1926.  Even later, Armstrong added decades of unique vocal renditions to his musical legend. All of which is known today, of course, to both young and old.

Which brings me back to the Belmont public library. As I sit here thinking about Louis Armstrong making that historic recording back in April 1923, I find myself somewhat awed by the task that the Belmont library has undertaken for our community. The job of the library is to make accessible not merely music, but information, in a multitude of forms, from a multitude of eras, to a multitude of people. From Louis Armstrong’s first recording in 1926, to his Beatles-defying recording in 1964, up to the music he recorded before his death in 1971, the music of Louis Armstrong will live on in public libraries. Whether available to my Millennial daughter (through You Tube), or to folks my age (through a paper book), information about the life and music of Louis Armstrong is made available to all comers through the public library.

In this era known as The Information Age, you truly have to appreciate the complexity of the job undertaken by the Belmont public library, as a community institution, in making available timeless information to anyone, and everyone, who seeks it. And one must admire the commitment of the people who keep that institution vibrant through all the dramatic changes in information-sharing over time.

November 3, 2016: Election campaigns as marketplace of ideas

Belmont Citizen-Herald: November 3, 2016

A long and painful federal election season will come to a close next week.  There’s not much need to beat up on the oft-stated complaint during this election year about the substance, or lack thereof, of the Presidential campaign.  I will not repeat the thinking of many voters that the Presidential campaign, based largely on personal attacks, has not well-served the country.

Given, however, that not long after the federal elections are over, there will soon be a local election here in Belmont, even now it is not too early for us to think about what we would not merely hope for, but what we should affirmatively expect, from any candidate for a local office in Belmont’s town elections next spring. How should our community’s elections differ from that which we have been experiencing?

I was recently reading a back issue of the Christian Science Monitor, one of my favorite news sources, about “personal choice” and its relationship to free enterprise.  “[F]ree enterprise is not just about enjoying abundant goods and services,” the Monitor said. “Its subatomic structure is ideas.  Free markets run on ideas. People try them on, dispute them, reject some, adopt others. . .Good ones will become better. Lousy ones will go down the drain.”

The Monitor’s article predated the 2016 Presidential campaign. Nonetheless, it would have provided sound counsel to both of the two major political parties this year.  And, looking forward to Belmont’s local elections, there are lessons to take away for candidates and voters alike.

“Free markets run on ideas.” One role of a campaign is to present those ideas for public consumption.  A campaign that fails to do so cheats the voters out of an opportunity to hear those ideas and to “try them on.” Too often a candidate avoids offering ideas, particularly new ideas, out of fear that voters will disagree.  Such conflict avoidance does a disservice to the community. A much better approach is to follow the counsel of British author Edward de Bono, who I believe rightfully opines that “it is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all.” Belmont voters should demand, and candidates should commit, that our local campaigns will be idea-oriented.

The dynamic nature of a campaign, be it for President of the United States, or Belmont Selectman or local Library Commissioner, does not flow exclusively from the candidates. It flows also from the voters.  In discussing the role of ideas, the Monitor said “people try them on, dispute them, reject some, adopt others.”  Elections, in other words, assume a certain level of active voter engagement. Elections are like marketplaces, with exchanges not of currency but of opinions and values. Campaigns should not be monologues, with candidates simply talking to voters; they should instead be dialogues, with voters also talking back (as well as with each other).  Just as one cannot truly participate in a marketplace by simply showing up at the cash register, one cannot truly participate in an election by simply showing up at the voting booth.

Let’s all take a deep breath, and a brief respite, when the Presidential campaign ends. It is, however, not too early for Belmont candidates, whoever they might be and for whatever office they might seek, to pledge to run an idea-based campaign.  And it is never too early for Belmont voters to commit to being actively engaged in the community dialogue which a campaign should generate.

Through a commitment to ideas and public engagement, we can do better than what we just experienced.