August 24, 2017: A question asked far too often

August 24, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

It’s not as though it was strictly a process issue, although the process was terrible. It’s not as though Planning Board members did not have the same opportunity to participate in the public input process for the Library feasibility study that everyone else in town had, though they did.  It’s not simply that the Library Board was on the cusp of beginning a private fundraising campaign, though floating a new “trial balloon” quite foreseeably would undermine that effort.

No.  It wasn’t any one of those things standing alone.

What really bothered me was that, at not inconsiderable cost in time and money, the Library Trustees had just recently undertaken a site feasibility study, backed up by its long-range plan. Based on these studies, the Trustees recommended a course of action based on the solid information and public input received and considered.

What really bothered me by the “Big Idea” that was recently “floated” by the Planning Board was, that as too often occurs, the Library’s feasibility study and long-range plan were both relegated to the back shelf, not because those documents were based on insufficient process, or bad data, or inadequate analysis, but rather because the Planning Board simply chose to ignore them. The Library’s feasibility study and long-range plan were treated as things to be set aside to gather dust.  Are people really surprised that the Library Trustees were somewhat less than thrilled?

Consider not only the conclusions that the Library’s feasibility study reached, after months of study, but consider the Library’s own “long-term plan.”  For example, the objectives that long-term plan had identified for the Library included: (1) the desire to “enhance [the] relationship with the Belmont School Department. Seek opportunities for additional collaboration with administration, school committee, teachers, and librarians”; (2) creating “more opportunities for technology training for seniors”; and (3) increasing “cross generational programming, bringing together people of all ages.”

These were all backed by the observation that the objectives were best served by keeping the Library in the middle of town. They were backed by the conclusion that staying close to as many schools as possible helps. When one looks at the Library’s long-term plan, it seems clear why the Trustees concluded, and why the community input supported, maintaining the library toward the center of the community, and nearby to multiple schools. The Planning Board didn’t even acknowledge the objectives, let alone incorporate them into its deliberations.

What bothers me is not simply that the “Big Idea” floated by the Planning Board seems inconsistent with these findings and conclusions, but that the Planning Board’s action is a symptom of a bigger problem. The following question gets asked far too often in Belmont: “whatever happened to the [insert name of study or plan]?” The following result arises far too frequently. The Town spends money, hires people who have specialized knowledge, devotes staff and volunteer time, solicits public input, prepares the analysis, and then. . .ignores the results.

If the Planning Board’s “Big Idea” moves forward, it should first move forward by a consideration, by those elected to oversee the Library, of whether the idea is consistent with the basic findings and conclusions of the Library feasibility study and the Library’s long-term plan.  These Library planning documents, in other words, should not be an after-thought, but rather should be the touchstone to any future consideration. That’s why they were prepared.

Should the Planning Board choose to advocate its own “Big Idea,” it should be able to articulate precisely how, and why, its own findings and conclusions should stand in lieu of those findings and conclusions that the Library Trustees reached through their own planning processes.

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April 27, 2017: Ill-fated solid waste facility should not shackle our future

April 27, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Town Meeting should act favorably on the Pay as You Throw article that will be considered in May. That article would allow the Board of Selectmen to consider PAYT when Belmont negotiates a new solid waste contract this coming fall, notwithstanding a 1990 over-ride regarding solid waste. Arguments that the 1990 vote created a “social contract” under which Belmont residents would never need pay for trash collection should be rejected.

The tale of the 1990 over-ride actually began years before, when Belmont yielded to pressure placed on Massachusetts communities to join a consortium to incinerate their solid waste. According to a 2001 Harvard Business School analysis: “in the late 1970s and early 1980s Massachusetts officials leaned hard on many communities to join a consortium to incinerate their solid waste. . .[The state] wielded heavy sticks, notably the threat to close down existing landfills. Some municipalities resisted this pressure, but almost two dozen—representing 500,000 Massachusetts residents—felt they could not.” Belmont was one of 23 communities that joined the North East Solid Waste Committee.

Things went wrong almost immediately. The biggest problem arose when the state stopped pressuring local governments to close their landfills. Landfills that were expected to close instead continued to operate. Since the NESWC contract called for a Guaranteed Annual Tonnage to be provided to the incinerator, when large communities such as Lawrence and Lowell decided not to participate, the 23 smaller communities (including Belmont) were required either to provide equivalent substitute tonnage for the trash that had been expected from the large communities or to pay for that tonnage anyway.

The adverse impacts on Belmont were extraordinary. The 1985 Warrant Committee report to Town Meeting noted that the “costs of disposal will rise to about $29 a ton from $16 during the current fiscal year.” In 1986, the WC reported that the “costs of collection and hauling will be about $56 a ton.” In 1987, the WC told TM that the budget for solid waste was “almost 70 percent above the amount voted [the previous year]. . .”

The cost increases simply didn’t slow down. A subsequent investigation of NESWC by the Massachusetts Inspector General reported in 1997: “NESWC communities currently pay approximately $95 per ton for waste disposal.” In short, NESWC created a financial crisis for Belmont: a 600% increase in trash collection and disposal costs (from $16/ton to $95/ton) in just over ten years (1985 to 1997). The Inspector General’s report noted that “rapid increases in the cost of waste disposal meant that other budgetary items necessarily had to get trimmed.”

Because of these budgetary pressures, Belmont swallowed hard and passed a 1990 over-ride devoted to solid waste. This was not based on any commitment that residents would “never have to pay for trash collection and disposal,” but rather because Belmont was drowning in NESWC debt that threatened the town’s schools as well as its police, fire and other community services.

The financial debacle associated with the NESWC trash incinerator no longer burdens our community. Today, moving to PAYT would not only be environmentally friendly, but would save the town close to a million dollars over five years. To allow the NESWC disaster to prevent Belmont from even considering a contemporary trash collection and disposal scheme would be to allow that NESWC incinerator to impose continuing environmental and economic harms on Belmont.

Belmont suffered for years because of the ill-fated NESWC facility. It should not, today, be allowed to shackle us in the future to both our financial and environmental detriment. In negotiating a new solid waste contract this year, the BOS should be authorized to at least consider PAYT.

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.

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.

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.

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.