March 8, 2018–Expanding Board of Selectmen has Merit

March 8, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

The questions posed by an assessment of the proper size of Belmont’s Board of Selectmen, as recently considered by a Town Meeting study committee, predate the very founding of our community.  “No political problem,” James Madison said in The Federalist (No. 54), “is less susceptible to a precise solution than that which relates to the number convenient for a representative legislature. . .”  While the Board of Selectmen is obviously not Belmont’s “legislature,” that function being assigned to Town Meeting, the difficult questions identified by James Madison 230 years ago are those which Belmont now faces as well.

There is no standard size for a municipal governing board. Nor are there any definitive guidelines on how such a size might be determined. Perhaps the closest that exists is the Model City Charter (Eighth Edition), last published in 2011 by the National Civic League. In its commentary on council size, the Model Charter recommends that “the council be small – ranging from five to nine members. . .[S]maller city councils are more effective instruments for the development of programs and conduct of municipal business than large local legislative bodies.”

Even the “small” council endorsed by the National Civic League, however, has a minimum of five members.  A three member municipal governing board has never been recommended by the League.  The smallest municipal council size ever recommended by the League has been four members.

The Model City Charter’s discussion tempers its recommendation of a “small” council with the following observation: “in determining the size of the council, drafters should consider the diversity of population elements to be represented and the size of the city.”  This advice seems particularly applicable to Belmont.  While obviously Belmont is not a “large” community (as communities go), there is no question but that, financially, even Belmont operates a “large” budget.  With a town budget well in excess of $100 million in Fiscal Year 2018, there can be little question that Belmont’s municipal government is a large and complex organization.

In addition, Belmont’s frequent portrayal as a homogenously white, upper-middle class community is a gross over-generalization. While, clearly, there are homogeneously white, upper-middle areas within Belmont, the diversity of Belmont is actually quite stark.  Belmont residents exhibit diversity in attributes such as age, economic status, race, homeowner vs. renter status, and length of time people have lived in the town, amongst others.  It seems, in other words, that Belmont’s diversity counsels for a larger rather than a smaller Board of Selectmen.

A 2009 study by the University of Buffalo’s Regional Institute examined the size of municipal government boards.  The Regional Institute concluded that “size choices have tradeoffs” and there is no optimal size “to maximize performance on all municipal goals.”  The Institute stated: “virtually all design decisions entail tradeoffs to balance multiple competing goals and values.”  The Institute’s study found that larger councils are generally better able to represent diverse public opinion, respond to demands for constituent service, deliberate reflectively, and tackle complex or controversial issues.  In contrast, the Institute continued, smaller councils are better able to operate cheaply, respond to community consensus, and handle a light workload of routine and uncontroversial decisions.

It would appear that Belmont falls on the side of those factors counseling for a larger council.  And Belmont would not be unique in reaching this conclusion.  The Institute’s study examined the size of municipal governing boards in five counties in New York, including communities ranging in size from villages, to towns, to cities.  The final study reported that of the 156 communities in these five counties, only one had a local municipal board of three persons.  By far, the most common size of a local municipal board was five persons.  At the least, while it would not be legitimate to decide that Belmont should have five members on its Board of Selectmen because “everyone else does,” it is appropriate to find that the relatively small size of Belmont does not make our community “too small” to support a five-person governing board.

The Town Meeting study committee’s recommendation to expand the size of Belmont’s Board of Selectmen has merit for our community.  Town Meeting should act favorably on that recommendation.


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.

January 11, 2018: Looking at all that has been accomplished

January 11, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Now that Belmont is eight years into its ten-year Comprehensive Plan, community members might wish to think about which recommendations from that plan have been accomplished and which have fallen by the wayside.  It would be unreasonable to expect that all recommendations would be pursued.  There is never sufficient staff, time or money to pursue all recommendations.  Those action steps that are taken, and those that are set-aside, however, do reflect the “high” and “low” priorities of Belmont’s decision-makers.  It seems reasonable, therefore, to review those decisions to allow community members to assess for themselves whether the priorities pursued by the town’s leadership comport with the priorities residents believe to be most important.

The reference to Belmont’s “leadership” is not a reference exclusively to the Board of Selectmen. Rather, Belmont relies heavily on volunteer committees to assert leadership in the areas that are within their charge.  Indeed, much of the progress that Belmont has made in pursuing the recommendations of the Comprehensive Plan originates from the Town’s committees.  Town Meeting Members, too, have a role to play in asserting leadership. They should not simply react to the proposals of others.

In this week and next, I will examine those Comprehensive Plan recommendations that have and have not been pursued.  I begin with some of the more notable accomplishments since the Comprehensive Plan was prepared.  They are considerable.

Preserving the character of Belmont was key to the Comprehensive Plan.  The Comprehensive Plan recommended consideration of a demolition delay by-law to help protect the historic nature of the community.  Under the leadership of the Historic District Commission, that by-law was adopted by Town Meeting. The Comprehensive Plan recommended “adoption of energy efficient building code standards and incentives.”  At the behest of the Energy Committee, Town Meeting adopted the Stretch Energy Code (an energy efficient building code).  The Comprehensive Plan recommended adoption of the Community Preservation Act.  Town Meeting approved the CPA, as did the voters.

Addressing financial issues received substantial attention in the Comprehensive Plan.  The Plan recommended that Belmont “undertake planning for the next phase of public building projects.” Just last year, for the first time, Town Meeting approved short- and long-term plans to move forward on the library, the DPW Yard and the police station.  A high school building committee has been appointed, and is working diligently toward a new school.

Supporting our commercial districts was an important element in the Comprehensive Plan.  The Plan recommended “improv(ing) the physical appearance of commercial areas.”  Not without considerable pain in the process, Belmont Center and Cushing Square both received complete facelifts since that recommendation.

Open space was a critical Comprehensive Plan element.  The plan recommended taking steps to “preserve and enhance active and passive recreation areas.”  At the behest of the Conservation Commission, Clay Pit Pond has been subject to a master planning process with implementation steps now occurring.  Through the leadership of neighborhood groups, the Grove Street Park and PQ Playground are both being subject to renovations, and Joey’s Park was completely rebuilt.  Town Field is next in line for approval by Town Meeting, perhaps even this spring.  The Comprehensive Plan recommended steps to “expand off-street recreational trails that interconnect. . .to inter-town trails both to the East and West.”  The Board of Selectmen just recently approved a route for Belmont’s community path.

Energy and sustainability were addressed in the Comprehensive Plan.  The Plan recommended that Belmont should “reduce the Town’s energy budget.”  Belmont became a Green Community and has been receiving state funds ever since to reduce energy usage in town buildings. The BHS Building Committee has made sustainability one of its priorities for the new school.  The Plan recommended new “zoning for by-right alternative energy equipment/installations.” Town Meeting approved a new solar zoning by-law and more than 250 residents have since installed rooftop solar units.

The list could continue.  Frequently, it seems that complaining about what the Town is not doing is a favorite past-time among some Belmont residents.  However, while there are certainly elements of the Comprehensive Plan that have not been pursued as aggressively as they should be (and should have been) (a topic I will consider next week), assertions that “nothing ever gets done” in Belmont are demonstrably wrong.

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.

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.