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.

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February 1, 2018–Belmont Light: Happy customers, greener power

February 1, 2018–Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont residents approve of the performance of Belmont Light, even while they don’t quite understand how our local electric utility operates.  Those are two of the messages found in the 2017 “Customer Satisfaction Survey” recently released by the utility.

Town residents are happy with both the service they receive from Belmont Light and the rates they pay.  According to the Belmont Light study, “when compared to other utilities (gas, phone, water, and cable), [customers] have a more positive perception of the service they receive from Belmont Light than other utilities.”  Belmont Light’s customers provided the utility a net positive rating of 94% in 2017, a slight increase over the rating of 91.8% received in the last survey in 2015.  Out of the nine factors customers were asked about, “reliable service” ranked the highest, with a positive ranking of 94.4%.

An overwhelming majority of Belmont residents know that Belmont Light is publicly-owned. The Belmont Light study reported that eight out of ten of the town’s residents recognized Belmont Light as a “community owned municipal utility” rather than as a private utility such as National Grid.  Knowing the public status of the electric utility, however, does not translate into public knowledge about how Belmont Light operates.  Fewer than half of Belmont Light customers knew that the utility is governed by a board made up of the town’s Board of Selectmen.

Being municipally-owned carries with it a host of responsibilities, Belmont customers told Belmont Light.  One such responsibility involves the efforts that Belmont Light should take to pursue “community goals.”  The Belmont Light study reports that more than one-third of the company’s customers (34.5%) believe that “community goals are more important than industry best practices,” while fewer than one-quarter (23.4%) thought the opposite, that industry best practices are more important.

One of those community goals is achieving higher levels of renewable energy.  More than one half of Belmont Light customers reported that they would be willing to pay somewhat higher rates to garner additional renewable energy for Belmont Light, while less than one-third said that they were unwilling to pay more money for this reason. The remainder said they “didn’t know.”  According to GreatBlue Research, the company that did Belmont Light’s study, this willingness of Belmont residents to pay somewhat more for “greener” electricity is significantly higher than in other communities comparable to Belmont.

Belmont residents believe Belmont Light is doing a good job of controlling its rates.  One advantage of public power is that the rates of municipally-owned utilities tend to be lower than the rates of private utility companies.  And Belmont residents are satisfied with Belmont Light’s efforts to keep electric rates reasonable.  According to the study, “a slightly higher rate of customers agree with the perception that Belmont Light is ‘doing all that it can to keep customer prices low’ despite changing fuel prices and economic factors.”  In fact, a higher percentage of customers believed this to be true in 2017 than in the previous survey performed in 2015.

Belmont Light should be pleased with how favorably it is viewed by its customer base.  Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned.  First, Belmont residents expect Belmont Light to be involved in contributing to “community goals.”  Belmont Savings, as our local community bank, even though not publicly owned, serves as a great example of an institution that defines supporting the community as part of its mission.  Second, Belmont residents not only expect Belmont Light to take a leading role in responding to global climate change that can be attributed in large part to emissions from electricity, but residents are willing, within reason, to pay somewhat higher rates for the light department to pursue more renewable energy as part of that response.

Reliability remains, as it should be, at the heart of the service provided by any electric utility.  When people flip the switch, they want their lights to go on.  And reliability is one place where Belmont Light excels. Belmont Light’s own research, however, shows additional steps that the utility could and should be taking to serve the interests and expectations of Belmont’s customer base.

January 18, 2018 — Belmont’s Comprehensive Plan — Much yet to do

January 18, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

In this third part of a three-part series that examines Belmont’s ten-year comprehensive plan, I examine aspects of the plan that have not been pursued in the eight years since it was adopted.  The progress taken to implement some aspects of the plan, as considered last week, should not mask the lack of progress elsewhere.

Much of what has not happened involves our local business centers. The comprehensive plan recommended that Belmont “establish a more predictable approval process [for new development] that focuses on design standards and impact analysis.” The plan noted that existing zoning focuses on “height, density and use,” factors which do “not ensure compatibility of new development with [Belmont’s] historic character and development patterns…” These new standards have never been considered.  The plan recommended rezoning Belmont’s business centers to allow “mixed uses,” a combination of residential and commercial uses, an action not taken.  This failure, the plan says, “inhibits an appropriate mix of uses and scaled new or infill development which can enhance the vitality of these districts.”

Re-visioning Belmont’s “commercial centers” was recommended.  For example, the plan recommended defining new business centers, including Central/Palfrey Square, East Belmont and Brighton Street (“Hill’s Crossing”) (nearby Hill Estates), each having its own individual character.  This recommendation has been ignored.

Preserving Belmont’s neighborhoods received considerable attention in the comprehensive plan.  The plan indicated that Belmont first needs to “strengthen [the] physical definition of neighborhoods.”  After doing that, the plan recommended “establishing neighborhood-specific design and site plan standards [that] can reinforce historical character and development patterns.” This has not been pursued.

For historic preservation, the comprehensive plan recommended a by-law to protect “specimen trees,” along with increased use of “scenic road designations.” (Somerset Street is Belmont’s only “scenic road”).  Neither have been pursued.

Increasing the “walkability” of Belmont is one essential strategy for a sustainable community.  The comprehensive plan recommended that “sidewalks should be included in road reconstruction policy.”  That is still not done. Not too many years ago, the Board of Selectmen determined that Belmont’s limited resources should be devoted to road repair and reconstruction, excluding sidewalks.  Perhaps now that there are sufficient resources for road repair, a corresponding sidewalk repair and reconstruction plan should be prepared.

Some things recommended in the comprehensive plan are beyond the direct control of Belmont and have not been pursued.  Improving bus connections to Alewife (such as diverting existing 128 shuttles to/from Waltham) is one example.  Advocacy by Belmont’s leaders is what is needed, not direct decisionmaking.

Some action steps, seemingly reasonably “easy,” have not been pursued.  Improving signage for Belmont Center parking has never occurred.  One certainly does not drive down Waltham’s Moody Street and wonder where municipal parking is located.  Similarly, developing a signed pedestrian circulation plan for the Leonard/Common/Concord intersection, as recommended by the plan, should be manageable.  Why do people feel they must risk their lives to get from Clark Street / White Street / Belmont Center to the Post Office? Is that process more difficult than it sounds?

The comprehensive plan recommended steps increase bicycling to school.  Designating bike routes to school, marked by signage, was one recommendation  not pursued. But who decides? The Selectmen? DPW? Office of Community Development? Similarly, “providing bicycle parking/storage at transit stations” and other public destinations was recommended but not done.

Comprehensive plan recommendations to increase housing alternatives have received some of the least attention.  The plan recommended consideration of allowing accessory/in-law apartments and allowing three-family structures where they have been historically located.  Allowing increased attached single-family housing and townhouse development was recommended for consideration. None of these have been considered, let alone adopted.

The failures identified above, if inaction can even be considered a failure –“failure” may be unduly harsh of a word– cannot be laid solely at the feet of the Selectmen.  Multiple decisionmakers can/should consider what was recommended in the 2010 comprehensive plan and what needs to be done to bring forth those recommendations for decision.  Inaction may simply indicate the lack of resources to pursue all of the plan’s recommendations, even over eight years. Inaction may also simply indicate the inherent difficulty in converting a “recommendation” into a “proposal.”  Ultimately, while much has been done since Belmont adopted the town’s 2010-2020 comprehensive plan, much remains to be done.

Roger Colton has been a Belmont resident since 1985 living in the Cushing Square neighborhood. He is also the host of Belmont Media Center’s podcast, “Community Conversations” and a guest host of Belmont Media Center’s weekly news program, “Belmont Journal.”  He’s a Town Meeting Member and chair of the Belmont Energy Committee.  Colton can be reached at Colton.Conversations@comcast.net.

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.

January 4, 2018: 2017 brought a year of progress for Belmont

January 4, 2018: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Remember when the Red Sox won the World Series back in 2004? That feeling of “I never thought I’d live to see the day”? That was 2017 in Belmont.

But first, some things never change.  One of those things is the pride our Belmont High School students bring to the community.  Special kudos in 2017 go to the BHS girls rugby team. In an historic first, their state championship was not merely the first in Massachusetts. Rather, the 2017 Belmont team was the first ever, in the entire country, to win a championship in girls rugby as a state-sanctioned varsity sport.  Well done, girls.  Well done, Coach Kate McCabe.

The community as a whole won when Town Meeting decided to proceed with major capital projects that have long languished.  Under the leadership of Anne Marie Mahoney, chair of the Major Capital Projects Work Group, decisions were made to proceed with short-term solutions, and a long-term plan, to address the abysmal conditions of our police station and DPW yard. While challenges yet remain, for the first time, there is now a clear path forward to replace these essential public facilities. Now, let’s talk about the name of that committee, the MCPWG!

Speaking of paths, after 25-plus years of debate, the Board of Selectmen approved a route for Belmont’s community path.  Based on an incredibly inclusive public input process, the path’s route will connect our town into the larger regional network of paths going both east and west. Completion of the community path –as with the DPW and police station, many obstacles still remain—is expected not only to be a boon to walkers/runners/bikers, but is expected to bring considerable business benefits to Belmont Center as well.

No new business generated more excitement than the opening of Belmont Books in Belmont Center last spring.  Along with the in-store Black Bear Café, Belmont Books contributes to the essence of community, having quickly become a destination place to shop, browse and/or meet friends and converse. Belmont has long missed having a book store.  Belmont Books has brought one back with class and style.

New thinking, new designs, new grade configurations and a new school appear to be the future for classes for many of our students.  During 2017, one could hardly turn around without being solicited for input about a new Belmont High School by the BHS Building Committee and chair Bill Lovallo.  What do you want a building to look like? What grades should be there? What kinds of spaces should exist, both inside the building and out? Natural light? Technology? Solar power? We’ve been asked about it all.

You “may” have noticed a new building going up in Cushing Square this year. After the multi-year debacle of a permitting process, the structure of Cushing Village (nay, The Bradford) finally began to rise this year.  What you will not notice is a new Library in Waverley Square.  Efforts by the Planning Board to consider such a proposal, strangely without ever consulting the Library Board of Trustees, were quickly shot down this past summer.  Instead, the newly appointed Library Building Committee will seek to implement the recommendations developed by the Library feasibility study.

And finally, while not needing a new building, under the tutelage of News Director Fredrique Rigoulot, the Belmont Media Center (located in Waverley Square) is now producing the Belmont Journal, a weekly news show focusing on hyper-local news specific to Belmont. You can watch it on television or stream it on-line, on-demand.

As we remember 2017, and wonder what 2018 might bring, we should remember Abraham Lincoln’s counsel that “the best way to predict your future is to create it.”

December 21, 2017–Time to revisit Belmont’s 2020 comprehensive plan

December 21, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

In April 2010, the Board of Selectmen and the Belmont Planning Board both approved a “comprehensive plan” for the town, to cover the period 2010 through 2020.  Given that the plan took nearly two years to develop, a new ten-year planning process should soon begin.

The comprehensive planning process was a massive undertaking. Under the direction of a 14-person oversight committee (full disclosure: I was a member of that committee), the planning process actively engaged more than 60 community members in “working groups” that addressed multiple facets of living in Belmont.  A series of public workshops was organized to discuss overlapping concerns and strategies, and to identify ways to bridge conflicting interests.  An initial public survey identified community concerns, while a second survey obtained responses to the recommendations and priorities set forth in a draft plan.

The topics covered by Belmont’s 2020 comprehensive plan ranged widely: historic preservation, commercial development, open space preservation, housing, transportation and energy, and public facilities and finance.  The 2020 comprehensive plan identified a series of short-, medium- and long-term actions the Town should take to address issues identified in each sector. The conditions underlying Belmont’s 2020 comprehensive plan have changed over time.  It’s now time to undertake the process again to look ahead for the next ten years (through 2030).

Over the next few weeks, I will examine various aspects of the 2020 comprehensive plan to see where Belmont followed-through and where it did not.  Before undertaking that conversation, however, I posit for your consideration several fundamental observations about the comprehensive planning process.

First, comprehensive plans are valuable only to the extent that they are used.  For example, in the past year, considerable verbiage has been directed to the question of revitalizing Waverley Square.  At no point in those discussions, however, has reference been made to Belmont’s comprehensive plan. This failure is puzzling given that the 2020 comprehensive plan specifically included elements that addressed commercial development, housing, transportation, and neighborhood preservation, all of which are relevant to what could/should occur in Waverley Square.  If planning decisionmakers do not seek to use the town’s own planning documents, one might question why we spend the town’s money, and the volunteers’ time, in developing such documents in the first instance.

Second, while comprehensive plan recommendations clearly impose no mandates, they are nonetheless intended to provide a roadmap for future decisionmaking.  When a plan identifies a list of short-, medium- and long-term action steps, the town may choose not to take some of those action steps. Still, it is reasonable to expect policymakers to at least use the plan as a reference point capturing what the community wants to occur.  The plan should, at a minimum, be a routine touchstone in future decisionmaking.

Finally, a comprehensive plan is not intended to eliminate future policy debates. Nor is a comprehensive plan intended to be effective only if it generates unanimous approval.  Rather, by its nature, a comprehensive plan should surface issues and balance conflicting interests.  Such a process is at the heart of good governance.  To argue, however, that recommendations in a plan should not be pursued unless everyone agrees with each recommendation is a poor excuse to ignore the planning and public input process that has occurred.

If we, as a community, can agree on these basic principles, then it is time to start the process of preparing Belmont’s 2020 – 2030 comprehensive plan. If we cannot, we will find ourselves for years to come wondering why it is that decisions always seem to  be ad hoc, and never seem to part of a broader coordinated strategy to create and maintain the community we would like to have.

December 7, 2017–Combating racism through children’s books

December 7, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

The data is staggering.  Racial biases begin at a very young age.  “By age three,” Story Starters Boston reports, “children have already absorbed the climate of our society in which ‘middle-class white culture is presented as a norm or standard. . .in terms of appearance, beauty, language, cultural practices, food and so on.’”  Black and white children tend to favor their own race at age three, one researcher finds, but by the time they are five, black children also show a pro-white bias.

Not talking about race doesn’t make these racial biases go away. Rather, family conversations help.  A new program soon to begin here in Belmont, Story Starters Boston, is designed to facilitate these conversations.  According to Joslyne Decker, founder of Story Starters, the program “uses children’s literature to give families the tools and support to talk about race and racism and to engage in family-centered social justice conversations.”  The program, to be held at the First Church Belmont, is funded through a grant from Belmont Against Racism and is sponsored in part by Belmont Books.

“Many of us have been taught not to see color,” Decker says.  “We’ve been told that to see race is wrong and shameful. We’ve been told that somehow seeing race is, in fact, racist.” She disputes that notion.  “Although these lessons may have been borne from good intentions,” Decker says, “not seeing race is harmful to all of us, people of color and white people alike.  If we can’t see race, we can’t see racism.”

The research supports the message advanced by Decker.  “Silence about race does not keep children from noticing race and developing racial biases and prejudices, it just keeps them from talking about it,” one researcher reported in 2009.  Quite to the contrary, a different researcher said, exposure to people of other races in books, on TV, or in real life must coincide with “explicit conversation” about race to have an impact.  “Without making specific references to the topic of race,” they found, “it is unlikely that children will understand that. . .they should not discriminate against others based on their skin color.”

The use of children’s books is one essential element to stem the tide of racism, according to Decker.  Books represent both “windows and mirrors,” she says.  “They are the mirrors that reflect how we see ourselves.  They are the windows through which we can see others.”  Reading books, Decker says, helps children develop social empathy.  Through books, she says, “children can place themselves in someone else’s shoes.”  Through books, she says, “children can learn about different kinds of families, different people, different cultures.” Through books, she says, children expand their “moral imagination,” the ability to imagine both different people and different situations.

Story Starters seeks to help parents use children’s books to have family conversations about race.  Parents are provided weekly newsletters to help guide them in talking with their kids about the books they are reading.  Parents often face two problems, Decker says, both of which Story Starters tries to address.  First, parents don’t generally have an opportunity to “practice” the conversations they want to have with their kids.  Second, they don’t have a support group when things don’t go well.  Story Starters strives, Decker says, to assure parents that conversations about race “don’t have to happen in isolation.  We celebrate our successes and we talk about our challenges.”

Story Starters delivers a wonderful service to our community.  It is a ten week program directed toward families with children in Pre-k through Grade 4.  The program begins in January 2018.  The registration deadline is December 11, 2017.  Families can register at: https://www.storystartersboston.com/register.