March 23, 2017: Boston Belmont Friends Group: A service to yourself

March 23, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

What do you do?  What do you do when the school day ends at 2:30 and your play rehearsal or basketball game doesn’t begin until 7:00?  Where do you do your homework? Eat dinner? Simply stay grounded for that four or five hours?  These are very real questions facing Boston METCO students attending the Chenery Middle School and Belmont High School.

The Boston Belmont Friends Group helps fill that gap.  According to Lorraine Kermond, one of four parents who helped organize the group at the Chenery, one role of the Friends Group is to provide a safe, welcoming place –a home-away-from-home if you will– to allow Boston students to be grounded when they have time gaps created by participation in after-school activities and can’t just run home for a few hours.

“Having a host family is a lifeline,” says Janee Carroll, one of the Boston parents involved with the Friends Group.  “I don’t have to worry if my son (a ninth grader at BHS) gets stuck at school. He has a place to go.”  In the same way, Belmont host families help, also, when kids get sick at school.

While important, says Kermond, the role of “host families” misses the core of the Friends Group.  Yes, the Friends Group is a collaboration to ensure that kids don’t get stranded. Yes, the group helps parents in each community make connections in the other community.  However, Kermond says, “the parents who help make this group go are not merely fellow committee members, there is genuine friendship. We all have interesting jobs. We all have had interesting life experiences.”

And I “got it.” After all, our daughter has been out of Belmont High for six years. Nonetheless, some of our closest friends remain those parents we first met while waiting outside the Wellington for school to be dismissed.  The Friends Group recognizes that since the Boston parents will not have that after-school waiting time to bond, special efforts must be made to provide opportunities for relationships to sprout and for friendships to blossom. The kids are in school together and will choose their own friends. The parents would never have reason ever to meet.

Accordingly, parent-to-parent dinners are arranged throughout the year. Local events are scheduled when school events (such as curriculum night) occur.  Indeed, this year’s annual all-family bowling night is on the calendar for March 26th (contact Carol Sabia, crsabia@gmail.com if you’re interested in attending).  It takes effort and persistence to reach out to connect people, Kermond says. But it is an effort of passion, she says, given what each community has to offer the other community.

The parents of the original Friends Group at the Chenery have now aged with their kids into the High School; the friendships have followed.  Nonetheless, a Boston Belmont Friends Group persists at the Chenery. Starting next year, Kermond says, the aspiration is to also have such groups in all four elementary schools. Parent participation at all grade levels is sought.

Parents do a remarkable number of volunteer tasks to support their kids in Belmont’s public schools. The Boston Belmont Friends Group, however, feels different in nature. It feels like opening yourself to new friendships more than like volunteering for a job needing to be done. Opening your home to let a kid crash for a few hours; taking your family bowling; going to dinner with the parents of your student’s classmates. In short, making cross-community connections. It’s one of the things that METCO is all about.  Participating in the Boston Belmont Friends Group is not just a service to your child or to your school.  It is a service to yourself.

March 9, 2017: Marijuana regulation: Opinions need to surface early

March 9, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont will soon face the complex task of deciding how to regulate local marijuana dispensaries within the community.  Under “Question 4,” approved by Massachusetts voters in November of 2016, the recreational use of marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts.  While the state legislature is now considering amendments to the marijuana statute, legislators who are involved with that process say that no major changes will be made to the intent of what voters approved. The new statute gives the authority, and the responsibility, to develop local regulations to the town’s Board of Health.

Despite the flux that is present at the state level, Belmont residents should be thinking even now about what types of local regulation they might wish.  On the one hand, it might seem that since marijuana is now legal, the town could not prohibit its sale within town borders.  That conclusion, however, may well be wrong.  Not long ago, for example, Belmont was still a “dry” town, even though the consumption of alcohol has been legal for some time.  In contrast, David Alper, chair of the Belmont Board of Health, has said, rightly so in my opinion, that the Board will consider the fact that a majority of Belmont voters approved Question 4.  The community, in other words, has already expressed its preference.

Some topics are outside the scope of local regulation. The licensing of marijuana dispensaries, for example, is within state control.  Belmont, therefore, would not have the authority to require background checks of owners/operators or to require local ownership of marijuana facilities.  In contrast, governing the location of marijuana dispensaries is clearly within the town’s control.  We presumably would not want such stores to be close to schools, day care centers or parks. One question is whether we wish to limit marijuana dispensaries to one part of town, or whether we should allow them throughout town. For example, like liquor sales, we might want each major business center to have at least one sales location.

Local regulation of marijuana dispensaries will have some (but not all) aspects of the regulation of both alcohol and cigarettes. The form of marijuana sales, however, makes the issue of local regulation complex almost beyond belief.  In some ways, the sale could be like that of tea, where a customer can ask the proprietor to mix and match different types, flavors or potencies of the product.  However, marijuana can also be mixed with candy, with food, or with baked goods.  On-site consumption of marijuana is allowed (e.g., sitting down to eat on-site).  Each type of sale presents its own issues.

Some aspects of local regulation are very traditional zoning-type issues, including fencing, lighting and hours of operation.  Other aspects might not be traditional at all. Should there be regulation of trash disposal, security, and days of operation?  Would it even be legal to require local businesses to display information on the potential adverse consequences of using marijuana (e.g., impaired driving)?

Belmont could do nothing, but that would not be wise.  In the face of local inaction, the state would step in to regulate. Belmont would have to accept what the state decides.

In short, Belmont is facing major decisions on whether and how to regulate the local sale of marijuana.  People will have strong opinions. The Board of Health not only deserves to hear those opinions, but is striving to solicit those opinions.  Belmont residents should work with the Board to help craft marijuana decisions, not simply wait to respond to regulations, once published, on a straight up-or-down reject-or-approve manner.  When opportunities arise for public input, this topic of the local regulation of marijuana dispensaries deserves everyone’s attention and involvement.

February 23, 2017: Protests are fine, but how do we spend our own money?

February 23, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Much ado has been made about the devastating adverse impacts that President Trump’s decisions will have on the environment.  The President seeks to undo clean air and water regulations, dismantle clean energy programs, and promote environmentally destructive energy production and transportation facilities.  People are literally marching in the streets in protest.  In addition to this political response, however, one necessary local response to these policies is to pay even closer attention to how we handle our personal pocketbooks.

One thing we know in Belmont is that the biggest potential for a reduction in local Greenhouse Gas emissions lies in the transportation sector. According to the GHG Inventory prepared for Belmont last spring, “emissions from vehicles (mainly residential) are estimated to have increased 6% from 2007 to 2014.”  Indeed, today, transportation emissions make up the biggest source of GHG emissions in our community.

Reducing auto emissions is an effective tool to address global climate change. Belmont’s GHG Inventory stated, long before Trump was elected President, that “the largest opportunities for [GHG] reductions lie in the choices made when residents replace vehicles and heating systems.”  According to the Inventory, “the choice of an efficient vehicle is probably the single most important and effective action residents of Belmont can take for reducing emissions.” These personal choices on vehicles are made every day.  The GHG Inventory estimated that 1600 new vehicles are purchased every year by Belmont residents.  Through such purchases, 20% of Belmont’s existing vehicle stock is replaced each year.

The purchase (or lease) of electric vehicles is particularly sensible for Belmont residents.  Belmont’s automobile travel of 23.5 miles per day readily lends itself to the use of EVs, In fact, the town’s GHG Inventory reports, “vehicles in Belmont are driven substantially [fewer] miles per day on average than the state-wide average.” In addition, both the state and federal governments are putting their proverbial “thumb on the scale” to promote EVs by offering substantial rebates ($7500 Federal, $2500 MA). Possible increases in electricity use are offset by savings in fuel consumption.  EV drivers can expect to pay the equivalent of $1.40 to $1.65 per gallon of gas.  Discounts from Belmont Light also help offset any increase in electricity costs.

Mark Twain once said that it is not the things we don’t know that so frequently cause disasters. It is the things we do know, but aren’t true. There are considerable misconceptions about EVs.  People worry that EVs are too small, too light, or don’t go very far. As Belmont residents make choices about their vehicle purchases this year, the Belmont Drives Electric program is designed to provide sound information. Before you decide that EVs are “hard to drive,” for example, Belmont residents should visit one of the Belmont Drives Electric events to test drive a vehicle. You may well decide that an EV is not for you.  But, you may also decide that what you had “heard” or “thought you knew” about EVs is just plain wrong, and that an EV purchase would be appropriate to meet your household’s needs.

Taking time to learn about EVs is something that every Belmont car buyer owes both to themselves and to their community.  The Belmont Drives Electric program is designed to make that process of self-education easier.  It is an opportunity that should not be missed. And, when all is said and done, while marching to protest President Trump’s environmental decisionmaking may be necessary and appropriate, the cumulative impact of the car purchasing decisions that individual Belmont residents make in their ordinary course of living should also be recognized and acted upon in our continuing local efforts to clean up the environment.

February 9, 2017: Belmont’s drought response: Increasingly ‘too late’

February 9, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

While the poor quality of water that Belmont dumps into the Mystic River has gained considerable attention in recent years, the quantity of water in Belmont, not merely the quality, should also be of concern.  In five of the last seven months of 2016, the northeast region of Massachusetts, the region of which Belmont is a part, has been subject to a Drought Warning by the state.  In the state’s system of drought classifications, Drought Warning is just one step down from a Drought Emergency.

Under a Drought Warning, Belmont is not under the threat of mandatory water conservation measures.  Mandatory state restrictions on water use, such as a ban on watering one’s lawn, can only be imposed when the drought becomes a Drought Emergency.

Nonetheless, according to Belmont resident Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, Belmont should take the Drought Warning seriously even during these winter months.  People have been poorly conditioned by other warning systems, Blatt believes.  For example, when one hears a winter storm warning issued, the caution is about a storm that will occur in the future.  In contrast, Blatt says, a Drought Warning is not a prediction of a future event.  The Drought Warning under which Belmont has been placed means that the drought is here today.

By the time a Drought Warning has been issued, in other words, it is largely too late for people most effectively to respond.  The adverse impacts of the drought are not coming, they have already arrived.  In addition, Blatt says, those adverse effects cannot be alleviated simply through a few rain storms.  It takes months of wet weather for the impacts of a drought to be undone.  Moreover, she continues, hard rain storms are not generally helpful in ending drought conditions.  Big storms result in rain water quickly draining into the streets, being funneled into streams and rivers through stormwater pipes, and eventually flowing into the ocean.  In contrast, lots of snow could help.  Snow can melt slowly, soak into the ground, and help replenish ground water and drinking water sources.

Belmont residents are in no danger of turning their kitchen faucet on and not having water come out.  That, however, is not an entirely crazy notion.  Cambridge, for example, was forced last fall to begin to buy water from the Mass Water Resources Authority because of the decline in water levels in the city’s own reservoir. That need to purchase MWRA water not only imposed substantial costs on Cambridge residents, but also reduced available water supplies to other MWRA communities (of which Belmont is one).

I realize that as I write today, snow is on the ground and the Super Bowl (and, even more importantly, the coming start to baseball’s Spring Training) are more on peoples’ minds than things like restrictions on watering one’s lawn.  In fact, however, that is precisely the point.  The longer the Belmont community postpones its responses to the existence of drought conditions in Massachusetts, the more likely two things will occur.  First, the restrictions that may eventually be imposed will need to be more severe.  Second, even those more severe restrictions will be a less effective response to the drought conditions since it will increasingly be “too late.”

Through its water department, the town should be taking an aggressive response to the drought that has befallen Belmont (and many other parts of Massachusetts).  At the least, community education regarding ways to implement water conservation, even during these cold weather months, would be an important beneficial response to dry summer weather.  Waiting until the summer months to respond to continuing dry weather will be too late.

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.