August 31, 2017: Cell phones are the new “bouncing balls”

August 31, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

As our kids head back to school this week, let’s think again about the safety implications of mixing cars with kids walking to school.

Some lessons you just never forget. I’ve been taught since I was a young driver to “beware the bouncing ball.” I will always carry the memories of those afternoons practicing driving around our neighborhood, gripping the wheel of our family car, my instructor at my side. My mother would lecture (sometimes, perhaps, in louder tones than others), “bouncing balls, and the children who chase them, are the bane of the driver. Watch for them. Notice them.”

The numbers today tell us about a different type of “bouncing ball.” These numbers warn that it is perhaps the teenager that is most at risk as a pedestrian.  According to one report, “Teens on the Move,” every hour of every day a teenage pedestrian in the United States is killed or injured.  According to this study, “while teens account for one-third of children in the United States, they make up two-thirds of the pedestrian fatalities.”

Safe Kids, an organization dedicated to improving pedestrian safety, agrees.  Safe Kids attributes the problem to “distracted walking.”  Safe Kids reports that by the end of 2015, 88% of high school students owned cell phones, up from 45% just ten years earlier.  This trend has safety implications for students walking to and from school.  Safe Kids collected more than 34,000 observations of students crossing streets in school zones.  It found that “one-in-five high school students, and one-in-eight middle school students, were observed crossing the street while distracted by phones, headphones and other mobile devices.”  Indeed, according to Safe Kids, from 2013 to 2016, distracted walking increased from one-in-five to more than one-in-four among high school students, and increased from one-in-eight to one-in-six middle school students.  In today’s world, in other words, cell phones are the new “bouncing ball.” As my mother would have said “watch for them; notice them.”

It is not just street crossings, however, that merit increased attention as our kids go back to school.  Driveways can be deadly as well.  In the United States, 50 children are backed over every week because a driver could not see them.  Every vehicle, I am told, has what is called its “blind zone,” that area behind the vehicle where the driver cannot see even when looking back and properly using his or her rear and side view mirrors.  The larger the vehicle, the larger the blind zone.

Driveways are often made even more dangerous to kids walking to school by bushes and other shrubberies that line the driveway or sit close to the sidewalk and impede sight lines.  In addition, cars like our Prius hybrid are so quiet, they can “sneak up” on pedestrians, both young and old, without being heard.  Situations where the driver cannot see the pedestrian, and the pedestrian can neither see nor hear a car backing out of the driveway, will daily present the potential for tragedy without the exercise of utmost care.

Unlike the teenage dangers of distracted walking, backing out of driveways poses the most danger to younger children.  According to KidsAndCars, a national safety organization, “children do not understand the danger of the slow moving vehicle; they believe if they see the vehicle, the driver can see them.”  The need to protect our kids from our cars, in other words, arises before one’s car ever hits the streets.

Kids, welcome back to school. I hope you find the year both fun and interesting.  Here’s hoping, also, that we all take seriously our responsibilities, as both drivers and pedestrians, to keep the school year safe as well.

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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.

August 2, 2017: Purple Heart Day–Remembering the fallen

August 2, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

On Monday, August 7, Belmont will observe Purple Heart Day.  The day commemorates those men and women who have received the Purple Heart in service to our country.

First created in 1782 by General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, the award was then known as the Badge of Military Merit.  The Badge fell into disuse after the Revolutionary War until being resurrected in World War I.  According to one history of the medal, the Purple Heart is awarded to any member of the Armed Forces who, while serving after April 5, 1917, has been wounded, killed, or has died after being wounded.  (The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.)  Since then, while the Pentagon does not track the exact number, current estimates are that roughly 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded. The categories of Purple Heart recipients have been expanded in recent years.

Purple Heart Day is not a “holiday.” Neither government offices nor businesses are closed.  No parades are held.  No fireworks are set off. It is a day of introspection, a day to say “thank you” to all those who have served through the military. Residents would be well-served by grabbing the kids and attending the Purple Heart Day morning ceremony at the Belmont Public Library.

I do have one “worry” about Purple Heart Day.  It is the same concern I have with donating to local food drives only at Thanksgiving; or embracing diversity only on Martin Luther King Day.  Appreciation of, and respect for, our veterans should not be something that is taken out and dusted off for a Purple Heart Day ceremony, only then to be returned to the back shelves of our minds to await next year’s ceremonies.

(That’s not to say that such appreciation implies an unqualified buy-in to all military policies. What our men and women serve to protect is the right to think as we wish.  That includes the right to dissent.)

Devoting a special day to acknowledge those sacrifices not only of the men and women who have fallen in service, but those also of the families of the men and women who have fallen, is the right thing to do.  Consider just one type of sacrifice: experiencing a disability.  The numbers are staggering. Of the nearly 1,000 veterans living in Belmont, nearly one-quarter now have at least one disability. (That disability rate is more than three times higher than the disability rate in Belmont’s total adult population). Part of that, of course, is because many of our veterans are aging.  Nearly 40% of Belmont’s veterans are age 75 or older, while more than two-thirds are age 65 or older. This, however, may be a situation where the numbers may get in the way of the story.  The “story” is one of service, and of sacrifice, men and women, generation upon generation.

For those who perhaps want to do more than simply attend a ceremony on Purple Heart Day, learning about Belmont’s Veterans Memorial Committee (www.BelmontVets.com) is worth your time.  That Committee is “dedicated to establishing and preserving Belmont’s memorials to its veterans and those who died in service.” For example, the Veteran’s Committee was the driving force behind restoration of the monument to those who served in WWI.  It is also spearheading the effort to renovate and expand the memorial at Clay Pit Pond acknowledging Belmont residents who have served in all conflicts since the Civil War.

Let us never forget to appreciate those who have fallen in service.  But, let us also not “remember to remember” only on those days that are specially set aside for doing so.

July 20, 2017: Talking today about when savings run dry

July 20, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

It’s worth saying out loud already.  Even though Belmont has been frugal with its spending in recent years, Town Meeting was told this May that “projected deficits for [Fiscal Year 2020] and beyond suggest that. . .increased revenue (such as in the form of a future override and/or reduced expenditures) may. . .be required in the coming years.”

This message was brought by a group called the Warrant Committee.  The Warrant Committee is charged with being TM’s advisor on financial matters.  The Committee authors a report to TM each year on Belmont’s proposed budget for the coming year and beyond.  While not easy reading, the report is worth paying attention to.

Belmont has used the increased revenue from its 2015 operating override wisely, this year’s report said.  When voters approved the 2015 override, TM created what was called the “General Stabilization Fund.”  The GSF was intended to serve as a “savings account” to hold the override revenue until needed.  The override revenue was expected to help the town balance its budget for three years (2015, 2016, 2017).

In fact, according to the Warrant Committee, Belmont will not need to draw money from this “savings account” in 2018.  As a result, the Warrant Committee said, “we should be in a position to use a portion of [the GSF] to balance the budget in [Fiscal Year 2019].”  It is at that point, however, that the arithmetic catches up with Belmont and the savings account will run dry.  The arithmetic is easy to understand.  While expenditures in this year’s budget will increase by 3.5%, revenues simply don’t increase that fast.  Accordingly, while Belmont can draw down its savings account for several years, eventually those savings will run out.

This year’s budget does what most Belmont residents really want done.  According to the Warrant Committee, “the recommended budget maintains roughly level town services, avoids major cuts in the School programs and addresses higher enrollments, and provides for capital investments (roads, sidewalks, equipment).” The Warrant Committee reported unequivocally that “Belmont’s schools are efficiently run with excellent results.”  The Committee noted that “there has been increasing attention to the state of our roads and sidewalks and the 2015 override devoted more resources in this critical area.”

Schools. Roads. Level services.  Good job, right?

So, given that good news, why talk about 2020 today? The time comes closer, you see, when Belmont will need to seek another override approval from the voters.  When that time arrives, statements will be made about the dire consequences of not approving the override, as well as about the “millions of dollars of waste” that could be removed from the budget (if only we “really tried”).  Letters will be written. E-mails sent. As we know all too well, however, in an election campaign, it is often difficult to separate truth from spin. Competing claims are often intended not to educate, but rather simply to harden the pre-existing opinions of people who already firmly believe one way or the other.

Knowing what we know today about when the arithmetic tells us our savings will run dry, therefore, one process that would be beneficial, whether through the Warrant Committee or someone else, is for a series of public forums to be held over the next two years to allow the public to express their opinions about what specific services are essential to preserve from cuts and, conversely, where specific budget cuts would be proposed by those who believe waste exists.

Engaging in that public conversation outside the context of a campaign, by beginning it before an override is proposed, and hosting it by town officials, would be helpful to all concerned.

June 15, 2017: Growing a daughter at the ballpark

June 15, 2007–Belmont Citizen-Herald

Born into it. A Red Sox fan for life.  She never really had a choice. Our daughter, Allison, attended her first Red Sox game at the ripe old age of six months. For the next 18 years, until she left home to go to college in Iowa, Allison and I, dad and daughter, had a standing Friday night “date.” If the Red Sox were in town on a Friday, we headed to our seats at Fenway Park.

At first, it was simply an opportunity to give Mom a one night break from having a baby in the house. Over time, however, the trips grew into an entire set of personalized routines and rituals.  Home run celebrations. The Seventh Inning Stretch. Sweet Caroline. Dad and daughter. Game after game. Year after year. Even our friendship with the parking attendant. The attendant knew us; he looked for us. He noticed the first time Allison was the driver (rather than in the passenger seat) when we arrived one night.

It always felt like being a dad/daughter twosome at the ball park was noticed more than had we been a father/son duo.  And we played to that.  I wore my “Who” jersey (#1) to games while Allison wore her “What” jersey (#2). (Think “Who’s on First” for those familiar with Abbott and Costello comedy routines.)

Raising a daughter at the ballpark presented difficult decisions for a dad.  At what age was she old enough to go get ice cream on her own (about 7; older than she thought necessary). How long is she gone before you start worrying (about 30 seconds). When she was a toddler, decisions involved when to head home. By the time she was 8, however, she was deemed old enough to stay late to watch extra innings.  When Allison was 11, one playoff game moved past midnight as the extra innings piled up. At what point, I wondered, did giving her the chance to watch history become parental irresponsibility?  (We left at 1:00.)

Opening Day 2008. The Sox were to receive their championship rings for winning the World Series the previous fall. But it was a day game. Allison was 16 and in high school. The question inevitable. “Dad, can I skip school to go with you?” The game, however, ended up scheduled for 4:00, rendering the issue moot.  We were both disappointed.

Conflicts did arise. The deciding game of the 2013 World Series was to be at Fenway. On a Thursday night. Allison’s away at college. “Dad, can I fly home to see the last game of the World Series.” The answer was firm: “no, you cannot skip three days of college just to see a ballgame. There will always be another World Series.” She retorted, as only a baseball fan could, “did you learn nothing from 1918?”

Allison was back in Boston last summer for a few days and we went to Fenway Park together for the first time in two years. Dad and daughter. She, no longer a child, but an adult. I asked her whether it was still exciting to walk up the ramp and catch her first glimpse of the Green Monster.  “No,” she said, “it’s more like coming home, a place of comfort and refuge.”

Baseball. It’s not just a game. It’s not just about Nomar, Varitek and Papi. It’s not just about watching Ellsbury patrol Center Field, or watching Pedro strike out the side.

Dads, daughters and baseball. Traditions, memories and special bonds. A place of comfort and refuge. Gee, back at the age of six months, I thought we were just going to a ballgame.

June 8, 2017: Words matter–use them wisely

June 8, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Congratulations Belmont High Class of 2017.  As you cross the stage to accept your diploma, family, friends and community members all look on with justifiable pride.  You represent not only our today, but offer us our tomorrow.  And while it looks like our tomorrow is in pretty good hands, we need some help from you.

Today’s world poses some problems that I’d ask you to help us all work on as you move forward.  One of the biggest problems is that we frequently seem to forget today that words matter.  The old childhood rhyme is just plain wrong when it asserts that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Now I concede, as a person with training in both law and journalism, I pay particular attention to words. I won an Iowa supreme court case once because the state legislature used the word “that” where it should have instead used the word “this.” Nonetheless, for everyone, words do matter.

Some words get over-used today.  For example, I fear we may have become too casual with the word “hate.”   I, personally, often proclaim that I “hate” the Yankees, the Jets and the Jayhawks.  Hate, however, is a strong word, capturing a strong emotion.  We cheapen its meaning by making its use too casual. When we become desensitized to the word’s true meaning, it becomes too easy to overlook expressions of disapproval (or even simple discomfort) through proclaimed “hate” in language, or through practiced “hate” in behavior.  Be wary if you find the word “hate” popping up in your vocabulary too frequently.

The word “them” gets over-used as well.  “Them” (as in “not us”) connotes a focus on that which makes someone different.  One problem with its use today is that the word too frequently focuses exclusively on a single attribute of a person (or group of people).  A presentation last year here in Belmont, for example, concerned “Muslims in America.”  One speaker eloquently questioned how a person might become a “them” based solely on differences in religion, even though the commonalities arising from being a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a neighbor might be far more substantial. Finding yourself with lots of “thems” in your life may merit some reflection on whether you are allowing yourself to experience the entirety of individuals you meet.

When I was in college, comedian George Carlin had a popular routine about “seven words you can never say on TV.” Carlin used humor to make the point that words are just words; they are harmless unto themselves. But words are rarely “just words.”  And they almost never stand unto themselves. Words almost always carry a context: expectations, judgments, emotions, history. Their use conveys that context. Please, be aware of the full context you are conveying in the words you use.

The world seems recently to have become a less civil society. Your conscientious use of words in the future can help reverse that trend. To do so, whether you move from high school to college, or to some other life pursuit, you should strive to be constantly self-aware of your day-to-day, person-to-person impact on the world.  One of those impacts is through your awareness that no matter the setting –work or play, on-line or in-person, public or private– what you say, and how you say it, makes a difference.

In short, as you move on after graduation, I ask that you consciously strive to use words wisely.  Words matter.

Class of 2017, as an entire community, we smile and feel a rush of pride upon your graduation.  Congratulations on your accomplishments. Godspeed on your life journey.

May 25, 2017: Walking the line between capital truths

May 25, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

One of the truly thankless jobs in Belmont is serving on the town’s Capital Budget Committee. Two intractable truths face Belmont: (1) the capital needs of the town are real; and (2) the inability of many households to pay increased taxes to meet those needs is just as real.  The conflict posed by these two competing truths should be acknowledged. The reality of the needs does not make the ability-to-pay any greater; and yet, the inability-to-pay does not make the needs any less.

Some of the town’s most experienced public servants sit on the committee to figure out how to walk the line between these competing realities: former Selectman Anne Marie Mahoney, current Selectman Mark Paolillo, Jennifer Fallon, Becky Vose, Pat Brusch, and others. Under Belmont’s by-laws, committee members determine which projects or purchases are “most necessary.”  And they are charged with developing “the probable cost,” along with a “recommendation as to the method of financing” each project.

They scrimp and scrape and try to figure out how to make do with not enough money. In this year’s capital budget report to Town Meeting, for example, the committee reported, “the Fire Department will replace Squad 1 with a refurbished truck from the [Department of Public Works].”  The committee noted “a spirit of cooperation has developed among the departments who now make an effort to offer ‘hand-me-down’ vehicles and equipment to other departments.”

The problems the Capital Budget Committee faces are often thorny.  The lack of “good” solutions, however, does not allow them to “do nothing.”  Increasing student enrollment is one such issue.  The committee reported that “additional classroom space was required at the high school and the Burbank for the 2016-17 school year.” The addition of more modulars at the Burbank and the Butler is expected in the fall of 2018.  The committee told Town Meeting: “if enrollments continue to grow rather than [peak], more classrooms will be needed in the not too distant future.  The CBC anticipates that these future requests to fund modulars and/or to outfit additional classrooms may become more and more difficult to include in our limited budget allocation.”

The Capital Budget Committee is not, indeed cannot be, a cheerleader. If there is bad news to report, it must be said (out loud and in public), popular or not.  For example, Belmont has facilities that are not simply falling apart, they have fallen apart. According to the committee, in the opinion of many people, the police department and DPW “facilities are in worse shape than either the library or the high school.  Our town employees work in the police and DPW facilities under deplorable conditions. . .”

Finally, one job of the Capital Budget Committee is to identify those projects needing to be pursued, whether or not there is any group of people clamoring for them to be done. The committee told Town Meeting this year, for example, that unlike the library and the high school, “the Police Station and DPW are left without a constituency to advocate for them and no clear path forward.”

Understanding the job of, and the limits upon, the Capital Budget Committee, of course, does not require Town Meeting to accept without question the annual capital budget presented for Town Meeting consideration. I certainly have had my differences with the committee in the past.  In its upcoming review of the town’s capital budget, however, one would hope that Town Meeting will express an understanding of the complexity of the task of structuring a capital budget, and an appreciation for the willingness, and ability, of the Capital Budget Committee to keep all the balls up in the air for yet another year.