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.

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 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.

November 16, 2017: The “gift of presence” for hospice veterans

Belmont Citizen-Herald — November 16, 2017

It was cold that day. The day before Christmas in the Midwest usually is. The black hearse wound its way down the narrow lane to the grave site. A veteran was gone, to be buried with full military honors in a national cemetery in rural Iowa.

The bugler raised his instrument. Taps echoed through the trees and rolled over row upon row of headstones. The 15-member military Honor Guard from Fort Leavenworth (Kansas) fired its 21-gun salute. The head of the Honor Guard solemnly took the flag, having been removed from the casket and properly folded. He delivered it to. . .

No-one.  Nobody was there.  No family. No friend.  No neighbor or colleague or former roommate.

And the head of the Honor Guard that day, Belmont High graduate Bill McEvoy, realized right then and there that this was not the way the world should be.

The image from that lonely rural cemetery remained seared in McEvoy’s mind over the years. When he retired, McEvoy decided it was time for him to pull out that memory and finally act on it.  He began to volunteer at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Bedford (MA).  He quickly became involved with the No Veteran Dies Alone program.  He’s volunteered there ever since, more than eight years now.

The program is directed toward veterans in hospice care at Bedford’s VA hospital. (No Veteran Dies Alone is a national program through many VA hospitals.)  Some veterans are in the hospice care beds at the Bedford hospital.  Others are admitted for hospice care, but remain in the general population. The vast majority of veterans McEvoy has worked with are Vietnam veterans or older.

The No Veteran Dies Alone program, McEvoy says, has two components to it.  The first component involves “socialization visits.”  Through this part of the program, a volunteer sits with the veteran. Sometimes they talk; other times they listen to music.  As a volunteer, he may read poetry or do nothing at all other than to hold the person’s hand.  The point, he says, is simply to “be there. To get to know them.” What you provide, McEvoy says, is the “gift of presence.”

The second program component is directed toward veterans determined by the VA medical team to be “actively dying.”  Sometimes these veterans don’t have anyone. Sometimes, it has been a long process and the family simply needs the ability to take a break. Sometimes geographic distance makes a family’s presence impossible. McEvoy’s role through No Veteran Dies Alone, he says, is to “stand in the place for those who aren’t there.”

That’s not to say he’s present whenever someone passes.  He eventually learned, however, that “it is not so important to be there at the end of the journey, as it is important to walk with them along the way.”

“Be sure to emphasize,” McEvoy urged me when we sat down together, “that the story is not about me. It is only about the veterans.” In fact, he says, there are no limits on who can be a No Veteran Dies Alone volunteer.  “Every volunteer has their own reasons for being there. Anyone can do it. All you need is a good heart, a capacity for understanding, and the ability to be a good listener.”

One need not stand in a cold Iowa cemetery on the day before Christmas to appreciate the importance of the No Veteran Dies Alone program.  Persons who might want to volunteer for No Veteran Dies Alone should call Laurel Holland, 781-687-3074.  Persons who know a veteran they would like to receive hospice care through the VA hospital should call Karen Budnick, 781-983-9170.

November 2, 2017–Time to revisit McLean senior housing

November 2, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

In 1999, in one of the most contentious debates ever to face Belmont, making recent dust-ups over the sale of liquor licenses and the design of our town green look like pillow fights, Belmont’s Town Meeting voted to approve a comprehensive development package for property that McLean Hospital had proposed to sell for housing development. As part of the compromise that Town Meeting ultimately approved, various stakeholders received something to advance their particular interests.  Substantial land was preserved as open space.  Property was set aside for an affordable housing development.  High-end condominiums were to be constructed on some land. And land for a new cemetery was provided to the town.  All of those projects have since come to fruition.

Another part of the McLean compromise, however, has grown stale over the years. It deserves to be re-opened.  One parcel of the McLean land was zoned exclusively to allow a continuing care facility for over-55 persons. The property was bought by the American Retirement Corporation, which ultimately received a permit to build a “community” with nearly 500 living units (350 independent living, 136 assisted living).  After ARC received its permit, construction costs skyrocketed and the market for continuing care facilities collapsed. The project was eventually abandoned.  The land has gone unused ever since.

The need for additional life-cycle housing in Belmont continues unabated.  Aging Belmont residents continue to leave town when they find they no longer need a bigger home. Perhaps they can no longer physically take care of a single family home with multiple bedrooms (along with the accompanying yard). Perhaps they simply no longer want to do so. There is, however, no place in town for these seniors to move when they decide to downsize their living space. And they leave.

All the while, the McLean property sits vacant.

And the McLean senior housing property will continue to sit vacant because the zoning decision that was made twenty years ago limiting its use to a continuing care facility is out-of-date. The world has changed since that zoning decision was made. Efforts today focus on maintaining independent living for our aging residents rather than on moving our seniors into large-scale continuing care facilities.

Help is available. The Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, along with others such as the Boston Society of Architects and KPM (a nationally-recognized public accounting and business consulting firm), sponsors an annual competition that develops proposals for places just like the vacant McLean property. The FHLB matches graduate design students from area universities both with mentors from academia and with design and financial professionals in the Boston area.  In its 18th year, the competition develops proposals, including both design and financing, that address a local sponsor’s needs and desires while offering ways in which such proposals can be practically implemented in the real world.  Graduate students from at least two area universities must be on each team.  Participating schools range from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, to Boston University, Tufts University, the Boston Architectural College, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, and the MIT School of Architecture and Planning.

Belmont has both the need for additional life-cycle housing for the aged and a location that, at least in 1999, was seen as appropriate to help address that need.  Given that the FHLB competition provides precisely the type of help Belmont could use, it would make sense for Belmont to ask to be a local sponsor in the FHLB initiative. The real question, of course, is whether Belmont is willing to revisit its 20-year old zoning decision restricting the use of the vacant McLean property given that the rationale for that restriction has long-since expired.