Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Race to the Finish

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There's a statement frequently made, intended as sound advice on how to pace oneself for long endeavors: "It's a marathon, not a sprint."

Town Meeting chose to challenge that bit of conventional wisdom last night.

We resumed discussion of the budget. Annie LaCourt's comments last week were referenced often.

One amendment to the budget was offered. Stephen Harrington of Precinct 13 felt that the education budget was growing too rapidly, specifically as relates to payroll, so with his amendment he asked Town Meeting to cut the money we provide to the schools by $1 million.

You can see which Town Meeting members felt that we should reduce funding for education by $1 million here, under the column labeled "Article 22 - Amendment - Stephen Harrington."

There was some sparring over the mic, as Annie LaCourt attempted to spend just a bit more time than was allowed driving home a point that our current budget will see a reduction in services, specifically in education, over time. Members were paying attention, anyone watching from home was paying attention, so while I get the instinct to repeat the point it wasn't necessary. As Town Meeting goes it was a minor, quick departure from the outbreak of civility Town Meeting has enjoyed this year.

Rather than the usual airing of grievances, the discussion around this budget was about what we knew regarding our goals as a town, and how we could better provide residents what they desired.

Later on in the meeting one veteran member described it as the best discussion of the budget he'd seen in his time at Town Meeting. It made me proud to be a part of it.

Once the budget was voted on and approved, Town Meeting picked up the pace.

A short trip back to Article 20 to vote appropriations for the just completed Collective Bargaining agreements, then quick votes on 4 fairly routine appropriation articles.

That brought us to Article 32, an appropriation of $12,000 to assist with the selection of public art projects in East Arlington. If you've seen the Mural on the building on Marathon Street, you probably think as I do that this is a real positive sort of thing to have in East Arlington. Sean Harrington of Precinct 15 got up and urged us to vote against it; he wasn't a fan of using tax funds in this manner for this sort of thing. Town Meeting passed the article.

That brought us to Article 33, an article put on the Warrant by Stephen Harrington of Precinct 13, appropriating money for an Executive Director of the Human Rights Commission. As the bylaw is written, the Human Rights Commission is supposed to have an Executive Director, however they've been operating without one since the commission was created decades ago. The Finance Committee recommended that the Board of Selectmen, the Human Rights Commission, and the Town Manager figure out this issue, and report back next year. Stephen Harrington supported that plan, but also wanted a Town Meeting committee formed to study the issue as well.

I found the idea of an additional committee unnecessary, so I along with the majority of Town Meeting voted for the Finance Committee's recommendation and against Mr. Harrington's amendment.

Our business with Article 33 complete, we raced on, making it to Article 45 very quickly.

Article 45 would charge the Town Meeting Procedures Committee with the job of studying attendance at Town Meeting, and let us know if it recommends a process for removing Town Meeting members from office that do not attend the meetings. I consider, and the comments at the meeting I believe showed, that the charge is wider in scope than this. The charge more broadly is to consider the issue of attendance, and chronic absence in particular, and report back on whether there are ways the committee would recommend this issue be dealt with.

Other communities in Massachusetts have passed bylaws that, for example, remove a member who misses more than 25% of the sessions held in a year.

We completed Town Meeting last year in 6 nights. This year, we finished in 5. With short meetings like this 25% is too low a number, in my opinion. One bad cold will result in a member missing more than 25% of the meetings.

In one community it is the other members of the precinct that vote whether or not to recommend a member be removed. That is a potentially good safeguard, as rather than being automatic it allows the members from the precinct to consider whether the absenteeism is truly a case of a member not fulfilling the duties they've been elected to do, or whether health or other issues are temporarily at fault.

Personally, I don't believe it is an issue that a member misses 25% or more meetings in a single year. I believe the issue is with members that consistently miss 25%, 50%, even 100% of the meetings year after year after year.

I am also not sure yet whether a bylaw that provides a mechanism to remove these members from office is the only way forward.

For example, right now incumbent Town Meeting Members don't have to collect the 10 signatures a new candidate for Town Meeting member must collect to appear on the ballot. Collecting the 10 signatures is not hard. This last year I helped a candidate collect 5 signatures in the space of 15 minutes, without walking even half-way down Melrose Street.

Collecting signatures is a good practice. It guarantees that a person has at least a bare minimum of a connection with the neighborhood. One idea of mine would be to require all that want to appear on the ballot, whether an incumbent or not, to collect the 10 signatures and turn them into the Clerk's office.

My hypothesis is that this very small hurdle may be sufficient to remove at least some members that don't show up to the meetings. It at least guarantees that they've taken the time to speak with a few people in the neighborhood about Town Meeting.

I don't know that it would solve the problem fully. I doubt it. But it would be a good first step. More can be done to inform residents of who their Town Meeting members currently are, how many meetings they've attended, and what their voting record is. Until very recently knowing how your Town Meeting member votes on issues has been quite difficult for a resident to find out. Knowing whether your Town Meeting members show up to meetings hasn't been consistently easy to do either, as some years the information is posted online, and other years it hasn't been.

Maybe such records should be sent out each year, along with the Warrant, to all residents.

One thing I do know for certain: I am very pleased that Town Meeting charged that this issue be studied. It's been a pet issue of mine for a while now, and I'm happy to see it taken up.

With Article 45 voted on, we had one article remaining: 46, endorsement of Arlington's Master Plan. It was also 11 p.m., normally when we adjourn.

The endorsement of the Master Plan was not going to be a quick vote. Besides the seriousness of the report, there were two amendments both related to the Mugar property in East Arlington.

I turn in and go to bed early. Most nights by 10 p.m. Not being a night person, I voted to adjourn so we could come back on Wednesday and consider this article then. The members were having none of that. The end was in sight, and we were going to finish.

An amendment was offered by Brian Rehrig, Precinct 8, reaffirming the position of the town and of past Town Meetings that the wetlands located on what is commonly called the Mugar Property are important to Arlington, and it is the desire of the town that this site not be developed.

I've spent a fair amount of time worrying about this amendment, as showing that the town has a broad base of support for preserving this land is important to our efforts to prevent the floodplain being built upon.

Brian's presentation included photos and video of previous flood incidents in the area.

Stephen Harrington of Precinct 13 offered an amendment as well, stating that the town is resolved to purchase the land. Given that Mr. Harrington has given every impression to date that his is opposed to the town doing just that, it was obvious that something was up. I wondered whether the hope was to weaken support for the vote endorsing the Master Plan.

Lots of people that, while they don't want to see the land heavily developed, don't also want the town to purchase the property. Speaking for myself, the town purchasing the property is a tactic that can be used to achieve a long-term goal: preserve the land to mitigate flooding issues in the neighborhood. But there are other routes to that goal. If an environmental group wanted to purchase the land, I'd be fine with that too, as an example. There has been talk over the years about the Mugar family possibly being interested in donating the land to the town - that would be fantastic.

So speaking only for myself, I support keeping the option to buy the land open, as something to be investigated thoroughly when the time comes, and if it's the right way to accomplish our goals, so be it.

I voted against Mr. Harrington's amendment, as I did not want it to weaken support of the Master Plan overall, and felt it should exist apart from that article, on it's own.

As it turns out, I'm pretty sure Mr. Harrington's objective was just to be able to call people names after the votes were published.

We could have given the discussion of the Master Plan endorsement more time. It is a very big deal. It's unclear though how much more would have been discussed, even had we waited to take the issue up this Wednesday.

Debate was terminated. Mr. Rehrig's amendment passed, Mr. Harrington's failed, and the Master Plan was endorsed by a wide margin.

That concluded Town Meeting for 2015.

In my brief time serving, this year stood out for the substance of the discussions, and the relatively low levels of incivility.

It was a good year.

The 2015 Annual Town Meeting Dissolves

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After a slow start, members bolted for the finish last night. When 11 p.m. rolled around and we had one article left, they repeatedly voted down motions to adjourn, choosing instead to stay late and finish.

So far this morning, every sentence I try to type is rather disjointed. Getting plenty of rest has never done much to make me beautiful, but without it I'm far more incoherent than usual.

Once I'm doing a better job placing words next to each other in a manner that results in intelligible statements, I'll be writing up a post summarizing my impressions.

Hopefully later today. In the meantime, know that I think we did a good job last night, and that the 2015 Town Meeting served Arlington well.

In the meantime, enjoy some wake-up music, courtesy of the Steve 'n Seagulls:

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Penny Wise

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Town Meeting largely continued the trend from Monday, and conducted it's business with only small amounts of rancor. It's been awesome.

On Article 18, Endorsement of the CDBG funds, it seems clear that some take issue with a project in the works for 20 Westminster by the Arlington Housing Corporation. The Arlington Housing Corporation might choose to develop the property following a path provided by what's referred to as 40B. I won't try to explain everything this means here; for a small amount of background about what 40B is I've included the previous link. My views on this law are likely more in line with the author of that piece. Good cause, poor execution. I will say however that I'm more comfortable with this law being used by the Arlington Housing Corporation than a for-profit developer.

We made it quite a ways through Article 22, Appropriation of Town Budgets, last night. When I realized we were starting on it, my inner child moaned. The annual Appropriation of Town Budgets article is traditionally a time for the airing of all grievances folks have with the way the town has conducted business over the previous year. Amendments to the budget aren't (often) offered. We will ultimately pass this article with a unanimous or near unanimous vote. You can argue (and it was argued last night) that the majority of discussion isn't within the scope of the article before us, as little of it pertains to whether money ought to be appropriated or not. In Arlington tradition holds that these discussions take place anyway. I took a deep breath, and tried to find the most comfortable position I could to weather the night.

Then something wonderful happened. First though, some background.

For a while now our financial folks have been providing us with some very good news. The Override passed by voters in 2012, meant to see us through the next 5 years, is looking like it's going to last a whole lot longer than that. In fact, it is said that we should be able to make it to 2021 before our budget dips into the red. Every time we hear this, in our heads, if not in reality while at home and no one is watching, we dance a little jig. The news that we are going to get through all those years without having to raise the tax rate in order to keep pace with the rise in costs, is sweet to hear. So sweet no one wants to ruin it all by asking little nagging trifling questions such as:

How?

It's the GIC! Raise our glasses to the GIC! (That's the group insurance commission, where benefits for public employees are now purchased at very substantial savings over where they were procured previously.) Well.... It's not only the GIC. Think about it. The cost of living goes up, GIC or not. That means that the cost of providing town services goes up as well. And the cost of just maintaining the same level of service residents receive today goes up faster than 2.5% (the max amount taxes can be raised in a year).

We're going to make it to 2021 on our last override! Stop thinking about it, and celebrate! When news is this good, we don't want to hear no ifs, ands, or buts.

Annie LaCourt took the floor during the discussion of the budget, and started to ask a few questions.

How have we decided that we can make it that far without another override? Have we had a discussion about the reduction in services provided this may entail? Have we asked residents what they're willing to have less of? These are big questions. They are extremely necessary questions. They are questions that absolutely require a broad, fairly long, discussion with the residents of Arlington.

How we answer those questions will substantially impact what it is like to live in Arlington in the years to come.

Living in East Arlington, every day I consider our biggest challenge moving forward to be that more and more people are "priced out" of town. My neighborhood in Precinct 4 is undergoing gentrification. There's really no other appropriate word for it. Older residents, more blue-collar, are financially stressed and moving out, while younger, more professional residents on more sound financial footing are moving in. Economically, I identify most with the older neighborhood. While I'm now more of a professional, I got a late start. A home purchase in my neighborhood is way beyond my means. So while I look like a newer resident, often consider the newer residents more in my "peer group," economically I'm old neighborhood.

That means that I consider the town not having another override anytime soon a very, very good thing.

The conversation though must take place. Our financial leadership needs to slow it down a bit. Financial leadership is not the same thing as policy leadership.

There are other very big costs in our near future. Little things like a new High School and rebuilding the Minuteman school, for instance. Sorry if reading this you got hopeful you wouldn't see any big increase in your tax rate till 2021, but there are some debt exclusions coming that are going to hit you in your pocketbook.

I want us to financially protect our taxpayers. I also want them fully aware of just how it is we're going to protect them.

Last night, Town Meeting raised the issue. It's time for Arlington to have this conversation.