Letter to the Editor: Fact Checking the Belmont Center ‘Bait and Switch’

To the editor:

A lot of ink, digital and otherwise, has recently been spent asserting that the Belmont Center Reconstruction project has been usurped by a small “faction” of influential residents, pulling a “bait and switch” on Town Meeting, and undermining the democratic process in town. The only recourse, it is claimed, is to force the Selectmen to recant and reinstitute the original plan, which was perfect as it was and universally agreed to.

Moved by this tale of overreach, corruption, and eleventh-hour backroom “politicking,” many Belmontians have signed a petition demanding an end to this blot on democracy.

It is a morally uplifting tale. But is any of it true?

Unfortunately, a look at the actual content of November’s Special Town Meeting and the process since then will make clear that the current story of the derailment of the democratic process is unfounded. The outraged narrative has “truthiness” to be sure, but it is false at its core.

First a distinction. Well-intentioned citizens may disagree about the merits of “Plan A” versus “Plan B,” but this is not what is fueling the recent petition and uproar, or in any case what is being discussed here. Rather, the fact that people have been told that an anti-democratic coup has occurred, and that they feel justifiably upset about this and have pledged themselves to see the right restored, is the issue here.

Fortunately for the town, what they have been told is simply untrue. Unfortunately, you would not know that from what is still being shouted from the rooftops.

Let’s take it piece by piece.

First of all, it has been asserted that that there was a complete plan (“Plan A”) in place at the time of Town Meeting. This is not true, a point raised as an issue on Town Meeting floor by several members at the time, including the very first comment on the main motion:

MR. MCGAW: We’re authorizing some money to be issued, but it says appropriated for the Belmont Center Reconstruction Project, and my only question is what is defined to be the Belmont Center Reconstruction Project? Is it the pictures we’ve seen tonight? Is it provided somewhere because already tonight we’ve heard some tweaks to things on the screen. So what is “the project”? … I notice people are discussing “the project,” but we don’t have a reference to “the project.”

Right from the outset, then, there was unclarity about what the project consisted of. But it wasn’t merely that some Town Meeting members had not yet seen the final plan. As Glenn Clancy, Director of the Office of Community Development, noted:

MR. CLANCY: … We have construction drawings [on the website] that are about probably 90 percent complete. I would tell you that the Belmont Center Reconstruction Project is — you know, ultimately will be the set of construction drawings that will represent this project. I don’t know how to answer it better than that.

In other words, there was no “final plan” yet; at the time of voting, the plan was incomplete. Other Town Meeting members also expressed their concerns about this.

Regarding whether feedback was still welcome, the interchange between Belmont Selectman Sami Baghdady and Town Meeting member Joe White, who was suggesting that the vote should be put off because the plan was incomplete, is illuminating on this point:

MR. BAGHDADY: Joe, with all due respect, okay, the plans are at 90 percent completion phase. If you have a design comment … I think you can come to Glenn after this Town Meeting, raise your point. It will be looked into, and if it’s valid, it will be incorporated. The purpose of this Town Meeting is appropriation — … We are here to appropriate funds for a project. If there’s fine tuning that’s needed … it can take place after.

Thus the notion that the plan was set in stone at the time, that everyone agreed on what it consisted of, and that it was not subject to further revisions, is simply false.

As to the merits of retaining the access road, this was discussed at length by a variety of Town Meeting members. Most notable was the concern of losing ease of access for elderly patrons:

MR. SEMUELS: Is there any possibility that the travel lane next to the Belmont Savings Bank can be saved rather than the amount of green space. I’m in favor of green space. I, for the most part, approve of this, but these are the concerns that I’ve heard from a lot of people who are seniors and are disabled people who may be driving, still driving.

Another member drove the same point home, noting in passing that the proposed new configuration required drivers to get enmeshed in the overall traffic.

The point here is not whether the access road should be retained, but that there was general recognition on Town Meeting floor that the access road component was a complex issue that merited further discussion. And while it is true that the removal of the road was part of the conceptual plans shown on slides at Town Meeting, the response of town representatives and elected officials to feedback about this feature was not to assert that the plan is inviolable, but rather to explicitly say that, as stewards of the interests of the town as a whole, of course they were open to feedback:

MR. CLANCY: Now, that doesn’t mean that I want a parade of residents coming through my office and changing every little aspect of this project, and several thousands of dollars in design goes out the window, and members of the Traffic Advisory Committee that are sitting here in front of me, all their hard work goes out the window, but I do feel we have an obligation to respond where we think it’s appropriate.

Thus, while infinite tinkering was reasonably discouraged, it was the general sense that there would be an opportunity to opine on this difficult issue of the design, an opportunity where citizens could meet and discuss the options in an open public forum. The Town Meeting vote was about funding, not about the final design.

When several months passed and work was begun in the Center, but no public forum had yet been scheduled to address the design issues raised in Town Meeting, numerous concerned citizens brought this to the attention of the town.

Finally, the opportunity for this feedback came in the spring. The Town Clerk duly informed Town Meeting of a meeting at the Beech Street Center, and a large number of citizens attended. The positive and negative elements of the options were civilly discussed, and the Board of Selectmen took all this feedback, and no doubt much other feedback from the months preceding, and made a difficult decision that they believed balanced the various needs of the town.

The town leaders were acting on their best footing as stewards of the public good: they responded to citizen concerns, they offered revised proposals, and they provided an opening for input in a fully open publicly announced forum.

Of course, it is understandable that some townsfolk were disappointed by the results of the recent meeting. They may legitimately encourage the Selectmen to reverse their decision.

But it is a completely separate issue, indeed a wonder, that so many citizens have been misled into believing and supporting the false notion that the town leaders have committed a massive perversion of justice by these actions. That an open meeting addressing citizen’s concerns could be so thoroughly misconstrued is rather astounding.

The merits of Plan A and Plan B are worth discussing even now, but the accusation that town leaders sidestepped democracy in this case, and indeed colluded with a “faction” of select influence peddlers, is completely unfounded.

Certainly it must be morally satisfying to be outraged at this fictitious slight, but it doesn’t make it any more true.

If citizens wish to re-open the case of Plan A versus Plan B, that is understandable, but they should not do so under the false pretense that an offense against democracy was committed. It wasn’t.

Kevin Cunningham

Town Meeting Member, Precinct 4

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Comments

  1. Jonathan Birge says

    Sorry for spamming this OpEd so much, but I should’ve just started and ended by referring those that want “fact checking” to see the following link:

    http://www.belmont-ma.gov/sites/belmontma/files/file/file/belmont_center_reconstruction_project_town_meeting_may_7_2014.pdf

    It is the PowerPoint slides from the town report on the plan. It’s pretty clear that no cut through was intended in the plan approved by the BOS in 2011. If people against revision to this plan did not attend the Town Meeting in question, perhaps it’s because they thought this was all done and that they didn’t need to start attending meetings to defend a plan that was already approved. This is actually mostly what I get from the quotes Kevin selected; the plan was chosen and the meeting was supposed to be about money. Any small details remaining to be worked out would be worked out. In no way shape or form is going from the original plan to “Plan B” a minor detail. It completely changes traffic and safety, and such changes are absolutely irresponsible to make without proper process. We basically have a lawyer and the banker deciding town traffic flow. Aren’t you the least bit suspicious of their motivations, Kevin?

    Please prove me wrong, Kevin. because I find this whole thing rather upsetting. I am not experiencing any of this “moral satisfaction” ad hominem you are trying to project on us..

  2. Jonathan Birge says

    Kevin: While it may be true that there was “10%” of the plan left to be finalized, did that 10% include the question of whether or not there was to be a cut-through? My understanding is that this issue was debated and decided upon long before the meeting in question. None of the quotes you selected suggests that the issue of the cut-through was still up in the air. In fact, the existence of the very petition that started this suggests it was not up in the air, and that the plans, such as they were, did not include the cut-through.

    Next question: what is motivating you in this?

  3. says

    This is one of those cases where two people look at the same thing and see different things. That said: I think Kevin is missing the forest for the trees. The issue here is really about whether – in getting permission and money from TM – the BOS were getting a blank check, or getting funding for a “plan.” I think its pretty clear that they were presenting and selling a “plan” that was the product of 2+ years of work by the TAC and feedback by the community, in the form of multiple public hearings and presentations, etc. The plan (Plan A) was the sum product of that process and reflected the desires and preferences of the TAC and, by extension, of Belmont – not everybody, just most people. The majority, if you will.

    The fact that design decisions were incomplete in November doesn’t mean there was no plan. In fact, those areas where there were not set designs (the 10% incomplete, if you will) were completed in the November-December time frame. How do we know? Because the “plan” was finished, put put out to bid by the town and a bid was awarded to a contractor. Those designs were “the plan” and they featured the town green, clearly. That was, in fact, the plan that was being executed in April, when the BOS acted unilaterally and without any public input, inserting their own “vision” for Belmont Center – one without a town green. Its hard to say that it was even a BOS plan, given that 2/3rds of the BOS had not seen the designs prior to that meeting and did not realize they’d be asked to vote on it that evening.

    The question is this, Kevin, is it OK with you for the Selectmen to have the authority at any stage in the development of an infrastructure project prior to the ribbon cutting to throw out the plans that were the product of a transparent and democratic process of design, feedback, modification and – in its place – to put in their _own_ plan based on their friends, political backers or the last person they talked to at a BBQ on Saturday. That is what happened with the Town Center Reconstruction plan and, in my opinion, it is a precedent that is very dangerous in light of pending projects like the Community Path, Grove St. Playground, Incinerator site — you name it. Stand up for your rights today, or lose them.
    I hope to see you all at the BOS hearing room at 7:00 pm.

    Paul

    • Kevin Cunningham says

      I am very sympathetic to the protection of democracy, but it is the inclusion of nasty sideswipes like “to put in their _own_ plan based on their friends, political backers or the last person they talked to at a BBQ on Saturday” and to assert as fact that “That is what happened with the Town Center Reconstruction plan” — that is just so unnecessary, mean-spirited, and false. I find _that_ especially corrosive of democracy, because it replaces facts with invective and mere attitude. An informed electorate is a fundamental grounding for democracy. But if we aren’t talking about facts — but instead spewing opinions and cultivating our outrage and vilifying our opponents — what can we possibly have but mere demagoguery?

      The meeting in April was publicized to Town Meeting members, and it was clearly a followup (as I related) to the concerns raised in November. I cannot understand why you did not attend that meeting. If you had, you would be hard-pressed to make a case now that it “sidestepped process.”

  4. Rick Jones says

    Kevin, I don’t have a dog in this fight, as I am indifferent about the options being discussed. But I do see the point of those folks who feel blindsided by the change. Perhaps it was foreseen that modifications to the plan would be entertained by the BOS and Town at some point, but the agendas for the June 1 and June 3 BOS meetings make no mention of any planned discussion. It seems like the petitioners drove the process by arriving prepared for action at a time of their choosing. The presentation of the petition and the move to change seems to have come as a surprise, though that does not make it malicious, as you rightly note. However, a better outcome that might have avoided the rancor would have been a widely publicized BOS meeting specifically to deal with final comments to the plan.

    That being said, no outcome will be perfect for everybody and I am looking forward to a refreshed Center!

    • Kevin Cunningham says

      Rick, appreciate the comments. Good stuff.

      Just one comment. You said: “However, a better outcome that might have avoided the rancor would have been a widely publicized BOS meeting specifically to deal with final comments to the plan.”

      The thing is — that’s exactly what I thought that meeting was! I wasn’t on the lookout for it (fwiw, I had nothing to do with the first petition), and I found out about it in the natural course of events. It’s inexplicable to me that it is being touted as a hidden meeting. Do people not read their email?

      • Rick Jones says

        Kevin, I read the Belmontian every day and the BCH every week and as far as I can recall there was nothing about a planned discussion about changes in the plans. I am not on any local email lists that might have spread the news. I thought I was pretty well informed about basic town issues, but this came out of left field to me. That being said, I am grateful to all the citizens, including you, that take the time to wrestle with issues like this.

  5. Kevin Cunningham says

    Ramon:

    Let me see if I get this right:

    1. You object strongly to the idea that a last-minute petition should be allowed to sway the vote of the Selectmen. (I do not believe this, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument.)

    2. You believe that an even later petition should be allowed to sway the vote of the Selectmen.

    Does that really make sense?

    Secondly, you assert that:

    1. A petition from 200 people is definitely not representative of the town.

    2. A petition from 600 people is assuredly representative of the town.

    On what possible basis can you assert that?

    Third, you hold that it was only the petition by the 200 that had the effect of changing the Selectmen’s vote. I tried to take pains in my Letter above to clarify that the issue of the access road was acknowledged as an issue from Day 1, and that the recent meeting was an expected follow through on that issue, not a last minute cover for switching a vote. The meeting was keeping a promise — an overdue promise, at that — to respond to citizen input, it was not “being swayed” last minute.

    The idea that the Selectmen “flopped” under pressure, by the way, borders on the libelous, impugning both them and the 200 citizens who went through the effort of putting forth a petition, based only on someone’s theory as to what their “real motives” were. It could well be that they were swayed, who am I to say, but that would only be my inference, not “the truth”, and I would not be going around telling everyone it was what “really happened!” (Indeed, if I made such assertions on Town Meeting floor, the Moderator would run me out of town on a rail… 😉 ) If you want to petition to overturn the latest vote, fine, but can you at least do it without vilifying so many of your fellow citizens and presuming only the worst about them?

    Moral outrage, we have sadly learned from our national politics, is not necessarily correlated to truth. Indeed, it is just there that we have greatest need to stand back and examine what’s really going on, in us and in others.

  6. Anne Mahon says

    I agree completely with Ramon at the point being missed by Mr. Cunningham. The idea that 200 people can sign a petition and be represented by a few at a Selectman meeting to have plans in place altered is frightening. While the Selectman have termed this process “democracy” …. now that they have set the precedent, what is to keep a small group of petitioners from blocking or changing any (or every under current assumptions) plan that has been made in Belmont and at what cost?

    My concern is if this is going to be our “new form of government” in Belmont, what purpose would the Selectman, or Town Meeting for that matter, actually serve if decisions made can be so easily changed.

    What happens to the bike path after we spend $100,000 on a study to determine best location for it? 200 folks can change it so it goes elsewhere?

    It’s time to re-examine the Belmont by-laws and determine the function of the Selectmen, Town Meeting and petitions to find out how to prevent this from clouding the process going forward. We want everyone to have a voice and everyone to be heard, but no decisions should be made that have a negative impact on the majority to silence the minority right? Isn’t that REAL democracy? There has to be transparency and no quickeroo switcheroo.

    See you all tonight in the Selectman’s room at 7pm. Conley’s after. 😉

    Anne

    • Kevin Cunningham says

      Hey Anne, thanks for writing.

      It’s funny, it was exactly your broader fear about Belmont’s “new form of government” that I was trying to raise at Town Meeting recently (before I was so unceremoniously cut off — I still haven’t been able to say my point). We share misgivings about process here, and to that extent we are comrades in arms for open representative government.

      I believe the point I am disputing as unproved but only asserted is the idea that it was specifically and solely the petition by 200 people that prompted the Selectmen’s votes in the spring. I was at the meeting, and Glenn Clancy’s presentation of Plan B seemed a wholly generous attempt by him and others to address some of the concerns that had been raised as far back as November, and not only by some mysterious cabal. The vote was by no means a done deal, and there was a vigorous discussion about both options. I’m sure similar proposed adjustments were made about the pool and other civic projects, and discussed by the public, as here. So I don’t think it’s fair to criticize that meeting (especially by some folks who weren’t even there).

      Yes, the idea that a petition by a small group of voters could influence decision makers in an unpreventable and covert way would be very disconcerting — if true. This campaign is proceeding as if it is true, but there is really no evidence for it. Certainly, no evidence provided publicly. Do you just believe it, so it must be true? I think of Othello.

      You know me well enough to know that if the evidence were put forward of collusion and backroom politics, I would be staunchly against it. But the evidence is not forthcoming. Just accusations.

      What are really the arguments here?

      1) Some people didn’t like the change in the plans. Okay, they should make their discontent known.

      2) There is a secondary argument (a little obscured in Paul’s comments) that a majority decision should be respected. That’s also worthy of consideration.

      3) But the argument that “we just know that those conniving politicians have sidestepped democracy and will do it again!” is itself merely the worst kind of politics, unworthy of Belmont, and just clouds the other two lines of argument.

      I know that some people need to get riled up in order to get into action. As Dylan says, some people “got a lot of forks ‘n’ knives, And they gotta cut somethin’.” But it’s just so counterproductive.

      That’s what I’m trying to wean this campaign of.

  7. Ramon says

    Although the chronography described above may very well be true, the issue at hand isn’t what was or wasn’t decided at the Town Meeting.

    The design plan wasn’t changed until a small group of citizens protested. The issue at hand is, that they were NOT representative of what the citizens of Belmont as a whole want, and therefore that those 200 signatures had undue influence on the design process.

    In the same tone — there was a counter-petition to restore the original design that took in a larger number of signatures. If the Selectmen make design changes for large projects that affect all of Belmont, based on petitions of a small group of people, then the counter-petition (with a larger number of signatures, but still arguably not representative for Belmont as a whole) should simply cause the Selectmen to “flop” their decision back to green space, right?

    As a result, although understanding the chronography definitely helps understanding the decision making process, in my opinion, the issue wasn’t what the Town Meeting knew or didn’t know. It was, that the existing design was overruled by a small number of citizens who arguably don’t represent the town as a whole. And that is not right.

    • Jonathan Birge says

      Ramon:

      While I suppose I’m on your side on this, I think you’re missing the stronger point. The petition by those to return to the original plan is not comparable to the petition to change it, regardless of the numbers of signers. The second petition is not seeking to influence the design, they are seeking to undo what they see as inappropriate influence. Nobody is trying to argue that decisions should be made by warring petitions. The signers of the second petition are not arguing Plan A should be used because they have X signatures and Plan A has Y. They are arguing Plan A should be implemented because that’s what the town decided on through a long and arduous process that preceded all of this. If Kevin can find evidence that this issue really was unresolved by the Town Meeting in question, then I will gladly recant. I’d rather this be the case, in fact, because it would make me less frustrated. However, a few out of context quotes with no mention of what was actually remaining to be decided is not convincing. Moreover, it makes no sense that anybody would bother to petition for a change if the area near the bank was still up in the air. The truth, as I understand it, is that the cut-through was not in the plans published to the entire town long ago, and the “Plan B” did not exist until after the petition of 200 asked for an alternative.

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