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.
Town Meeting Member, Precinct 4