Letter to the Editor: Planning Board Chaos Underscores Need for Accountability

Photo: The Planning Board

To the editor:

And then there were three. With the unexpected resignations this week of former Planning Board Chairwoman Liz Allison and Board member Barbara Fiacco, Belmont’s Planning Board has been reduced to just three members, having lost half its members to resignation in the past month – all three under clouds of controversy. 

The unraveling of this critical body as major projects, like Cushing Village, demand attention and others like Belmont High School loom poses a serious challenge to the Town’s leadership. It also offers a powerful argument in favor of a motion I have put before Town Meeting on Nov. 13 that will bring accountability and order to Planning Board by letting the town’s voters choose its members, as 35 of 39 other towns in Middlesex county already do.

For those readers who are hearing about this for the first time, I’ve taken the opportunity to answer some “frequently asked questions”. I hope this help inform you about this important, citizen-driven initiative. 

Why are you doing this? 

Amending our bylaws to have voters elect our Planning Board will bring transparency, accountability, and professionalism to a critical body whose jurisdiction extends to every private home and commercial property in town. Popular election of Planning Board will give voters the opportunity to evaluate all candidates for open positions on the Planning Board and to choose those who are best qualified and suited to represent the community’s interests. 

This critical change to our bylaws will also bring Planning Board in line with our Town’s other administrative boards and committees, namely: Selectmen, School Committee, Board of Assessors, Board of Library Trustees and the Board of Health, members of which are all elected by voters.

Do other communities elect their Planning Boards? 

Yes. If we consider Middlesex County of which we are a part, 35 of 39 (or 90 percent) of communities with Belmont’s form of government like Newton, Cambridge, Lowell, Somerville have opted for popularly elected Planning Boards. This list includes Winchester, Lexington, Lincoln, Sudbury, Weston, Natick, Sherborn, Stoneham, Wakefield, Westford, Holliston, Hopkinton, and on and on. Belmont is one of just four that still have Planning Boards that are appointed by the Board of Selectmen.  

Why Planning Board? Why now? 

Planning Board is one of the most critical public bodies in our town. It helps shape the town through its decisions concerning both residential and commercial development and has the power to shape public and private spaces within a town.  As it stands, however, there is no mechanism in Belmont’s bylaws to ensure that Planning Board is accountable to voters and the public in any way. This is a critical omission in Belmont’s bylaws that has directly contributed to the erratic and damaging behavior of our Planning Board in recent months. 

If elected, won’t Planning Board start kowtowing to voters instead of being independent?

Of course not. Elected Planning Board members, like other elected officials, will be expected to think independently and to use their best judgment and make decisions that they feel are in the best interest of the whole community. That’s no different than what we expect of appointed officials. 

Let’s face it: Planning Board is an unpaid, volunteer position. Election to Planning Board is no more likely to engender self-serving, short-term decision making by members than an election to other unpaid positions like Town Meeting or School Committee. Consider: the punishment for losing re-election to Planning Board for a decision that voters disagree with is that the individual is forced to volunteer less. That’s hardly the kind of punishment that will have members betraying their values and common sense.  

What’s wrong with an appointed Board? 

It is critical that voters in Belmont have a means to express their preferences for Planning Board as they do for other administrative bodies like School Committee or the Selectmen themselves.  Under our current bylaws, they do not. 

Consider: it is the Selectmen, not the public, who receive and review applications from community members who are interested in a seat on the Planning Board. Voters in Belmont are not privy to who has applied for open seats or their qualifications, nor are they given the benefit of the Board of Selectmen’s reasons for eliminating any particular candidate or ultimately appointing one over another. Yes, voters may appeal to the Board to choose a specific candidate, assuming they even know who has applied, but the Selectmen are under no obligation to heed the voters. 

Don’t we affect Planning Board with our choice of Selectman?  

It might be argued that voters can express their Planning Board preferences in their vote for a Selectman. As a practical matter, however, this never happens. Planning Board appointments are not an issue in Board of Selectman races nor have promised appointments been deciding factors – or even talking points – in selectman races. Our bylaws left unchanged will continue to shield the selection, decisions, and actions of the Planning Board from voters and any accountability. 

I hope you will support this citizen-driven effort to make an important change to Belmont’s bylaws and inject democratic accountability to this critical body. I urge you to contact Town Meeting members from your precinct and ask them to support the Planning Board article. 

Paul Roberts

Town Meeting Member, Precinct 8

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