Opinion: An Unfair Re-Do, Part One

Photo: Town Meeting.

If I were to come to you on some Belmont street with a petition in my hands protesting the results of the April override election, saying it was unfairly run, that it didn’t make financial sense, and what’s more that I didn’t realize it was such an important election so I didn’t bother to vote, you would laugh in my face.

You would tell me, “That election is over. You don’t get to re-do it just because you didn’t like the results.” Indeed, a number of people did have issues with the results of the election and the way the campaigns were run, and that response was more or less exactly what was said to them after the election: “It’s done; you don’t get to have a do-over on Town Meeting floor.”

Yet that it exactly what the proponents of the recent Special Town Meeting motion are asking for, a do-over of a decision that was rendered with complete propriety by the appropriate elected body acting in what they believe was the best interests of the town. Moreover, these proponents are asking that one town body, Town Meeting, vote to override the decision of another elected body, the Board, with dubious legal grounding and applying arguments that simply are not valid.

The reasons the proponents have put forth have varied depending on when they were protesting.

Collusion

First it was: “the vote by the Board was undertaken in collusion, and a certain elderly citizen was improperly influencing them.” This line of argument is now established as “fact” in the minds of many citizens, even though not a single shred of evidence has ever been put forward on the topic. Seriously, where’s the evidence? If there is any real evidence and not mere rumor-mongering, please publish it!

Many citizens were asked to sign a petition assuming this story, and who wouldn’t want to right a prodigious wrong? The problem was, the story simply wasn’t true. Later, something was said about the corrupting influence of backyard barbecues, but I confess to not understanding this line of reasoning. Are elected officials not supposed to mix with any citizens at all, under any circumstances, lest it have the appearance of influence peddling?

A secret sparsely-attended meeting 

Later, when the “old lady corrupted the Board” story became less politically acceptable – though the argument is still making the rounds and is believed by many – the argument changed to “the meeting was not advertised sufficiently, it was basically a secret meeting.” This argument, even if it had merit – it does not since the meeting was posted to all Town Meeting members – would be insufficient to invalidate the results of the Board’s vote in any case. The Board was under no obligation to hold any public meeting to get input. Even so, they held a meeting, and it was properly advertised. 

A variation of this argument was that the meeting was “sparsely attended” so it was invalid. First of all, it was not sparsely attended. The Beech Street Center is not a small venue, and many people filled the seats. In any case, it was the board’s decision to make, so attendance is not the issue. This was not a majoritarian vote: even if 90 percent of the people there expressed a certain opinion, it was by no means incumbent on the board to vote that way, even morally. A room can be packed with supporters of an opinion, but so what? Yes, town elections are based on sheer majority, however obtained. But the board’s decision is not based on mere poll numbers. We would be ashamed of them if they did not think for themselves, weigh alternate perspectives – especially minority views – and take into account subtleties that mass campaigning is incapable of. That is their duty as representatives of the whole town, and they performed it.

No, the proper question is whether they got good feedback, both in the meeting and out. As someone who attended the meeting, I can say that the attendees expressed a variety of opinions that covered many aspects of the issue. But here’s the important point: even if we disagree about whether they got good advice, that would not invalidate their decision, or their right to make the decision. We can all cite instances of elections, for example, where the electorate was woefully under-informed on the key issues, but we don’t throw out the results for all that. 

Town Meeting’s vote should be respected

Indeed, on the majoritarian point: a more recent argument suggests that, on principle, the Board should not have diverted from the majority vote of Town Meeting on the green space.

First of all, Town Meeting did not vote on the design, it voted on the money. Secondly, members of Town Meeting raised the issues about the green space at the very same meeting, concerns that were not negated before the vote but in fact corroborated. 

Thus, the Board was alerted by Town Meeting itself that this was an issue that needed resolution, and the Town Meeting vote was undertaken with the understanding that issues had been raised and were as yet unresolved. It is not unreasonable to assume that at least some people voted yes to the money on the presumption that the issues would be addressed. To assume the opposite – that every “yes” vote meant the green space issue was settled – doesn’t make sense. Town Meeting as a body voted yes to the money, and Town Meeting in its public deliberations noted the green space/access road as an issue. If anything, the Board was morally obliged to follow up, and they did; to do otherwise would have been to ignore the feedback from Town Meeting.

“We were misinformed about the meeting’s agenda”

Another argument claims that the announcement of the May meeting did not properly spell out the purpose of the meeting, and that many people were thus led to believe it was just a status meeting. Some even assert this was done on purpose to obscure the intent of the meeting.

All this just means that some people don’t bother to read their email. Here is the full letter to Town Meeting by the Board:

“The Board of Selectmen has scheduled a meeting on May 28th at 6:30 p.m. at the Beech Street Center to provide residents with an update on the Belmont Center Reconstruction Project. As part of this update, the Board will receive information on the current design and possible design alternatives of the “Green Space” located in front of the Belmont Savings Bank. This will be an opportunity for residents to provide feedback to the Board of Selectmen on this component of the project.”

Seems pretty clear.

“We agreed on a new Town Green”

Regarding the “Green Space” by the way: while I can imagine that the Traffic Advisory Committee and people in favor of reconstruction understood that the changes to the “Green Space” were actually part of a reconceptualization of that area as something of a second “Town Green” – an inviting centerpiece for a rejuvenated Center, as it were – that concept was never explicitly treated in either the September precinct meeting nor the November Town Meeting. The transcript bears this out. In other words, even in the most intense discussions of the green space, it was always discussed as an enhancement or restriction of green space, not as a change in the nature of the delta.

This is important because the proponents of the current Town Meeting case argue that it voted a certain vision of the Center. But if there was any vision explicitly stated in Town Meeting, it was only about an increase of square footage of green space. 

No doubt some members held the other vision, but that vision was simply not present explicitly in the discussions, so it’s not accurate to assert that we all voted with a new “Town Green” in mind.

Note: Part Two will be published on Wednesday, Aug. 5.

Kevin Cunningham

Town Meeting Member, Precinct 4

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Comments

  1. Jonathan Birge says

    Here is the presentation to which I refer. If there town green was not the subject of much debate at subsequent meetings, perhaps it was because this presentation makes it pretty clear that it was already decided. I’m not quite certain what you mean when you talk about the green being undecided. THIS is what the Town Meeting voted to fund:

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

    So, yes the Town Meeting votes to fund things, but you’re either being disingenuous or betraying your ignorance of the law to suggest that they BOS can then take that money and do whatever they wish with it. I’m not a lawyer, either, so I’m willing to accept that perhaps they did act within their authority. But if you’re going to appoint yourself town fact-checker, please avail yourself of the facts. I’ll be the first to admit this is not an open-and-shut case, but I’ll wait to hear from a lawyer as to the question of whether or not Town Meeting has the authority to compel the BOS to adhere to the original plan.

    What I do know with some confidence is this: regardless of whether or not they can be legally compelled by Town Meeting, at least a couple members of the BOS are not likely to enjoy a long tenure in the job if they decide to continue acting as they have.

  2. Jonathan Birge says

    Kevin,

    Perhaps you should avail yourself of the PowerPoint presentation provided by the BOS where they show off the “approved design” including a town green with no cut through. This was not a detail left to be decided, nor would any reasonable Town Meeting member who originally voted to fund the renovation assume this was something subject to executive discretion.

    And please quit with the straw man argument against those who wish for the original plan. Nobody is asking for a re-do of anything. They are asking for the BOS to follow the originally approved plan and not overstep their authority by making significant and materially changes to a plan that received years of vetting. I’m not sure why your argument wouldn’t be more appropriately applied to the petition that started this whole mess.

  3. John Bowe says

    There’s a part two to this?! Good grief. Most will consider just part one TLDR.

    I’ve lived in Belmont for nearly 20 years and my confidence in the BOS has never been lower. Apart from the merits of the Belmont Center project itself, I think many others feel the same way and might be latching on as an expression of frustration and no confidence. It is also a vote of support for the dozens of people who have worked on this for several years, and, collectively, know what the heck they’re talking about.

    • Kevin Cunningham says

      Hey John,

      I hope you’re well.

      “Too long; didn’t read”? Yes, I do run on, don’t I? Franklin has pegged me there as well… 😉

      I hope, however, for those who do read it all, I have provided some useful information.

      I know it disturbs you that the Board decided, after consideration, to alter the plan in the way it did. But it disturbs me to think that the vote at Town Meeting might actually be an unstated referendum on people’s feelings about the Board, or merely a show of support for certain people, or an action based on yet other motives, rather than a vote on the true merits, both procedural and design, of the case before us.

      For instance, I would be greatly disappointed if people voted a certain way merely because they disliked the Board and wanted to “send them a message”, regardless of the consideration of the actual issues. What kind of decision-making would that be — to belie the trust put in us as elected officials to weigh matters before us reasonably and carefully, only to cast our vote out of spite?

      I don’t think you’re saying that people ought to vote in such a way, only that you could understand how someone might, given dismay over town government. But for myself, I hope we proceed with more careful, respectful consideration, and I expect you do too.

      Ciao.

  4. says

    It’s funny that I was reading this article and for the first few sentences thought Mr. Cunningham was leading up to a totally different statement. I thought he was arguing that the folks that gathered the signatures were too late- that this plan has been in the works for 4 years, and has been approved by town meeting, so the petition was too little too late. Why weren’t they at all of the meetings and reading all of the documents that were being distributed for the last 4 years?

    • Kevin Cunningham says

      Hi Kimberly, I was glad to hear about your gallery opening in NYC. I hope you have more, exciting artistic presentations in days to come!

      Regarding your point, I think it’s broadly agreed that it would be unreasonable to expect Town Meeting members to attend all committee meetings that are occurring around town, even if they have an interest in the topic. Just practically, meetings often conflict in terms of schedule (so it would be impossible to attend all in any case), and people have lives. When I was on the School Committee, for example, I could not attend the other meetings around town on the Tuesday nights we met, no matter how important the topics being discussed in the parallel meetings (and this was not uncommon).

      In the current case, two points:

      1) The Traffic Advisory Committee is a committee appointed by the Board to explore and provide advice on traffic safety and so forth; it is by no means a deciding body but an advising body. This is true of many bodies. If non-elected committees were the contexts in which final decisions were made, that would radically alter the way our government is run. But they aren’t.

      2) More importantly, the idea that the Belmont Center Project would rise to the top of the queue so suddenly surprised everyone. (Indeed, it is a reasonable question to ask why it was put forward ahead of so many other town priorities, including funding for the schools. But that is another story…) My point here is: a reasonable person interested in town events but having only limited time to devote to them would quite naturally think “that project won’t come forward soon, so I don’t have to focus my limited time on it quite yet; I can keep up on the pool, the financial task force, the new high school, and so forth.” That seems to me why many people wouldn’t attend those meetings yet.

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