Opinion: Injecting Small ‘d’ Democracy, Decency to Town Meeting Debate

Photo: Rendering from the Belmont Center Reconstruction plan.

Just past 7 p.m. on Monday, July 27, I had the pleasure of sitting next to my neighbor, Gi Yoon-Huang, and her five-year-old daughter at Town Hall. We were there to hear the Belmont Board of Selectmen debate and vote on a proposal that Town Meeting is considering regarding plans for a town lawn in Belmont Center. 

Gi is typical of many of the great folks I’ve met in the past month. She’s a relatively new face in Belmont and someone unfamiliar with the town’s politics. But she is passionate about making Belmont a better and more hospitable town for herself and her young children. For Gi, the Belmont Center Reconstruction Project, which is going on right now, representes her hopes for the town. Specifically: the plans approved by Town Meeting in November, 2014 promised a broad, new lawn in the Center where now there is only a traffic island, surrounded by busy streets and automobile traffic. 

Gi will tell you that she and her family walk regularly to Belmont Center to shop from their home in the Winn Brook neighborhood. She had been looking forward to the addition of a vibrant public green space in the Center. She was shocked and confused when that critical feature of the Belmont Center reconstruction was ditched in the face of last-minute protests.  

So there was Gi and I, in the Selectmen’s Hearing Room on a Monday evening with close to 20 other residents who had the same idea in mind; to express our support for that original design, and for a Town Meeting article that asks the Selectmen to reverse their ill-considered vote on May 28 and embrace the original Belmont Center Reconstruction plans. We gathered there just past 7 p.m. for a vote on that Special Town Meeting article ,which was scheduled to take place at 7:25 p.m. 

As it would turn out, we had some waiting to do.  

In no hurry to address the Special Town Meeting article, the Selectmen began with a discussion about changes to the victualar’s license for Moozy’s, the ice cream store. Residents were there to voice their concerns and that ran long. The clock struck 7:40 p.m. and I had to leave. Gi and around a dozen more residents waited … and waited … and waited. 

With a room full of residents waiting for their vote on the Special Town Meeting article, the three selectmen instead convened an executive session just after 8 p.m. and met alone for a full hour. Gi and her five-year-old daughter sat patiently and quietly in the front row of the Selectmen’s Room as the clock struck 9 p.m., and then 9:15 p.m.

The Selectmen returned at 9:20 p.m.and finally took up the Belmont Center agenda. A different board might have noted the hour and the young girl with her determined mom in the front row and taken pity. Instead, in full view of Gi and her daughter, the selectmen spoke uninterrupted for another 20 minutes, voicing their discontent over voters’ decision to ask for a special Town Meeting. 

“The decision makers have the authority,” Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady said, “This is not the way government works,” apparently confusing democracy with another form of government. 

The selectmen also expressed bewilderment over the discord their last minute changes created. A project that should be uniting Belmont was, instead, dividing, Selectman Mark Paolillo correctly observed. 

Paradoxically, they then engaged in the exact behavior that has caused such rancor, refusing to take comments from the assembled residents and repeatedly denying requests by Gi and other supporters of the Town Meeting motion an opportunity to speak to them directly. 

In the end, just one resident had the temerity to stand the Selectmen down that Monday evening. Joanne Birge, an attorney and a new resident, stood patiently at the mic, refusing to sit down, until the Selectmen permitted her to address them. Speaking calmly and eloquently, Joanne talked about the importance of a more pedestrian-friendly Belmont Center to her as a senior and the key role that the town green plays in making the Center more welcoming to elderly Belmontonians, as well as the young. It was a message – but not the only message – that the selectmen needed to hear. 

There is so much to disappoint in the selectmen’s actions with regard to Belmont Center that it is hard to know where to begin. For me, the biggest disappointment has been this Board’s willingness to stifle the voices of Belmont residents, voters and even Town Meeting members who do not agree with them. By shutting down dissent, the thinking goes, you can force a consensus. But we all know that’s false.  

Thursday’s Special Town Meeting will offer a welcome change of venue and, hopefully, a change of tone, too. For more than 200 years, Town Meetings have been the embodiment of “little d” democracy. I look forward to hearing the voices and opinions of those for and against the original design and the town lawn. In the end, I hope that we can send a strong and unified message to the Selectmen, and that they receive that message with open hearts and open minds, in the best tradition of Belmont politics. 

Paul Roberts

Cross Street, Precinct 8 Town Meeting Member

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