So-To-Be Select Board Member Elizabeth Dionne: ‘I’ve Had All These Ideas, And I’d Like To Be In The Room Where It Happens’

Photo: Elizabeth Dionne

Elizabeth Dionne doesn’t have an opponent in this year’s town-wide election, so why does it seem like she’s busier than ever?

Having announced her intentions early to run for Adam Dash’s open seat on the Select Board, Dionne quickly cleared the field and is unopposed on the April 4 ballot. But there she was at a campaign event with the three current board members, attending a wide array of public and committee events while meeting with residents across the political spectrum.

What gives?

The Belmontonian met with Dionne in her home on Belmont Hill. The Steinway in Dionne’s front room was being tuned, just in time for her sister, Wendy Harmer, visit to Boston during her performances with Boston Baroque. So the interview took place in her kitchen with Winston, the English bulldog, snoring during his midday nap.

“It’s really not that busy as it has been,” said Dionne, with only her youngest of four children still at home. Still, she admits to putting herself and her ideas and plans out there so those casting ballots aren’t voting for a blank slate, “that they know who I am when they vote.”

Below is the interview with Dionne, edited for length and clarity.

Who is Elizabeth Dionne?

I’m a lot of things. I wear a lot of hats. In the context of Belmont, I am someone who cares deeply about the town and really wants to see it succeed and have a bright future. In the context of family, I’m a mother of four and a sibling of nine out of ten. In the context of work, I started my professional life as a corporate attorney doing corporate finance and then moved to a subset of that which was real estate finance.

And then, I have a son, Eli, who was diagnosed with autism. So step back and became really a full-time advocate for him while raising three other children. As he became more settled and regulated, I realized I didn’t have to go back to corporate work.

And so I decided what was actually more meaningful for me. In my advocacy for Eli, I saw that most people couldn’t afford an attorney. I did some training through both Federation for Children with Special Needs and Massachusetts Advocates for Children, and now what I do is represent low-income special needs children who otherwise couldn’t afford an attorney.

Seems like you’d be a better as a member of the School Committee.

I am interested in larger issues, and I do care deeply about the schools I’m grateful for the opportunity. My children had to attend Belmont schools. But if we don’t solve our financial problems, there’s not a whole lot left.

What tells you that you could do a good job on Select Board?

First, the time’s right. My youngest child just started college and Select Board is a demanding job. And if you don’t understand that, I think it would come as a shock. The amount of time that’s entailed, so for me, the timing’s right.

And it’s not right just for personal reasons but also because after seven years in Town Meeting, six years on the Warrant Committee, five years on the Community Preservation Committee three years as chair, I do finally feel that I have the breadth of knowledge and experience to push things in a positive future-oriented direction.

And there’s still a lot to learn. I’m not na├»ve about this. But I feel it at least I have an understanding of how the systems work in a town that has a very quirky kind of governance structure. And it just takes time and multiple cycles of seeing a budget through or multiple cycles of seeing Town Meeting through or multiple cycles of seeing how committee appointments work. Again, I feel that I finally got the experience where I feel comfortable doing a competent job at this.

And then finally, because, especially my work on the Warrant Committee, I understand the town’s fiscal situation, and that it’s problematic and that we have a structural problem to fix. It’s not as if anybody wants an override, but we need an override.

Your father, John L. Harmer, was an influential legislator in California and was Ronald Reagan’s final Lt. Gov. Did coming from that background help you decide to enter the public service?

There’s a family culture of public service. It really really matters to us to be involved.

I have a brother who was a Navy officer for years and did two tours of duty in Iraq. I have a brother who’s CEO of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, and their goal is civic education for both teachers and students. I have a sister who is a legislative director on Capitol Hill for a representative. So it is in our DNA that we serve.

[My father] worked very well across the aisle. And I think people forget that Ronald Reagan spent much of his life as a Democrat. Democrats were not the enemy.

{Reagan’s] best friend in Washington was Tip O’Neill.

And that’s something that I take very, very seriously that there are issues, especially at the local level. Ironically, I have aligned with the progressives on most things because they’re local issues.

If you’re going to be successful [on a local level], it doesn’t work to divide each other into camps. A lot of issues are cross-cutting. I saw a challenge, and for years, I’ve had ideas. And finally thought, this is an opportunity to be in a position where I can actually nudge the town towards some of these ideas. And I do say nudge because I’m one person. You have to work with a lot of people, and you have to be willing to share the work and credit. A lot more can get done when you’re willing to work in a group instead of insisting on going alone.

You will be the first woman on the board since Ann Marie Mahoney almost 20 years ago. And I believe you’ll be the first member of the Latter-Day Saints to be on the Select Board. Is that important?

It is, and it isn’t. What matters to me about being a Latter-Day Saint is a deep sense of integrity and conviction and a really deep commitment to public service. I think we’re quiet; you’re not supposed to toot your own horn. But if you look at involvement in the schools, PTA, or coaching, we’re quietly there. We believe in rolling up our sleeves and getting stuff done. So there’s this very strong ethic of service and public service, but also a very strong ethic of integrity. You do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. You treat people kindly and with respect. Other religions can teach that as well. So that’s why I say it matters and it doesn’t. It informs my approach.

And the first woman in 20 years.

If people see someone who looks like them, whether or not it matters in substance, it can matter as a visual cue that ‘hey, this is open.’ The challenge Belmont has had is that there are a lot of really highly qualified women, but when you ask them about this job, they have said, “not a chance!” So again, it doesn’t matter in terms of the substance that I’m a woman. I think our public servants have served with great integrity. I do think people are just excited to see someone with good qualifications step forward.

At a recent joint meeting, you noted that the community could enter a death spiral if Belmont doesn’t make the right financial decisions in the next two years. What do you mean, and what can be done to forestall or even prevent it from occurring?

I don’t want to be accused of scaremongering, but if anybody has watched the budget summits, you can see the size of the fiscal cliff that we face in fiscal year 2025. And depending on the decisions that we make, we are still looking at an override of between $9 million and the top end of $13 million. It’s an ugly number. If we don’t do something to address that fiscal cliff, how do you make up a $13 million shortfall in an operating budget of approximately $140 million? You’re talking 10 percent cuts. You can’t cut 10 percent across the board and still function as a town. Do we shut the library? Do we shut the senior center? Do we shut down an elementary school? And it’s not going to be one of those, it will be multiples. I do feel like I’ve got to be honest and realistic about what that means to come up with that kind of savings. I don’t call it savings; I will call it cuts. That’s really hard. And it really does put into question what it means to function as a town.

Does Belmont have a revenue problem or do we have an expenditure problem? Do we need more revenue? Many of the population say we will not support it because we know we can cut expenditures.

I really do think that it’s more a revenue problem than an expenditure problem. I also want to be clear that it’s not as if people aren’t paying enough taxes. Some people say, “I’d like to pay more, but I just can’t. I’m gonna have to move out of town”. At that point, it is an expenditure problem if spending drives people out of town.

But we if you compare us to our peer towns, we do spend less per pupil on education. That’s a real number. So you can’t say that we’re overspending on education; we have significantly increased education expenditures. It results from a significant increase in our school’s population and when we have to meet federal and state-mandated requirements for special education and English Language Learners.

What initiatives or policies would you like to see done in your first three years that will begin to change the trajectory of Belmont’s future?

First, we do need to implement a few of the key provisions of the Collins Center Report. The first is the appointed treasurer. I would submit the second is an appointed board of assessors because we need a unified financial policy to address a number of issues in the town. If we don’t have streamlined governance in which we can make policy decisions and implement them, everything else becomes difficult to impossible. I’m not brilliant saying that; that’s what the Colin Center Report said. If we don’t fix our structural problems, we can’t fix our economic problems.

The second thing, and I feel like a broken record, is we have got to address our zoning bylaws, especially on the business end. This month, a bubble tea shop just opened in Belmont Center. The same owner opened in Lexington months ago. They started the application process in both towns at the same time. This is not Belmont Town Hall’s fault. They have to follow an arcane bylaw, and they’re understaffed. We need to clean up the bylaws. We need to fix the staffing problems, and we need to signal very clearly: We’re open for business. We want you.

The third is a successful override, because that is how we bridge our short-term crisis. But to get to a successful override, you’ve got to have two things: You’ve got to have trust, and you’ve got to have hope. I think that will come when we start with a few visible wins, such as changes to the bylaws. We need those because that’s what’s going to build trust.

Late last year, you presented an out-of-the-box proposal for the future development of West Belmont, which would involve the Belmont County Club. Give me your 30 second-elevator pitch.

Looking at a map of Belmont, the southeast portion is incredibly dense, and the Northwest portion is open. If there is going to be any development at Belmont, that is meaningful, it will be in the Northwest. I’m adamant about protecting our current open space, which is zoned for single residents. So this has to be a collective decision. We’re not talking two or three years; we’re talking 10, 15, 20 years, and that’s fine.

But if we don’t start thinking about it now, in 20 years, we’ll still be where we are or worse. And the reason I say, or worse, is the country club is zoned residential single family, so basically set up for McMansions, which is bad for the environment and bad for the town. This isn’t the kind of development that Belmont needs. I think people thought that this proposal was crazy until the country club sold off the land on its Lexington side to build senior housing. I actually think that’s a great use.

And the town would like to see a Microsoft office center there.

The country club is not looking to sell its golf course right now. But they might come in the future. And if we can zone it so that we’re prepared so, we control what happens to it and not them. They could start building single right now and make a gazillion dollars selling the golf course. And I don’t mind them getting wealthy if it means Belmont controls its future. We can actually unilaterally rezone.

But one of the planning board’s mistakes is to rezone without having a developer in mind or consulting with a developer. So I actually think it’s not just the country club you want to talk to. It’s also potential for developers to tell us what would look attractive.

Again, this will all be part of an open process and is going to take a long time. But a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a first step. It’s something that honestly I’ve been thinking about for 12 years, and when I first raised it, people, as I said, looked at me like I was insane and now suddenly like, Oh, you’re right.

The town has seen similar high-profile proposals submitted only to be left on the shelf and forgotten.

This is actually part of the reason I wanted to run for Select Board. I’ve had all these ideas, and I’d like to be in the room where it happens. I’d like to be able to influence what that’s worth quoting.

And that’s what switched when people approached me when Adam [Dash] announced that he was retiring in November, saying well, you considered like, and then spent three weeks talking to people, and nobody else would step forward. I initially stepped forward out of a sense of civic obligation, as I have talked to people, it turned into really some guarded optimism and even excitement that there are things that I think we can do.

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  1. Jonathan Birge says

    She may be running unopposed, but she’d have my vote even in a crowded field. We’re lucky to have her running.

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