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

Belmont Selectmen OK Special Town Meeting Date

Photo: Belmont Center reconstruction underway.

It’s official: the Belmont Board of Selectmen approved a Special Town Meeting for Thursday, Aug. 6, location to be determined (although strong hints have been dropped that it will likely be held in the air conditioned comfort of the Chenery Middle School.)

The votes, held at an early morning meeting at Town Hall on Thursday, July 16, was a foregone conclusion as the petitioners submitted more than 200 certified signatures from registered voters.

“We had no choice but to certify the warrant,” said Mark Paolillo, who along with Chair Sami Baghdady, voted to open and close the warrant, and to approve the language of the motion.

(Selectman Jim Williams is currently on vacation and could not cast a vote).

“It’s unfortunate that we as a community should be celebrating the revitalization of Belmont Center … it just seems that this is now an issue that has divided our town,” said Paolillo. 

The article calls for the selectmen to reverse its vote on May 28 approving significant changes to the design of the Belmont Center Reconstruction Project, the $2.8 million plan to improve traffic flow and upgrade the town’s main business district.

While construction on the site had begun, the Selectmen voted unanimously to approve changes submitted in a separate citizen’s petition by Lydia Ogilby of Washington Street who called for trees to be protected (they had been removed weeks before) and to restore parking and a cut through from Concord Avenue from Moore Street adjacent to the Belmont Savings Bank. 

The petitioners who called the Special Town Meeting said the Selectmen’s overstep its authority since the town’s legislative body approved a financial plan for the project at another Special Town Meeting last November with the original design blueprint – which included removing angled parking and the bypass which creating a larger town “Green” at the location. 

According to Town Clerk Ellen Cushman, under the town’s bylaws, amendments to the motion can be submitted to her office at least three business days before the Special meeting, which will be Monday, Aug. 3, at 4 p.m. 

A quorum of 101 Town Meeting members will need to show up for the up or down majority vote to take place. The vote is non-binding as Town Counsel George Hall considers the motion as “instructional,” in which Town Meeting is giving their opinion to the Selectmen, said Cushman.   

While voting to approve the meeting, Paolillo said “it is really unfortunate that [a Special Town Meeting] is taking place. It’s just a waste of money” – the Aug. 6 gathering will cost the town $5,000 – and it was a shame that a compromise plan could not have been agreed to by all sides of the issue.

But Baghdady noted that the May 28 vote itself was a compromise in which the board voted to approve design changes to assist elderly residents and ease traffic congestion.

“How do you compromise a compromise?” said Baghdady. 

Paolillo said the one point that bothers him is the process question, “but as far as changing the plan, I’m not accommodating that.” 

Baghdady said notice of the May 28 meeting was sent to Town Meeting members and the public via social media and email. 

“What more process could we have done?” he said.

Next week, the board will discuss and then vote whether to seek “favorable action” on the article.

Special Town Meeting Set for Thursday, August 6

Photo: Belmont Center under construction. 

The Special Town Meeting called by residents seeking to reverse last-minute changes to the $2.8 million Belmont Center Reconstruction Project will take place on Thursday, Aug. 6, according to a notice released on Monday, July 13.

On Thursday, July 16 at 8 a.m., the Belmont Board of Selectmen will meet at Town Hall to vote to open and close the warrant before voting on the date. 

Still up in the air is the meeting’s location. Town Meetings are held in the auditoriums of either Belmont High School or the Chenery Middle School. Last week, Town Clerk Ellen Cushman said she would seek to hold the assembly at the Chenery as it has air conditioning.

Town Meeting’s traditional start time is 7 p.m.

The Special Town Meeting was called after a group of residents presented a citizen’s petition calling for the return of the project’s original design which included a prominent Town “Green” and removal of the cut through between Moore Street and Concord Avenue after the Selectmen voted on May 28 to keep the bypath and locate four parallel parking spot in front of the Belmont Savings Bank.  

The Selectmen will take the non-binding vote “under advisement” and decide at a public meeting whether to follow Town Meeting’s “instruction” or set it aside.

Town Clerk Declares Summer Special Town Meeting ‘Will Be Held’

Photo: Ellen Cushman, Belmont Town Clerk. 

Belmont will have a summer Special Town Meeting before the third week in August after Town Clerk Ellen Cushman certified a citizen’s petition submitted by residents who seek to reverse a last-minute change to the $2.8 million Belmont Center Reconstruction Project.

“The train is on the tracks,” said Cushman, referring to the process the town will undertake to schedule the meeting during the middle of summer. 

The meeting will cost taxpayers approximately $5,000 to hire a court reporter, have materials ready and to pay overtime for town employees.  

Cushman said her office certified 284 of the 302 signatures submitted Wednesday, July 8, by residents seeking a non-binding vote by the 300 members of the town’s legislative branch.

The latest the Special Town Meeting can take place was 45 days from Wednesday, on Aug. 21.

It is now up to the Board of Selectmen – the group which prompted the special meeting after approving major changes to the project’s design at a May 28 public meeting which resulted in a counter petition and later a near free-for-all at a subsequent Selectmen’s meeting – to pick a meeting date and sign the warrant. The board will also vote on whether to recommend or reject the article. 

The meeting will be held 14 days or longer once the warrant is signed.

The article’s language Town Meeting will be voting on is the same used on the petition delivered to the town. (see below) Amendments to the article can be submitted up to three days before the meeting. A quorum of 100 members will be needed to call the meeting.

Cushman said the vote – which seeks to return the project to its original design with a prominent Town “Green” and removal of the cut through between Moore Street and Concord Avenue – is, in fact, non-binding. The Selectmen will take the vote “under advisement” and decide at a public meeting whether to follow Town Meeting’s “instruction” or set it aside. 

If there were any thoughts from either camp withdrawing from the anticipated fight on the floor of either the Chenery Middle or Belmont High schools auditorium, the time to do so was before the petition arrived at Town Hall Wednesday.

“This Special Town Meeting will be held,” Cushman told the Belmontonian. 

The petition reads: 

We, the undersigned registered voters of the Town of Belmont, Massachusetts, request that the Board of Selectmen of the Town of Belmont place an article on the Warrant for a Special Town Meeting to read:

“In proceeding with the Belmont Center restoration project, as approved and funded by Town Meeting on November 17, 2014, shall the Board of Selectmen and other Town officials be directed to adhere to the plan represented in the Belmont Center Improvements design documents put out to bid by the Town in January 2015, said documents based on the conceptual plan presented to Town Meeting in the November 2014 Special Town Meeting. These documents shall be used in place of the Board of Selectmen’s revised Belmont Center restoration conceptual plan, adopted unilaterally at a meeting held on May 28, 2015.”

Town Green Supporters Ponder Special TM After Raucous Selectmen Standoff

Photo: Belmont Center Reconstruction project. 

[Correction: The latest date for a Town Meeting to take place if 200 signatures were submitted to the Town Clerk’s office on Friday, June 26, would be Aug. 10.]

It’s been some time since the Belmont Police has been called to a public meeting. But a man in blue stood outside Town Hall’s Board of Selectmen’s Room – more amused than austere – as a large contingency of supporters of a town green adjacent to the Belmont Savings Bank and traffic calming measures as part of the Belmont Center Reconstruction project to present their complaints in the form of a petition – with more than 500 signatures in support – that would reverse last-minute changes to the projects blueprint approved by the Selectmen in late May.

Supporters of the original plan said they will make plans in the next few days on rounding up 200 signatures from registered voters to call a Special Town Meeting to resolve the issue.

“According to Town Clerk Ellen Cushman, if the petition with the required signatures where received by her office by Friday, June 26, the latest a Special Town Meeting could take place would be Aug. 10.”

At Monday’s meeting, shouts of “shame” accompanied by derisive catcalls and moans were heard as the chance for cooperation on the issue quickly struck the political shallows as neither side wished to surrender what they preserved as being the high ground.

After an initial statement calling for a return to what is being called design “Plan A,” the petition’s standard-bearer Paul Roberts asked that the board “hear those who wish to speak for and against” the proposed return to the original project plan.

Chair Sami Baghdady countered by saying what Robert’s statement “sums up pretty well” those who support the petition’s language. Providing additional comments, Selectman Jim Williams objected to Robert’s statement as being disrespectful to the board, charging that the selectmen did respect Town Meeting support for the project even as they voted to alter the project in May.

The town’s legislative body approved the project’s funding in November at a Special Town Meeting.  

View the first 20 minute of the Selectmen’s June 22 meeting soon at the Belmont Media Center

The board also noted that the green space adjacent to the bank would be 43 percent larger under the Board of Selectmen supported Plan B than in the original plan. Shortly after the Selectmen’s response, the board ended the comment section without acting on the complaint 0r whether it would acknowledge those who opposed the changes.

When Roberts questioned ending the comment period, he was told he was out of order, resulting in a verbal brouhaha with a police officer showing up in the background. 

Speaking after the meeting, Roberts said he would be contacting supporters on gathering the required signatures to call for a Special Town Meeting to resolve the issue once and for all. 

The changes were prompted by a petition with 200 signatures from 96-year-old Lydia Ogilby, a voter and Town Meeting Member from Precinct 1. Her minimal request – “Petition to reconsider the reconstruction of the green space in the upcoming Belmont Centre project. Please save the trees in the delta and across Concord Avenue. Also save the pass through in front of the bank” – resulted in the reintroduction of parking and the side street connecting Moore Street and Concord Avenue.

Yet Roberts said what’s at issue isn’t how large of a green space will ultimately be placed along Leonard Street. For him and others, the critical question is process.

“If this precedence stands, then what Town Meeting is saying is that the Selectmen can, at any point in every capital project up to the ribbon cutting, has the authority to redraw the project to their liking,” said Roberts.

“It could be based on personal preference, on a petition from a friend or who they talked to over the weekend at a barbecue over the weekend,” he said.

“It’s a complete undermining of a ground up, grass root transparent process in which people can comment on things, have them implemented and the final result is what the community wants,” he said.

Preview of the Second Night of Belmont Town Meeting, May 6


The second night of the 156th edition of Belmont Town Meeting takes place on Wednesday, May 6 as the meeting reconvenes at 7 p.m. at Belmont High School to hopefully complete the remaining non-budgetary issues before the 290-member legislative body.

The evening will revolve around debate on the $1.1 million in grants coming from the Community Preservation Committee.

They include:

  • Belmont Veterans Memorial Project: $150,000,
  • Wellington Station exterior restoration and rehabilitation: $26,300,
  • Electrical upgrade at units owned by the Belmont Housing Authority: $522,500,
  • Digitization of historic Belmont newspapers from 1890 to 1983: $25,000.
  • Rehabilitation and restoration of the 1853 Homer House: $100,000.
  • Upgrade and restore the Pequossette Park: $295,000.

There will likely be questions from Town Meeting on public money being used on a private residence such as the Homer House (owned by the Belmont Woman’s Club) and why residents tax money (the CPC receives its funding from a surtax on property taxes) is being used to repair the electrical wiring at buildings which are run by the state. 

In addition, a Special Town Meeting will be convened to allow for the transfer of money from reserve accounts to pay down the deficits in the school department (about a half-a-million dollars due largely to skyrocketing special education costs) and about $750,000 in the snow removal account. 

The Cost of Too Much: Special Town Meeting To Pay $1.35 Million Snow Removal Bill

Photo: The bill for snow removal is double the allocated amount.

It costs a lot to push aside nine feet of snow.

And the town is setting aside time at next month’s annual Town Meeting to pay the bill for removing the record snow that fell on Belmont’s thoroughfares this season.

The Special Town Meeting article – a meeting within the assembly – will take up the $1,348,000 expense incurred by the town this winter, more than double the $600,000 allocated for snow and ice removal in the fiscal 2015 budget.

“Typically, we expect 45 to 60 inches of snow, not 108 inches,” David Kale, Belmont’s Town Administrator, told the Belmont Board of Selectmen during its meeting, Tuesday, April 21. 

The $748,000 needed to bridge the funding gap exceeds the entire $400,000 general reserve account held by the Warrant Committee to resolve shortages for all of the town’s departments and the schools.

This comes at a time when the school budget is running a $500,000 shortfall in its current budget due to a spike in special education costs and higher enrollment.

The town will resolve both funding deficits with a combination of reserve accounts, the town’s free cash account and stabilization funds, according to Kale.

The snow and ice overage will be paid by using free cash and a portion of the Warrant Committee reserve fund, while the school budget shortage will be taking from the SPED fund with the balance transferred from the Warrant Committee’s fund. 

Special Town Meeting Warrant Briefing at the Beech Tonight

The Belmont League of Women Voters and the Warrant Committee is co-sponsoring a warrant briefing tonight, Thursday, Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Beech Street Center.

This is an opportunity for Town Meeting member as well as the general public to ask questions of town officials and department heads about the single article on the warrant – concerning the funding for the 2.8 million Belmont Center Reconstruction project – prior to Special Town Meeting to be held on Monday, Nov. 17 at the Chenery Middle School.

Raffi Manjikian, vice-chair of the Warrant Committee, will preside.