Opinion: An Unfair Re-Do, Part Two

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This is the second half of an opinion article by Kevin Cunningham. The first half was published on Tuesday, Aug. 4.

“The traffic problem is solved”

It’s worth pointing out one other line of revisionist argument that is creeping into the discussion, this time on what to many is the most critical issue; the problem of traffic.

At the precinct meeting in September where the board laid out the general outlines of what would be voted in November, the very first comment from the public was a tempered lament that the proposed Belmont Center proposal did not in fact address the most visible problem of the Center; the tremendous traffic issue. Yes, the proposed project beautified the Center, but it left unsettled the commuter problem.

In response, Glenn Clancy, director of Belmont’s Community Development Office, noted that many efforts had been made to consider various options to address the issue, but he had to concede that traffic would still be an issue. Thus even from the outset it was understood that the Belmont Center Reconstruction Project did not solve the most significant problem the Center had: the massive traffic. Indeed, this was the grounds for many to not support it at Town Meeting, “You’re spending lots of money, but you’re not even solving the chief problem?”

Of course, the Center plan does address some of the traffic issues in a variety of ways: it does introduce traffic calming and makes certain intersections more rational, so the safety will be greatly improved. That is certainly a worthy and important goal. Nevertheless, the plan does not eliminate or reduce the traffic itself. Indeed, it eliminated some of the relief valves for traffic, in favor of safety. That’s understandable, but the traffic will still build up.

Thus, when the board voted on the revisions in May, it was not merely trying to address the parking issues of the elderly. It was even more significantly attempting to strike a compromise that did something to mitigate the unresolved traffic issue. It is an important issue, it affects all of us, and it is unfortunate that is it difficult to resolve. But the board took a stab at giving a balanced response to the issue.

Today, you will hear that the Center plan actually does address the traffic issue fully. If you dig under the rhetoric for this, however, you will basically see the following argument: “The Center redesign takes a major thoroughfare, which up to now has been shared by motorists and pedestrians, and reorients it toward pedestrians; drivers will consequently learn to stay away from this route because it will be even less favorable to them than before. Problem solved.”

This logic – “build it and they will not come” – may or may not be rational. But it certainly has not been established to be a majority opinion, nor even an idea that Town Meeting knew when it voted on funding the project. Rather, people understood, and were explicitly told, that the traffic problem was not solved by the proposed plan. To assert now that it was solved all along, and that everyone agrees with the logic and consequences of the traffic suppression approach, is simply unfounded.

“They are suppressing democracy”

One last point bears noting. The most recent line of argument that might be proffered by proponents of the new action, a line that will be emotionally convincing to many citizens but is still untrue, is that the board has now added insult to injury by pushing away properly organized groups of citizens and stifled their free expression. The board, it is claimed, has muzzled the citizens, called the cops on them, and perversely not listened to reason when it ought to have.

The board has done nothing of the kind. People intruded in venues that were not appropriate for raising their points, and the elected body properly said they were out of order. Now, there is indeed a problem in town about lack of venues in which to raise process points. But that doesn’t justify packing a hall with an intense and angry group of people and insist, against procedure, your right to be heard.

It is worth noting that, just because someone feels oppressed, it does not automatically follow that there is an actually an oppressor, especially an evil oppressor that is persistently acting to thwart their good intentions.

But all this obscures the key point. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the board is now stifling free speech. What has that to do with the Belmont Center decision? That decision was made last Spring, not this summer. The oppression being asserted now could not possibly have influenced the vote in Spring. It didn’t exist then. Certainly many people feel like their voices are being suppressed now, but it is not logically connected to the vote in May.

Now, some will argue that it is relevant, because they believe it shows some ongoing pattern of the Selectmen to skirt democracy. But here again, the proper followup to such an observation is to make the case to the proper authorities and get censure of the Board, not to create an elaborate proxy in the form of a Town Meeting vote on A versus B.

A fair vote is now impossible

In fact, this all inescapably clouds the vote at Town Meeting. Are we voting on A versus B, or instead indirectly defending Town Meeting’s prerogative? Or is all this really a referendum about whether the Board of Selectmen proceeded improperly, or, even further afield, whether they are proceeding oppressively now? What exactly is this vote about?

Unfortunately, this use of the vote as an unstated proxy for the latter cases, or for the earlier accusations of collusion, renders it now impossible for the Town Meeting vote to be conducted fairly. Nevermind that the actual intent of the vote is unclear. In any town where the publicity about a legal case has been too much filled with unsubstantiated rumors and accusations, our legal system has taken the prudent course of moving the trial to another district. The jury, we realize, could not help but be biased, even if they maintained and believed otherwise. We all know there is wisdom in that.

Town Meeting is in such a case now: we believe we can be fair, but too much has been said, too much emotional baggage is now being carried, so it is not actually possible to be free of it. Even if all the facts were reported accurately in Town Meeting, we are no longer in a position to view them with an unbiased eye. Too much has happened.

An unfair do-over

Where does all this leave us?

If you review the changing history of the case for the Belmont Center action, you will see only one constant: the proponents were unsatisfied with the results of a certain decision, and they want it changed.

It is entirely understandable that the proponents of the new action were disappointed by the Board vote. There are always those who don’t like the way some vote or other turns out. But to convert this into a moral crusade, vilifying fellow citizens and uncivilly interrupting the public business of elected officials as a means to reverse a perfectly legal decision, is entirely uncalled for, and has even made it impossible for them to get the result they want in an unbiased way. They may get the result, but it would not be fairly obtained.

The truth in this case is simple: the current campaign is simply an unfair attempt at a re-do of a vote that was properly made, a vote that was made with input from citizens and deliberation by thoughtful elected officials, and a vote that is not Town Meeting’s province to make in the first place nor in its jurisdiction to overturn. In support of this inappropriate re-do, proponents have put forth a variety of arguments, some unconvincing as best, some libelous, and many simply false, as to why it is appropriate to hold a new vote on the topic. But Town Meeting has no authority, moral or legal, to instruct the board on this matter, and all the hullaballoo is simply an unfair attempt to change history.

A do-over is improper, if it were even possible to conduct fairly – which it is not – and therefore should not proceed.

Kevin Cunningham

Town Meeting Member, Precinct 4

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Comments

  1. says

    I’m with Jon on this, Kevin. Your opinion throughout this entire affair (and others of late) has been consistently weird. Your op-eds are notable for being contrarian, but also incoherent. The two-part manifesto above is another example of this. Your continued use of terms like “libelous” without any reference to the statements in any of the petitions or by any of the petitioners cleared that very high bar just repeats the sins of the “No” side, which has continually tried to paint the petitioners in this case as engaged in character assassination as an excuse for shutting down debate and discussion. You’re not doing yourself any favors with screeds like this Kevin – though I continue to support your right to write them and speak your mind, which is more than I can say for many of those opposed to the Special TM.

  2. Jonathan Birge says

    Kevin,

    I cannot for the life of me figure out what your angle is on this. The Selectmen are allowed to make minor changes in implementation to things that the Town Meeting authorizes spending on. In no way shape or form is adding a road a “minor change”. The selectmen literally did just that. In the plan approved by the Town Meeting, with proper input on traffic and safety, there was to be no cut-through in the renovation. The selectmen changed that and created a cut through. It’s irrelevant that we have one now; what matters is how the plan the BOS created (“Plan B”) and the approved plan differ, and whether or not the significance of that difference constitutes an overstep of their executive authority.

    Let me ask you this: had the BOS decided that instead of using the money approved Town Meeting they’d just spend the money renovating Cushing Square instead of Town Center, would you have considered that an appropriate change we should just accept? I hope you’re sane enough to agree that it wouldn’t be. So if you accept that the BOS should only be allowed to change approved plans within some degree of reasonableness, please explain to me how you think it’s ok for them to override years of studies and meetings and create a road where there previously wasn’t going to be one.

    I’m also disappointed that you don’t see; that this change was clearly prompted by influence from moneyed business interests in town center. You can’t possibly truly believe this was a change made in good faith to make a few senior citizens happy, most of whom thought they were signing a petition to save the trees.

  3. Erin Lubien says

    As an observer and spouse of a Town Meeting Member, I truly hope that tomorrow’s session can operate as a respectful and thoughtful meeting in which all opinions are heard, allowed and considered justified. Kevin, you make all the right points, however, let’s de-personalize the topic at hand and end tomorrow’s meeting with a comprised plan that delivers what can be done given that many other tangential (and, I would argue, more important) issues weren’t taken into account in planning.

    It is the belief that I have seen in Belmont – to get done what we can get done today, despite everything else that touches these projects – that needs to change. Had those who appropriated funds in November taken into account the abysmal traffic in Belmont Center, the fact that the proposed construction would occur at the very same time as every other project in town, and the need for an override of 2x the cost of this project, this issue is – yes – bigger than Belmont Center, but the last months’ arguments are all wrong!

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