Monthly Archives: April 2014

Advisory Committee: neighborhoods, snow, human relations

A regular meeting of the Advisory Committee on Tuesday, April 29, started at 7:00 pm in the southern first-floor meeting room at Town Hall. The committee has been reviewing articles on the warrant for the 2014 annual town meeting to be held in May. It voted recommendations on articles for a neighborhood conservation district, a resolution about snow clearance and a new “diversity” commission to replace the Human Relations Youth Resources Commission.

A Greater Toxteth neighborhood conservation district has been proposed in Article 11 by about 85 percent of residents of Toxteth St. and nearby. They say that no one in the area has announced opposition. This type of district, with regulations that go beyond zoning but are less strict than a local historic district authorized by Massachusetts under Chapter 40C of the General Laws, was invented by retiring Selectman Richard Benka to mitigate potential disruptions from the proposed Chapter 40B housing development at Hancock Village. Greater Toxteth would become the first more-or-less ordinary designation.

A neighborhood conservation district can designate characteristics of concern to a particular neighborhood. Unlike zoning districts, those are expected to differ from one neighborhood to another. For example, Greater Toxteth calls attention to front porches common in the area. A special review would be required to enclose a front porch for living space. So would alterations that add living space encroaching on current front yards. However, other additions that increase living space less than 15 percent would not need special reviews.

As article 11 was considered, committee chair Harry Bohrs stepped aside, and Carla Benka led the committee. Mr. Bohrs is one of the petitioners for Greater Toxteth. Ms. Benka chairs the subcommittee that investigated the article. Paul Bell, Ann Turner and other members of the Neighborhood Conservation District Commission (NCDC) said they support Greater Toxteth.

However, committee member Christine Westphal seemed skeptical. She asked, “Why freeze the neighborhood?” and said the district was “problematic…It wouldn’t work on Brook St.” Dennis DeWitt, an architect and member of the NCDC who lives on High St. Hill, responded that distinctions between “public and private spaces” were being respected in the proposal. The committee voted to recommend favorable action, 18 in favor, 1 opposed and 2 abstaining–with Mr. Bohrs counted as recused.

Frank Caro, a member of the Age Friendly Cities Committee, led a group of petitioners under Article 28 for a resolution that seeks prompt enforcement of the town’s snow clearance bylaw in commercial areas. Andrew Pappastergion, the commissioner of public works, said manpower is limited. Last winter Brookline issued over 500 citations for failure to clear snow in a timely way. Fines can range up to $100 per day.

Committee member Lee Selwyn pointed out that increased revenue from fines might well cover the cost of prompt enforcement. Carla Benka said that the town had not been “aggressive with enforcement” and questioned whether times allowed to clear snow in the current bylaw are realistic. They range from a few hours in commercial districts to a day in low-density residential ones. The committee voted unanimously to recommend referral of the article to a committee organized by Town Administrator Mel Kleckner.

Finally, the committee took up this season’s most contentious topic. Article 10 would abolish the Human Relations Youth Resources (HRYR) Commission and create a new “Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations (DICR) Commission.” The committee heard from Nancy Daly, a member of the Board of Selectmen who headed a selectmen-appointed committee proposing the change, and from Mariela Ames, who chairs the HRYR Commission. Several other current and former town officials were present, and some offered comments.

Michael Sandman, who chairs a special subcommittee that investigated the article, offered a motion with many amendments to the article as proposed. However, they do not much affect the article’s main points. Responsibilities of a new commission would become far smaller than those of the current commission, and the new commission would have no staff assigned to support its work.

Ms. Daly defended a wordy “mission” statement that begins a proposed new bylaw for the DICR commission. No other town board has such a statement in its bylaw. She said, “Historically, there have been problems finding enough people to serve as commissioners.” However, over the past few months the Board of Selectmen made many appointments and brought the HRYR Commission to its full 15 members. Several new members appear to have been appointed to provide representation for minorities.

Ms. Ames said that when commissioners look at what the bylaw now asks, “they find they don’t have powers to do the tasks.” The original Human Relations Commission was created by town meeting in 1970. It had a rocky start. Richard Fischer, an African-American who was the first staff director, resigned after less than a year, accusing Brookline of “tokenism.”

The town did not provide the Human Relations Commission with authorization under Massachusetts laws that would have been needed to investigate complaints and town hiring practices. As reported in the former Chronicle-Citizen, it also never provided Mr. Fischer with a commission office or even a desk. Within a few months, the late Rev. George Blackman, who had chaired the commission, also resigned.

In the 1970s, the town had no Human Resources office and no consistent procedure to investigate civil rights complaints. Nevertheless, even when Human Relations was merged with Youth Resources in 1974, Brookline did nothing to empower its commission. Current commission members found that in 42 years after Mr. Fischer’s departure the town never hired or promoted another minority person to be among its department heads, who now number 26. That proved an embarrassment to a whole generation of selectmen and town executives.

As at a subcommittee investigation of Article 10, there was discussion over whether a new organization should be called a “department,” a “division” or an “office” and of whether a new commission should be of variable rather than fixed size. Committee member Stanley Spiegel spoke up for a department, because of “stature.” However, Sandra DeBow, the town’s Human Resources director, observed that an “office” such as she runs may be more appropriate, since it will have town-wide duties.

As marked up by the Advisory Committee, the proposed new bylaw radically reduces the scope of the commission and the corresponding office. The new commission would be excluded from any direct role in affirmative action and from any direct role in handling discrimination complaints when they involve Brookline employees. No new role is added; roles are only taken away.

Everything that would be authorized for the new commission is already authorized for the current one. The new commission would be on its own. No staff is authorized. The proposed new bylaw provides only for a “chief diversity officer” reporting to Town Administrator Mel Kleckner. Members of the current HRYR Commission will need to apply to the Board of Selectmen if they want to become members of a new DICR Commission.

Current members of the HRYR commission have been excluded from reviews of their commission. They were rudely treated–privately advised not to attend reviews. Except for Mariela Ames, who currently chairs the HRYR commission, no current commissioners came to reviews held by the Advisory Committee and the Committee on Town Organization and Structure.

After a long discussion, committee member Amy Hummel proposed to amend Mr. Sandman’s motion by substituting a commission of variable size, 11 to 15, as the selectmen-appointed committee proposing the article asks. That was defeated, 7 in favor and 13 opposed. Then Mr. Sandman’s motion, with a couple of technical changes, was unanimously approved, recommending the new commission to town meeting.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 30, 2014

Diane Hinchcliffe, Fischer to resign, Brookline Chronicle-Citizen 99(5):1,6, February 3, 1972

Human relations: more than advice?

In the 1950s and before, Brookline’s government focused on delivering services. Compared with other partly urban communities around Boston, the mix was rich and varied. In hackneyed local news, Brookline was often referred to as “leafy”–a sly dig meant to suggest “flaky.” The town was maintaining thousands of street trees, since setting up the Committee on Planting Trees in the previous century. Crews of foresters went around every spring, trimming many of those trees. Every snowfall, Brookline sent out an armada of small plows and cleared all the sidewalks. During warm months, parks and playgrounds were patrolled by park rangers, whose presence tended to discourage littering, vandalism and violence.

The price for all that became fairly high. Since early nineteenth century, Brookline’s culture and politics had been led by a handful of settled, Yankee families. The 1920s through the 1950s saw placid populations they easily dominated gradually replaced by new and less compliant ones, including Jews, professionals and white-collar business people. In a quest to hold on to elected offices–once the Brookline Citizens Committee could no longer do the job–some of the old-line Yankees made tacit partners among the mostly Irish immigrants and descendants living in town, who provided the local services. Coupled with unionization of the work force, that led to big wage and salary hikes. During the late 1960s, Brookline’s tax rate spiraled upward–growing as much as 20 percent a year.

A cauldron of conflicts developed. There was, for a time, a “Committee to Avoid a $100 Tax Rate.” There was a campaign to restore rent control, in effect during World War II and for a few years afterward. There was anger over new, high-rise buildings that were invading older neighborhoods around them. There were strong demands to make four elementary schools in the northern, mostly urban precincts as effective as four located in the southern, mostly suburban precincts. There was outrage over alleged harassment by some police officers of people of color.

The last of these conflicts emerged just as a Human Relations Commission was created by town meeting in 1970. It was charged to develop “nondiscrimination” policy, specifically: “the development of opportunities within Brookline…for those who are discriminated against and restricted by their race, color, national origin or ancestry, religion, sex or age….” The commission was also to “adopt…affirmative action guidelines” for town departments and contractors, with approval from the Board of Selectmen. Finally, the commission was to “initiate, receive, secure the investigation and seek the satisfactory adjustment of complaints charging discrimination….” [Brookline bylaws, Article XXVIII, 1970]

Effective performance of the broad scope of duties was undermined by Brookline’s failure to provide the Human Relations Commission with authorizations under Massachusetts laws. In order to carry out investigations, the commission would need to subpoena witnesses, take sworn testimony, demand, review and safeguard confidential documents and conduct executive sessions. However, unlike 1960s approaches to consolidating public works and planning, the 1970 town meeting did not seek state authorization for the commission, using a so-called “home rule petition” to the state legislature. Had it done so, the commission, like the town’s contemporaneous rent control board, might have been authorized under Chapter 30A, the state’s Administrative Procedure Act.

The evil of combining ambitious duties with vacuous powers left the Human Relations Commission worse than hobbled. It failed to lead expected reforms and became ridiculed in some quarters. There have been relatively few investigations of discrimination complaints, and there were not many notable outcomes. As in 1970, Brookline’s work force includes comparatively few minorities. Agencies reporting to Town Administrator Mel Kleckner and the Board of Selectmen lack even one minority department head. Like all its predecessors in the past half century, the current Board of Selectmen appears determined to “keep the lid on,” suppressing even mild protests. We have watched one after another supposedly civic-minded member of that board be co-opted into serving interests of the permanent government: town employees who run the town departments.

This year’s sally to replace the Human Relations Commission with a new “Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations Commission” looks like more damage control. After public embarrassment over Brookline’s decades of failure to make much progress with minority hirings and promotions, the Board of Selectmen sponsored a “Committee on Diversity, Equal Employment Opportunities and Affirmative Action.” Clearly spooked that a live munition could blow up on them, they installed one of their number as chair and excluded all current members of the Human Relations Commission. Unlike any other bylaw setting up a town agency, their proposal for a new one starts with four gassy paragraphs about the agency’s “mission”–with the obvious effect of constraining it. Like the 1970 commission, the new one would lack state authorizations, making it at least as impotent, if not more so. The new commission is expected to offer advice, advice, advice.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, April 26, 2014

Advisory subcommittee: a new human relations board

On Thursday, April 24, an Advisory subcommittee set to work at 7:00 pm in the third-floor lounge at Town Hall–slicing and dicing Article 10 for the spring town meeting in May. The meeting, which included a public hearing, recalled an old saw sometimes misattributed to Bismarck. (“Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” John Godfrey Saxe, 1869) However, unlike other town boards, slicing and dicing is the main business at Advisory. They go at it with confidence.

Article 10 had been reviewed just the night before by the Human Relations Youth Resources (HRYR) Commission, which it proposes to abolish–creating in its place a new “Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations (DICR) Commission.” Michael Sandman, who chairs the special subcommittee assembled for the topic, did conduct a public hearing, unlike HRYR–which advertised a public hearing but did not hear from members of the public. It didn’t take much time, since the Advisory hearing drew only a few members of town boards and two visitors.

Mr. Sandman was prepared with a punch-list of proposed amendments, gathered from several sources. He and Advisory colleagues Systke Humphrey, Bernard Greene and Amy Hummel went through them briskly, yet with close attention to meaning and detail. Although Mariela Ames, who chairs HRYR, was present, apparently she had not sent Mr. Sandman the changes her commission proposed the day before; they were not on his punch-list.

Among the many amendments discussed, three stood out. Facing a potential for a commission with only one staff person–possibly none–calling the organization either a “department” or a “division” doesn’t seem to fit the circumstances. The subcommittee recommends calling it an “office” instead, although it’s not clear whether the proposed DICR commission would have an actual office.

Three members of the selectmen-appointed committee that proposed Article 10 were present: Martin Rosenthal, Rita McNally and Elena Olsen. They were helpful in explaining how they came to propose a new commission with a variable number of commissioners: 11 to 15. However, the subcommittee recommends a commission of fixed size, like all other current boards, settling on 15 commissioners.

The third “hot button” issue was whether the proposed DICR commission should have scope to review practices of more than agencies reporting to Town Administrator Mel Kleckner and the Board of Selectmen. The other major agencies are the Public Schools, Housing Authority and Public Library–each of which has an elected governing board.

At Mr. Sandman’s suggestion, the subcommittee recommends that the proposed bylaw say it “applies to all Brookline departments and agencies.” In his opinion, that would include schools and libraries but not the Brookline Housing Authority. That might be a specious distinction, since the housing authority is a state-chartered agency, while the town is a political subdivision of the state. [Hunter v. City of Pittsburg, 207 U.S. 161, 178-179, 1907, upholding a principle sometimes called “Dillon’s rule“]

Like monitoring of the Public Schools of Brookline, monitoring by a Brookline agency of the town’s housing authority would need cooperation rather than compulsion. A total of 16 potential amendments was considered, with nine to be recommended. The full Advisory Committee will meet at Town Hall Tuesday, April 29, at 7:00 pm, and take up those and other issues.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 25, 2014

Human Relations Youth Resources Commission: coping with changes

A meeting of the Human Relations Youth Resources (HRYR) Commission on Wednesday, April 23, started at 7:00 pm in the Denny Room at the Health Center. The main topic was a public hearing about Article 10 on the warrant for the annual town meeting in May. That proposes to replace the HRYR Commission with a new town board. Attendance was slim. Other than town officials, there were three members of the public. Although this was supposed to be a public hearing, members of the public were never invited to speak.

Article 10 is proposed by a selectmen-appointed “diversity committee.” Nancy Daly, a member of the Board of Selectmen who chaired that committee, attended the Wednesday meeting and offered several comments. Rita McNally, a former HRYR commissioner and a member of the selectmen-appointed committee, was also there and spoke. Known in full as the Committee on Diversity, Equal Employment Opportunities and Affirmative Action, it met a dozen times between December, 2012, and January of this year.

What HRYR commissioners really did at the “public hearing” was line-by-line review of the selectmen-appointed committee’s proposal in Article 10. An unsigned, draft “Motion to be offered,” amending that article, had been circulated among commissioners. Paper copies were available to the public. No one said who wrote the “Motion” document, but it was explained and defended by Mariela Ames, who chairs the HRYR Commission.

Brookline’s Human Relations Commission emerged amid complaints in the late 1960s that some police officers had harassed people of color. After quite a stir, the commission was created by the 1970 annual town meeting and began operations that August. Except for being merged with the former Youth Resources Council in 1974, its organization and duties remained the same for 43 years–until last year.

A stimulus for reviewing the HRYR Commission looks to have been retirement last year of Steven Bressler, HRYR director since 1974. During its early years, HRYR became an active town department, with a staff that grew to around ten. After Proposition 2-1/2, in 1982, there were many cutbacks in town services. For example, most sidewalk snow-plowing ended. HRYR staff shrank until only Mr. Bressler remained.

Originally Article XXVIII in Brookline’s bylaws, the Human Relations bylaw later became Section 3.14 of the current bylaws. Under it, until last year the Human Relations Youth Resources Commission was charged to:
  • develop…opportunities…for those who are discriminated against and restricted
  • adopt…affirmative action guidelines [for] employment practices…of the town
  • adopt…affirmative action guidelines [for] employment practices of town contractors
  • administer…the affirmative action program relating to contracts
  • secure the investigation of…complaints charging discrimination

Taking the first duty literally, in 2012 HRYR commissioners began to review hirings and promotions by town agencies: departments run by the Board of Selectmen and Town Administrator Mel Kleckner and also the Public Schools, Housing Authority and Public Library–which have elected boards. It didn’t take long to discover that there were no minority department heads among the 26 departments under the selectmen and town administrator, also that there had been–at most–only one during the previous 40 years.

As has happened in other Massachusetts communities with a board similar to HRYR, the commission began to seem like an “itch” to some of the people who have participated in town government for years. There were complaints it was going beyond its “mission.” However, a main purpose of such a board is to air a community’s dirty laundry. When it is doing its job, the HRYR Commission is almost sure to become an “itch.”

In 1974, the Board of Selectmen proposed to merge Human Relations with the former Youth Resources and also to strip away from the merged commission responsibilities to adopt and enforce town policy–instead vesting many responsibilities in a town employee to be called the “director of human relations youth resources,” reporting to selectmen rather than to the commission. Town meeting agreed to the merger but left human relations responsibilities of the HRYR Commission as originally set in 1970.

This year, a selectmen-appointed committee proposes more changes, now creating a new “Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations (DICR) Commission.” As in 1974, the proposal would strip away from a commission of town citizens responsibilities to adopt and enforce town policy, instead vesting many responsibilities in a town employee–this time to be called a “chief diversity officer.” That employee would not report to a new DICR commission or to selectmen but instead to Town Administrator Mel Kleckner.

The town employee would be charged with “preparation and submission to the Board of Selectmen of a recommended diversity and inclusion policy.” The town employee would also “serve [as] ombudsperson to provide…dispute resolution services.” A DICR “department,” in place of the former HRYR department, might have only one staff person, or it might have no staff at all. However, DICR would have a “mission.”

Hardly a surprise: the first target at the HRYR Commission’s review on Wednesday was a “mission” statement proposed for DICR. The original Human Relations bylaw had no such “mission” statement. The current bylaw, as revised last year, has none either. Bylaws for other agencies don’t have “mission” statements. Instead, bylaws just describe duties and powers of boards, commissions, committees and departments. There have been florid claims of “empowering” DICR through a “mission,” but the practical effect is to constrain it.

Language in the selectmen-appointed committee’s article is prolix. Brian Myles challenged other HRYR commissioners to try to articulate the proposed “mission”–apparently meaning to state it in plain words. No one was able to do that very well. It looks something like the handiwork of Martin Rosenthal, a member of the selectmen-appointed committee. Mr. Rosenthal, who was on the Board of Selectmen in the 1980s, has a similar habit of speech. He is now a Precinct 9 town meeting member and co-chair of Brookline PAX.

The “Motion” document considered at the HRYR meeting would have deleted the “mission” statement. However, after a long discussion, HRYR commissioners voted unanimously that the “mission” should be reduced to one sentence plus one of the four paragraphs. They labored over the size of a DICR commission, voting that it should be 15, like the current HRYR Commission–rather than 11 to 15 as the selectmen-appointed committee proposes. HRYR commissioners would allow one of the 15 to be a parent of a METCO student rather than a town resident.

The HRYR Commission is responsible for enforcing Brookline’s fair housing law, Section 5.5 in the bylaws. Article 10, as proposed by the selectmen-appointed committee, would abolish the HRYR Commission but put nothing in its place to enforce the fair housing law. HRYR commissioners voted that the proposed DICR commission should take responsibility for the fair housing law.

The rest of the HRYR “public hearing” was discussions among commissioners over proposed duties of a new DICR commission, including review of employment practices of town agencies. If the new commission has any staff, its director is expected also to serve as the town’s “chief diversity officer”–typically among the roles in a human resources office. Like most large businesses, Brookline now has such an office, but it did not have one in the 1970s. Two commissioners were opposed in a vote on duties of a chief diversity officer.

On Wednesday, HRYR commissioners seemed unsure how to conduct a public hearing and how to organize and promote a warrant article, yet some commissioners wanted to be involved with employment practices of town agencies–more complicated tasks. They might also need to learn procedures to subpoena witnesses, take sworn testimony, demand, review and safeguard confidential documents and conduct executive sessions.

Nancy Daly, the member of the Board of Selectmen attending, raised a point about the last of those procedures. She also reminded HRYR commissioners that Brookline will have slim financial resources to provide staff, noting that many other boards and committees do their own work–preparing minutes and writing reports. The HRYR Commission could not finish its review on Wednesday and will meet Monday, April 28, at 6:30 pm, trying to wrap up. It might even hold a public hearing.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 24, 2014

Commission for the Disabled: taxi accessibility and snow clearance

A regular meeting of the Commission for the Disabled on Tuesday, April 22, started at 5:00 pm in the Denny Room at the Health Center. Commissioner Jim Miczek reported on wheelchair accessibility requirements for Brookline taxis. The town currently has no accessible taxis and is considering permanent taxi licenses. Mr. Miczek said the draft accessibility requirements are cursory and vague.

Eileen Berger, the commission’s chairperson, reported no response to the issue so far from the Transportation Board, which has responsibility for taxis. Dr. Lloyd Gellineau, the town’s Human Relations Youth Resources director and a Human Relations-Human Services administrator, raised a general issue about how the town can require accessible transportation services. The commission will be reviewing a possibility for proposing home-rule legislation.

Dr. Saralynn Allaire, another commissioner, reported on investigations in support of the “age friendly community” designation that Brookline received last year. Several at the meeting remarked on hardships last winter because of haphazard snow clearance, notably in commercial districts. Article 28 on the warrant for the annual town meeting in May, submitted by Frank Caro, a member of the Age Friendly Cities Committee, seeks to send “enforcement officers on foot in business districts beginning in the fourth daylight hour after snowfalls.”

The commission considered ways to raise awareness among older town residents about the services currently available for people with disabilities. Dr. Sarah Whitman, another commissioner, will prepare a proposal for the next meeting, to be held May 20. Ms. Berger will also invite Todd Kirrane, the town’s transportation administrator, to that meeting, to review requirements for taxi accessibility.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 23, 2014

Advisory Committee: $87 million for Brookline schools

A regular meeting of the Advisory Committee on Thursday, April 17, started at 7:00 pm in the southern first-floor meeting room at Town Hall. The committee has been reviewing articles on the warrant for the 2014 annual town meeting to be held in May. Most of this meeting was review of school spending proposed for the fiscal year starting next July. Attendance was slim, as it often is at Advisory meetings.

Despite a long siege of work, the committee seemed energetic. Subcommittee chair Leonard Weiss summarized the proposed budget through a set of comparison charts, showing in a general way how the financial resources are used. Unlike some of the reviews in past years, his comparisons did not include other school systems. They were distributed on paper. Copies were not offered to members of the public. Mr. Weiss cited risks in the proposed budget’s heavy reliance on grant funds and other one-time revenues.

School superintendent William Lupini gave more information to the Advisory Committee than he had provided a week earlier to the School Committee. However, the proposed school budget as distributed to the public on the school Web site remains vague–even less informative than the “program” approach the school department began to use in the early 1970s. From the public version of the budget, a reader will not be able to find out how many fifth-grade teachers there are at Pierce or Driscoll, how much is spent on supplies for High School science labs or almost any other practical item showing how the school department runs.

Lee Selwyn was the only committee member who noticed and spoke up. He commented to Dr. Lupini that the budget presentation was incremental, mostly showing changes from the current year. Momentarily the agile superintendent seemed caught off guard, but he recovered with a time-chart showing average spending per student–from the school year starting in 2004 to the one starting in 2012. Mr. Selwyn never got a direct response to his objection.

The per-student spending chart is actually part of the public version of the budget, on page 27. Total spending rose from about $14,000 per student per year for the school year starting in 2004 to about $17,000 for 2008, then leveled off. The chart compares Brookline with Newton and Lexington, showing for the last three years reported that school spending per student in those communities was about the same.

Dr. Lupini and his senior staff contended that controlling costs of special education had been the key to controlling total per-student spending. They did not present any charts or numbers. As described at the meeting, a major element has been “mainstreaming” more special-needs students who were being sent to services outside Brookline–bringing them into the town’s schools and providing extra staff to help.

The liveliest part of the review focused on a proposed “technology” initiative. Most of this involves more and newer computers available in classrooms. The department proposes to add about 600 hand-held computers next year and to begin replacing computers every four rather than every five years. Committee members were interested, but apparently no one did the math. There are about 7,000 students now. For each student to be able to work with a computer, the department would be buying at least 1,750 a year–not just 600.

Dr. Lupini and deputy superintendent Peter Rowe discussed with the committee a “budget addendum” much expanded from one previously distributed to the School Committee. Among other matters, it lists funds for the “technology” initiative. However, the addendum has not been made available on the school Web site, and paper copies made available to the public do not include a page explaining “budget magic” discussed with both the School Committee and the Advisory Committee–avoiding major program cuts or a tax override.

A large majority of the Advisory Committee voted to recommend the school budget as proposed, requiring about $87 million in local tax revenue for department operations, plus a capital allocation. Dividing the annual school department appropriation by the student population does not reflect full costs. A state agency reports per-student spending, including costs of health care and pensions. However, contrary to statements made at the meeting by school administrators, those state reports do not factor in the costs of school buildings. A few committee members abstained, but no one opposed the school budget.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 18, 2014

Candidates Night: controversies appear in town elections

The Brookline Neighborhood Alliance held a Candidate’s Night on Wednesday, April 16, from 6:30 to 9:30 pm in the sixth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. It featured candidates for town-wide offices in the upcoming election on May 6. Margaret Bush, president of League of Women Voters of Brookline, presided as moderator.

The Alliance is a fairly recent organization, founded in 2001. It helps coordinate activities of more than 20 neighborhood associations in Brookline, many of them operating for 40 years or more. Current Alliance co-chairs are Dan Saltzman and Sean Lynn-Jones. Mr. Lynn-Jones introduced the candidates.

This year there is only one town-wide contest: four candidates running for two seats available on the Board of Selectmen. Incumbent Nancy Daly is running for re-election. Incumbent Richard Benka stepped aside after two terms; he remains co-chair of the Override Study Committee. The challengers are Brooks A. Ames of Whitney St., Arthur Wellington Conquest, III, of Tappan St. and Benjamin J. Franco of Cypress St.

For more than two centuries, the Board of Selectmen was a gentlemen’s club, meeting at Dana’s and Punch Bowl taverns before there was Town Hall as we know it today. Over the past 55 years that changed. Louise Castle became the first woman to serve on the board in 1960. For many years afterward, there was never more than one woman among the five members. Recently–during 2007 through 2013–women formed a majority of the board, and currently there are two women on the board.

Another barrier has not yet been breached. There has never been an African-American or Latin-American member of the board, nor for at least a century has there been a foreign-born member. There has been only one minority head of a town department over the past 40 years. Those are major concerns for two of this year’s candidates. Mr. Ames and Mr. Conquest, an African-American, say they are campaigning jointly to promote minority representation in town management.

Continuing financial stress from growth in the school population has revived a controversy many thought was laid to rest in the 1970s: whether the town should continue its affirmative-action program in the schools, accepting minority students through the METCO program. A related element is school-age children of town employees who live elsewhere but have been allowed to attend Brookline schools. The combined groups are said by school administrators to number around 600, out of around 7,000 students now attending Brookline schools.

METCO was organized in 1965. An initial effort was led by Prof. Leon Trilling of M.I.T., then chairman of the Brookline School Committee. Key participants included Dr. Robert Sperber, then Brookline superintendent of schools, and the superintendents in Newton and Lexington. When METCO started sending students to seven founding communities in 1966–75 to Brookline–the program was described as filling “available seats” in classrooms. For many years, the added students were not considered a major factor in achieving a goal of 25 or fewer students per class, and the costs to Brookline were described by school administrators as small.

However, the Education Reform Act of 1993 led to a statewide reporting system for public school populations and spending, so that the added populations could not be discounted. Over time, the numbers of added students grew. State payments for METCO students and so-called “materials fees” charged for children of town employees are much less than the average cost per student in Brookline schools, as calculated by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Moreover, state-certified costs do not include costs of school buildings.

The Ames and Conquest campaigns for minority representation, together with revival of disputes over the METCO program and new disputes over the “materials fee” program, comprise a level of agitation not seen in the town since struggles over rent control and high-rise zoning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those controversies formed a backdrop for the discussions at Candidates Night which no one there could ignore.

Board of Selectmen
Nancy Daly is seeking a fourth term on the Board of Selectmen. She named experience in town government as a major qualification. Ms. Daly formerly chaired the Advisory Committee. She cited recent efforts in getting Brookline recognized as an “age friendly community” and in proposing to revise the town’s bylaw on diversity and inclusion, Article 10 on the warrant for the annual town meeting in May.

Brooks Ames is seeking a first term on the Board of Selectmen. He has been a member of the Human Relations Youth Resources Commission since 2013. Mr. Ames described himself as a Heath School graduate and now a Heath School parent. He complained that there had been “no department head of color in over 40 years” and said his goal is “making sure that everyone has a seat at the table.”

Arthur Conquest is seeking a first term on the Board of Selectmen. He has been a Precinct 6 town meeting member since 1997 and is a past president of the High School parent-teacher organization. Mr. Conquest described his unsuccessful application to serve on the Human Relations Youth Resources Commission, clearly indicating he felt the current Board of Selectmen acted unreasonably.

Benjamin Franco is seeking a first term on the Board of Selectmen. He has been a member of the Advisory Committee since 2008. Mr. Franco described himself as growing up on Amory St. He said he is particularly concerned about financial pressures from school enrollment increases. He cited as a qualification his experience in state government, gained as a legislative aide in the state senate.

Ms. Bush, the moderator, posed several questions submitted by members of the audience to candidates for the Board of Selectmen. On the chronic issue of tax classification, with businesses seeking a lower tax rate, no candidate favored much change. On the efforts to get payments in lieu of taxes from nonprofit organizations, all would encourage them.

Responding to a question about how to handle the proposed Chapter 40B housing development at Hancock Village, Mr. Ames cited his legal experiences with 40B developments and said he favors a “negotiated settlement.” All the candidates were familiar with the situation and cited potential problems, but none had any more to offer toward a solution.

A question on which the candidates clearly differed asked whether they “support a robust METCO program.” Mr. Ames said his support is “100 percent.” Mr. Conquest said METCO is “an integral part of our school system.” Ms. Daly said she would “fight strongly for the program” but there are limits “to what the taxpayers can pay.” Mr. Franco stated he could not “say that regardless of financial pressure…we’re going to retain it.”

Another question that drew differences asked about support for “Local First,” a business initiative proposed under Article 29 at the annual town meeting in May. Mr. Ames criticized the proposal for excluding franchised businesses. Mr. Conquest offered no opinion. Mr. Franco said Brookline “should make sure everybody is protected.” Ms. Daly said she saw problems, notably the issue of “what’s local?” The proposal seeks more town purchasing from local business, while Ms. Daly said the town is “subject to state bidding laws.”

School Committee
Three candidates are running for the three seats available on the School Committee. Incumbent Rebecca Stone is running for a fourth term. Incumbent committee chair Alan Morse stepped aside after three terms. Incumbent Amy Kershaw stepped aside after one term. The new candidates are Michael A. Glover of Franklin Ct. and Lisa R. Jackson of Winthrop Rd.

Rebecca Stone cited as accomplishments a strategic plan, improvements in “educational equity” and renovations to Heath and Runkle Schools. She voiced support for school-building recommendations from the Bspace Committee but also concerns about “fracturing the community” over costs of the work. Michael Glover, a real-estate lawyer who moved to Brookline from Jamaica Plain 1-1/2 years ago, described his goal to “retain the culture and characteristics that attracted our family, without compromising the quality of education.” Dr. Lisa Jackson, an investment portfolio manager, came to Brookline in recent years from California. Her aim, she said, is to “grow strengths around technology, science and math.”

By “educational equity,” Ms. Stone may have been alluding to the Equity Project that began about ten years ago, early in the Lupini administration. According to contemporary town reports, it aimed at “eliminating the racial achievement gap” in Brookline schools. However, an earlier “equity project” began in the 1960s during the Sperber administration. It aimed to eliminate disparity among what Dr. Sperber once called the four rich and the four poor elementary schools. A comment by Dr. Jackson suggested the older project has yet to meet some objectives. She mentioned finding many more classroom computers at Heath than at Pierce.

Ms. Bush again posed questions to the candidates. The first asked about their support for METCO: is it still necessary? Ms. Stone said she is a “very strong supporter” and said the program provides “extraordinary benefit to students and the community.” Mr. Glover said he is a “wholehearted supporter” and said a “holistic school requires exposure to different backgrounds.” Dr. Jackson said she offers “full and robust support” for METCO as an “integral part of an education.”

A question on which the candidates differed asked about the accuracy of school enrollment projections, which now predict continued growth for at least several more years. Dr. Jackson said she lacked knowledge about the accuracy of the projections. Mr. Glover said the projections were “conservative, maybe too low” and did not take full account of the proposed Hancock Village development. Ms. Stone did not answer the question directly, instead referring again to work of the Bspace Committee and describing it as a “broad set of recommendations.”

Key elements of the most recent projections for the school population appear in the public version of the proposed school budget for fiscal 2015, on pages 21-24. They estimate that by 2018 the total school population will rise at least 1,000 students above the historical norm for which Brookline’s school buildings were designed.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 17, 2014

2014 Annual Town Meeting Warrant, town meeting files, Town of Brookline, MA

Superintendent’s FY2015 preliminary budget, Public Schools of Brookline, MA, March, 2014

Edward W. Baker, The old Worcester Turnpike, Proceedings of the Brookline Historical Society at the annual meeting of January, 1907, Internet Archive

The Trilling plans for METCO, pp. 193-210 in Lily D. Geismer, Don’t Blame Us: Grassroots Liberalism in Massachusetts, 1960-1990, PhD, U. Michigan 2010

No news is bad news

The Boston Globe, for about the last 50 years New England’s leading newspaper–following collapse of the old Herald and retrenchment at the Courant–continues to cheapen its products while raising its prices.

Over the last few years, the Globe switched off its once sturdy reporting on health care. Even though it continues to list talented reporters on staff, there are rarely any articles from them and almost none of substance. Although a significant article by young reporter Carolyn Johnson continues to appear once in a while, science reporting–never a Globe strength–has been wedged into a crevice inside “technology,” itself a branch of “business.”

As of mid-April, 2014, New England news totally disappeared from both the Globe’s free site and its paid site. Now “health” is just a feature of “lifestyle.” Chelsea Conaboy, who came to the Globe from the Philadelphia Inquirer less than three years ago to coordinate health-care news, has left for the Portland, ME, Press Herald. Science lost a place in the banner headings. Lapse of New England news, typically dozens of articles a day, is especially grievious, because there has been no comparable source of reports on the region.

Actually, some New England news is still available at the Globe, but “you can’t get there from here.” It’s grouped with pages of the free site, but there aren’t any links on those pages to bring it up. Instead, you need to know the full, Internet locations of all the pages–and maybe bookmark them. They are:
  • Connecticut,
  • Maine,
  • New Hampshire,
  • Rhode Island,
  • Vermont,
Previously there was a Massachusetts page, but all it ever showed was a few college sports scores. Cape Ann, Cape Cod and southeastern, central and western Massachusetts remain terrae incognitae to the Globe. As of mid-April, 2014, what all the above pages actually show is the same “news lite” as the “local” page.

These developments are hardly surprising. The historic “tiny” Globe–from the 1870s through the 1950s–was usually pedestrian when not blinkered. It often treated anything much beyond Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville and Chelsea as though located somewhere on the fringes of the universe.

A slightly more cosmopolitan Globe, after Harvard grad Tom Winship succeeded his dad Laurence as chief editor in 1965, pushed horizons out to around Route 128. However, the Globe’s moldy standards of local reporting proved little changed. A 1974 “empty parking space” reserved for former Secretary of State Jack Davoren at the State House comes to mind. It was actually photographed on a Sunday. The Globe editors had to know that was a fake event, but apparently they had their agendas.

In particular, the younger Winship seemed to hate former Gov. Dukakis, a fellow Harvard man, for a few years, with predictable results. After he retired in 1984, Winship expressed what came across as remorse about helping Dukakis lose to Ed King in the 1978 primary. The Globe did boost King down the skids by reporting on “lobster lunches” King favored–at taxpayer expense–helping Dukakis return to office in 1982.

The Boston Globe has been ailing for years before and since the Taylor trust sold it to the NY Times in 1993–under a succession of clueless editors, ineffective at coping with electronic news: Michael Janeway, Jack Driscoll, Matthew Storin and Martin Baron. It was only a near-monopoly during the age of paper that propped up an erratic and faltering institution. Once Internet news became popular after the 1990s, the gates began to close.

Brian McCrory, a native of Weymouth, was named chief editor of the Globe in December, 2012. He has been a Globe reporter, then a columnist, since 1989. He has yet to put a distinctive stamp on direction and content; it’s too early to tell whether he will help restore the Globe to a modicum of health. So far he presided over slashing health-care news, ending New England news and decorating the online sites with more gadgets and pictures.

One of Mr. McCrory’s columns in 2011 advocated charging a subscription fee for the Globe’s online edition. That seemed an unpopular view among the news staff, but it was more-or-less what Globe management did shortly afterward–setting up a separate paid site and gradually moving content from the free site to the paid site. Early reports indicated few subscribers. Shortly before the NY Times sold the Globe to Red Sox owner John Henry in August, 2013, Globe circulation reports became opaque, but they are apparently double-counting online subscribers who are also print subscribers.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, April 15, 2014

On the Move, Portland (ME) Press Herald, March 16, 2014

Jon Chesto, Boston Globe’s new circulation report underscores challenges in transitioning from print to digital, Boston Business Journal, November 1, 2012

Recycling makes more progress without trash metering

A look at recycling reports from Massachusetts communities provides no support for using trash metering in Brookline–so-called “pay as you throw.” It has not been a particularly helpful approach for largely urban, high-income communities. Instead, metered trash fees became common mostly in middle-income communities, far suburbs and rural areas.

A survey for calendar 2012 is the most recent available. It is far from complete. Of 352 cities and towns involved, 131 failed to report, and nine filed obviously faulty information–a compliance rate of only 60 percent. Many scofflaws are small towns, but scofflaws also include Amherst, Harvard, Hull, Medford, Nantucket, Norwood, Pittsfield, Salisbury, Springfield, Topsfield, Wakefield, Watertown, Wellesley, Winthrop and Worcester.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection calculates a so-called “recycling rate” that turns out to be misleading. It is supposed to be annual tonnage recycled, divided by annual tonnage collected. However, that metric has been badly distorted by including “electronic waste” and “yard waste” within the tonnages.

The problem with “electronic waste” is that a few communities housing businesses involved in electronics disposal report huge amounts: Ashland, Melrose, Milford, Revere and Saugus. The problem with “yard waste” is the great variation in community customs. Some communities don’t handle yard waste at all and report none. Others operate popular services with large composting pits and report enormous amounts.

A straightforward way to put communities on an even footing is to exclude “electronic waste” and “yard waste” in figuring rates. When we do that, real recycling rates of Massachusetts cities and towns reporting for 2012 averaged 23 percent. Brookline achieved 37 percent, and the town ranked 37th out of 212 reporting communities in the state. The more highly ranked communities usually have small populations or had only a small fraction of households using community-operated trash services.

A more representative comparison with Brookline can be found by looking at communities with large numbers of households using community-operated trash services. Of the 50 largest community services, according to the number of households served, Brookline ranked fourth in real recycling rate. Only Barnstable, Lexington and Cambridge were ahead.

A scan over communities with large numbers of participating households quickly shows that richer communities tended to achieve high recycling rates and poorer communities tended to achieve low ones. At the foot of the 50-community list were Lowell, Fall River and Lawrence–with rates of 13, 11 and 7 percent.

Trash metering–so-called “pay as you throw”–is often advertised by people who seem to be proselytizing or promoting their careers–such as the mayor of Gloucester, who was recently written up in the Boston Globe. Out in the wider world where most people live, trash metering has not become a popular topic.

Changes for Massachusetts communities in real recycling rates (not counting yard waste) show no evidence that trash metering works better than other ways to encourage recycling. Following are records of real recycling rates for the top five Massachusetts communities, among the 50 communities with the most households using community-operated trash services, plus the record for city of Gloucester:

Massachusetts Real rate Trash
community 2008 2012 metering
Barnstable 13% 52% no
Lexington 39% 42% no
Cambridge 28% 39% no
Brookline 31% 37% no
Newton 13% 37% no
Gloucester 21% 30% yes

All top-five communities substantially improved their real recycling rates. Barnstable and Newton far outperformed Gloucester, yet none of the top-five communities used trash metering. There are likely to be good opportunities for Brookline to continue improving its recycling rate. More outreach to neighborhood associations and school programs might help. It can be really irritating to be nagged by your neighbors or your children. Trash metering, on the other hand, looks like a distraction.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, April 11, 2014

Planning Board: offices and parking at Brookline Place

A weekly meeting of the Planning Board on Thursday, April 10, started at 7:00 pm in the northern first-floor meeting room at Town Hall. Topics included several zoning changes being proposed at the annual town meeting in May. There was nearly a roomful of observers, many interested in the Brookline Place commercial area in Brookline Village, which is bounded by Boylston St., Brookline Ave. and Pearl St.

Kara Brewton, the town’s economic development director, reviewed proposals for Brookline Place that have been discussed with representatives of Children’s Hospital, the potential developer. They envision an 8-story office building for 2 Brookline Place, replacing two older, low-rise commercial structures near the corner of Boylston St. and Pearl St. That would be taller than any commercial building now found in the Village area, although its impact would be reduced somewhat by lower land elevation, adjacent to MBTA trolley tracks.

There is also expected to be a taller parking garage at the site of the modern, 3-level garage near the bend of Pearl St. A modern 6-story office complex, near the corner of Boylston St. and Brookline Ave., and an older, 2-story former water department garage, at the corner of Brookline Ave. and Pearl St., are expected to remain. The old water department would become the only historic building left at Brookline Place.

Apparently some fancy footwork with zoning is being hatched. Parking requirements are now being evaluated for the whole Brookline Place development, not just the new office building. Although current zoning requires underground parking for new offices, town planners propose that Children’s Hospital somehow be allowed a taller above-ground parking garage, up to 65 feet high.

Opposition from some Village residents was clear, although perhaps it was not as vehement as in past years. Merelice, a Precinct 6 town meeting member who lives about two blocks away on White Place, urged the Planning Board to remember that the proposed development is adjacent to a family neighborhood. She is also concerned for at least six mature trees that may be removed to build new offices. Plans presented showed a pedestrian path through the site, connecting the MBTA trolley station with Boylston St., so it might be possible to preserve two or more trees that look to be near the proposed path.

Redevelopment of the Brookline Place block has already spanned around 50 years. Most of the area bounded by Kent St., Station St., Washington St., Boylston St., Brookline Ave., and Aspinwall Ave. was taken by eminent domain in the 1960s. The former Brookline Redevelopment Authority called this area the Marsh Project–designated for mixed residential and commercial redevelopment–and used federal funds available in those days. Hearthstone Plaza–located at the most prominent corner, Washington St. and Boylston St.–opened in the early 1970s. Affordable housing along Kent St. and Village Way–307 units known as The Village at Brookline–soon followed. However, the B-2 parcel, as it was then known, languished for many years–little improved.

The redevelopment authority was dissolved in the mid-1980s, and regular town staff continued to work on the B-2 parcel. Finally, in the late 1980s, the former Harvard Community Health Plan was recruited to build its main offices on the B-2 parcel, and the block became known as Brookline Place. Harvard Community was then growing rapidly. In 1995, it merged with Pilgrim Health Care. Soon the Brookline location no longer offered enough space for Harvard Pilgrim, and Brookline Place lost its flagship occupant to Wellesley.

Much of the discussion at the Planning Board meeting concerned parking. The current development has 355 spaces for 105,000 square feet of offices. As presented on Thursday, the new development would include a total of 683 spaces after adding 182,500 square feet more in offices. That would reduce the ratio of on-site parking to office space from about 3.4 to only 2.4 spaces per thousand square feet. At the meeting, real estate consultants were quoted who question, regardless of zoning requirements, whether Brookline Place would remain marketable at prime rents.

Brookline planners seem to be responding in part to concerns of Village residents, who were not enthusiastic about a massive parking garage. The planners are trying to justify reducing the parking ratio by requiring some sort of active transportation management that would promote use of the MBTA trolley and bus routes 60, 65 and 66, which stop along Boylston St. The meeting left that looking like a high-risk approach, lacking firm assurance on whether there would be enough use of public transportation.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 11, 2014