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

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