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

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