Brookline government: public information and the committee forest

Brookline’s revised municipal Web site, appearing in June, displays pretty pictures and generally has more functional organization than the original site, which grew over several years. However, some former content has disappeared. On the Calendar page, for example, the entire archive of meetings earlier than June, 2014, has gone missing. Displays are empty. Previously, the archive went back to at least 2010.

Records of meetings: On the Agendas and Minutes page, content is spotty and can prove confusing. The page opens by showing all known meetings of all known organizations during the current year–usually an enormous display that would be hard to use. The key to using the page is a button labeled “Select a Category.” What the button actually does is display a checkbox-style list of known organizations.

The secret is to click on an item labeled “All Calendars” at the upper left–removing not only the checkmark on that item but checkmarks on all the others as well. Then one clicks on checkboxes for one or more organizations, to select them. Next, one clicks again on the button labeled “Select a Category.” The list of organizations goes away, exposing the selection of a year.

One can click on 2014, 2013, 2012 and “View More.” Clicking on “View More” brings up 2011 and 2010, which can be selected with a click. Finally, at the upper right of the list, one clicks on a button showing a circle with a short radial bar. Whatever that might suggest, it displays known meetings of selected organizations during a selected year.

Government organizations: As of August 1, there were 69 organizations in the Agendas and Minutes list. The site also has a Boards and Commissions page, listing 74 organizations as of August 1. Several in each list did not appear on the other list. Two of those organizations are the well known Board of Selectmen and School Committee, which have the major management duties. Others are appointed by those two, and still others are subcommittees. The Override Study Committee of 2013, for example, lists nine subcommittees, but the Override Study Committee of 2007 did not appear at all.

The Advisory Committee of Brookline’s representative town meeting, functioning for nearly a century, now has seven standing subcommittees and also forms temporary “ad hoc” subcommittees. None of those subcommittees appear in the Agendas and Minutes list. However, a display of Advisory Committee meetings includes some but clearly not all subcommittee meetings. They are particularly significant, because it is the Advisory subcommittees that usually hold public hearings. There is apparently no online access to minutes of many Advisory subcommittee meetings.

The Transportation Board has several subcommittees. Those active recently include at least Bicycle Advisory, Public Transportation, Traffic Calming and Taxi Medallion Conversion. Bicycle Advisory appears in the Agendas and Minutes list of organizations, but the others do not. A display of Transportation Board meetings includes some subcommittee meetings, including Bicycle Advisory. However, a display of Bicycle Advisory meetings is empty. There is apparently no online access to minutes of most Transportation subcommittee meetings.

The display of Transportation Board meetings also included one meeting of the moderator’s Committee on Taxi Medallions. However, that committee is freestanding. It is not a subcommittee of the Transportation Board. In addition to the Transportation subcommittee called Bicycle Advisory, there is a Bicycle Sharing Committee. It was appointed by the Board of Selectmen; no meetings are displayed for it.

There is a building committee for each major construction project. Those currently include the Runkle School, Heath School and Devotion School building committees. Members of older committees were Brookline employees and members of the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee. With the Heath and Devotion projects, they have also come to include members of other local government organizations and citizens at large. There are usually agendas and minutes for meetings. The Devotion committee appears to be the most diverse. Although still in early planning, it has already held more meetings than the Heath and Runkle committees combined.

The School Committee has currently organized itself into five standing subcommittees, with overlapping membership. Notices for both School Committee and subcommittee meetings have been appearing on the Calendar page of the municipal Web site, and agendas but not minutes appear on the Agendas and Minutes page. The school Web site displays minutes for full School Committee meetings, but none could be found for the more numerous subcommittee meetings.

The School Department has organized a council at each school. Their meetings were formerly announced on the Calendar page of the municipal Web site but have not been appearing on the revised Web site. No school councils appear in the Agendas and Minutes list of organizations. Notices and records for school councils were not found on the Web site maintained by Public Schools of Brookline, either. They are official groups that take positions on public issues. How they are satisfying responsibilities under the state Open Meeting Law remains unclear.

The Planning Board has appointed several design advisory teams. Some recently active ones focus on the Brookline Place and Cleveland Circle redevelopments, the hotel development at the former Red Cab site on Boylston St. and the Coolidge Corner commercial areas. None of them are shown in the Agendas and Minutes list of organizations or on the Boards and Commissions page. How they are satisfying responsibilities under the state Open Meeting Law remains unclear. One design advisory meeting was found under Planning Board meetings, but many others did not appear.

There are project committees for Brookline Place, Gateway East, Hancock Village, Olmsted Hill a/k/a Fisher Hill and “Waldo Street Area” in Coolidge Corner. Brookline’s municipal Web site has a page for each, listing members but not saying when the committee was set up, who appoints members and what they are supposed to do. Only Brookline Place and “Waldo Street Area” appear in the Agendas and Minutes list, so there is apparently no way to find agendas and minutes for the three others. Brookline Place has held 12 meetings in 2013 and 2014. “Waldo Street Area” has held 20 meetings in 2012 and early 2013. All have minutes.

Planning and project committees seem to overlap. There are apparently no Web pages for any of the design advisory teams, and Brookline’s municipal Web site does not appear to provide names or backgrounds of members. The standing Climate Action Committee (CAC) and Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB) are different Each has its own page linked to the Planning Department’s pages. That might suggest they are Planning Board subcommittees. Instead, they are appointed by the Board of Selectmen.

CAC and EDAB make a study in contrasts. EDAB has been quite active and successful; it has a roster of 12 citizen members and gets staff support from Brookline’s economic development director in the Planning Department. CAC holds regular meetings and also gets Planning Department support, but overall it has been less active. It has three independent citizen members. The remaining 12 are designees of organizations. That is an approach much more often seen in state government, where it has tended to encourage lethargy.

Missing records: Many meeting records are missing. On a display of meetings, the “Download” buttons at the right produce empty windows. Clicking on the dates of meetings at the left is the way to display agendas. When an agenda is missing, one gets an otherwise empty window saying “No Agenda Available.” When minutes are available, toward the right there will be green icons showing checkmarks.

Minutes are missing for a large number of the meetings displayed. For example, no minutes were found for six Advisory Committee meetings from May 7 through July 7, 2014. No minutes were found for seven Planning Board meetings from June 18 through July 24, 2014. No minutes were found for any of the 16 meetings of the current Override Study Committee from May 7 through July 30, 2014. No minutes were found for any of the 23 meetings held by the Transportation Board and its subcommittees between January 1 and July 31, 2014.

Board of Selectmen: Records for the Board of Selectmen do not appear on the Agendas and Minutes page. There is a separate page just for them. On that page there are search tools not available for records of other boards, commissions and committees. The syntax of search text is not explained, but it appears similar to a Google search and does recognize a phrase enclosed by quotation marks.

In addition to agendas and minutes, records for the Board of Selectmen also include “packets”–displaying the contents of information made available to the public in packets of papers at meetings of the board. This is provided through a mix of original text pages and scanned image pages. The search tools look through only agendas and minutes; they will not find information in packets, even though it may be text.

Records for the Board of Selectmen appear fairly complete from September, 2011, through the present. However, they do not include a meeting held August 13, 2013, at which members of the current Override Study Committee were appointed. A paper notice for that meeting–obtained at the town clerk’s office–included a fairly full, normal meeting agenda, specifying appointment of those committee members.

The committee forest: If all the officially sanctioned organizations in Brookline’s local government could be listed, including subcommittees and temporary organizations during just the past few years, there might be around a hundred of them. News reports rarely mention most of them and almost never report their meetings or events–except for a few, particularly the Board of Selectmen, that have broad management duties.

Even the elected Library trustees and Housing Authority board get little attention, as do the Planning and Transportation boards. All four have substantial regulation and management duties. As a result, newcomers to Brookline are unlikely to know about the extensive, citizen-supervised government the town provides. Long-term residents are more likely to be aware of at least some of the organizations, but they too get sparse information about what the organizations are doing.

For those who use them, the municipal and school Web sites help to bridge some of the gaps. However, lack of current information from some organizations creates problems. In recent years, there have been occasional sentiments that the committee forest has grown too dense. Some committees may seem unengaged at times. However, there are also good examples–such as the Public Transportation Advisory Committee–showing renewed energy.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, August 1, 2014

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