Monthly Archives: August 2014

Committee on Taxi Medallions: bank loans and unsold medallions

The Committee on Taxi Medallions met Monday, August 11, starting at 7:00 pm in the third-floor lounge at Town Hall. Committee chair Josh Safer was absent; Amid El-Khoury had resigned from the committee, and he joined the fairly large audience. Committee member Michael Sandman chaired the meeting.

Two Brookline Bank representatives described experience with loans for Boston and Cambridge taxi medallions: William Mackenzie, Senior Vice President for Commercial Lending, and Timothy Steiner, Vice President for Commercial Lending. So far there has not been a loan in default, they said. They attribute the record to a strong work ethic among the borrowers. If a loan were to fail, they said, they would seize the medallion used as collateral and sell it. They claimed to be unaware of any decline in medallion market values.

That could be a bit behind the times. The owner of Hello Taxi said there are currently 235 medallions available for sale in Boston, and apparently there are no buyers. A year ago, he said, the unsold inventory was near zero. He believes that mobile technology deployed by Uber, Hailo, Lyft and Sidecar has undercut the market for taxi medallions, at least in Boston.

Betsy DeWitt, a member of the Board of Selectmen, spoke somewhat skeptically about medallions for Brookline taxis. She described circumstances in Washington, DC, which houses a large, regulated fleet of taxis but does not use a system of permanent, transferrable medallions.

As at the recent hearing held by the committee, Bay State Taxi owner Joe Bethoney said the town should sell taxi medallions to current, long-term taxi operators and drivers for nominal fees and earn revenues when the medallions are subsequently resold.

At least one and possibly more articles are being prepared for the fall town meeting, now scheduled to start on November 18. It is not yet clear whether the committee will be able to sort out the issues and arrive as a coherent and workable approach to recommend this fall to the Transportation Board, to the Board of Selectmen and possibly to town meeting.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, August 12, 2014

Mike Beggs, Hailo’s black car service like ‘stabbing taxi drivers in the back’, Taxi News (Toronto, ON), July, 2014

Geoffrey Fowler, Testing UberX, Lyft and Sidecar against a cab in six cities, Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2014

Bicycle Advisory Committee: street markings, safety and priorities

Brookline’s Bicycle Advisory Committee met Monday, August 11, at 7:00 pm in the fourth-floor conference room at Town Hall. It focused on priorities for bicycle facilities next year, drawing several visitors. The committee did not meet at Devotion School, as before. Meeting dates, times, places and agendas can be found on the Calendar page of Brookline’s municipal Web site.

Committee members appeared to expect an allocation for bicycle facilities in Brookline’s capital improvement program. However, the current program shows only $30,000 for this fiscal year and nothing for future years, under the heading “public works infrastructure.” The committee worked with a large paper map of the town’s bicycle facilities. A corresponding map could not be found on Brookline’s municipal Web site, where most bicycle documents appear stale, the latest bicycle map is from 2011 and no link appears to the Web site operated by the Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Bicycle markings: The committee considered whether to propose a “bike box” for next year. To the committee, that means painted markings at or near a street intersection–not a bicycle carrying case. The U.S. Department of Transportation does not currently provide a standard for augmenting bicycle markings at street intersections in its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Brookline currently has no such markings. Boston has some augmented markings at a few Commonwealth Ave. intersections in B.U. neighborhoods but currently lacks evidence about whether they improve safety.

The committee also considered which streets to propose for new lane markings. The committee maintains a Green Routes Bicycle Network Plan that began with Beacon St. and has expanded to Harvard, Washington and other streets in urban Brookline and to Clyde, Lee and other streets in suburban Brookline. There is a path for pedestrians and bicycles in Riverway Park, but there are no physically separated lanes on streets.

For visitor Anne Lusk, that was a critical issue. She urged the committee to propose at least one separated bicycle lane, calling it a “cycle track.” She also proposed a bicycle training area to be constructed at Robinson Playground on Cypress St. Cynthia Snow, the chair, said she would to put the items on the agenda for a meeting this fall.

Safety and priorities: There was discussion of safety impacts of bicycle lanes. So far there has not been a detailed analysis, but the committee has a police report of bicycle crashes for 2013 and some data for earlier years. For 2013, on the two miles of Beacon St. there were 15 reported incidents. At a rate of about 7 incidents per mile per year, Beacon St. might be safer than B.U. neighborhoods of Commonwealth Ave., where the Boston Globe recently found about 30 incidents per mile per year. Amounts of bicycle traffic on the two streets have not been reported.

As proposed by committee member Tommy Vitolo, the committee decided to request four bicycle improvements for next year: (1) some route to connect bicycle lanes on Clyde St. to Larz Anderson Park, (2) one or more “bike box” markings at street intersections, (3) a bicycle lane on St. Paul St. between Beacon St. and Commonwealth Ave. and (4) one or more additional bicycle racks.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, August 12, 2014

Brookline Green Routes Bicycle Network, map, Bicycle Advisory Committee, 2014

Bicycle lanes and paths, map, Brookline Information Technology Department, 2011

Housing Authority: renovations, programs and project development

The Brookline Housing Authority board met Tuesday, July 15, at 4:30 pm in the community room at 55 Egmont St. Commissioners David Trietsch, chair, Barbara Dugan and Joanne Sullivan joined director Patrick Dober and other staff. BHA currently operates 893 public housing units, administers about 580 federal voucher units and provides 31 rooms for special needs housing, separately administered.

Maintenance and renovation: Mr. Dober reported some repair and renovation projects complete, including safety curbs and trees at several sites, accessibility improvements at Col. Floyd and masonry repairs and low-flow toilet installations at High St. Veterans. With renovations recently completed at Morse and Kickham, he said, the only large, near-term project remaining is at Sussman.

George Lalli, the maintenance director, reported start of construction for an apartment building on the Trustman parking lot, including three meetings so far with Trustman residents about concerns during the project. There will be 32 units at 86 Dummer St., between St. Paul and Amory Sts. The last BHA development on a similar scale was Kickham, 39 units at 190 Harvard St., built with federal funds and opened in 1978.

Management issues: There was discussion about conversion of subsidized units at the Village in Brookline development to market rate. It is Brookline’s last large Chapter 121A project from the first half of the 1970s. Mr. Dober said the town negotiated for 100 of the 307 units to remain permanently available to low-income and moderate-income tenants. Brookline will lose 207 units from its “affordable units inventory,” bringing the total that can be estimated for the fall of next year to about 1,830–only about seven percent of the housing stock.

There was also discussion about the housing bill pending in the General Court. Mr. Dober said the governor’s plan announced last year–to replace all local housing authorities with six state authorities–would not be included. He recounted some problems in Chelsea and Quincy that factored in the proposal.

Community Foundation programs: A presentation from the Brookline Community Foundation was led by Jenny Amory, its director, and by Frank Steinfield, the board chair. They were introduced by commissioner Joanne Sullivan, who is a board member. The foundation’s major focus, Mr. Steinfield said, was “alleviating poverty.” It is involved in the Next Steps program at BHA, helping low-income residents find employment and providing “financial education.”

The foundation also operates a “safety net” that has assisted BHA tenants. Ms. Amory said the budget for this year was $120,000. Mr. Dober said a “big goal” for BHA was keeping tenants, who sometimes struggle to pay rents. David Trietsch, chair of the commissioners, thanked representatives of the foundation, saying it has been a major help to BHA tenants.

Finances: Mr. Dober described “rooftop leasing” to provide sites for commercial communications facilities. He said SteepleCom of Ashby, MA, has been designated as program manager. BHA is limited by regulations to 3-year contracts, as compared with 30-year contracts common in the industry, but Mr. Dober said SteepleCom agreed to work with BHA. Their agreement includes provisions for liability insurance and for roof repairs in case of damage.

No accounting for 86 Dummer St. could be found on the Web site for the Housing Authority or on the municipal Web site. However, minutes of the Board of Selectmen show substantial town contributions. Toward $12.3 million in estimated construction costs, Brookline committed about $3.2 million from its Affordable Housing Trust. In October, 2013, Brookline waived about $0.24 million in permit fees. So far, Brookline has also committed about $1.1 million from federal allocations. There may have been exchanges between the Affordable Housing Trust funds and federal allocations not shown in minutes of the Board of Selectmen. Brookline loaned BHA about $0.54 million to support planning and design.

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

Sean P. Murphy, Governor Patrick plans ambitious overhaul of state’s troubled public housing, Boston Globe, January 9, 2013

Brookline Board of Selectmen, Minutes for April 26, 2011, $1.7 million for 86 Dummer St.

Brookline Board of Selectmen, Minutes for February 11, 2014, $2.6 million for 86 Dummer St.

Brookline Board of Selectmen, Minutes for June 24, 2014, $1.1 million federal for 86 Dummer St.

Open meetings in government: groping toward transparency

Before the late 1950s, the Brookline, MA, Board of Selectmen would often meet behind closed doors during weekday afternoons, served refreshments on fine bone china and crystal. They were not an unusual board. In 1957, the Worcester Telegram reported on 27 communities in central Massachusetts and northern Connecticut, finding ten where all government meetings were closed to the public. [Harvard Law Review, 1962, p. 1199]

Open meeting traditions: Contrary to common impressions, open meetings of government bodies are relatively recent in the United States. Aside from New England town meetings, they are not longstanding traditions. Like the “voter rights” of referendum, initiative and recall, most come from twentieth-century reforms. Voter rights laws surged early in the century, while “open meeting” laws surged in mid-century.

Two Massachusetts laws, the Open Meeting Law and the Public Records Law, regulate public information from government organizations. Since the nineteenth century, newspapers had sought government meetings open to the press and the public, but the idea did not gain force until after World War II. Then, during the postwar era of the television and automobile, it engaged “modern thinking” of the day.

At the time, Massachusetts was not engulfed in strong controversy over corruption. At a mention of official corruption, people might have recalled a former mayor of Boston, James Michael Curley, by then out of office and in fading days. Scandals over MDC contracting, embezzlement at the Boston Common garage and bribery at the State House lay in the future. Strong controversies of the day involved the witch-hunt for Communists, the McCarthy scandal and rights to equal education–seen as a Southern issue, notably in Little Rock, AR.

Open meeting law continues to evolve. In Massachusetts, there have been several versions–the latest so far coming about 50 years after the original. Each law has been more complex. The Massachusetts laws applied to cities and towns in 1958, in 1978 and in 2009 amount to about two, five and eleven printed pages.

Original open meeting law: The Massachusetts Newspaper Information Service, an industry alliance, tried to get an open meeting law passed in 1957 but failed. The next year, two influential state senators, Silvio O. Conte, Republican of Pittsfield, and John E. Powers, Democrat of South Boston, took up the cause, sponsored a similar bill and got it through. [Legislative Research Council, 1959]

The original Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, enacted via Chapter 626 of the Acts of 1958, would be regarded as a weak law today. However, it was pathbreaking for its era. It provided separate requirements and sections of the General Laws for state, county and municipal arms of government. One key to getting the law passed can be found in a blanket exemption for the General Court–then and now hierarchical and secretive.

Massachusetts residents still have no rights to meeting notices, open meetings and meeting records from their state legislature. Those elements remain primary features of open meeting laws–now found in all states and the District of Columbia, although in widely varying forms. In 1958, the laws governing Massachusetts city, town and regional district organizations appeared in Chapter 39 of the General Laws, Sections 23A and 23B.

The original Massachusetts Open Meeting Law required only 24 hours notice of a meeting and counted all days of the week, including days when offices were closed and notices could not be read. It provided no penalty for violating the law, while Michigan now stipulates up to one year and Arkansas up to 30 days in jail. A citizen’s only recourse then was to pursue a lawsuit. The only remedies might be nullifications of particular actions and injunctions against future violations. Those were expensive remedies, rarely obtained.

The 1958 law required “accurate records” of meetings, but it did not say what information the records had to contain. Indeed, it did not define what a “meeting” meant, leaving a potential for boards to hold official meetings under the law but also to hold other, unofficial gatherings, not labeled as “meetings.” There was no provision to inform officials about the open meeting law, leaving ignorance of the law as a convenient excuse for violating it.

Nevertheless, in some respects the original Massachusetts Open Meeting Law proved potent and visionary. For example–unlike laws of many other states–advisory groups such as the Commission for the Disabled, the 2007 Override Study Committee and the Advisory Committee of town meeting have been subject to the law. Unlike Maryland’s law, for example, the 1958 Massachusetts law contained no catch-all exemptions, such as closed meetings “for compelling reasons.” [now repealed, Pupillo, pp. 1169, 1181] The 1958 law made “all meetings” subject to requirements. That was vague but potentially included informal meetings and official “events.”

Open meeting law changes: In the wake of corruption scandals–including favoritism in MDC contracting during the late 1950s, embezzlement at the Boston Common garage in the early 1960s and bribery at the State House in the 1960s and 1970s–among other measures, the General Court strengthened the Open Meeting Law. By 1978, many features of the current law were in place. The 1978 Open Meeting Law defined critical terms and narrowed the justifications for executive sessions.

A reform, by 1978, extended the required period of meeting notice to 48 hours, “including Saturdays but not Sundays and legal holidays.” Records of a meeting were required to include “the date, time, place, members present or absent and action taken”–although not topics discussed. New members of local boards were to be supplied with copies of the law. Members of the public were authorized to operate tape recorders. District attorneys were authorized to investigate complaints. Orders could be issued by judges invalidating actions taken at meetings violating the law and requiring future compliance.

The 1978 law excluded a “chance meeting or a social meeting” from coverage, provided “no final agreement is reached” on “official business.” That was eagerly sought by some of the more regressive boards. It opened a loophole at least as big as Maryland’s closed meetings “for compelling reasons.” Rogue boards could do all their reviews and wrangling at private “social” gatherings, merely formalizing actions in public.

Current open meeting law: The Open Meeting Law of 2009 provides several reforms. A notice for a meeting is now required to include an agenda, “topics that the chair reasonably anticipates will be discussed at the meeting.” A notice must be “visible to the public at all hours.” Members of the public are authorized to operate video as well as audio recorders and to “transmit [a] meeting through any medium.”

Minutes of a meeting must now include “a summary of the discussions on each subject.” Meeting records now include “documents and other exhibits.” Those could be charts, diagrams, drawings, sketches, renderings, maps, photographs, computer files, film-slide or computerized presentations, and video or sound recordings. Furthermore, “No vote taken at an open session shall be by secret ballot. Any vote taken at an executive session shall be recorded by roll call and entered into the minutes.”

The required notice period now excludes Saturdays. The loophole for “social” and other private meetings in the 1978 open meeting law is much narrowed. They are now exempt from requirements only when “members do not deliberate,” defined in the law to include “oral or written communication through any medium, including electronic mail, between or among a quorum of a public body.” Distribution of documents is allowed, without opinions, for discussion at future meetings.

Enforcement of the Open Meeting Law has shifted from district attorneys to the state attorney general, who is required to operate a “division of open government” and to prepare an annual report on enforcement. The attorney general is also authorized to “promulgate rules and regulations,” to “interpret the open meeting law,” to “issue written letter rulings or advisory opinions,” to “create and distribute educational materials” and to “provide training to public bodies.”

The 2009 Open Meeting Law requires a complaint to be pressed with the body alleged to have violated the law “at least 30 days prior to the filing of a complaint with the attorney general.” There was formerly no such restriction on filing a complaint with a district attorney. The attorney general may also act independently, upon “reasonable cause to believe that [someone] has violated the open meeting law.” In cases responding to complaints, the attorney general can “impose a civil penalty” up to $1,000 for “each intentional violation.”

The Office of the Attorney General issued initial regulations, effective in July, 2010, and updated regulations, effective in September, 2012. The open meeting regulations resolve some ambiguities in the law. For an agenda required in a meeting notice, they require that the “list of topics shall have sufficient specificity to reasonably advise the public of the issues to be discussed at the meeting.”

The regulations take account of electronic communication. They provide for electronic posting of notices and govern remote participation at meetings, requiring roll-call votes. For a meeting notice to be valid, they say, “The date and time that the notice is posted shall be conspicuously recorded thereon or therewith.” The regulations also detail procedures for filing and resolving complaints, for performing investigations that are initiated by the attorney general and for issuing advisory opinions.

Missing reforms: The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law remains hobbled by complex and weak enforcement. Members of boards, committees, commissions and councils can and do violate the law often and with impunity. In the rare event of a “civil penalty,” the city, town or district that houses the faulty organization is on the hook, not the people who actually violated the law.

Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford state representative who formerly co-chaired the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight and who was a chief author of the 2009 Open Meeting Law, proposed a small but useful reform, starting in 2006. H.2786 for the 2013-2014 session would have authorized fines of up to $200 for people who violate the law–still far short of sanctions in Michigan and Arkansas.

People who attend public meetings will often be mystified by documents exchanged among members of boards, committees, commissions and councils. There remains no requirement for those to be disclosed to the public at or in advance of a meeting. The Brookline, MA, Board of Selectmen does so voluntarily, through “packets” available on paper at meetings and in electronic form on the municipal Web site. Missing requirements for draft minutes and a missing deadline for minutes to be available remain as barriers to public information.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, August 10, 2014

Open meeting statutes: the press fights for the “right to know,” Harvard Law Review 75(6):1199-1221, April, 1962 (unsigned)

Teresa Dale Pupillo, The changing weather forecast: government in the sunshine in the 1990s–an analysis of state sunshine laws, Washington University Law Review 71(4):1165-1187, 1993

Rebecca Fater, Legislation would overhaul state’s Open Meeting Law, Lowell (MA) Sun, March 14, 2006

Suzanne J. Piotrowski and Erin Borry, An analytic framework for open meetings and transparency, Public Administration and Management 15(1):138-176, 2010

Massachusetts Open Meeting Law of 1958, as applied to cities and towns, in General Laws Chapter 39, Sections 23A and 23B

Massachusetts Open Meeting Law of 1978, as applied to cities and towns, in General Laws Chapter 39, Sections 23A through 23C

Massachusetts Open Meeting Law of 2009, consolidated, in General Laws Chapter 30A, Sections 18 through 25

Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General, Open Meetings, 940 CMR 29 regulations, current

Massachusetts General Court, Fourth annual report of the Legislative Research Council and Legislative Research Bureau, Report 1599, January, 1959

Massachusetts General Court, Public officers of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1957-1958

Override Study Committee: Open Meeting Law problems

Open Meeting Law: Meetings and meeting records of government organizations in Massachusetts are currently regulated by the Open Meeting Law of 2009 and by corresponding state regulations. [G.L.C. 30A, Secs. 18-25, and 940 CMR 29] They require every organization to hold all meetings in public–except for ten strict exceptions–and to prepare, keep and distribute accurate records of meetings.

Since 2008, Article 3.21 of the Brookline Bylaws has also regulated meetings of government organizations in the community, It requires posting meeting notices and records on Brookline’s municipal Web site and provides for distribution of information by e-mail.

State law requires a notice for a meeting to be posted 48 hours before the start of the meeting, “excluding Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays.” [G.L.C. 30A, Sec. 20(b)] A notice must include an agenda: the “list of topics shall have sufficient specificity to reasonably advise the public of the issues to be discussed.” [940 CMR 29.03(b)]

Notices on the Web site cannot satisfy state regulations now, because they fail to provide for “the date and time that the notice is posted [to] be conspicuously recorded thereon.” [940 CMR 29.03(1)(b)] Notices at the town clerk’s office cannot satisfy state law, because they are not “conspicuously visible to the public at all hours.” [G.L.C. 30A, Sec. 20(c)] Brookline organizations post notices both on paper at the town clerk’s office, where they are time-stamped, and on the Web site, where they are visible at all hours.

State law also requires a government organization to “create and maintain accurate minutes of all meetings.” [G.L.C. 30A, Sec. 22(a)] In addition to minutes, state law provides that meeting records include “documents and other exhibits.” [G.L.C. 30A, Sec. 22(d)] Those could be charts, diagrams, drawings, sketches, renderings, maps, photographs, computer files, film-slide or computerized presentations, and video or sound recordings. Brookline’s bylaw requires records of meetings to be posted on the municipal Web site. [Sec. 3.21.4]

The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law requires all members of government organizations participating in meetings to certify receipt of copies of the law, the regulations and instructions from the attorney general. [G.L.C. 30A, Sec. 20(g)] It will not be easy to claim ignorance of the law. Violations are punishable by fines of up to “$1,000 for each intentional violation.” [G.L.C. 30A, Sec. 23(d)(4)] The attorney general can “nullify in whole or in part any action taken” in violation of state law or regulations. [G.L.C. 30A, Sec. 23(d)(3)]

Patterns in Brookline: Brookline boards, committees, commissions and councils have varied patterns of compliance with the laws and of making information available to the public. A few–including the Board of Selectmen–distribute both on paper and via the Web timely and detailed meeting notices, punctual and thorough minutes, and supporting documents including contracts and reports.

Other organizations provide the public with spotty or unusable information. For example, some PDF files distributed by the Planning Department are internally scrambled. They can be viewed but not searched. If one tries to mark and copy a segment for reference, when pasted into a document one gets gibberish. This will not happen by accident; Planning Department staff must configure documents to cause the behaviors. The practices are not currently forbidden by law, but they violate the spirit of so-called “open government” to which Brookline says it is committed.

Actions of the Override Study Committee: Actions of the Override Study Committee of 2013 illustrate some of the serious and typical problems. That committee was appointed on August 13, 2013, and voted its recommendations on July 30, 2014. It has yet to distribute a final report. The organization is neither at the best nor at the worst of Brookline’s Open Meeting Law compliance.

During the year from August, 2013 through July, 2014, the Override Study Committee formed nine subcommittees. The combined groups held a total of 174 meetings. Problems began early. As of August 1, 2014, minutes for two of the 12 meetings held in October, 2013, still could not be found on the Brookline municipal Web site. One group was diligent with minutes, but the others were not. Three posted minutes for only about 20 percent of their meetings.

Organization Meetings Minutes Percent
Override Study Committee 37 21 57%
Benefits subcommittee 4 4 100%
Capital subcommittee 20 4 20%
Demographic subcommittee 32 17 53%
Fiscal subcommittee 9 2 22%
Municipal subcommittee 18 11 61%
Populations subcommittee 17 3 18%
Revenue subcommittee 12 8 67%
School program task force 19 11 58%
Schools subcommittee 6 5 83%
All combined 174 86 49%

Overall, minutes for less than half the 174 total meetings had been posted by August 1. Compliance with Open Meeting Law requirements for minutes collapsed after April. As of August 1, minutes had been posted for only one of the 43 meetings held in May, June and July. Without spending hundreds of hours at meetings, the public had almost no way to know what the committee had been doing.

Year Month Meetings Minutes Percent
2014 Jul 16 0 0%
2014 Jun 15 1 7%
2014 May 12 0 0%
2014 Apr 14 9 64%
2014 Mar 18 13 72%
2014 Feb 11 8 73%
2014 Jan 28 15 54%
2013 Dec 24 12 50%
2013 Nov 22 16 73%
2013 Oct 12 10 83%
2013 Sep 2 2 100%
2013 Aug 0 0 N/A
Total 174 86 49%

The committee and its subcommittees have entertained exhibits of statistical spreadsheets, budget models and computerized presentations at their meetings. So far, despite the requirements of state Open Meeting Law and Brookline law, those have not been posted on the municipal Web site. The committee is currently trying to use information withheld from the public. Since the information was openly conveyed in public sessions, it does not qualify for any of the exceptions in the state Open Meeting Law.

A vote by the full committee taken July 29 did not use a roll call, although one member was connected by telephone–contrary to state regulations, which require roll call votes when any member is participating remotely. [940 CMR 29.10(7)(c)] No exception is obtained by calling something a “straw vote,” as one committee member tried to do. The motion failed on a tie vote, treated as disposative. If a vote matters, then it’s a vote.

The seven full committee meetings this July were described to the public only through opaque and generic notices, saying the committee might do any or many of various things it is authorized to do. Without inside information, the public had no reasonable notice that on July 30–unlike the other days–the committee would vote a recommendation on a permanent, general tax override.

State open meeting regulations require, on a meeting notice, that “topics must be sufficiently specific to reasonably inform the public.” [940 CMR 29.03(b)] They were not, yet insiders clearly knew. A quorum of the School Committee was present at that July 30 meeting but not the others.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, August 7, 2014

Attorney General of Massachusetts, Open Meeting Law Guide, August 1, 2013

Office of the Attorney General, Open meetings, Massachusetts Regulations 940 CMR 29

Article 3.21, Readily accessible electronic meeting notices, agendas and records, Brookline Bylaws

Retirement Board: seeking to improve asset earnings

The Brookline Retirement Board met Tuesday, June 24, at 4:30 pm, and Monday, July 28, at 2:00 pm, in the basement conference room at the Health Center. Both meetings focused on performance of Brookline’s retirement assets. Brookline began appropriating toward a long-term retirement fund in the early 1970s and increased its appropriations in the 1980s, when the state began to regulate retirement systems more strictly.

Brookline continues to maintain a locally managed retirement fund, while a majority of the 351 Massachusetts cities and towns, plus several counties and other jurisdictions, have placed all their retirement assets in state-managed Pension Reserve Investment Trust (PRIT) funds. Counting state agency and employee funds, there are now only 106 retirement funds for public employees in the state that are managed outside PRIT. Long-term returns for PRIT funds have rarely been beaten by those for the other retirement systems.

Considering cumulative returns since the start of the state-managed fund in 1985, only seven of the current 106 independently managed funds have done better than the PRIT average: Haverhill, Malden, Needham, North Adams, Taunton, Wellesley and Weymouth. The cumulative average return for PRIT was 9.84 percent. Those for the top seven communities ranged from 9.90 to 10.35 percent. Brookline’s fund ranked 46th in this long-term comparison, just above the middle, with a cumulative return of 8.90 percent over 28 years.

Recently, Brookline’s retirement fund fared poorly, with a return of 12.13 percent for 2013, ranking 103rd among 106 funds. Other retirement funds ranged from 11.36 to 21.82 percent. Brookline’s lower performance will be made up by more contributions from its budget in the future, resulting in higher taxes, less services or both.

After seeing disappointing results early this year, the Retirement Board brought in a new asset manager: Russell Investments of Seattle, WA, a subsidiary of Northwestern Mutual. Near three-quarters of Brookline’s fund assets, totaling about $250 million, are now in funds managed by Russell. Their client representative for Brookline, Steve Flynn, reviewed performance and strategies on June 24.

The board has also recently hired Raymond Depelteau, who serves as chief investment officer for Holyoke and for Westfield, to provide strategic advice about other assets. Attending his first Brookline meeting on July 28, Mr. Depelteau presented options to improve Brookline’s asset performance.

Westfield and Holyoke retirement funds have been performing better than the Brookline fund recently, ranking sixth and eleventh among the 106 Massachusetts funds as measured by the 2013 returns: 20.27 and 19.64 percent. If Brookline had matched performance of Westfield and Holyoke, it would have had earned nearly $20 million more for 2013.

The state’s Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission publishes profiles of the Massachusetts retirement systems for public employees. Assets of all independently managed systems totaled about 60 percent of long-term liabilities, as of the first of this year. Brookline assets totaled about 56 percent of long-term liabilities.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, August 5, 2014

Annual Report for 2013, Massachusetts Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission

Independently managed Massachusetts retirement funds, 2014, information from Massachusetts Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission

Bicycle markings: unsuccessful in B.U. neighborhoods

Writing in the Boston Globe of Saturday, August 2, Martine Powers reported that bicycle signs and painted street markings in B.U. neighborhoods have failed to prevent fatal crashes. She reviewed police reports for Commonwealth Ave. between the B.U. Bridge and Packard Corner, where Commonwealth Ave. bends and Brighton Ave. begins. Along most of this part of Commonwealth Ave., Brookline takes up on the inbound side of the street at the building doors, so the street is part of Brookline as well as Boston neighborhoods.

That segment of Commonwealth Ave. has elaborate bicycle markings, including signs, green-painted lanes and many safety warnings. A showcase for the late Menino administration, it may be the most developed example of a major, bicycle-oriented urban street in New England. However, it has no physical barriers between bicycles and motor vehicles, it has no traffic signals for bicycles and there is little enforcement of bicycle laws.

According to Ms. Powers, over the three years from 2010 through 2012, on just that 3/4 mile of Commonwealth Ave., 68 bicycle crashes were reported to Boston police–including a fatal incident in 2012. Ms. Powers does not seem to know much about the neighborhoods. If she did, she might have heard about one of our fellow bicyclists who was run over at the same location in nearly the same way forty years earlier–before there was a Paul Dudley White bicycle path and long before almost anyone in New England heard of bicycle markings. Although in the hospital for weeks, our friend survived.

A typically disjointed Boston administration is now about to reconstruct that stretch of Commonwealth Ave., according to the Globe. That part of the street was recently repaved, got new sidewalks and trees and is just fine, but the Walsh administration apparently has federal money burning a hole in its pocket and no better use for it. A pressure group called Boston Cyclists Union decided to campaign for physically separated bicycle lanes.

As Bill Smith of Brookline’s Engineering staff found out several years ago, when planning a Beacon St. reconstruction, even a more spacious street with a generous center median has only a finite amount of width in which to fit pedestrians, trolleys, trees, shrubs, motor vehicles, parking and bicycles. In the end, Mr. Smith did not design physically separated bicycle lanes for Beacon St.

Eventually Transportation staff added a few bicycle markings–more recently amended with green-painted lanes and signs. Some markings were in place a few years ago but failed to prevent a fatal incident on Beacon St., similar to the Boston incident of 2012, in which a bicyclist was run over by a truck making a turn.

The Commonwealth Ave. design is being rushed to beat a grant deadline. It’s easy to see the Walsh administration making an even bigger mess than the myopic Menino administration–in each of three major projects over about 20 years. Like Brookline on Beacon St., Boston is brushing off bicycle riders, recently suggesting special signals for them. Nearly all of today’s bicyclists on Commonwealth Ave. ignore the traffic signals they already have.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, August 3, 2014

Martine Powers, Bicycle advocates seek safety changes for Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, Boston Globe, August 2, 2014

Bicycle facilities and the manual on uniform traffic control devices, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2014

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