Advisory Committee: missing records, more skeptical outlooks

The Advisory Committee met Tuesday, March 31, starting at 7:30 pm in the first floor south meeting room at Town Hall–conducting FY2016 budget reviews for Legal Services and for Planning and Community Development. This time, the committee turned more skeptical about needs for added spending than at previous meetings this year.

Missing records of meetings: The Advisory Committee and its subcommittees are established organizations in Brookline’s government. As such, under state and local open meeting laws they have duties to hold meetings in public, to post advance notices of meetings on Brookline’s municipal Web site, to record minutes of meetings and to make minutes and other records available to the public. Since last July, the municipal Web site has provided a central archive of meetings on an Agendas and Minutes page. The Board of Selectmen maintains a separate archive that includes additional records for their meetings, called “packets.”

Typically, the Advisory Committee turns in exemplary performance at holding public meetings and posting meeting notices in advance. It has not done nearly as well with meeting records. Many minutes are missing for Advisory Committee and subcommittee meetings. During the first quarter of 2015, the municipal Web site showed eight full Advisory Committee meetings (one for subcommittee chairs), but as of April 2 it provided minutes for only five of those meetings.

For the first quarter of 2015, the municipal Web site shows four meetings for the administration & finance subcommittee, seven for capital, five for human services, two for personnel, two for planning & regulation and three for public safety. As of April 2, no minutes were available on the site of any of the 23 subcommittee meetings announced for January through March. That risks being seen as a disaster for public information, since it is usually Advisory subcommittees who review budget and warrant article issues in depth.

Subcommittees often describe their investigations on paper at full Advisory Committee meetings, and copies are usually made available to the public then. In at least some cases, they could serve as subcommittee meeting minutes. However, they have not appeared this year on Advisory Committee pages of the municipal Web site or in meeting records on the Agendas and Minutes page.

Budget for legal services: Committee member Angela Hyatt and Town Counsel Joslin Murphy described a proposed fiscal 2016 budget, starting in July, for Legal Services. The Office of Town Counsel provides most legal services for Brookline agencies and departments, excepting matters related to personnel and public school students. Ms. Murphy said the proposed budget was 1.1 percent more than the current budget, not counting costs that might increase from employee benefits and collective bargaining.

Committee member Christine Westphal asked if the proposed budget includes funds for an assistant town counsel, although a glance at page IV-27 of the FY2016 Program Budget would have shown it does. The position was created after Ms. Murphy was promoted from associate town counsel to town counsel last year. It has gone vacant for about nine months now. A more revealing question might have explored needs for an associate town counsel 1 (grade T-14), an associate town counsel 2 (grade D-5) and a first assistant town counsel (grade T-15).

Questions from committee member Alisa Jonas brought out a disclosure that the proposed Legal Services budget does not provide funds for the Nstar property tax lawsuit now underway, for two lawsuits involving the proposed Chapter 40B project at Hancock Village or for some widely publicized employee grievances. About the frequent uses of outside counsel, Ms. Murphy said, “It’s the [Board of Selectmen's] decision to seek outside counsel.”

The lawsuit recently filed by the Board of Selectmen against members of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) sparked several comments and questions. Ms. Jonas said spending for people “who worked with ZBA” had been a “waste of money.” The ZBA was advised by Edith Netter of Waltham and by Kathy Murphy and Samuel Nagler of Krokidas & Bluestein. Money came from reserve fund transfers approved by the Advisory Committee last year.

Apparently unknown to some Advisory Committee members, at a meeting on Thursday, March 26, the ZBA voted to request funds to hire defense counsel. Committee member Lee Selwyn, who had obviously found out, said that the town was “turning the heat and the air conditioning on at the same time.”

Committee member Fred Levitan asked the basis for suing ZBA members. Ms. Murphy said that, although the ZBA issued a comprehensive permit for the Hancock Village 40B project with “70 conditions,” members of the Board of Selectmen believe the action was “arbitrary and capricious,” in view of the “integrity of the site” and a 1946 zoning agreement between the Town of Brookline and the John Hancock Co., which built Hancock Village.

Committee members were clearly wary that unbudgeted legal expenses lay ahead. In the end, however, they voted to recommend the proposed Legal Services budget to town meeting without change.

Budget for planning: Ms. Hyatt, Mr. Selwyn and Alison Steinfeld, the planning director, presented a proposed fiscal 2016 budget for Planning and Community Development. Ms. Hyatt mentioned a “full room at the subcommittee hearing on this budget.” The occasion was to promote an increase in preservation planning. The subcommittee recommended an increase from the current 1.8 to 3.0 staff positions.

Ms. Steinfeld confirmed that early in the budget cycle she had asked for an increase to 2.0 staff positions in preservation planning, but she said Mel Kleckner, the town administrator, had not agreed. The FY2016 budget request for her department is 1.9 percent more than the current budget, not counting costs that might increase from employee benefits and collective bargaining. No changes were proposed in personnel, as shown on page IV-42 of the FY2016 Program Budget.

Several Advisory Committee members spoke skeptically about the need for a relatively large and rapid increase in staff for preservation planning. Christine Westphal said, “It makes a lot of sense to do 2.0, maybe not 3.0 [staff positions] right now.” Mr. Selwyn resisted, describing “tension between the Preservation Commission and the [planning] department.” The commission has begun meeting twice a month to cope with an increase in cases.

Committee member Stanley Spiegel said some neighborhoods have been hiring their own preservation planners, citing a recent report about a proposed Crowninshield historic district. Such an expense, said Dr. Spiegel, is “a luxury that not all significant neighborhoods can afford.”

After about an hour, the committee amended the subcommittee’s approach, supporting an increase in preservation planning staff from 1.8 to 2.0 positions with a split vote: 13 in favor and 9 opposed. The amended approach increases funding by about $14,000 plus some amount for employee benefits. It won approval by a vote of 20 to 2.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 2, 2015


Advisory Committee, Town of Brookline, MA

Agendas and Minutes, Town of Brookline, MA

FY2016 Program Budget (municipal agencies and departments), Town of Brookline, MA (16 MB)

FY2015 Program Budget (municipal agencies and departments), Town of Brookline, MA (16 MB)

Board of Selectmen: projects and budget reviews, Brookline Beacon, March 20, 2015

Board of Selectmen: Hancock Village, budget reviews, Brookline Beacon, March 4, 2015

Craig Bolon, Hancock Village: development pressures, Brookline Beacon, February 22, 2015

Zoning Board of Appeals: ready to approve Hancock Village 40B, Brookline Beacon, December 2, 2014

Advisory subcommittee on planning and regulation: new historic district, Brookline Beacon, March 31, 2015

Jenkins v. Brookline, case 1:2013-cv-11347, United States District Court for Massachusetts, filed 2013

Craig Bolon, Advisory Committee: in a generous mood, Brookline Beacon, March 19, 2015

Craig Bolon, Advisory Committee: $0.17 million to fight employee actions, Brookline Beacon, February 13, 2015

Craig Bolon, Brookline’s workforce: signs of strain, Brookline Beacon, January 9, 2015

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