Advisory subcommittee on human services: tap water and bottled water

The Advisory subcommittee on human services met at 5:30 pm Tuesday, April 7, in the third-floor employees’ room at Town Hall. The agenda was two articles for the spring town meeting intended to promote the use of tap water over bottled water, submitted by Jane Gilman and Clinton Richmond, town meeting members from Precincts 3 and 6. They have been active in the “green caucus” within Brookline town meeting and are currently co-chairs.

The hearings on these articles drew a large group for an Advisory subcommittee: six senior town staff and at least 15 town residents. All the subcommittee members were on hand: Sytske Humphrey of Precinct 6, the chair, Lea Cohen of Beacon St., not a town meeting member, David-Marc Goldstein of Precinct 8 and Robert Liao of Meadowbrook Rd., not a town meeting member.

Water service at restaurants: Article 13 for the 2015 annual town meeting, scheduled to start May 26, proposes to amend a Brookline bylaw by requiring tap water to be available to customers at restaurants located in the town. However, as the explanation for Article 13 says, “Tap water is already available….” Subcommittee members were puzzled why petitioners thought a bylaw change was needed.

Mr. Richmond mentioned a restaurant located in another community that offers only bottled water, but he could not cite any one in Brookline. Ms. Cohen asked how many Brookline businesses the petitioners had approached. “None,” said Ms. Gilman, adding that she did not “see a hardship.” Mr. Goldstein described the warrant article as “a solution looking for a non-existent problem.”

Alan Balsam, the public health director, called tap water service in Brookline restaurants “not much of a problem.” Owners of one restaurant, he said, “think they can charge for water.” Ms. Humphrey asked whether petitioners might be interested in substituting a resolution for the proposed bylaw change, in support of an “educational” effort to encourage use of tap water. Mr. Richmond said, “No.” Committee members were not persuaded of a need for a bylaw change and voted unanimously to recommend no action on Article 13.

Selling or distributing bottled water: Article 14 for the spring town meeting proposes a new bylaw making it illegal to “sell or distribute” bottled water at an “event” held on “town property,” including a street. If you were to take along a bottle of water to Brookline Day at Larz Anderson, for example, and you distributed some of it to friends, under this law you would apparently be liable for a fine of $50 to $100.

The proposed bylaw would also forbid spending town funds on bottled water, forbid vending machines located on town property from offering bottled water and forbid Brookline-licensed food trucks from selling bottled water. Exemptions would be allowed where the public health director finds them “necessary.” Dr. Balsam said, “The article is quite complicated.”

Petitioners defended their article, estimating waste generated in Brookline at around a million plastic bottles a year. Mr. Richmond ridiculed the brand Fiji Water, in particular–denouncing abuse of natural resources in “hauling water 8,000 miles” to Brookline. Although the water bottles, made of polyethylene terpthalate, can be recycled as Type 1 plastic, Mr. Richmond claimed less than 20 percent went into blue recycling bins. He may not have known that, because of low industrial materials prices, most or all of those have reportedly been burned in incinerators recently rather than recycled.

Potential problems: As an example of potential problems, Dr. Balsam brought up outdoor restaurant seating during warm weather. Some such seating is on privately owned property and would be exempt. Other seating is on town sidewalks and would be restricted. There may be no visible marks showing which is which. Dr. Balsam also warned about adverse consequences, including substitution of sugared beverages, which have been associated with increasing trends of obesity and diabetes.

Fred Russell, director of the Water Division in Public Works, said that while he supports use of public water rather than commercially bottled water, less than 20 percent of Brookline’s public park sites now have water fountains. David Geanakakis, the chief procurement officer, said it would not be difficult to exclude water from vending machines. Subcommittee member Lea Cohen asked whether the petitioners had approached Brookline agencies and businesses who would be affected. Ms. Gilman said, “No.”

John Harris, a Precinct 8 town meeting member, observed that bottled water sales now comprised about 15 percent of U.S. retail beverage sales. Saying he has been “working in special education for most of my career,” Mr. Harris claimed bottled water has helped students with learning disabilities, who he said tended to treat sugared beverages as “liquid candy.”

Donald Leka, a Precinct 3 town meeting member, said the growth in bottled water sales has been driven by aggressive advertising. He suggested an educational effort rather than a bylaw, to combat abuse of resources. Mr. Richmond had said he was “not a public health expert.” As he described it, the petitioners were putting forth ideas and would rely on town boards and staff to find and solve problems.

Ms. Humphrey, the subcommittee chair, read a letter from Mariah Nobrega, a Precinct 4 town meeting member, expressing concerns over conflicts with athletic events bringing teams from other communities to Brookline. She recommended referring Article 14 to a task force, in order to sort through problems and develop solutions, but Mr. Richmond and Ms. Gilman said they did not want a referral.

A troubled love affair: Recent town meetings eagerly endorsed some “green caucus” proposals. In this case, discussion found the subcommittee members concerned about the environmental issues advanced by the Article 14 petitioners but unconvinced that the proposed bylaw offered a workable solution. The subcommittee members voted unanimously to recommend no action on the article.

With back-to-back rejections from a subcommittee usually inclined to support its goals, the “green caucus” in town meeting looks to have tried “a bridge too far.” The strategy it used in previous efforts to ban plastic products may have reached a limit, with town boards and committees starting to expect proponents to do their homework and develop practical solutions, rather than simply write up ideas and look to others for the heavy lifting.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 12, 2015


Advisory Committee, Town of Brookline, MA

Warrant for 2015 Annual Town Meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, March 17, 2015

Explanations of Articles, 2015 Annual Town Meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, March 17, 2015

Craig Bolon, Paper or plastic? The Devil’s work, Brookline Beacon, May 28, 2014

Cornelius Ryan, A Bridge Too Far, Simon & Schuster, 1974

Billy Baker, Brookline finds plastic bottle ban a thorny issue, Boston Globe, April 12, 2015. A grammatically and politically challenged Boston writer visits next door.

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