Wednesday, May 27, 2015

So Long...

I’m surprised to be saying this, but this last year was my last serving on Town Meeting.

When we moved to Arlington, I was sure it would be the last move I made, until retirement in any case. Life makes a mockery of plans like those.

My wife and I are moving to Minnesota, into the old family farm house now vacant since the passing of her great Aunt last year. I am able to telecommute from there and keep my job, and we’ll be close to my wife’s family.

I’ve only served in Town Meeting for four years, but those four years have left an indelible mark on me.

It’s one thing to hear of an issue and form an opinion about it. It’s quite another to attempt to represent the thoughts, interests, and concerns of others.

It’s been a lot of work; it has also been surprisingly rewarding.

If anyone out there reading this has ever given serving some thought, I can’t recommend it enough. Go for it.

Thank you Arlington, for the opportunity.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Race to the Finish

There's a statement frequently made, intended as sound advice on how to pace oneself for long endeavors: "It's a marathon, not a sprint."

Town Meeting chose to challenge that bit of conventional wisdom last night.

We resumed discussion of the budget. Annie LaCourt's comments last week were referenced often.

One amendment to the budget was offered. Stephen Harrington of Precinct 13 felt that the education budget was growing too rapidly, specifically as relates to payroll, so with his amendment he asked Town Meeting to cut the money we provide to the schools by $1 million.

You can see which Town Meeting members felt that we should reduce funding for education by $1 million here, under the column labeled "Article 22 - Amendment - Stephen Harrington."

There was some sparring over the mic, as Annie LaCourt attempted to spend just a bit more time than was allowed driving home a point that our current budget will see a reduction in services, specifically in education, over time. Members were paying attention, anyone watching from home was paying attention, so while I get the instinct to repeat the point it wasn't necessary. As Town Meeting goes it was a minor, quick departure from the outbreak of civility Town Meeting has enjoyed this year.

Rather than the usual airing of grievances, the discussion around this budget was about what we knew regarding our goals as a town, and how we could better provide residents what they desired.

Later on in the meeting one veteran member described it as the best discussion of the budget he'd seen in his time at Town Meeting. It made me proud to be a part of it.

Once the budget was voted on and approved, Town Meeting picked up the pace.

A short trip back to Article 20 to vote appropriations for the just completed Collective Bargaining agreements, then quick votes on 4 fairly routine appropriation articles.

That brought us to Article 32, an appropriation of $12,000 to assist with the selection of public art projects in East Arlington. If you've seen the Mural on the building on Marathon Street, you probably think as I do that this is a real positive sort of thing to have in East Arlington. Sean Harrington of Precinct 15 got up and urged us to vote against it; he wasn't a fan of using tax funds in this manner for this sort of thing. Town Meeting passed the article.

That brought us to Article 33, an article put on the Warrant by Stephen Harrington of Precinct 13, appropriating money for an Executive Director of the Human Rights Commission. As the bylaw is written, the Human Rights Commission is supposed to have an Executive Director, however they've been operating without one since the commission was created decades ago. The Finance Committee recommended that the Board of Selectmen, the Human Rights Commission, and the Town Manager figure out this issue, and report back next year. Stephen Harrington supported that plan, but also wanted a Town Meeting committee formed to study the issue as well.

I found the idea of an additional committee unnecessary, so I along with the majority of Town Meeting voted for the Finance Committee's recommendation and against Mr. Harrington's amendment.

Our business with Article 33 complete, we raced on, making it to Article 45 very quickly.

Article 45 would charge the Town Meeting Procedures Committee with the job of studying attendance at Town Meeting, and let us know if it recommends a process for removing Town Meeting members from office that do not attend the meetings. I consider, and the comments at the meeting I believe showed, that the charge is wider in scope than this. The charge more broadly is to consider the issue of attendance, and chronic absence in particular, and report back on whether there are ways the committee would recommend this issue be dealt with.

Other communities in Massachusetts have passed bylaws that, for example, remove a member who misses more than 25% of the sessions held in a year.

We completed Town Meeting last year in 6 nights. This year, we finished in 5. With short meetings like this 25% is too low a number, in my opinion. One bad cold will result in a member missing more than 25% of the meetings.

In one community it is the other members of the precinct that vote whether or not to recommend a member be removed. That is a potentially good safeguard, as rather than being automatic it allows the members from the precinct to consider whether the absenteeism is truly a case of a member not fulfilling the duties they've been elected to do, or whether health or other issues are temporarily at fault.

Personally, I don't believe it is an issue that a member misses 25% or more meetings in a single year. I believe the issue is with members that consistently miss 25%, 50%, even 100% of the meetings year after year after year.

I am also not sure yet whether a bylaw that provides a mechanism to remove these members from office is the only way forward.

For example, right now incumbent Town Meeting Members don't have to collect the 10 signatures a new candidate for Town Meeting member must collect to appear on the ballot. Collecting the 10 signatures is not hard. This last year I helped a candidate collect 5 signatures in the space of 15 minutes, without walking even half-way down Melrose Street.

Collecting signatures is a good practice. It guarantees that a person has at least a bare minimum of a connection with the neighborhood. One idea of mine would be to require all that want to appear on the ballot, whether an incumbent or not, to collect the 10 signatures and turn them into the Clerk's office.

My hypothesis is that this very small hurdle may be sufficient to remove at least some members that don't show up to the meetings. It at least guarantees that they've taken the time to speak with a few people in the neighborhood about Town Meeting.

I don't know that it would solve the problem fully. I doubt it. But it would be a good first step. More can be done to inform residents of who their Town Meeting members currently are, how many meetings they've attended, and what their voting record is. Until very recently knowing how your Town Meeting member votes on issues has been quite difficult for a resident to find out. Knowing whether your Town Meeting members show up to meetings hasn't been consistently easy to do either, as some years the information is posted online, and other years it hasn't been.

Maybe such records should be sent out each year, along with the Warrant, to all residents.

One thing I do know for certain: I am very pleased that Town Meeting charged that this issue be studied. It's been a pet issue of mine for a while now, and I'm happy to see it taken up.

With Article 45 voted on, we had one article remaining: 46, endorsement of Arlington's Master Plan. It was also 11 p.m., normally when we adjourn.

The endorsement of the Master Plan was not going to be a quick vote. Besides the seriousness of the report, there were two amendments both related to the Mugar property in East Arlington.

I turn in and go to bed early. Most nights by 10 p.m. Not being a night person, I voted to adjourn so we could come back on Wednesday and consider this article then. The members were having none of that. The end was in sight, and we were going to finish.

An amendment was offered by Brian Rehrig, Precinct 8, reaffirming the position of the town and of past Town Meetings that the wetlands located on what is commonly called the Mugar Property are important to Arlington, and it is the desire of the town that this site not be developed.

I've spent a fair amount of time worrying about this amendment, as showing that the town has a broad base of support for preserving this land is important to our efforts to prevent the floodplain being built upon.

Brian's presentation included photos and video of previous flood incidents in the area.

Stephen Harrington of Precinct 13 offered an amendment as well, stating that the town is resolved to purchase the land. Given that Mr. Harrington has given every impression to date that his is opposed to the town doing just that, it was obvious that something was up. I wondered whether the hope was to weaken support for the vote endorsing the Master Plan.

Lots of people that, while they don't want to see the land heavily developed, don't also want the town to purchase the property. Speaking for myself, the town purchasing the property is a tactic that can be used to achieve a long-term goal: preserve the land to mitigate flooding issues in the neighborhood. But there are other routes to that goal. If an environmental group wanted to purchase the land, I'd be fine with that too, as an example. There has been talk over the years about the Mugar family possibly being interested in donating the land to the town - that would be fantastic.

So speaking only for myself, I support keeping the option to buy the land open, as something to be investigated thoroughly when the time comes, and if it's the right way to accomplish our goals, so be it.

I voted against Mr. Harrington's amendment, as I did not want it to weaken support of the Master Plan overall, and felt it should exist apart from that article, on it's own.

As it turns out, I'm pretty sure Mr. Harrington's objective was just to be able to call people names after the votes were published.

We could have given the discussion of the Master Plan endorsement more time. It is a very big deal. It's unclear though how much more would have been discussed, even had we waited to take the issue up this Wednesday.

Debate was terminated. Mr. Rehrig's amendment passed, Mr. Harrington's failed, and the Master Plan was endorsed by a wide margin.

That concluded Town Meeting for 2015.

In my brief time serving, this year stood out for the substance of the discussions, and the relatively low levels of incivility.

It was a good year.

The 2015 Annual Town Meeting Dissolves

After a slow start, members bolted for the finish last night. When 11 p.m. rolled around and we had one article left, they repeatedly voted down motions to adjourn, choosing instead to stay late and finish.

So far this morning, every sentence I try to type is rather disjointed. Getting plenty of rest has never done much to make me beautiful, but without it I'm far more incoherent than usual.

Once I'm doing a better job placing words next to each other in a manner that results in intelligible statements, I'll be writing up a post summarizing my impressions.

Hopefully later today. In the meantime, know that I think we did a good job last night, and that the 2015 Town Meeting served Arlington well.

In the meantime, enjoy some wake-up music, courtesy of the Steve 'n Seagulls: