Brookline Town Meeting 2004: Getting buried & tossed in the trash

Brookline | Politics | Building/Consensus
There were two vacancies in the Tenth Precinct of Brookline’s, and three openings. My friend from temple, Jonathan Davis asked me to fill one of the vacancies. I could have avoided this problem had I thought to run last May, but I didn’t (I just hung around for the voting results). Now that the Presidential election is behind me, I’m thrilled to dive into the guts of local policymaking. It should be fun, Jonathan promised.

A bit of introduction: the “Town Meeting” has its origin in the early settlements of New England. The town of Brookline, which has 57,000 people, elects 240 representatives through Town Meeting to act as the legislative body. Thanks to the decisions of Town Meeting members in the town’s 300-year history, Brookline become a fairly nice place to live, with a sizable real estate tax base, and thus avoids many of the vexing budget decisions facing American municipalities today. If I were to move a mile or two down in the street in any of four directions, I’d be in Boston, and I’d have a completely different municipal government.


I ran against two candidates whom I thought were much better-qualified — Alex Spingarn, head of the Griggs Park Neighborhood Association and Jen Wilson, a 12-year resident of the town. We were given a minute to give little speeches to the 11 caucussing members of the precinct. Alex spoke of her years of community experience; Jen had included some of her positions on some of the issues.

I was relying on the grace of friends along with the email I had sent earlier in the day which included a link to my positions on the issues, which were pretty feeble, and nowhere as impressive as the online presentation. I also thought to throw in”Some hobbies of mine– playing golf (occasionally at Putterham), gardening (in non-election years), tennis (always at Dean Road/Waldstein playground), the Coolidge Corner theater, Booksmith, Rami’s.” Most people actually consider Rami’s a falafel restaurant, but I consider it a hobby.

I did get one response, an encouraging note from former State Rep. Ronny Sydney, so I soldiered on. Also keeping me in the race was a single response from one of the fifty Brookline friends (which I included in my issues page). One of the precinct members dropped some a sly observation before the vote: “You win either way. If you don’t win the vote, you can go home and rest.” There would be no rest. Alex one on the second ballot, after the first was a tie. Somehow I squeaked by on the 6-4 on the next ballot. Town Clerk Patrick Ward swore us in, and told us “good luck.”

Now that I have the advantage of incumbency going into the election next May, I’ll have to do some more work. My friend and TMM Geoff Cohen is looking for more people for the IT committee. But first things first.


Three-and-a-half hours later, we had slogged through eleven warrant articles approving all but one of them. The underground wires project was buried for good. Selectman Gil Hoy had argued in support of it, in a most peculiar way, suggesting that if the project were to be completed hundred years hence, it would have been validated by two hundred town meetings. In other words, if we didn’t veto it tonight, we’d have two hundred more opportunities to repeal it. Well we didn’t decide to wait. This vote may have been one of the rare occasions in American politics where the issue was actually decided by an intelligent debate.

Michael Sher delivered the Minority Report of the Board of Selectman, pointing out, quite frankly, that the benefits would nowhere near approach the costs, and the money could be better prioritized elsewhere. Sher had a study on the cost and benefits burying wires in Australia to validate the numbers. The advocates could merely point to Finland and Holland– great places with underground wires, but nobody could provide any numbers. Just some digitally-altered photos of utility wires airbrushed out.

This brought many comments on both sides. A few pointed questions asked whether underground wires were infallible. Part of the town’s current 25 miles of undergound wires include the commercial drag of Harvard Street. Bruce Moore brought this up, and asked why they were still having many outages in that neighborhood. He mentioned that he approached a work site of the local electric company NStar, and asked the foreman point-blank about whether underground wires were worth the trouble. The answer was no.

True, we were told earlier that the utilities companies aren’t keen on underground wires. But the advocates were supposed to explain how the vote was about us, us, us. Instead they pointed out the sunny experiences of Finland and Holland. So Moore moved in for the kill: “Last time I checked, there are more people at this meeting living on Harvard Street than Finland or Holland.” Moore had his command of the facts, and he even “outfoxed” the town officials by associating them with ol’ Europe…

This was a moment I should have been taking notes to get accurate quotes. I’ll do it tomorrow. In the meantime I voted NO. Put that on my record: I’m a Massachusetts Democrat and I don’t pass every tax I see.


On the very next article, Brookline’s true liberalism was finally tested. The mandatory recycling warrant passed unanimously, but not before one of its seemingly innocent sections was inspected:

No person, except those authorized by the Board of Selectmen, shall remove or otherwise disturb waste materials or recyclables placed for collection by the town or a permitted hauler, near or within a street, a public way or a private way, including, without limiting the foregoing, materials placed for collection as a part of the town’s recycling program.; or act on anything relative thereto.

One TMM felt it was “mean-spirited” to prosecute the poor who go through the trash. And this brought anecdote upon silly anecdote about the wonderful things people have found in other’s people’s trash.

Now, it was explained by the town officials and Solid Waste Advisory Committee, this section had already been in the bylaws. And it is in the bylaws of every other community that has recycling. The purpose is not to prosecute the occasional vagrant picking through the trash, but rather to prevent an competing operation from moving in– if, say, there was a higher demand on waste paperm which has been known to happen– and taking what was intended for the contracted party.

The vote was so close, we had to stand and be counted. And the voice of liberalism won, 113-90. I voted with law and order, along with Randy Ravitz, who works for the state AG’s office. Not to worry, I expect we’ll have to recycle this particular paragraph.