Friday, September 20, 2002
Town boards, then and now part II
This is the conclusion of Ellen Miller's Oral History Project "Town Boards, Then and Now." Miller met with representatives of various town boards on June 12, 2002, for a discussion of town boards and how they have changed over the last 20 or 30 years. Participants were Vivian Chaput, Midge Eliassen, Beth Hambleton and Terry Herndon.
Miller: Do you believe that town boards represent the majority of townspeople?
How would you gauge the wishes of a majority of townspeople?
Hambleton: Well, if you had a committee that's stacked with rich, young people as opposed to old, poor people, you're going to see two very different mind-sets. Certainly on the FinCom you would. And it's often, "Who can I find to do this?" as opposed to, as Midge said earlier, "Who's the best person to do this?" and we convince them to contribute. Then there was [former selectman] Alan Cameron who, if anybody came to a meeting that didn't have to be there, he'd be after them, finding out about them. "What are your interests. Do you want to serve?"
Eliassen: I don't know how we, on either of the boards I've served on, measure the wishes of the majority of the townspeople, frankly. Because the only places we see even individual wishes are when people turn out around a specific issue I don't care if they're coming to a small board or a Town Meeting. The letters to the editor in the paper, perhaps. We have things like the Open Space Report, which I do think because of the process it's gone through, does represent the wishes of the majority, but I'd be really hard put to say I'm representing the wishes of the majority. What I would hope that I'd be representing and perhaps it's because of the size of the town at this point is the faith of somebody out there that I had some common sense and would be able to work with other individuals who hopefully weren't my age or my sex or my neighborhood who would bring their common sense to bear.
Herndon: And all of that represents their wish.
Eliassen: And in the end, you would have a group of people who could represent their community without knowing precisely what the wishes are of the individuals.
Chaput: Well, the closest thing I've seen to the wishes of the community is the master plan that was put together about four years ago, and that had the same kind of process. It was a whole bunch of very small meetings based on particular issues and all the different facets of the community. I'm thinking more like six or seven years ago, '94 or '95. Those meetings drew people who were interested in that particular issue, and that was all put together into a sort of executive summary, a synopsis of how these people felt about these various issues. So certainly it only represents the viewpoints of those people who showed up, but on the other hand there were enough people who came to all those small meetings that I think it was fairly comprehensive and hit so many of the town's concerns. On the other hand, as people move and change, those wishes change and I remember a statistic that I saw about that time that said something like a third of the town changes every ten years.
Hambleton: Yes, and a '94 plan, particularly when you think about the growth of the town as well as the ins and outs movement, would not be up to date any more. Because the people have changed, the wishes may have changed.
Herndon: You're talking about town planning. The Benjamin Report of 1954 big-deal town plan. Everyone agreed, but by the time it began to become implemented, bypass around here, bypass around there in terms of roads to try to keep the center so it could be a center and not have congestion, everything had changed and it was eight to twelve years later when the Planning Board started suggesting implementing some of that. And lots of "hoorah," lots of "We can't have this. It's too disruptive, we don't want it near our house," and that kind of thing.
Eliassen: Which basically says if you do the planning process and involve your community, you better act right then and there because five years later your constituency is different and the factors are different.
Miller: But is that 20-20 hindsight, or do you realize that when you're serving?
Herndon: No, it's only hindsight, it's not 20-20! [Laughter].
Miller: Can each of you think of one particularly thorny, challenging issue that you've had to confront on any of the boards you've served on?
Hambleton: Well, certainly on FinCom every issue you had to confront was a major issue. The idea of adding on to the school and doing big work there. Building all the facilities we built over all those years. That's really what our issues were more than anything else.
Chaput: Of the issues relative to planning and land use that I've been involved with, the one that I thought was most critical was a case that happened to be dubbed MSB, Inc. versus Vivian Chaput et al., being the Planning Board of the Town of Carlisle [in the early 1980s] when there was a major attempt to override the town's zoning by a company called MSB, Inc. and that ended up in court. My name was attached to it only because I happened to be the chair du jour, but it was an interesting attempt to bypass and overrule the town's zoning, which would have changed the town's character significantly had they prevailed. So from the standpoint of the fact that most people will say they like the town and the way it looks, they like the character and the rural feel of it even though it's developed, much of what you see out there is already privately owned and developed, just the way the town's zoning works that keeps it that way. This might have changed that, could have created some different perspectives or issues relative to the town's zoning.
Herndon: In a different vein, the Sanitary Landfill Committee, the Dump Committee, when the state started saying, "You can't have an open dump, you can't throw it down the side of the fill," and stand around and talk to a neighbor and have a nice time! And the town had to decide what to do. And there were two groups those who felt we should do it in town, and this meant a sanitary landfill, finding the right kind of soil, etc., or ship it out. This went on for about a year, very controversial, much NIMBY-ism, of course, and we went around looking for places where it could be done in town, where we would control it, and it wouldn't pollute. There was another group called SAFE, Society Against Fouling the Environment, who wanted it out of town as it turned out almost, and of course, I'm biased, so keep that in mind! But anyway, it was very difficult, and the Davis Corridor was the site that would have worked the best because it had clay rather than hard-pan, and so forth. Lots of technical stuff. But everywhere you went . . . you'd talk about the groups coming in, they would find out you were over near them and they would come in to the next meeting. You got to know much of the town that way! And when it finally came down to it, the town voted to send it to Billerica, which had a sanitary landfill which was state-approved. It was fascinating, because we had looked at all the outside places incinerators and landfills. Billerica's landfill was ten or twenty acres, about 20 feet high, of stuff, sitting in a swamp. But that was very traumatic for everyone.
Eliassen: When people talk about the founding of the Mosquito, one of the things that always comes up is that we had just come off this very divisive time in town over the landfill and it was time to bring us together. "The Dump" was probably the toughest thing on the community of Carlisle.
I think what happens within Carlisle is great, but the incinerator and the NESWC (New England Waste Incinerator Company) arrangement are abominable.
Herndon: But the thing is, this group, although each of us had our biases, we were looking to try to find out where it could go outside of town, where we might do it inside of town where we would control it. I was very happy in a funny way because this was a good group who were just trying to get the facts and let's present the town with the facts. And everyone was barking along after us.
Chaput: I am so pleased that it came out so well.
Hambleton: It's a model.
Chaput: It really is. And the percentages that this town recycles are phenomenal. Probably because we don't have trash pick-up and you're going to have to take it there anyway, so why not do it right.
Eliassen: I watch the private trash pick-up services and I see very much less recycling.
Back to your question [on challenging issues]: I'd like to give you two. I referred to one briefly before when I was on the School Committee and in short order the School Committee lost fiscal autonomy and that was followed by Proposition 2-1/2 and the school constituency found itself faced with cuts in service, as opposed to budget cuts where you squeeze this and didn't buy new math books, all of a sudden it was going to be significant change in the number of kids in the classroom and/or programmatic change, so that was a tough one. And that continues and that will always continue, particularly in a school that's growing, in a town whose tax base isn't growing that much. That's always a really emotional one, much more than some of these other issues.
For the Board of Appeals, lots of hot, small issues, you know. But I think the major one has been the issue of cell towers in town . . . you get all the neighborhood stuff, but structurally you have the guidelines of Massachusetts Chapter 40(A), which tells you under what circumstances you may grant a variance and it's very hard under those to grant a variance to any of these cell tower proposals. And you have the federal Telecommunications Act saying you must not prohibit cellular tower service, so you are serving two masters who are giving you completely different marching orders in an area that's new. I think that's a very tough one.
Chaput: If I can offer one other item, and I think it's been really tremendous from the town's standpoint, it was the construction of the Village Court [in 1982]. Because that evolved from town committees, volunteers, who felt there was a need that needed to be met. A total process of developing it from start to finish financial, and all the rest. And to this day that is still the only low-to-moderate-income subsidized housing that there is in this town. Without it, we would probably have a significant number of 40B projects popping up here and there. At least we made an attempt along the way and we've shown we could do it and it could be well done and attractive and blend in with the community, so I think that's a real asset.
Eliassen: Yes, it's a significant, positive major issue. The thing that was really neat about it was the extent to which, as you've said, it was a volunteer effort, people pulling
together. I think of the fundraising with the musical, etc., and that's the best example of a major issue when the town pulled together and handled it well.
Herndon: 1982 was the end of the community era. That may have been the benchmark when all the people in town who used to get together and try to do things, that was kind of it. And then it began becoming less of that kind of activity townspeople became busier, new people came, weren't interested, the change of looking at the town as a community. It was always, "Can we get housing," right? I came here because I couldn't buy in Lexington, couldn't buy in Concord, wanted a good school, this had a school that was consolidated that was the goal and it was a small community. Now it's become a community where you go for the big houses, the big piece of land, because there's nothing left around. The economic drive has had quite an effect on the town.
Chaput: And the fact that folks coming in are pressed in many instances to have everybody working full-time, and more than full-time, so they don't have the time to volunteer. There's a lot of two-earner households that simply cannot participate in town government to the extent that maybe some of the rest of us were able to do.
Eliassen: And also I think that jobs, working longer hours, commutes taking more time because there's more traffic, there are all sorts of other aspects as well as the two-income issue. I think that some of us who have been here forever are more pressed than we were because of societal aspects. It leaves us, I guess I would say, sorely lacking the sense of community that we all value.
Herndon: You have to have time. And it seems like you're wasting time. We're sitting around talking, what are we doing? We're not doing anything useful, but we're learning. It's an expanded human mind.
Hambleton: I'm the only one who's not feeling pressured, because I'm not on any committees right now! [Laughter]. It's a lovely feeling I'm reading all the time, I'm doing wonderful things that I never thought I'd have time to do again, so there is a life after town government!
Herndon: Well, that's an important thing. I think people used to be involved and then step aside, and I think it's very important that people step aside and others come in and the newer people get involved. The newer people aren't as easily gotten involved.
Hambleton: That's true. I was looking to get involved. I was looking for things to do. Actually, I'm still doing that demographic study, so I am still involved.
Eliassen: I think you just put your finger on something. The people who came to town and a lot of them were not working wives, not full-time, but were looking for a connection to the community. Now I think the people who are looking for a connection to the community are into other things. If you're working full-time, instead of thinking about going on the Planning Board you're more likely to think about going to the Parents' Connection coffee or getting to know the other parents on the side of the soccer field. It gives you a community that's less demanding on your personal time.
Herndon: The other thing that's happened, and I don't know how important it is, the big deals, the moguls, get their points in Boston now, rather than being a selectman in Carlisle. There are several moguls I've known bankers and so forth who would run for various offices, usually selectman because that's key, because they got points from the company. This has to do with their promotion in the company. And it's still true. I just don't know how it's changed. You can do a lot of this in Boston now, working with kids . . .
Eliassen: Exactly. Being on a non-profit board in Boston rather than being on a town board in your community.
Miller: Well, I think we should wrap up, but if we had unlimited time, we could keep going. Thank you all on behalf of the Oral History Project for giving up even more of your valuable time for the town of Carlisle.
Eliassen: The expanded human mind is having fun!
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito