June 10, 2015: Constructive Disagreement: How to Better Manage Public Conflict
All across Massachusetts, municipal officials, volunteers, and neighborhood organizations are on the frontline working to solve complex problems related to budgets, education, land use, the environment, economic development, public works, public safety, public health, and more. It requires the active participation of multiple parties and stakeholders to achieve comprehensive solutions to problems and to ensure that the solutions are consistent with a community’s stated visions and goals.
In addressing these complex problems, it is often necessary to confront and tackle serious public conflicts. Those conflicts can be sensitive, are often contentious, and sometimes persist over a long period of time, restricting the ability to move forward or leading to impasses. In order to better manage public conflict, it may be crucial for municipalities to engage officials at all levels of government, including state and federal officials, along with individual citizens, and the entire gamut of local groups and organizations, in needs assessment studies, in-depth public discussions and conflict resolution workshops.
The Massachusetts League of Women Voters and the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration have both been working hard to actively intervene in such conflicts and also provide training in best practices to restore healthy civic discourse. Speaking to this issue were:
- Madhawa (“Mads”) Palihapitiya – Associate Director of the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration
- Marilyn Peterson – Co-President, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts
Each speaker spoke about work that other communities have done and the results achieved to date.
For additional information, read the MOPC report “Legislative study: Massachusetts municipal conflict resolution needs assessment”.
May 13, 2015: Zoning Reform: Defining the Future Newton
Zoning is the means by which the City controls the use of land and defines the rights that landowners have to develop their properties. Zoning describes the uses, density, coverage, and other aspects of what we can put on our residential and commercial land.
Newton’s current zoning ordinance dates back to the early 1950’s and has been updated several times since that time. However, the ordinance has never been comprehensively updated to reflect the City’s comprehensive plan or to address other prospective city goals.
The City’s Planning Department and Aldermen are in the process of completing Phase I of Zoning Reform – in which the current ordinance has been made more legible, better organized, and where known contradictions have been removed or addressed. The City is now on the verge of beginning Phase II, which will update the policies and zones themselves.
James Freas, Acting Director of Planning and Development, provided an overview of the process to date and the issues to be addressed in the coming phases.
April 8, 2015: Funding Newton’s Post-Retirement Benefits – The “OPEB” Issue
Employees of the City of Newton earn both current (salary) and deferred compensation. Newton’s employees receive their deferred compensation – pensions, post-retirement healthcare, and similar benefits – once certain age service thresholds are met and the employee retires.
While Newton is required to set money aside to cover future employee pension liabilities, there are currently no such requirements for Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) such as healthcare. As a result, OPEB are paid against current year budgets as needed, and future needs show up as an unfunded liability on the City’s balance sheet.
Our speakers explained the OPEB issue, provided an understanding of what risks the OPEB problem poses for the City’s financial health, and discussed strategies that other municipalities have used to address such future funding needs.
- Tony Logalbo – Finance Director, Town of Concord
- An explanation of the OPEB problem and Newton’s current situation
- Discussion of other municipalities’ strategies
- Maureen Lemieux – CFO, City of Newton
- Discussion of Newton’s plans to fund OPEB in the near- and long-term
March 19, 2015: Economic Inequality and Political Participation — Whose Voice Is Heard?
Is growing economic inequality having an impact on who is participating, how they’re participating, which groups are influencing policy, and what those policies are?
Our panel of experts discussed these and other questions at “Economic Inequality and Political Participation — Whose Voice Is Heard?” co-sponsored by LWVMA and Bentley University’s Valente Center for the Arts and Sciences.
Our panelists: Noah Berger, Executive Director, Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center; Katherine Levine Einstein, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Boston University; and Kay Schlozman, J. Joseph Moakley Professor of Political Science, Boston College. The panel was moderated by Juliet Gainsborough, Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University.
January 14, 2015: Next Steps for the Austin Street Proposal
The plans to create new housing and commercial space at the Austin Street parking lot in Newtonville have their origins in the City’s Comprehensive Planning process from the mid-2000’s. The Mayor, City staff, Board of Aldermen, and several citizen groups all advised on or passed ordinances on the project. However, the project was paused for citizen input since the selection of a development partner last spring.
Austin Street partners presented an update on the project based on input from the community and further discussions from the City.
- Chris Steele – League of Women Voters Newton
- An overview of the Austin Street process to this point
- Scott Oran and Mark Dufton – Austin Street Partners
- A description of Austin Street Partners’ proposed plans
- A discussion of the expected process forward
- Sue Flicop – League of Women Voters Newton
- Discussion of the League’s views on process
- The League’s thoughts on benefits and concerns for the development
Special thanks to the West Suburban YMCA for the use of their meeting space for the event.
December 10, 2014: Funding Newton’s Educational Technology
Technology and computers play a greater and greater role in Newton’s classrooms, just as they do in professional and everyday life. Newton’s schools have faced challenges providing and paying for these tools, and the parent community has historically been called upon to raise funds to make up the difference.
Does this policy create inherent disparity in the quality of technology and teaching across Newton’s schools? What plans does the School Department have to address purchases of hardware, of software, and for ensuring that faculty members are appropriately trained? What do other municipalities do to ensure that these needs are met?
Speaking to these issues were:
- Leo Brehm – Newton Schools Director of Information Technology and Library Media
- Current state of tools, funding at Newton’s schools, and the City’s equity policy
- Examples of what other communities do to address funding
- Jennifer Abbott – PTO Council
- Discussion of parent community’s ability to fund technology across the City
- Michelle Callaghan – Teacher in the Newton Public Schools System
- Discussion of the role and outcomes of technology in the education setting
November 12, 2014: Affordable Housing
The term “Affordable Housing” is used frequently, and all are aware of increasing price of housing in the City. But most of us have questions. Eve Tapper and James Freas of Newton’s Planning Department joined us to answer questions such as:
- What does the term really mean?
- What is the actual state of housing in the City?
- How do we compare with other communities and where we want to be?
- What can City Government and others do to ensure that there is an adequate supply of affordable housing options?
Thank you to Andrea Kelley for moderating and helping us to understand where the League stands on affordable housing.
October 8, 2014: Managing Stormwater
Attendees at the topic meeting on Wednesday October 8 were full of questions for Pallavi Mande of the Charles River Watershed Association (CWRA), who made a very informative presentation (pdf, 6MB) about their Blue Cities initiative:
CRWA’s Blue Cities Initiative incorporates the design of natural green corridors and infrastructure to help treat stormwater runoff before it enters the Charles and its tributaries, through plant filtration and infiltration into the ground – all while enhancing neighborhoods and connecting existing open spaces.
The presentation and conversation revolved around projects the CWRA has planned, designed and implemented to improve stormwater management — as well as all-around quality of life at the same time. Ms. Mande described a wide variety of approaches to bringing the management of stormwater in an urban or suburban area much closer to the natural water cycle. She explained that in a natural setting, about 50% of rain water infiltrates the ground as opposed to just 15% in an urban area with widespread pavement or other impervious cover. The goal is to implement techniques that bring urban areas closer to the natural cycle, as illustrated by CWRA here:
After Ms. Mande’s presentation, alderman Deb Crossley gave an update on Newton’s 3 different systems of water pipes — drinking water, sewer, and stormwater. She talked in particular about progress on Newton’s Water-Sewer Infrastructure Strategic Improvement Plan, which addresses deficiencies in our management of all three pipe systems and, happily, is well underway and making measurable improvements already. She published a very informative article on the topic in a recent Newton Conservators newsletter.
We’ll be reporting on more details about these issues shortly, but in the meantime, please follow the links above to learn more.
September 10, 2014: November’s Ballot Questions
We learned about the pros and cons of each of this year’s four ballot questions this year