Questions Answered! Sunday, Feb. 6, 3:30pm Please join me and Councilor Bowman, along with state representatives Tommy Vitolo of Brookline and Kay Khan of Newton, for an informative session on how parts of the state's Climate Action Law allows municipalities to opt-in to a greener building code. We will take questions & suggestions.
And if you have something else you’d like to discuss, there will be time for that afterward.
Join Zoom Meeting
Warning: Tight City Budget Because of the pandemic, city revenue is down. The mayor announced last week that some very popular projects will have to be cut or delayed.
One of the most important jobs of the City Council is to debate and approve the annual budget.
Having some Federal pandemic-relief funds and Infrastructure funds helps. But none of this money could--nor should, since they are one-time--go into our operating budget.
One of the biggest cost drivers has been and still is the city’s pension obligations. Others include trash, health insurance and other areas where inflation outpaces revenue growth.
The mayor is talking about shaving every department--except schools--by a little. And we will have to make some tough decisions about which new initiatives to pursue. Talk to me about what you care about keeping.
Zoning near Transit There is already a lot of worry about a new state law that requires MBTA communities to zone for more housing near transit.
We don't know exactly how this law will play out for Newton, but there are a few things that are becoming clear; I outline these below:
Oh--and a great primer on what makes housing so expensive is in this podcast. The speakers say that the biggest cost driver is constrained supply--partly because of zoning.
Good to Know:
Happy Italian-American Heritage month! Today at 5 pm, the city will raise Il Tricolore at City Hall to honor our residents with Italian heritage.
Mail-in ballots arrive in 2 weeks!
If you are already signed up for remote voting, your ballot may arrive as early as Oct. 15. Final registration deadline is Oct. 13. Sign up to get a ballot by mail by Oct. 27. Link to more election information here
“Dear Friends” by mid-month:
Research shows that happy constituents tend to stay home on Election Day. For those of us who have been working hard to make you happy—eek!
Please, friends, email your favorite Newton voters, particularly those who rarely cast a ballot in local elections, to encourage them to participate in the City Council elections!!
Police in focus
This Wednesday, October 6 at 7 pm, by Zoom I will welcome Chief John Carmichael at the Public Safety Committee to talk about how the Newton Police Department is complying with new state police reform measures. This is the first of what will be quarterly transparency meetings with the NPD. I expect officers to return Oct. 17th to report on NPD’s progress on the Police Reform Task Force recommendations. One of those recommendations is that the department report several kinds of data to our committee.
Crystal Lake Parks and Water
I recently wrote to my colleagues in support of the Parks & Recreation Department’s proposal to improve the parkland at Levingston Cove, near the intersection of Lake and Lakewood avenues. This steeply-sloped shore is literally washing away, and that impacts water quality.
It will come to a full vote of the Council on Monday.
The P&R proposal would prevent erosion, add accessible paths and benches, allow fishing to continue and re-plant the lawn area. It will minimize additional concrete and make the lake waters more resilient as temperatures rise. You can read my whole memo here.
More dates for your calendar:
Before we head into July 4 weekend and what feels like a very much needed summer break—some late-breaking news to get you through the summer season.
Weigh in by July 9
Responsive & Ready
Weigh in by July 9 on grant spending!
Don’t miss your opportunity to weigh in with the mayor on where the federal COVID recovery funding might be spent.
In my meeting with Mayor Fuller, I advocated for funding a Pedestrian/Bike/Accessibility plan for all our roads—so when any road or intersection is repaved, the DPW will be able to implement needed safety fixes, rather than returning roads to the old, unsafe conditions. This would also save money, time and the effort to install these independently of road construction.
I also reminded the mayor that the Washington Street Pilot was put on hold during COVID. Many of us believe that making Washington Street safer and more livable will unlock the economic potential of the north side of town.
And I asked if Newton could invest in a Park Maintenance Plan that would include climate adaption—such as planting trees that will thrive in warmer and wetter conditions predicted for the next 30-50 years, planting for habitat in our open spaces and verges to keep native animals alive, and locations for splash parks for days like the last few.
Road to Recovery?
Speaking of roads, Chestnut Street from Rt. 9 to Beacon was given its first smooth surface—this is just the first pass and a few more coats go down before it’s done, but the improvements are palpable (particularly on a bike saddle!). Dedham Street is also getting a refresh, and you have probably seen the crews on Walnut and Watertown.
Chestnut was delayed for needed underground work—the 1875-era cast iron water main needed to be reinforced and the sewer main relined—and two stretches of sewer had partially collapsed! Many other repairs, including new sidewalks and tighter curb radii at two corners, will help with access and safety.
I want to thank DPW for listening to neighborhood safety concerns and implementing some traffic calming along this stretch of Chestnut.
Our excellent state representatives are a big help in my advocacy for better roads, trails and parks. Rep. Ruth Balser has joined me in fighting for improvements to the riverside park and parkway that runs between Route 9 and Washington Street. This week she alerted me that the Department of Conservation & Recreation (the state park agency that owns the land and road) has published its preferred design for a multi-use path, safer roadway, and refreshed park. That’s here. Additional background here.
Neighbors who live along Quinobequin were buttonholing me earlier this month to ask about how the road might be made safer for them and their kids. Let me know what you think.
School Bus Fees
I have never been a big fan of charging for the bus. I do think that the city and School Committee need to find a way to make buses more equitable, available and convenient. But I know it isn'not something that Newton can do overnight.
I sit on the School Transportation Working Group, which has been working to make the school bus better since I was appointed—making it possible to sign up online, pay in installments, assign seats (important during the pandemic) and more. One of the big remaining challenges is to find parking for our contractor’s current fleet of diesel buses.
Ideally, we could find a public and central spot for electric buses to park overnight and recharge (their batteries could provide emergency back up power). Ideally, we would also have enough buses to meet demand (middle school is close to capacity, high school less so). But until we do, that single hurdle will prevent Newton from being able to handle the anticipated increased demand for a no-fee bus ride (and then there’s the challenge of finding enough drivers).
Responsive and ready
As your councilor, I attend meetings and knock on doors to get constituent feedback and know what matters to you. My pipeline of information, like so much else, was severely constrained by the pandemic. So, going in to the spring, I joined a number of colleagues in asking Newton voters what issues mattered to them.
It turns out that you and I share a concern for quality public schools, Covid relief for businesses, and good repair of our public assets. Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I will continue to check in via the usual methods—phone, email, knocking on doors and meeting people around the city on our usual business—as we move into the fall.
I am eager to continue working on the above issues and more in a third term. It again looks like I face a contested race. Campaigns are fun, but I will need your help walking your neighborhood, hosting house parties (virtual is also an option), and signs. Please pitch in here.
I think we all need a rest from regular business for July. But am always interested in hearing from you so don’t hesitate to pick up the phone or shoot me an email.
In August, I thought we might walk a village or two and talk about history and zoning redesign with a Visioning Kit. Where would you like to tour and when will you be in town? Wondering what this is all about? Here’s the Zoning Newsletter.
Newton is starting to gather again in person, albeit cautiously! It was great to see and say hello to dozens under a tent outside for Chief John Carmichael’s swearing-in on Monday.
Other new opportunities to see people in 3-D include:
Every budget tells a story--I started describing that story last month with police and schools. The last weeks have been filled with additional budget discussions. You can find the mayor's proposed operating budget here, and the capital priorities are here.
New Police Chief
New Police Chief
Last week, City Council welcomed and interviewed Chief John Carmichael. His candid, forward-looking answers to our many tough questions were impressive. I invite you to listen to the meeting (link here). The chief stressed the importance of trust and strong relationships with both the community and the officer corps. He also emphasized policing as community service, as a problem-solving branch of government (particularly on quality of life issues), and the importance of teamwork with other entities when responding to mental health and addiction disorder calls.
Chief Carmichael has experience with creating a more diverse department by removing it from the Civil Service system. We will undoubtedly be examining whether that is the right move for Newton.
I look forward to working with the new chief as Newton moves forward to implement recommendations from the Police Reform Task Force and other citizens, while also taking care of our officers’ mental and physical health.
The mayor's budget for next year (starting in July) is here, and the capital priorities are here. I am pleased that the roads budget will gradually return to our $9.5m/year investment, that school renovations and re-builds are resuming, and that the Library Children's Room is back on track for expansion and remodeling. Good to see parks and the library back to normal funding, also. Council's review and debate will continue for the next few weeks.
US Rep. Jake Auchincloss, Sen. Cynthia Creem, Rep. Kay Khan, Mayor Fuller and 10 city councilors met last Monday to share ideas on how to restore good transit to the north side of Newton. Sen. Creem has filed a state budget amendment to restore hourly train service and the #505 Express Bus. It will take at least 9 years to achieve two-platform. accessible stations for the Worcester Line--which are needed if Newton is to get the same hourly service as other communities--even if Newton can secure Federal money now. Newton might also be able to leverage development increment tax financing. I am filing a resolution from the Council to push the state to fully fund refurbishment of the three stations and to do so in this budget.
Gun Store Debate
The idea that a firearms vendor might open on Washington Street has many of us concerned. Ensuring Newton’s safety and strictly limiting the ability of gun stores to operate near schools and residences is a priority. As the store owner works to get a building permit, prompt action is crtiical.
Some have suggested we ban gun stores. But many in the gun-control community warn that this approach will lose in court, and could make it more difficult to regulate gun stores anywhere in the US. I am not willing to gamble with Newton’s future, and will be supporting strong, effective zoning that is easier to defend. The ban will be discussed Wednesday, May 26 at 6:30 pm. Council debate on the strict zoning will continue June 7th at our regular meeting, which may start early to allow enough time. More details here.
Room for Walking
Fight for Transit
Silver Linings As we start to see the end of this painful pandemic year-plus, I have been taking time to assess what we learned; and what we may want to retain in the months and years ahead.
Below is my short list--I would love to know yours (here’s another):
More safe walking roomThis is the Commonwealth Avenue Carriageway at Bristol Street in West Newton.
The barriers are part of a pilot to open this section for walking and biking only.
Eventually, neighbors hope to reclaim some of the asphalt, plant trees in the median--create a “Bristol Park.”
I was happy to usher this through the process so that a little more of this popular walking route is even safer.
The spring bulbs are coming up, vaccinations are getting distributed, and plans are afoot to get students into classrooms safely. There's finally hope!
Police Task Force
New Senior Center
Grace Church Tower
Police Task Force ReportThe final report of the Police Reform Task force is here.
It's a remarkable and thoughtful document, worth your time to read if you are at all interested in how policing in Newton might change to meet 21st century needs and budgets.
The Public Safety committee will be scheduling meetings with the Administration & the new chief, due to be hired by early April, to determine what the Council's role might be, and how to move forward.
NewCAL Taking Shape
Two general options have come out of the extensive process to build a new, functional senior center at its current site. All-new? Or retain the old façade?
An all-new structure has several advantages--better and more equal access for all, it can grow with the future programming needs, more parking (some covered), and is $2-3 million cheaper.
Many members of the public who have reviewed the two options --including seniors, the Council on Aging, the Disabilities Commission--prefer the all-new option. The possible other option--retaining the façade of the current center--is below:
Personally, I'm not fond of the big-boxy structure pictured in 2C above, but staff told us there are many ways to mitigate that. It could, like the library, retain a cupola, the stained glass windows, and other features that would help the building fit in with the existing architecture of Walnut Street in Newtonville.
What do you think? What is most important to you?
#Stop Asian Hate
It was gratifying yesterday to join hundreds of Newton residents standing against the recent horror in Georgia and anti-Asian bias. Diversity makes our community stronger, especially when we stand together.
Grace Church Tower
The parishioners of Grace Church asked for $1.4 million, a 50% match, from the Community Preservation fund to salvage their historic steeple. The Community Preservation Act in Newton is funded by a 1% surcharge on the property tax. It was passed by the voters of Newton in 2001 to fund historic preservation, community housing, open space and recreation.
It is a huge request--probably the largest single historic grant Newton’s CPA has been asked to fund--and there was a question of separation of church and state, as well as the possibility that Council would open the floodgates for the many religious institutions in historic structures with dwindling congregations and funds.
But other arguments persuaded me to support the project--neighboring Farlow Park was built with the tower as a focal point. This is one of the few intact places in Newton Corner, which was fragmented by the building of the Massachusetts Turnpike. The tower has no religious iconography, which may satisfy court findings on the church-state issue.
Ultimately, my respect for the work of the Community Preservation Committee-an all-volunteer 9-member board drawn from city committees in all the interest groups, and the public benefits the church community agreed to offer--among them allowing access to the tower during historic tours and developing a program of public secular bell concerts and classes--that tipped the balance for me. I hope the tower remains a landmark in the neighborhood for generations.
Police Task Force Discussion
The 12-member Police Reform Task Force outlined these draft recommendations February 3 to the Public Safety committee.
They also told us that police morale is poor, possibly linked to both the state of their workplaces as well as their relationship to the community. But they also found that the community is generally satisfied with safety, with Black residents expressing less safety and comfort with police than other demographics in Newton.
A final report is due to the mayor on March 1. To join the email list for Task Force updates, click here.
Following release of the final report, I will be working with the Public Safety & Transportation committee, the mayor and the department to outline areas where Council can help make changes and in planning how to move forward. We will start at our March 27 meeting with Interim Chief Howard Mintz. Like the Task Force and the department, I want to ensure that everyone in Newton is and feels safe.
Budget SeasonCouncil is already preparing for our next big task--passing the next city budget. Councilor Grossman, who chairs the Finance Committee, is asking for questions from councilors so that these can be answered by the administration before our deliberations begin. What are your questions?
Village vitalityEven before the pandemic I and my colleagues were looking at ways to enliven our village centers. Here are two initiatives I am excited about:
Food pantry exploring new locations
(From the Chamber of Commerce (excellent newsletter, by the way):
The Centre Street Food Pantry in Newton is exploring options for new space.
Cost is very important and the pantry is open to partnering with religious organizations or other non-profits or commercial partners who want to be generous with their space at low rent.
Needs include: 2000 square feet (minimum) open floor plan or one that allows for a reconfigurable room division; ground level access, with no stairs, for moving food easily; and space where cars can pull up near the entrance, or a parking lot. Email Saadia Baloch for more specifics or you have any ideas.
Hoping you get vaccinated soon!
Happy New Year!!
I was waiting to say that until the country had passed several milestones--including the Georgia run-offs, election certification and the inauguration. Let's hope this year is healthier and easier than 2020.
In this update:
More "Park" in the Parkway
Zoning and Housing Discrimination
The Police Reform Task Force is close to issuing its recommendations to the mayor. Council will hear from them on February 3, at a committee meeting hosted by Public Safety and Transportation. To facilitate a thorough report and discussion with councilors, this meeting will be open, but will have no public comment. However, residents can email me or the council at our council emails (citycouncil@newtonmaDOTgov) To join the email list for Task Force updates, click here.
The city’s search for the next police chief continues. The job has been posted internally, statewide and nationally. The mayor hopes to hire a new chief by the end of March. PS&T just voted to extend the agreement with interim Chief Howard Mintz until the new chief is on board.
Like many, I was shocked and saddened by the tragic police shooting of a Newton resident in Newton Highlands this month. I feel terribly for Michael Conlon’s family and friends, and support efforts to improve mental health supports and services for all. I am glad that professionals in Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan’s office are taking the lead on investigating this incident, and look forward to reviewing their findings.
More “Park” in the Parkway
Hammond Pond Parkway north of Route 9 functions more as a highway than as a road through one of Newton’s largest parks. The Department of Conservation and Recreation finally released plans (in the works since before Mishkan Tefila was sold to Boston College) to allow pedestrian access to parks on both sides of the road, and create safe, off-road biking.
By reducing lanes and adding crosswalks, the new design improves safety for drivers, too. The 12' wide multi use trail will allow walking and biking along the parkway, access to trails, and a safe crossing halfway down.
The long-term vision is to continue the trail along the Brookline section to Horace James Circle, and then eventually along DCR parkways all the way to VFW Parkway--real connectivity!
Despite worries heard at the meeting, the redesign should not increase traffic congestion. Slower roads have more vehicle capacity and fewer crashes.
DCR is taking public comment through Thursday, February 4. View the slideshow and comment here.
Zoning and Housing Discrimination Another study out this week on racism and housing pointed out that wealthy, predominantly white suburbs don’t fail fairness tests as often as more mixed areas. This analysis argues, I think correctly, that exclusionary zoning does the job instead: “...the most widespread and pernicious forms of housing discrimination are the subtle institutionalized racism embedded in systems like zoning”
While our intentions today may not be racist, “preserving” our current zoning doesn’t just continue to allow the destruction of modest homes for mansions, it effectively acts as a barrier to sharing the benefits of living in our great city with a more diverse population.
Funds for non-profits
The Feb. 1 deadline is fast approaching for local non-profits to apply for a grant from the Rebecca Pomroy Foundation. Organizations that strengthen the health, social support and educational opportunities available to girls, women and other residents in Newton can apply and learn more here.
Stay masked, stay safe, stay warm!
Almost every month I write constituents about a topic before the city