Procedural injustice on Greenough
Published in the Brookline
June 8, 2000
Throughout the past year I shrugged off the debate over whether Greenough
Street should remain closed in front of the high school. But now that
Town Meeting has rejected the Transportation Board's decision to keep
the street closed during school hours, the Board seems about to shrug
off the official will of the people. That possibility is just too mind-boggling
I've lived near Greenough since just before the high school renovation
was completed. My neighbors tell me we're better off now, with less traffic
and fewer accidents at our corner than before the closure. On the other
hand, opening Greenough would make driving much more convenient, so it's
a mixed bag. Thinking selfishly, I'd probably keep the street closed.
I like the traffic slow and sparse, especially when my daughter's on the
Of course, what's best for me and mine isn't always best for my neighbors
on the next block. Less traffic on my street means more on theirs.
This sort of classic neighborhood dilemma can sometimes be resolved by
the parties involved, given good will by all and a whole lot of endless
meetings. Often, though, true consensus doesn't develop. Still, I don't
like leaving it to majority rule, which settles issues only because the
majority smothers the minority instead of dealing with its legitimate
A common way around the dilemma is to appoint a committee that investigates
options and recommends or even imposes a solution. This can work when
all parties have input into who's on the committee and how it operates.
Under optimal conditions, the decision will be accepted as legitimate
even by those who don't like it because they know that the procedures
and decision-makers are fair. So in the ordinary course of events I'd
just as soon let the knowledgeable Transportation Board do its job, knowing
that nothing they decided could possibly please everyone.
But procedural justice fails when supposedly fair procedures mask either
outright bias or a flawed decision-making structure. In the case of Greenough
Street, all the facts and fair hearings in the world will never overcome
that nagging promise lingering in the background. Since the Board originally
promised to reopen Greenough once construction ended, and residents relied
on that commitment, and no emergency prevents reopening, it's hard to
understand why the town didn't open the street last fall and study possible
changes later, even if just to mute the opposition.
I've been told there are broken town promises littering the landscape
of the Senior Center, the Webster Street Hotel, and other projects. The
emerging pattern seems clear: promise us anything, but wink.
A lot of people are justifiably outraged by all this promise-breaking.
They say no one will trust the Transportation Board the next time it promises
a disruption is just temporary, that no one will ever believe the Selectmen,
who support the Board. Town government will lose the credibility it needs
to persuade people to go along with future proposals.
I agree, so I signed a petition to reopen Greenough. But the truth is
that the potential loss of government credibility sounds to me like a
good thing. What we need on any significant issue is not more trust in
government but more influence at the earliest stages, approval at the
end, and binding guarantees throughout.
Which brings us to the penultimate thrill. With the Selectmen likely
to duck the issue if they can't make everyone happy, the Transportation
Board may ignore Town Meeting. Exactly why this appointed Board isn't
required to obey Town Meeting I don't understand; this democratic-process
flaw should be remedied at the institutional level.
Voting against the Transportation and Selectmen Boards (and against the
Advisory Committee on another issue) helped Town Meeting overcome its
reputation for growing irrelevance. We should thank the Town Meeting Members
Association for trying to resuscitate our representatives. Now we'll see
if Town Meeting can actually carry out its declared will.
If the Board backs down as it should when it meets on June 13th, Town
Meeting will be strengthened. If it doesn't, town officials' legitimacy
will decline and school-day traffic at my corner will remain sparse. Either
way, I'm happy enough.
Newcomer Columns List