Missing the process point
Published in the Brookline
June 15, 2000
Three issues strike me as especially noteworthy amidst the accusations,
threats, and general smarminess currently enlivening the Greenough Street
debate. The first was raised in Transportation Board Chair Fred Levitan's
detailed column in last week's TAB, the others in Jonathan Kurtzman's
column on taking unpopular stands. Although they're right about many details,
Levitan and Kurtzman both go astray.
I'm writing this before the June 13th Transportation Board meeting, but
I assume from Levitan's comments that the Board will stick to its decision
to keep Greenough closed during school hours. In any case, the final outcome
doesn't have much bearing on the broader issue of public policymaking
I should also reiterate that I don't really care how the Greenough Street
issue is resolved beyond a slight preference for keeping the street closed
and a stronger contradictory preference for people in power sticking to
Fred Levitan offers a useful recounting of the Board's reasoning and
process. It's clear that the Board looked at all sides and heard from
a lot of people. Its decision may indeed reflect the views of professional
traffic consultants and even most residents.
Levitan errs, however, in claiming the final decision should be a purely
technical one. The expert's role in public policy is an advisory role,
clarifying the pros and cons of several options or recommending a particular
course of action. But the final value choice among conflicting options
is a political choice, not simply a technical assessment.
In the case of Greenough, deciding whether the town should stick to a
promise is outside the sphere of professional scientific expertise. Since
the appointed Transportation Board made a technically justified but politically
untenable decision, the Board of Selectmen should have overruled it. It's
their job to take a broader view.
If the Transportation Board was indeed created 25 years ago to remove
politics from all transportation decisions, that was a mistake. It's time
to put policy decisions back where they belong: in the messy, unsavory,
horse-trading hands of residents and elected officials (and threats to
penalize Brookline schools because the School Committee preferred to keep
the street closed for safety reasons are about as unsavory as you can
get). Those unclean hands make all sorts of controversial town decisions,
after listening to expert advice when they feel the need. That's democracy,
warts and all.
Jonathan Kurtzman's first error, expressed in his last two columns and
paralleling a point of Levitan's, is mistaking the appearance of procedural
justice for the reality. Kurtzman and Levitan claim that everyone's had
a hearing throughout a long open process, as if that settles the matter.
But they too easily dismiss the pre-existing promise. Without stronger
extenuating circumstances than existed here, hearings should not have
been held until the street was reopened.
The many hearings, thus, became simply a diversion from the breach of
faith, just as hearings throughout our political-legal system are often
a mere charade. The Board was within its legal power to proceed, but it
should have known better.
Kurtzman's second error is his "fundamental premise" that public officials
such as Transportation Board members should "do what they believe is right
even if it is unpopular." But I don't think this stance is always justified.
Neither does Kurtzman, apparently, who just a week earlier approved of
forcing resistant whites in the segregationist South--led by officials
acting on their racist beliefs--to comply with federal civil rights dictates.
Clearly, sometimes people who stick to their guns are morally in the wrong.
We should admire the act only if we admire the reason.
In the case of Greenough, the Board's refusal to budge supports a flawed
process and thus a corrupted result. That's not admirable. It's just a
On a separate, more personal, and regrettable note, Kurtzman criticizes
"nasty accusations and insults" after declaring that his "pet hate is
columnists who pretend to be impartial when they aren't. Give me open
bias over insidious truth twisting." Neglecting to name names both here
and in some of his earlier columns makes it hard to figure out when he's
insulting me with nasty accusations and when it's someone else. More clarity,
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