Power in high places
Published in the Brookline
June 22, 2000
Last week I attended Transportation Board and School Committee meetings,
both of which offered surprises of substance and process. Neither meeting
was a perfect model of democracy at work, but fortunately only one of
them demonstrated pure abuse of process. I was surprised by which one.
I had been told that Fred Levitan, Transportation Board chair, was a
nice guy in private but intimidating on the job. And, indeed, at one point
he slammed his gavel down so hard that he apologized for the excessive
noise. His manner was sometimes abrupt. At times he was too stubborn.
But with only a couple of minor exceptions, Levitan let discussion flow
on into the evening, one topic after another. The most controversial issues--the
loss of residential parking at the 77 Marion Street lot, which is becoming
a construction zone, and the continuing saga of the Greenough Street closing--received
a substantial amount of time. Although Levitan imperiously announced at
the beginning of the Greenough discussion that "I will not take public
comment on this item," he allowed comment a few moments later on a related
item that spilled over to the main issue, without objection.
In the end, everyone in the room had a reasonable chance for input despite
Levitan's exasperation at other board members who spoke and voted against
him on a Greenough Street sub-issue. All in all, Levitan allowed an honest
give-and-take among board members and the public. (That the board was
wrong on the substantive issues is something I'll discuss another time.)
The shift from the third floor of Town Hall on Tuesday night to the fifth
floor on Thursday was pretty jarring. I'd been to School Committee meetings
before, and went this time because MCAS was on the agenda. Committee Chair
Helen Charlupski is ordinarily a lot more restrained than Levitan. It
turns out, though, that she could teach the Transportation Board chair
a thing or two about how to railroad the opposition into submission.
The School Committee is usually pretty sedate. Members generally reach
decisions by lowest-common-denominator consensus rather than by split
votes. Last week, though, something interesting happened: taking an independent
stance, Board Vice-Chair Frank Smizik called on the committee to strengthen
its opposition to MCAS. Although the committee had passed a weak anti-MCAS
resolution in May, Smizik pointed out that events had overtaken them.
There was now an effort by school committees across the state to adopt
a single position clearly calling for an end to requiring a passing score
on MCAS for high school graduation. Smizik urged the committee to join
the statewide effort.
Joining Smizik were Nancy Erdmann and Marcia Heist, but they were outvoted.
That was disappointing. But something more disturbing occurred a few minutes
later, when Heist began to suggest an alternative, more consensual approach
to strengthening Brookline's stance.
Chair Charlupski suddenly announced there would be no more discussion.
When member Kevin Lang said it looked like a committee majority would
indeed endorse a properly worded stronger resolution, Charlupski said
the discussion was over. When new committee member Judy Meyers, not noticing
the chair's grim look, started speaking in favor of continuing discussion,
Charlupski abruptly cut her off.
That's when I blurted out from the audience "Let her speak!" All I got
in return was a glare from Charlupski that beat anything Levitan threw
out two nights earlier, along with a threatening-sounding "Excuse me!"
The discussion was indeed over, the committee members silenced until next
September, the School Committee's claim to be an anti-MCAS leader abandoned.
Some people seemed shocked by my out-of-turn comment. Okay, maybe I shouldn't
have done the empress-has-no-clothes bit. But I was shocked myself by
the empress's naked abuse of power. Charlupski had openly prevented the
committee from even discussing something she opposed. Her heavy-handed
actions clarified that dissension among committee members is not allowed--let
alone discussion from the audience, whom Charlupski had earlier given
just ten minutes to comment on the highly charged issue.
So that was my surprise of the week: the Transportation Board could teach
the School Committee a thing or two about how to run a meeting when controversial
issues are debated. Who would have guessed?