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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Transportation Board Digs In

Dennis Fox

April 14, 2005

At last week's Board of Selectmen meeting, Transportation Board (TB) members defended their revision of Brookline's two-hour daytime parking rule. Since the selectmen appoint TB members and can overturn TB decisions, the interplay of policy, politics, personality, and turf was great fun. What drama!

Selectmen traditionally avoid stepping on their appointees' toes, but this time they had no choice. Town Meeting Member and former Selectman Marty Rosenthal filed a petition asking them to reject as inadequate the TB's February rule modification. The petition, signed by town heavyweights such as State Representative Frank Smizik and School Committee Co-Chair Kevin Lang, claimed the TB revision inadequately responded to last fall's Town Meeting resolution urging a significantly liberalized parking rule.

The Town Meeting resolution was endorsed at the time by selectmen who agreed that residents should not, in most cases, get tickets for parking in front of their homes. Rosenthal acknowledges that some neighborhoods need restrictions to ensure room for shoppers, visitors, workers, and residents, but Brookline's townwide rule makes parking longer than two hours illegal even on empty residential streets.

Rosenthal wants to reverse the presumption, codified in February's Transportation Board action, that the rule applies everywhere unless a neighborhood is exempted. Under that policy, only residents in exempt neighborhoods can obtain permits to park longer than two hours. Rosenthal proposes the opposite presumption: residents could park at will unless a street is marked for restrictions.

The TB's approach might be less burdensome than it is now if permits were readily available. If your street has plenty of room and little commercial traffic, having to ask your neighbors to sign a petition would be just one more hassle in our already over-regulated lives. That's also true if residents on a street with too many cars want some relief.

Bizarrely, though, the Transportation Board says quiet neighborhoods with ample parking are not eligible for residential permits even if everyone wants them! That's nonsensical. And on more crowded streets, neighborhood demand for a permit system merely instructs the TB to begin investigating whether permits are justified, using procedures and standards so complex and arbitrary that one speaker after another at last week's hearing expressed astonishment.

Selectman Michael Sher took the lead, at one point pushing the Transportation Department's David Friend, the TB's professional expert, to acknowledge that one burdensome petition requirement is dispensable after all. Indeed, Sher was having so much fun pointing out policy inadequacies that Chairman Bobby Allen cut him off to give someone else a turn. Only Gil Hoy really pursued the issue, though, to emphasize the policy's confusions.

The TB's newest member, Paul Mason, after describing town residents who oppose the existing rule as an insignificant minority despite Town Meeting's vote, insisted "this is a public policy matter, and it's not relevant that some people don't like it." He added that, while the selectmen are entitled to set policy and have a Transportation Board that carries it out, "I won't be on it." When the surprised Sher asked Mason if he was suggesting TB members would resign, Mason muttered that he "can't speak for the others." That's when Bobby Allen intervened to keep things from escalating.

More diplomatically, TB co-chair Fred Levitan asked selectmen for six months to try the new system. My guess is the majority will agree. That's unfortunate, since the policy as written offers no relief to most residents.

Levitan's defense of TB policy depends in part on the police chief's new written parking enforcement guidelines. Presumably, residents of uncrowded neighborhoods will be told they can park illegally without being ticketed. Yet as Rosenthal noted, police discretion, which can humanize enforcement of narrowly targeted laws, routinely leads to inconsistency, discrimination, and absurdity when enforcing overly broad and silly laws.

It wasn't encouraging to hear Police Chief Dan O'Leary say "the only thing that's new is that the guidelines are put into writing." Cops ignored the guidelines before. Why pay attention now?

Residents still get tickets everyone considers ludicrous -- including the hearing officers who routinely void them when residents appeal. The selectmen should implement Town Meeting's preferences. Paul Mason's huffy threat to quit is just an added incentive.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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