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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Selectmen Institutionalize Transportation Board Lip Service

Dennis Fox

July 7 , 2005

Parking rules are pretty unimportant in the broader scheme of what really counts in life, but they sure do get people riled up. Since Brookline cops escalated enforcement of the town's two-hour daytime parking limit a few years ago, resident disgruntlement has forced local politicos to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what to do. Despite the latest supposed solution -- the Board of Selectmen's new pilot program -- they're not making much progress.

The Transportation Board likes the two-hour rule and has refused to change it in any fundamental way. Once Town Meeting insisted on a change, the Transportation Board reluctantly came up with a complex plan that offered little more than lip service. That's the most they'll do.

Now the Board of Selectmen has jumped into the fray, prodded by a determined campaign to force a rule change spearheaded by former Selectman Marty Rosenthal. Unfortunately, the selectmen's solution only pretends to meet resident concerns. What it really does is put off for another day -- 18 months in the future -- the possibility of taking those concerns seriously.

The selectmen may have hoped their compromise would please everybody, or at least everybody who counts, but it's already clear that won't happen. That doesn't surprise me. Despite the common urge to split the difference, compromise is only sometimes the best policy. This wasn't one of those times.

My own interest in all this stems less from the occasional ticket for leaving our car too long in front of our house than from the dramatic interplay between policy making, politicking, policing, and personality. This interplay seemingly immobilized the Transportation Board, whose members proved incapable of finding their way through the conflicting pressures toward a coherent solution providing fairness, common sense, and a sense of dignity.

Wedded to a bureaucratic and professional top-down mindset, board members remained overly confident of their knowledge of what residents really need and overly willing to ignore resident objections. Their subservience to Police Department preferences and their misplaced insistence that this issue could be contained through police discretion increased their resistance to changing the status quo.

For a while it looked like the selectmen, once faced with Rosenthal's petition to intervene, would actually force the Transportation Board to change the rule. They openly sympathized with residents whose tickets were hard to justify. But when the encouraging rhetoric stopped, what remained was a misdirected and truncated pilot program that makes more sense when viewed as a stalling tactic than as a serious test. Ending the rule for 18 months only on a very few, mostly crowded North Brookline streets, and only if neighborhood activists can find the time to persuade a majority of local residents to agree, does not fairly test a new approach.

Most ludicrously, selectmen left the two-hour rule unchanged -- thus leaving any modification not even testable -- on the town's most uncrowded South Brookline streets, where the parking limitation cannot be justified at all.

The selectmen majority, it seems, are no more capable than their Transportation Board appointees at making their way through conflicting pressures. By offering the appearance of responsiveness rather than the reality, the limited pilot program lets selectmen avoid open conflict with Transportation Board members who resent having their judgment questioned, with town transportation employees who insist on their own bureaucratic necessities, and with police officials who don't want their use of discretion overruled. The experiment's results will likely be murky enough to justify the Transportation Board's resistance.

Ironically, the selectmen now come off looking wimpy, unlike Transportation Board members who simply look stubborn. The latter continue to shrug off resident annoyance and stick to their own more developed sense of what's best for everyone, perhaps because they only have to satisfy a majority of selectmen to reappoint them. Selectmen, though, have to keep the town's voters happy. Unable to come up with a plan that will actually accomplish that, they've split the difference between competing forces and hope the appearance of action will work just as well.

The Board of Selectmen should take this up once again and try to put their own recent rhetoric into action.

More on parking and town politics

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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