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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Anticipating Town Meeting

Dennis Fox

May 18 , 2006

Most Brookline residents won't pay much attention next week when Town Meeting gets underway. Maybe they'll watch the semi-annual exercise in residential representative democracy on cable TV, but I doubt it. Watching Town Meeting crawl through all that boring important stuff is hard enough when you're sitting with the other non-members in the back of the high school auditorium. The three-evening event is even more sleep-inducing when you're stretched out on your living room couch.

The meeting might be more watchable if our reps focused on what's controversial instead of letting it slide away. For example, last November Town Meeting Members passed a resolution reiterating their previous insistence that the Board of Selectmen and Transportation Board "promptly" eliminate the town's much-hated two-hour parking rule. Six months later the Transportation Board is still futzing around, but I don't see any place on next week's agenda for the board to explain its infinitesimal progress. Too bad.

Another example: The annual budget discussion is guaranteed to motivate anyone watching at home to change the channel, but there's no plan to discuss the official 50-50 financial split between town schools and everything else. As Stanley Spiegel repeatedly reminds us on this page, the automatic budget split prevents Town Meeting from considering and prioritizing school and town needs.

Speaking of schools, Town Meeting should find a way to take into account changing events and discuss MCAS, the state program that claims to fix public education without bothering to make sure every student has the same school, community, and family resources as, say, the average kid in Brookline. Town Meeting could push the Brookline School Committee to emulate their gutsier peers in New Bedford, who just voted to disregard state rules and give high school diplomas to all who finish school the old-fashioned way - passing all their courses - even if they fail the state's ill-conceived high-stakes test.

Enough about what Town Meeting won't do. What will it do? Maybe find something else to avoid, for one thing.

A few years ago, in response to anti-abortion activists picketing outside the homes of medical professionals who perform abortions, Town Meeting passed a temporary one-year ban on focused picketing. A committee was created to propose a longer-term plan. That would mean resolving the tension between pro-choice activists seeking to prevent intimidation of health care workers and free-speech activists who predicted the rule would inevitably reach further than intended.

Every year since then Town Meeting has just extended the temporary ban. That's why a few months ago town police threatened to arrest activists opposed to Boston University's proposed weapons lab when they picketed outside the BU's president's Brookline home.

Maybe this year's warrant article will be amended before it hits the floor, but the posted version, once again, merely extends the ban another year. As the article's official explanation puts it, "The one-year extension will permit the Town to further study the effects of the by-law, as well as any developments in the law that may help better define or narrow the definition of focused residence picketing." When in doubt, wait.

Town Meeting does get to resolve some things. This year members will again debate whether to put the Community Preservation Act on the town ballot. If voters approve it, Brookline will become eligible for additional state funds for open space, affordable housing, public recreation, and historic preservation - if we raise our property taxes by 3 percent. Although most residents would likely support the average $96 annual tax increase, the 12 percent of residents who actually voted in the last town election are slanted further to the anti-tax right. So are the Town Meeting Members they elected.

That rightward tilt might also doom the warrant article calling for our Congressional representative, Barney Frank, to support efforts to impeach President George W. Bush. The selectmen recommended no action on the resolution after splitting 2-2, which means newly elected Selectmen Betsy DeWitt will create a majority whichever way she turns. The Advisory Board, meanwhile, supports the impeachment effort. Expect to see lots of abstentions on this item, if you're still awake.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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