Op-ed: Board of Aldermen doing its job

Ward 3 Alderman Ben Ewen-Campen & I wrote an op-ed. It's about actions of the Board of Alderman (BOA) to try to deter bad development and gentrification and promote more affordable housing and open and green space by holding accountable the members of the boards that regulate development -- the Planning Board, the Somerville Redevelopment Authority and the Zoning Board of Appeals. The members of these powerful boards are not elected; they are appointed by the Mayor, and are subject to confirmation -- and re-confirmation when their terms expire -- by the BOA. It is imperative to consider the confirmation of members of these boards seriously and to hold them accountable.

The article text is copied below. You can see the original (and comments!) at https://www.thesomervilletimes.com/archives/87464

BOA bullies? No, it’s about accountability; we are doing our job

On October 31, 2018, in Commentary, Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By Ward 3 Alderman Ben Ewen-Campen and Ward 5 Alderman Mark Niedergang

cropped_Ben_Ewen-Campen.jpg   MN_Fundraiser_2018-2727_(5).jpg

We write in response to Jack Connolly’s op-ed of September 26, 2018, BOA bullies block members’ reappointment.

Some background: On August 28th, the Board of Aldermen (BOA) took the highly unusual step of voting against the confirmation of two Mayoral appointees, both whom of have served for 20 years, one a member of the Planning Board and the other the Chair of Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA). We want to explain why we voted against their confirmations, and why Connolly’s criticisms of the BOA’s vote are so wrong.

When it comes to regulating development in Somerville, nearly all of the legal decision-making power is held by three boards: the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the SRA. These boards oversee everything from small changes by home-owners, all the way to enormous developments such as those in Assembly Square and Union Square. The members of these boards are not elected, they are appointed by the Mayor, and are subject to confirmation by the Board of Aldermen – a process that, in the past, has often been described as a rubber stamp.

Jack Connolly argues that the BOA should have re-appointed these individuals because of their long service to Somerville, their resumes, honors, and because they are “native Somervillians.” He says nothing whatsoever about their records, statements, and specific votes on the Planning Board and the SRA. Ask yourself: do you think our City has been holding developers to high enough standards in recent years?

We believe the confirmation process should be about one thing: accountability. What’s important is how these individuals vote, what they say at meetings, and the questions they ask. One of the BOA’s most important duties as the legislative branch of City government is to provide a check and balance on the power of the executive, the Mayor. This is especially important for Somerville, which has a strong-Mayor form of government.

Accountability is critical if government is to represent the community’s views and exercise the will of the people. We Aldermen are directly accountable to the voters, and must stand for re-election every other year if we want to keep our jobs and keep on making important decisions. But when it comes to these powerful, appointed boards, the confirmation process is the only way these positions are held accountable. This BOA takes that responsibility seriously, because we do not believe the people of Somerville elected us to be rubber stamps.

Given the huge amount of real estate development in Somerville in recent years, and its impact on residents’ lives, there has been increasing public scrutiny of these appointed boards. A number of high-profile decisions by the SRA and the Planning Board – and the manner in which they were made — have shaken the public’s trust in our City government. In some cases, large majorities of the public who expressed their opinions were outraged not only by the decisions, but by the lack of due diligence and serious questioning by these boards.

Many of the decisions that have been questioned by the public were made regarding development in Assembly Square and Union Square. Often, these decisions seemed to favor large developers and gave them advantages that many felt were not in the best interest of Somerville’s residents. If you want to learn details about some of these votes by the Planning Board and the SRA, you can check out Ewen-Campen’s September 22, 2018 Ward 3 newsletter at https://tinyurl.com/yd79pd7h and Niedergang’s memo for the August 28th meeting, “My views on SRA, Planning Board and ZBA re-appointments,” at http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Communication.aspx?Frame=&MeetingID=2757&MediaPosition=&ID=1715&CssClass=

The real estate market in Somerville is a far cry from what it was 20 years ago. Today, given the enormous investor interest in our city, and the considerable leverage that we could have in directing development, these powerful boards need to take community concerns about affordable housing, green space, equity, and sustainability far more seriously, rather than viewing them as impediments to development or growing our tax base. We need qualified, independent, and responsive appointees on all of these boards — people who will get the best possible deal for the City, hold developers to the highest standards, and engender trust from the public while making contentious and difficult decisions.

We both know dozens of qualified Somerville residents who have written and spoken in public extensively about development issues, many with professional expertise, who would love to serve on these boards. Many have applied to do so and been turned down by the Mayor. Connolly’s statement, “It’s going to be real difficult for the Mayor…to recruit and fill many of the positions on the various boards and commissions charged with handling the city’s business…” could not be more out-of-touch and inaccurate.

By no means do we expect to agree with every decision made by these boards. But we all need to have faith in the fairness and transparency of the process, especially on decisions we disagree with. These boards need to take public input seriously, do extensive analysis, ask lots of tough questions, and take as long as is necessary in rendering important decisions.

This Board of Aldermen is taking our obligation seriously. We take no pleasure in rejecting a Mayoral appointee; it is not fun or pleasant to criticize someone’s performance in public and to their face. But it’s our job. For anyone interested in the BOA’s lengthy deliberation on the two re-appointments that Connolly discusses, there is a full video available of this meeting here http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Meeting.aspx?ID=2757. If you watch it, you will see how seriously BOA members carried out their duties. While two re-appointments were rejected at this meeting, two others were approved.

There are now quite a few open positions on these key boards and also on many other boards and commissions. This is an opportunity to bring new blood, greater diversity, and more highly-qualified and talented people into these important positions. We urge the Mayor NOT to do as Connolly suggested and just ignore the BOA’s votes, which were both 8-1 against re-confirmation. To allow these discredited appointees to continue to serve indefinitely (which, unfortunately, is within the Mayor’s legal power under state law), would be to ignore the will of the people. We urge Mayor Curtatone to propose new, highly-qualified applicants to fill these positions as soon as possible.


Mark Niedergang

Ward 5 Alderman


[email protected]

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