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Alex Grant: Top-Down Decision-Making Strikes Again

When Select Board Chair Mark Gold debated with the town manager and Select Board member Richard Foster about whether they should get public input before pushing ahead with some massive roadway projects that could re-shape the look and feel of the town, it was, as Yogi Berra once phrased it, déjà vu all over again.

So many times in the last several years, including the three years I served on the Select Board, it has come back to the question of whether town government ought to be conducted with a bottom-up approach or a top-down approach. Here, as before, the town manager and Foster feel that top-down is the best way.

The Select Board’s Oct. 1 meeting saw a presentation by consultants hired by the town about design proposals that could ease the flow of traffic at Forest Glen and Longmeadow streets, Converse and Longmeadow streets, and Converse and Laurel streets.

It seems that all of the proposals envision adding lanes around these intersections and the taking of land.

One version suggests using rotaries at Longmeadow and Forest Glen and at Longmeadow and Converse.

The next step, we were told, was the submission of these proposals to the state, which must approve them before it will release state “TIP” (Transportation Improvement Program) funds.

Gold then questioned whether the town was “putting the cart before the horse” in seeking state approval before town residents had weighed in.

It could be that these solutions are not favored by residents, even if the state were to approve them.

The town manager and Foster saw little value in that. They questioned how valuable such public input would be given residents’ lack of knowledge about road projects.

The town manager suggested that all they would hear was a desire to improve traffic flow while not adding any lanes. “Is that meaningful feedback from the public?” he asked in rhetorical fashion.

The Select Board kicked around these ideas for a while, with Marie Angelides favoring “transparency,” which she then defined as the presentation that had just been given.

She figured residents could give feedback, based on what they just heard, assuming they were watching LCTV at the 2:37 mark of the meeting.

Without much support voiced for Gold’s idea, it looks like these plans will be going to the state, without any attempt to engage the public on something as far-reaching as rotaries on our main thoroughfare.

We have seen this way of doing business before. Decide on a policy or a project and then try to sell it to town residents, instead of letting the public help shape the policy or project at the outset.

Add in a helping of disdain for the rationality of residents’ views, and you have the kind of top-down decision-making that brims with confidence in the ability of professional managers and consultants in discerning what is best for the town.

The “we know better” approach is what brought about the ill-fated and costly endeavor to convert part of the Wolf Swamp fields to the grounds for a DPW facility. And so it was with the attempts to develop other parkland (Turner, Laurel, Bliss). What looked good on paper is not what the public wanted.

The type of process contemplated by the town manager on these projects is even worse.

In the examples I cited, approval by the voters was, in the end, necessary. If the town manager secures state funding and taps the money from the MGM surrounding community agreement, he will claim to have complete authority. In what I have argued is an incorrect reading of the town charter, the town manager has claimed that these are “grants” and that he has the sole power to decide how grant money is spent, even if there are millions of dollars involved.

Once when I was on the Select Board, I suggested that we vote on how to spend a million dollars in state highway money. Nope, I was told, that was the town manager’s call. It is an amazing incongruity in how our town government operates.

The Select Board and Town Meeting voters are called upon to vote on matters that cost just hundreds or a few thousand dollars—like buying a pickup truck for the DPW–but the unelected town manager has assumed for himself some pretty basic policy decisions involving huge sums of money.

It is how we come to a place where the Select Board votes on whether or not to increase the dog license fee by five dollars, but it—and the voters–have nothing to say about how millions of dollars of state money are spent. Even if it is something like a rotary. It was telling that the Select Board never took a vote on Oct. 1 on whether to forward these roadway plans to the state.

These roadway plans may or may not be good for Longmeadow, but it looks like the public will get to voice their concerns only after it’s a done deal. And even then, residents will not get to vote on these plans. It will be another test for the current top-down approach in town government.

– Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com.