More ideas for greening Belmont

I meant to link to this interesting article in the Sunday Globe (http://http://ow.ly/g19f) about how to make cities greeener by “retrofitting” existing infrastructure. The piece, by Michael Fitzgerald, points out that, while there might be lots of innovation out there on new envirornmentally friendly technologies, many aren’t well suited to fully built environments like Boston’s. At the same time, cities don’t have the money or inclination to “tear down blocks full of drafty old structures and start from scratch” — either with their built environment or their networks of electrical conduits, gas and water mains, etc. But that doesn’t mean that our hands are tied, and Fitzgerald has a number of cool ideas here, some of which may be accessible to near-urban suburbs  like Belmont, as well. Among them:
+ Smart grid — Fitzgerald focuses on smart metering for homes and businesses so that consumers can understand how much power they’re consuming and take steps to cut it down by shutting off or replacing power hungry appliances. He also mentions peak pricing — charging consumers more for using electricity during periods of high demand. Presumably, consumers would cut back on use during these times to avoid the higher fees. Both ideas are ones that Belmont, which owns its municipal power station, could try. I’ve raised both with BMLD Chief [NAME], but will get an update on plans for doing this at the town level.
+ Re-skinning — Belmont has lots of wonderful, historic buildings. Unfortunately, not all  have been updated to make use of the newest developments in insulation. The Wellington School was a classic example of this: with a decades old steam heating system and single pane glass that cost the town thousands each year. Belmont spent more each year to heat and maintain that building than the three other elementary schoold combined. A new Wellington will save an estimated $80,000 a year in energy and maintenance costs — thats almost two full time teaching positions that we add just by not throwing money out the window at Wellington. So too the High School, which has an aged, 800lb steam heated water tank just to supply hot water for bathroom sinks (the BHS pool has an entirely different and equally fuel inefficient heating system). Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. PResumably, as Belmont starts to replace or rennovate some of its older buildings (Belmont Police Station, Library, etc.) it will make sure the new or refurbished buildings are greener. In the meantime, Fitzergald notes that reskinning buildings with insulated, triple paned glass can save companies and cities lots — the owners of the Empire State Building  in New York City estimate that new windows will save$4.4m a year in energy costs. Towns like Belmont can also look into ways to deploy new insulating materials between walls to cut down on heat loss without changing the exterior of historic buildings.
+ Solar rentals — Lots of homeowners and towns would love to go solar, if not for the cost. Roof mounted solar panels can still set homeowners back $25,000 or more, putting the ROI in energy savings at a decade or more. That’s tough to justify for those of us who have a bottom line mentality when it comes to environmental issues. FItzgerald notes that some companies are now offering an alternative: solar leasing that lets homeowners get into solar with a small downpayment, then charges them a fee based on their monthly energy savings. His article mentions SunRun, a panel-leasing program in Massachusetts.
+ Bike sharing. This program would involve stationing a network of town owned bicycles in the various town centers, allowing folks to use them for short, one way or round trip errands about town. The idea is to cut down on short car trips to the store, etc. and its very feasible in a small, condensed town like Belmont. Lots of cities have tried this in Europe and, to a lesser extent, here in the U.S. Fitzgerald mentions Paris and Lyon, as well as Barcelona and Washington D.C. In Belmont, I can imagine a bike depot dowtown, outside Shaws and in Waverly for use by citzens who need to get around. Baskets or small pullcarts could be available for folks who need to cart stuff back with t hem.

green roof

I meant to link to this interesting article in the Sunday Globe about how to make cities greeener by “retrofitting” existing infrastructure. The piece, by Michael Fitzgerald, points out that, while there might be lots of innovation out there on new envirornmentally friendly technologies, many aren’t well suited to fully built environments like Boston’s. At the same time, cities don’t have the money or inclination to “tear down blocks full of drafty old structures and start from scratch” — either with their built environment or their networks of electrical conduits, gas and water mains, etc. But that doesn’t mean that our hands are tied. Belmont has its own climate action plan, which is well thought out. But Fitzgerald has a number of cool ideas here, some of which may be accessible to near-urban suburbs  like Belmont, as well. Among them:

+ Smart grid – Fitzgerald focuses on smart metering for homes and businesses so that consumers can understand how much power they’re consuming and take steps to cut it down by shutting off or replacing power hungry appliances. He also mentions peak pricing — charging consumers more for using electricity during periods of high demand. Presumably, consumers would cut back on use during these times to avoid the higher fees. Both ideas are ones that Belmont, which owns its municipal power station, could try. Belmont Municipal Light Dept. has generally set a low bar on green initiatives, but I’ll follow up with BMLD Chief  Tim Richardson to get an update on plans for doing this at the town level.

District Attorney looking into Belmont Officers Group

The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office is inquiring into the doings of an informal, private gathering of some of the Town’s top elected officials with questions about whether the group ran afoul of the State’s Open Meeting Law, according to a letter obtained by Bloggingbelmont.
The letter, dated June 18, 2009, was sent from Assistant District Attorney Robert Bender and addressed to Board of Selectmen Chairman Dan Leclerc, three members of the town’s Warrant Committee: Phil Curtis, Patricia Brusch and Elizabeth Allison, and two members of the School Committee: Ann Rittenburg and Leslie Walker.
According to the letter, the DA’s office was notified by a Belmont voter (not me!) who inquired about the activities of a so-called “Officers Group” made up of the six elected officials which “have met as a group for several months this year to form proposals for better administrative or financial operation of town government, with the apparent intent to advance favored proposals by presenting those at meetings of your respective committees…”
This group has been something of an open secret in Town for months and, since being elected to School Committee, I’ve personally sought information about it from one participant after a number of constituents questioned me about the group.
Without disclosing that correspondence, let me share some of  what I learned:  the group has been holding meetings since September and is attended by the heads of the Warrant Committee, Board of Selectmen and School Committees. The group has had regular “informal” (i.e. non public) meetings — typically in the early morning and  at times as often as two times per week to discuss a variety of issues. Primarily the group has been concerned with the issue of streamlining the Town’s government and consolidating services offered by both the Town and School Department. The idea behind forming the group was to make progress on consolidation efforts that have been taken up by numerous, public committees and subcommittees over the years, but with only meager progress on streamlining.
Despite assurances that the group is “informal,” with “no authority” and merely intended to “hash around stuff,” there have been presentations from town officials including Pat Brusch, Town Administrator Tom Younger as well as the heads of the various Town Departments to solicit their input about “changes that could be made” to the Town’s government.
More recently, the group adopted recommendations which were drafted in the form of a “Consolidation Memo,” dated June 15, 2009, that is addressed to the Board of Selectmen, Warren Committee, School Committee and Capital Budget Committee from the “Chairs of the foregoing committees, plus the Vice Chairs of the Warrant Committee and School Committee.” It was presented at last week’s Warrant Committee Meeting and promptly adopted by that Committee with nary a word of debate. (See Blip.TV video.) The memo is due to be presented to School Committee for similar approval in the coming weeks and, presumably, will be taken up by the Board of Selectmen and Capital Budget Committees in due course, also.
According to the memo, the group took its queue from an August 27, 1993 report of the Consolidation Committee. Among other things, it recommends the Town adopt a number of proposals, including
The use of a single legal counsel to handle labor contract matters for both the School and Town. (Currently, both Town and School maintain their own counsel for bargaining labor contracts with the town’s various unions.)
That the Selectmen and School Committee, together with labor counsel, agree to meet annually in September in joint executive session to discuss collective bargaining strategy for the upcoming year.
That the Selectmen and School Committee establish a new, consolidated position to coordinate all maintenance and custodial functions for all public buildings in Belmont. The group recommended that the position be added to the duties of the Director of Public Works, who would have greater responsibilities and report jointly to the Town Administrator and the School Superintendent. His or her duties would include maintenance (major and minor), custodial services and supplies, capital projects (i.e. roof replacement and HVAC, etc., budget (for facilities and maintenance) and collective bargaining with a consolidated collective bargaining unit representing unionized town employees performing jobs covered under the new, consolidated DPW.
They sound like common sense proposals, right? So what’s the big deal? The big deal, from the DA’s point of view, is that in Massachusetts, public officials aren’t allowed to cook up policy outside of the public eye. That’s what the Open Meeting law is all about, and its pretty clear:
“All meetings of a governmental body shall be open to the public and any person shall be permitted to attend any meeting except as otherwise provided by this section.
No quorum of a governmental body shall meet in private for the purpose of deciding on or deliberating toward a decision on any matter except as provided by this section.”
Meetings of elected officials need to publicly posted and minutes of those meetings need to be kept and made available by the public. It’s an open question whether this group is a government body and it will be up to the DA to determine that. But, just looking at it, the group looks an awful lot like a subcommittee to me and, in fact, notes that it modeled its work on the work of an earlier subcommittee. The argument appears to be that this group was not a committee or subcommittee and, therefore, was an informal group. But I’m not clear about what is informal about it. The membership was predetermined and stable and meetings appear to have been scheduled and regularly attended by the constituent members. The Open Meeting Law does allow for “chance meetings” or “social meetings at which matters relating to official business are discussed so long as no final agreement is reached” — think “cocktail party.” But its also clear that “No chance meeting or social meeting shall be used in circumvention of the spirit or requirements of this section to discuss or act upon a matter over which the governmental body has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power.”
Again, this Officers Group may be totally above board. Clearly its members are confident that it is. But the DA has given the members three weeks to respond with a range of information that is needed to determine whether the group is a “governmental body.” That information includes a written statement about the nature of business of the group, whether its members share discussions on the business of the group with each other, whether the group had “access to town staff and officials not generally available to members of the public” and whether it kept records of its discussions and correspondence and gave those to the Town Clerk and whether the group plans to report to the BOS, WC, SC on its work.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office is inquiring into the doings of an informal, private gathering of some of the Town’s top elected officials with questions about whether the group, which has been developing recommendations for consolidating and streamlining the Town’s government, ran afoul of the State’s Open Meeting Law, according to the Belmont Citizen Herald.

According to BCH, a letter, dated June 18, 2009, was sent from Assistant District Attorney Robert Bender and addressed to members of the so-called Officers Group:  Board of Selectmen Chairman Dan Leclerc, three members of the town’s Warrant Committee: Phil Curtis, Patricia Brusch and Elizabeth Allison, and two members of the School Committee: Ann Rittenburg and Leslie Walker.

According to the letter, the DA’s office was notified by a Belmont voter who inquired about the activities of the group which “have met as a group for several months this year to form proposals for better administrative or financial operation of town government, with the apparent intent to advance favored proposals by presenting those at meetings of your respective committees…”

The BCH story, by editor Anthony Schinella, indicates that the paper had previously inquired about the propriety of the group with both Warrant Committee Chair Phil Curtis and former Board of Selectman Chair (and Officers Group member) Angelo Firenze. “Both stated that they did not feel that the group’s meetings were a violation of the Open Meeting Law because there was not a quorum of each committee attending the private meetings and the group was not setting policy.” The group was “discussing with department heads and others, how the town was being managed, and how department heads would build their organizations if they could start from scratch,” the BCH reports.

Closed government? Questions hang over new Town-School consolidation plan

“Consolidation” has been the Holy Grail of elected officials in Belmont for longer than almost anyone can remember. By consolidation, we’re talking about streamlining the Town’s budget by finding efficiencies within both Town and School Dept. operations. Do we really need two separate ground crews with two separate payrolls: one to mow the lawn in front of Town Hall and the other to mow the lawn in front of the High School? You get the idea.

Various committees and subcommittees have studied both the in-town and regional consolidation question from different angles over the last two decades and produced reports on their findings. Some have borne fruit: the town has found ways to share its special education costs and fuel costs with other towns. But its also true that many of the larger-scale reform plans are collecting dust down at Town Hall. The nice thing, though, is that you can go down there (or go online) and read them. On file are also the minutes of the meetings of the committees that assembled the reports: who was involved in the discussions, what outside opinions were considered, what issues wrestled over and which compromises reached.

Not so the latest plan for consolidation of services between the School Department and Town. That plan, articulated in a  memo that was approved by the Warrant Committee last week, is the product of an informal and closed door group of the Town’s senior elected officials: the heads of the Warrant Committee, School Committee, and Board of Selectmen, which some have dubbed the “Officers’ Group.” This group has been meeting privately and is something of an open secret in Town. Since being elected to School Committee, I’ve had a number of constituents as well as fellow elected officials ask me about what it was up to, so I decided to ask.