Firenze: Belmont’s come a long way, baby!

This is the first installment of a multi-part post on my interview with Selectman Angelo Firenze. It is the first installment of B2’s “In the Mix,” a recurring feature that will profile a town resident who is helping to shape the future of our town. Keep coming back to B2 for more In the Mix interviews.
Angelo Firenze
I had the opportunity to meet town Selectman Angelo Firenze at a neighborhood barbecue last summer and came away intrigued. I knew, once I launched B2, that I wanted to interview him for the new town blog. For one thing, Angelo loves to talk — as anyone who has met him can attest. And he has a way of holding court when doing so that can kind of sweep you along. More important: as one of just three town Selectmen, Firenze’s opinions and priorities matter — big time.
After a brief exchange of e-mails, Angelo and I arranged a Saturday morning interview at the ca. 1910 home on Clover St. where Angelo’s family moved in 1952, when he was 10 years old. I had slated 30 minutes for a Q&A, which was laughable. Things were just getting going 90 minutes later when urgent phone calls to get my butt back home ended the talk.
In our wide ranging interview, Firenze weighed in on a variety of topics — from his hopes for Belmont’s future, to the financial challenges facing the town in the coming years. From the challenges of being a Selectman, to building a new Wellington School, to the prospects for funding full day kindergarten, or the construction of a new library. I’ll bring you excerpts from my interview with Angelo Firenze over the next couple days. Stay tuned, as well, for future In the Mix interviews!
B2: You grew up in town before settling down here with your family. How has the changed since you were young?
Angelo Firenze: Things have changed a lot. Back then, there was a lot of ‘us and them’ — more than there is today — between the hill and the rest of town. You know, Belmont is an incredibly diverse community. There’s economic diversity, racial diversity, educational diversity, and there’s no dominant segment. You’ve got a lot of everybody and not too much of anybody…It’s one of the beauties of Belmont and one of the assets of the town. But when I was growing up, as an example, the Kendall School was where the town field is now — a few hundred yards from here. But I went to the Burbank school, which was 1.2 miles from here, because the feeling was that the kind of people who lived in this neighborhood should go to Burbank. Today, that would never happen. A close friend of mine in Belmont is Jewish and told me that his family had tried to buy a house on Kilburn road and was told that that was not a neighborhood where Jews would be allowed.
Speaking personally, my family was one of the few Italian families in the neighborhood and we were, by far, a minority. And you felt that. You knew that. I remember my dad used to make me lunch for school, and he’d make these very typical Italian sandwiches with peppers and eggs on Scali bread. And you had this oily pepper and eggs. It was to die for, but he’d put it in a brown paper bag, and by the time you got to school, the bag would be soaked in oil. I’d sit there at lunch and guys would say “Firenze, do you have another one of those I-talian sandwiches again?” And I’d feel so self conscious. These guys would offer me half of their bologna sandwich on Wonder bread for my sandwich and, like a dope, I’d do it.
B2: How was the town different politically?
AF: It was totally different. Politically, back then, the town was really run by the Belmont Citizens’ Committee. In order to get elected to any position in town, you needed to get their approval. They’d put your name on a yellow card and that was how you’d get elected. Beyond that, the town was run for many years by James Watson Flett. He ruled town with an iron fist. He was very conservative…a very bright guy, but there was a lot of divisiveness on board (of Selectmen) for many years.
B2: Isn’t that a good thing?
AF: Divisiveness? No. Diversity is a good thing. We’ve got one of the most diverse boards of selectmen in this town’s history right now.
B2: You’re joking, right?
AF: Well, I mean, we’re three retired white men, that’s true, but we couldn’t be more different. Dr. (Paul) Soloman and I don’t agree on anything. His perspective and mine are different. What’s common among us is that we’re all trying to do what’s right for the town. There aren’t any personal agendas.
B2: How has Dan Leclerc joining the board changed things?
AF: Dan is a lot more similar to Paul than I am. He’s changed things. For the first time in a long time, we first time for a long time we don’t have a lawyer on board, and that’s a good thing. We don’t have a lot of experience on the board. Paul’s served six years, I’ve served three and Dan one. When Paul retires, I’ll be the senior member with three years of service. You used to have people who served for 22 years.
(Firenze is interrupted by a phone call from a town resident.)
B2: How many of those calls do you get a day?
AF: Around three or four. Clearly, when it snows I get a lot more.
B2: What do people want to talk to you about?
AF: Parking. Complaints about parking — the way people are permitted to park. Why is there a two hour space? Why do we let commuters park there? Why can’t we put up a two hour parking sign, but then when you put it up, they’re upset because they can’t park in front of their house all day long any more. There’s no solution no matter what you do. Then snow storms. In one particular storm, I got two calls from people on the same street, one to complain that the plows weren’t coming enough and the other to complain that they were coming too often.
B2: Could you explain a bit about what a Selectman does? I don’t think a lot of residents really know.
AF: It’s funny, I was on town meeting for 15 years before I became a Selectman and I don’t think I had any appreciation for how the committees work. We’d get reports from different places, but I don’t think I really appreciated how they came together. Basically, if look, from a business perspective, at the organization of the town of Belmont, and try to draw an organizational chart of how the town functions, I’m not sure anyone could do it. Ultimately people are responsible to the voters. Town meeting is the
governing form of the town. But Belmont residents also vote for individual positions too — we have an independently elected Treasurer and Town Clerk, an independently elected Board of Assessors and School Committee. Board of Health, Cemetery Commissions, Board of Library Trustees. The Selectmen have no influence over those positions. The only influence we have is over the budget. We can make a recommendation on the budget, but the final decision on the budget goes back to Town Meeting. The Warrant Committee is appointed by the Town Moderator and its job is to opine about issues facing the town. But they advise the Town Meeting on budgetary issues facing the town, so the budget that gets presented is the Warrant Committee budget. In my ideal world, the budget would be prepared and generated by the Board of Selectmen and the Warrant Committee should opine on that. Where the Selectmen do have power is if there’s not enough money levied by the town to cover all the items in the budget. Only the Board of Selectmen can call for a (budget) override.
B2: Give our readers a “State of the Town” report — in your mind, anyway.
AF: (Pausing for a loooonnng time…) I have an optimistic view of the town. I was very pleasantly surprised when I become Selectmen at how well run the town is, given the conditions. There’s a lot to complain about, sure. The roads, the schools. If you want to bitch about things, you can find stuff. But when you look at our lack of a commercial base, or the lack of State aid for the town, I’m amazed at how well run the town is, given those limitations. The State looks at us and says ‘You’re a wealthy community,’ because they’re taking the average price of a single family home and an average income. We’re 10th from the bottom of the 351 or so communities receiving state aid. The state average is something like $3,400 a student. We receive under $1,000 a student in aid. Some communities are getting $11,000 or $12,000 a student. But with Belmont, you’ve got just under 10,000 dwellings. Fifty five percent are in multi-family housing. Forty five percent are single family houses. But you’ve got a high number of very wealthy people, but 20% of the population that’s making two times the poverty level or less. So you’ve got Mitt Romney up on the hill making $30 million a year and some guy earning two times the poverty rate, and the average income is still up in the millions. I was just in Chelsea and drove by the new Chelsea High School. Everett has a new High School — a $100 million building. Lincoln Sudbury has one. You can look and say ‘Our (spending) per student is low,’ but what makes Belmont fantastic is the nature of the community.
B2: And the quality of our teachers and administration.
AF: Yeah. But there are great teachers that work in those towns, too. I bet if you picked up everyone who works in Chelsea and sent everyone who works in Belmont to Chelsea to teach, you wouldn’t see a marked difference. The big contributor is the environment in which that happens. Belmont High School science labs may be inadequate, but its got one of the prettiest locations of any high school in the state and the learning environment in which kids are learning is what’s really special.
(Up next: “Could we spend more money on schools? Sure. But should we?”