Selectmen to Accountability: Drop Dead!

Summary: Amid uproar over the town’s runaway Planning Board, the Board of Selectman passed over a seasoned planning professional and former planner for the City of Los Angeles to appoint a political insider with no professional planning background and reappoint the architect of the hated “Library in the Car Wash” proposal. So much for accountability in the Town of Homes!

In what will likely go down as one of the most nonsensical and egregious bits of political shenanigans in recent memory, Belmont’s Board of Selectmen have promoted reappointed the architect of the divisive and wrong-headed Library-in-the-Car-Wash proposal, Raffi Manjikian, as an Associate Member to a full member of the Planning Board while strengthening the hand of the runaway Board’s Chairwoman, Liz Allison: appointing a close ally, Steve Pinkerton, as a Associate Full Member of the Board.*

By a vote of 2-1, with members Paolillo and Williams voting for- and member Dash voting against, the Selectmen abrogated their responsibility to oversee and manage what many residents and businesspeople see as an inefficient, capricious and unaccountable appointed Board. Amidst loud calls for more planning experience on the town’s Planning Board, Belmont’s Board of Selectmen instead chose to pass over a seasoned urban planner and former City Planner for Los Angeles, Ed Sanderson, in favor of two men with no formal planning experience, but deep ties to Belmont’s political establishment and the Board itself. Simply put: this is Belmont “old boy” politics at its worst. We will all pay the price.

Selectman Dash tries – in vain – to get an experienced urban planner appointed to Belmont’s Planning Board. Selectman Williams suggested he wait his turn in line. (Image by BloggingBelmont.)

Our newest Selectman, Adam Dash, made an impassioned argument for change on the Board, which has been at the center of a string of controversies, including an Attorney General’s investigation over open meeting violations in its handling of planned construction at the Belmont Day School, delays over approval of a planned eatery on Leonard Street and – most recently – an unsolicited and unwelcome plan to move the Library to a smaller, privately owned parcel in Waverley Square that is currently occupied by The Belmont Car Wash – a property the Town would have to lease from its owner.

Speaking at length, Dash said that the negative email he receives concerning The Planning Board far exceeded the combined complaints he gets for all the other Town committees. “It seems to be endemic – there’s just one complaint after another,” Dash said. Among them: complaints from residential property owners seeking approval for small, cosmetic changes that turn into expensive, months long odysseys of shifting requests.

“It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” Dash said, characterizing the experience of residential property owners, who complain about being sent away time and again with change requests from the Board, and accruing tens of thousands of dollars in additional costs to satisfy the board’s capricious demands. “You have people who want to put a dormer (window) in and they’re being asked to do a landscape plan,” Dash recounted. “I’m not sure if Planning Board is aware of how unpopular they are or if they care,” he said. “But they are the least popular Board in town. People who don’t even like me are complaining to me about Planning Board.”

The wealth of major issues due to come before the Board and its struggles just to stay on top of regular business auger for a change, Dash said. “This is the Planning Board. You need people who are planners. Who can read a planning document. If this were a job you were hiring for, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” Dash said.

Dash’s views were seconded by Planning Board member Charles Clark, who made news last week by calling in open meeting for Allison to resign her position as Chairwoman over the Library debacle.

“We need to re-establish the confidence the Town should have in its Planning Board,” Clark said. “There’s a lot of work that has to be done on Planning Board. We have to move past these problems that have become distractions,” he said. The fruitless debate over relocating the Library – a proposal that was never vetted with the Library’s Trustees – consumed six months of precious Board time, Clark said.

Those arguments fell on deaf ears. Given the choice of appointing two new members to the Board: Pinkerton and Sanderson, and passing over Manjikian, Selectman Paolillo said that it wouldn’t be fair given Manjikian’s long service to the Town on other Committees, such as Warrant Committee. He didn’t feel it necessary to punish Manjikian for the Library proposal which, Paolillo allowed, had been a mistake.

Williams seconded that. “I’m reluctant to use displeasure over the Library to remove Raffi from the Board,” Williams said.

Williams also seemed keen to keep Allison on as Chairwoman. He closely questioned Clark over the likely outcome of the Committee’s vote for Chair should the Board appoint Sanderson and Pinkerton versus Pinkerton and Manjikian – and then voted to support the ticket that Clark indicated would result in Allison keeping her position as Chair. So much for accountability.

In the end, Williams and Paolillo were unmoved by the experience and qualifications argument: doubling down on the recent tradition of appointing laymen insiders to one of the Town’s most critical and complex Committees. For his part, Chairman Williams said that while Sanderson was clearly qualified, there were others – like Pinkerton – who were “in line” ahead of him for the spot. “This shouldn’t be about lines,” Dash countered. “You should get the best people to do the job.”

Not in Belmont, I guess!

But don’t despair. While those of us searching desperately for leadership and professionalism from our elected and appointed leaders were let down tonight, the battle isn’t lost. There will be almost certainly be political consequences for tonight’s bout of favoritism – more on that later. For now, however, you can register your displeasure by emailing our three selectmen directly. And remember: thank Selectman Dash for his efforts tonight. He was on the side of right -of accountability and fairness. He just wasn’t on the side of victory.

The emails for our three Selectmen are:

(*) Correction: an earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Raffi Manjikian had been promoted from an associate to a full member of the Planning Board while Steve Pinkerton had been appointed an Associate Member of the Board. The Selectmen’s Office has confirmed that the vote was the opposite: Manjikian remained as an Associate Member while Pinkerton took the full Board seat vacated by Mr. DeStephano. The article has been updated to reflect the accurate appointment. Thanks to Sue Bass for pointing out the error.