Yes on the Library. No on the Rink. Tuesday’s Vote Explained

In the days leading up to the vote on Tuesday, a good friend related to me a conversation she had with an elected official in town – someone who has been around for a while and seen some stuff. Their read on the upcoming midterm elections? Question 6 seeking funding for the rink – which had the support of many prominent Belmontonians and longtime residents – would definitely pass. But Question 5 seeking funding for the Library would probably fail.

Needless to say, he was wrong. That dynamic didn’t play out on Tuesday. Not even close. What happened? Here’s my take on events.

Majoritarian Belmont steps out

So what happened? November happened, for one thing.

November elections see a (large) majority of Belmont’s registered voters turn out to the polls. And majoritarian Belmont – the Belmont represented by the majority of voters – is a very different place than you might expect if you just look at local elections or (God forbid) lurk on community groups on Facebook.

This isn’t a new idea. I wrote an article for the Citizen Herald eight years ago called “Blue Blue Belmont” about the vast differences in the electorate that characterized springtime (April) local elections and November elections where statewide and federal offices were also on the ballot.

Back then -in the 2014 midterm elections – for example, Martha Coakley beat Charlie Baker in town by 55 percent to 42 percent. That, in an election that (we all know) Baker went on to win. Belmont also voted overwhelmingly for progressive causes in ballot questions: 58% of Belmont opposed a repeal of inflation-adjusted gasoline taxes on the 2014 ballot, bucking the rest of the state, where the question passed.

April showers bring November flowers

In local Belmont elections in April, however, things look very different and votes often go the other way. As we all know, in April 2021, voters soundly rejected a desperately needed Proposition 2 1/2 override to fund Town government by a wide margin.

The textbook example of this dynamic is Belmont’s “flip flop” between a failed June 2010 special election to approve a Proposition 2 1/2 override to fund town and school services and approval of a 1.5 percent property tax surcharge by passing Community Preservation Act five months later, in November 2010.

No on hiring teachers and filling potholes but yes on funding parks, affordable housing and open space? What??!

It’s the turnout, stupid. In November 2010, 67% of voters turned out (11,100 people) compared with just 39 percent — 6,477 people — in the June special election that year.

This April/November dynamic played out last night, as well. Turnout in town was 66%, not as high as 2018 but higher than any April vote in town going back 10 years. In fact, the average turnout in town in November elections for the past decade is 74%. For April local elections? Just 28%, on average.

How did that affect outcomes? As you might expect: Maura Healey, the Democratic candidate, captured 75% of the Belmont vote in the Governor’s race, compared to 22% for the GOP candidate.

On the two signature “progressive” ballot measures, Belmont also came out in favor. On Question 1 (an additional tax on income above $1 million), for example, Belmont voters backed it by 56% to 44%. On Question 4, which would give undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain official state identification like driver’s licenses, Belmont voted 69% to 31% in favor. (Those are unofficial numbers from the Town Clerk.)

Know your electorate

I think that dynamic played out in the two, local campaigns on this November’s ballot – to their benefit and detriment.

The Vote YES Library campaign ran a “whole of town” campaign that anticipated broad turnout of a more diverse electorate. The campaign emphasized the dire state of the current library building and what the new facility would offer to the town. That video put together by the Library Building Project sealed a lot of votes.

But the campaign also worked hard to get the word out to everyone. Well resourced, the campaign canvassed door to door and set up tables on the town’s soccer fields on the weekends to reach young parents and newcomers to town. There was a lot to talk up: an expanded children’s room; work space for professionals and public meeting space.

Having knocked on those doors and staffed a table at Winn Brook field, I can tell you that newer residents – a diverse bunch – had visited the library and were all in for the new building. They saw first hand that it was run down and cramped and didn’t need convincing.

Campaigning at Winn Brook. The YES campaign took a “whole of town” approach to winning. It paid off.

But it wasn’t just the merits of the project. These voters really identified with the institution of the library itself. “We’re library people” was something I heard a lot of people – of all ages – say to me. That’s a statement that means “we support learning, education, free access to information and public support of the commons” – all the things that public libraries provide.

And, with Belmont’s library one of the most frequented in the state – serving thousands of people each month – the project had a broad base of support.

Question 6: an April campaign in November?

The Yes on Question 6 campaign took a different approach which, at least from the outside, looked like “rally the base.” That’s not a crazy idea. There is a lot of support for renovating the rink in town. Question 6 actually won in three of the 8 town precincts (1, 6 and 8). “Rally the base” might have actually worked in an April (local) election.

But support for Question 6 seemed (to me) too concentrated among users of the facility (mostly hockey families) and longtime residents. Compared to the library, that’s a small group – hundreds, rather than thousands of people. At the same time, there wasn’t a strong effort by the Yes on Question 6 campaign to do a “whole of town” campaign and broaden that base. Doing so would have required them to sell the benefits of the rink to the broader (non-hockey playing) community and make a big effort to reach out to skeptics. Even better, they might have engaged the Yes for Library crowd with a “we’re stronger together” message with the goal of winning YES/YES votes.

That didn’t happen. On the ground, there were very few yards with YES for the Rink AND YES for the Library signs (mine was one of them). Even worse, there were a few yards with YES for the Rink and NO on Question 5 signs. That kind of thing had library supporters – rightly or not – suspicious that many rink/Question 6 voters were secretly “No” on Question 5.

The “No on Question 5” campaign was silent on the rink project, fueling suspicions.

Zero Sum: The Legacy of “No on Question 5”

The last minute “No on Question 5” campaign really cemented that impression. The small but vocal group of campaign supporters – led by PJ Looney – were vociferous in their criticism of the Library Building Project, which had been working for well more than a decade to get the project vetted and before voters. “No on Question 5” looked past all that work, wrongly characterized the new building as a hastily assembled and wrong-headed project and tossed out preposterous and unfounded statements (“the project cost is really $60 million” “we can fix it all for $5 million”).

While blasting the cost of the Library, however, they were conspicuously silent about the rink project whose building committee had only been seated for about 2 months and whose estimates for project costs and scope were fast approaching the cost of the library, while continually shifting, even as votes were being cast.

For quite a few Library supporters, the hypocrisy and the nastiness of the “No on Question 5” campaign made them – reflexively – “No” on Question 6 and the rink, I believe. Given the size of the Yes on Library constituency, that reaction hurt Question 6 at the ballot box. It fell short by 365 votes.

That kind of “zero sum” thinking wasn’t inevitable, I believe. A “Kumbaya” strategy in which both the Library and Rink campaigns did a bear hug and made a broader pitch to voters to “invest in Belmont” and “invest in the commons” may have played better with the November electorate.

The Select Board could have forced that with a joint debt exclusion covering both projects. Given the progressive tilt of Belmont’s November voters, I think that kind of big picture take – “let’s make the town great for our kids and future generations” – could have pulled both questions over the line. That didn’t happen and we’ll never know if it could have worked.

Jumping the line?

Finally, I do think the hasty manner in which Question 6 was added to the ballot for November was a wind in the face of the YES on Question 6 campaign. That’s especially true given the long, tortured path that the Library had to walk to be put before voters. That long journey included the refusal by the Select Board to put a debt exclusion before voters even with millions in state matching aid on the table for construction of the new library. Over the years, the Library Building Project was forced – time and again – to account for its plans, justify its numbers, return to the drawing board and come back again.

In contrast, the rink project’s building committee was stood up early in the summer and met just a handful of times – with very little public participation – before the Select Board agreed to put the debt exclusion for that project on the ballot. In the meantime, basic questions like the actual cost and scope of the project kept shifting even as the YES campaign was ongoing.

That struck many in town as wrong and imprudent. The Select Board clearly used a different standard for Question 6 – not only a different standard than it used for Question 5, but a different standard than it has used for any debt exclusion in the 17 years that I’ve lived in town. Typically, a high bar is set for such matters: a firm cost estimate and a thorough vetting by a building committee including public hearings and feedback.

There was little time for any of that with the rink, which had just weeks to make its pitch to the Select Board and get its campaign off the ground. That led to a situation where many details of the project – including the price tag- were moving even as voters were weighing their decision. In the end, many voters concluded that the whole project needed more time to sort things out.

What’s next?

For the Library, the next step is Town Meeting, which must approve the borrowing and appropriate funds for the project. That will happen at a Special Town Meeting in late November. After that, the Building Committee will get to work, fleshing out the schematic design of the building (with public input) before putting the project out to bid.

For the Rink, the work continues. Losing at the ballot box is – by no means- the end of the story. However, voters were clearly sending a message that they are looking for more information, a clear price tag and more dialogue with the community. Expect to see the question back before voters before long – hopefully with a different outcome!