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December Highlights from the City Council

As I mentioned in my last update, in November, I began challenging myself to share relatively brief, imperfect summaries on Reddit after every regular meeting. (I'm sure that my fellow Councilors and Councilors-elect will join in and add to these efforts over the next two years, in addition to the sharing they already do on their own channels.) This goal schedule is based on clear feedback from Redditors that most folks would prefer more frequent, more casual updates to infrequent, in-depth ones.

Here's the lightly-edited highlights from our two regular meeting evenings in December, and some of the subcommittees and Committees of the Whole.

City Council Highlights 12/12/2023

Standard disclaimer: This is by no means a comprehensive or detailed log of everything we talked about (in this particular case our meetings were over 5 hours long on 11/14). I've highlighted what I consider to be more consequential and interesting and added some editorializing from my perspective, but I may give more or less detail to one topic or another in the interest of getting this out sooner rather than later (or never).

We took tons of things out of order during this meeting, so I'll go in order of the written agenda.

The Dell Avenue deed amendment restriction was again continued to our next City Council meeting at the request of the petitioner and their attorney, so that they could have more time to work with City Planning staff and discuss. They are in the final stages of forming an agreement, which would involve removing the deed restriction that prohibits creating a subdivision on their property and in exchange, a one-time payment to the Affordable Housing Trust.

The Community Development Board met last week for its final review of the Proposed MBTA Communities Multi-family Overlay District, aka Wellington Station Multi-family Overlay District, aka WSMOD. I touched on this briefly in my update about 11/14 when it came before us and procedurally we had to refer it to the CDB before coming back to us for a vote. This is it coming back to us, with their approval and recommendations.

Quick recap copied from 11/14: All rapid transit communities in MA (like us) are required to adopt the MBTA Communities law by the end of this year to remain in compliance with the state. This means creating a zoning district within half a mile of an eligible transit station that allows multi-family housing as of right. Our Planning Department and consultants determined that for us, that had to be Wellington; it was infeasible in some other transit station areas due to exempted land (i.e. Tufts, Fells).

The CDB made two recommendations to the proposed overlay district, which we accepted:

  • Impose a parking minimum of 0.5 spaces per unit instead of the initially proposed 0.8 spaces min per regular unit and 0.5 spaces min per affordable unit; and impose a parking maximum of 1.2 spaces per unit instead of the initially proposed 1.5 spaces max per unit.

  • Reduce minimum lot size from 10K square feet to 7K square feet. This makes the minimum lot size more in keeping with our existing norm, and makes sure that the preexisting lots under 10k square feet are still eligible new regulation. Even with this change, the unit capacity of the district is still dense enough to comply with the MBTA Communities Act.

  • This means we'll hit the state-mandated deadline for passing this by the end of the year. And this isn't by any means the final word on zoning in Wellington: We'll continue to have the opportunity to reevaluate this (and every other) district's underlying zoning during our planned zoning reevaluation (which we are in the process of finalizing a consultant for!).

  • I think this zoning, and these tweaks in particular, help to reaffirm what's significant and distinctive about this district – why it was selected as our Multifamily Overlay District in the first place: its proximity to transit and its existing residential characteristics.

  • I heard a lot of enthusiasm from residents for zeroing out parking minima in this district, and I think what the CDB came back with was a reasonable compromise at this point. I was very happy to see the parking minimum lowered, and especially paired with a lower parking maximum.

  • In addition, since the MBTA Communities Act does not allow cities to mandate deep affordability requirements in this zoning, we have to rely on incentives to get developers to do more or deeper affordability. Further reduced parking minima for developers can join increased building height (more floors) as a "reward" for developers that opt to include more affordable units when they build in this district.

We approved for first reading* updates to our Solid Waste Ordinance (Chapter 70). I was the lead sponsor and I served on the Solid Waste Task Force in 2022 which galvanized this project, so while I'll try and be concise here, you know where to find me if you want more details.

We have been working with Board of Health, DPW, Planning Department and Building Department since March to update our solid waste ordinance to align it with best practices promulgated by MassDEP and practices in neighboring communities, create legislative conditions for the best possible waste hauling contract (City's new contract will begin in summer '25, currently in final stages of negotiation); while removing some woefully outdated language and norms no longer in practice.

The biggest single change is the bundled service requirement. The updated ordinance states that any waste hauler that picks up trash in Medford must also offer recycling pickup. This will be enforced via the permitting/permit renewal process. This is important because haulers that do not offer recycling pickup can easily undercut haulers that offer both. That creates a cost incentive for businesses, condos, apartment buildings etc. that aren't on the City pickup, to not have recycling. It's true that most haulers that work in Medford offer both, but not all do. Those exceptions limit our ability to have a Citywide pickup service that is maximally cost-effective, and of course slow our progress towards our zero-waste goals.

One of the most illuminating things I learned on the Solid Waste Task Force is what a gigantic share of our DPW budget is just the City trash & recycling pickup. I'm eager to hear details about the new contract when it's released – our department heads have been working hard to make sure that in the new contract, the City – and therefore residents and businesses – gets the best bang for the buck.

*First reading = ordinances as well as some money papers have to go through three "readings" to pass. The first reading is a Council vote. The second reading is advertisement in a local newspaper (I believe we've switched to the Herald given the recent changes to the Transcript). The third reading is a final Council vote.

Okay, onto the discussion of a School Committee pay increase (dodges tomato):

President Morell proposed an amendment to the City's Personnel Ordinances that would raise the pay of School Committee members to be equal to the pay of City Council members, so that there would be pay parity between elected legislators in Medford.

As soon as she introduced it, she motioned to send it to Committee of the Whole for further discussion, specifically so that the Council could further discuss and debate what the amount of a pay increase should be, and if/how it should be phased in over time. She also motioned to delete the "whereas" statement about gender majorities on elected bodies, since she stated that while the City Council has been almost exclusively male except for a few women, the School Committee has been more mixed prior to the last several years.

I welcome and appreciate all the people who have chimed in about this proposal in this sub, at the meeting last night, and reached out to me and other Councilors via phone and email. Since I'm already posting, I'll share a couple of my personal toplines and thoughts about this.

We have a $200M operating budget, $25M in cash reserves as of this summer, and yet residents and City workers feel like they are put in a position where they feel they have to fight over 0.05% percent of our annual operating budget (the amount of the SC pay increase, if the paper referred to Committee last night had been passed un-amended). Operating budget vs. surplus is what this topic brings up for me, and if that balance is correct, is what this brings up for me. I think the Administration chooses to under-budget to a greater extent than we strictly need to. As a City, we've amassed that very strong amount of cash reserves by budgeting stringently – but at what cost? The money we don't allocate to public salaries (and other uses) in our operating budget – which accumulates as surplus (cash reserves) – will eventually, theoretically, go towards other useful public purposes such as capital improvement projects, etc. But frankly, I would rather see us accumulate slightly less in cash reserves per year and instead have the Administration use up more of that future surplus towards spending on public employees like teachers and paras in the here and now.

All of this is to say: I believe we have the money to continue to raise pay for teachers and paras, while also giving the School Committee a pay increase. If doing so meant taking money away from salaries, or potential future higher salaries, I would not and could not support it; but I don't believe that is the case. When we look at the amount that we are accumulating in cash reserves, it is clear to me that we have choices here. The money we choose to leave unallocated and unspent exceeds by magnitudes the amount of these proposed increases.

I know that this discussion and this proposal has caused discord and hurt feelings, which I truly, genuinely regret. But I hope that it brings some daylight to how, and by whom, money is appropriated in Medford. Legally, the Council cannot be involved in collective bargaining with units and we cannot reappropriate money between departments. By charter, the Administration sets the budget, we get to vote simply yes or no on it, all departments (including MPS) have to make it work; and all City residents, employees and students have to live with it. Is this okay? Well, I don't think the outcomes are okay, and I also don't like the process. That's why I and others spent all budget season talking about our Charter Amendments to give the City Council more power in crafting the City budget; and it's why we use all the available power we have during budget season – advocacy, negotiation, and sometimes threats – to try and make the Administration appropriate more money into the Schools Department and many other underfunded departments, so that can go to people and services.

For this reason, I believe we can do two right things at the same time. I believe we can raise the compensation for School Committee members; I believe we can continue to insist on budgets that will enable our School Department to pay teachers, paras, custodians and every school worker better; to start retaining workers; and to treat people the way they deserve.

And since I didn't speak to this directly yet: Why a pay increase for SC in the first place?

  • School Committee hasn't had a pay increase since the year 2000. I don't think of this like a "raise" one gets for good performance. To me this is a COLA.

  • I know from my experience as a Councilor and knowing some School Committee members that the role of School Committee member is often way harder, and often requires as much, if not more, technical knowledge. I don't think they should be paid less. I've heard it said that SC only meets 22 times a year; that isn't true.

Finally: I know – and frankly, I really sympathize – with the people looking at this situation and thinking, "But how can you possibly contemplate a pay increase for any elected, when City employees don't make enough?" I will never be able to offer an emotionally satisfying answer to that, and I won't try to. What I will say is that we are always working on multiple things at the same time. I would never be in support of a proposal that took money out of the paychecks of school workers or reduced their possible earnings. I just don't agree that this would do that.

As for next steps: this is going to go to Committee of the Whole in the new year and discussion will continue. Councilor Knight's amendments and his motion to have this reviewed by the Administration's Compensation and Classification Study will be sent along with the amended proposal. We will work in the New Year to discuss and debate this proposal further, receive more input and public comment, and find a reasonable path forward.

We approved a Loan Order for City Water System Bonds – essentially approving the City to borrow $3,422,000 from the MA Water Resources Authority which will be appropriated to water system improvements, namely constructing and reconstructing water mains.

We also approved a grant of $12,500 from community group TreesMedford to the City to support a public tree inventory project in the City, and a couple other money papers in lesser amounts.

City Council Highlights 12/19/2023

Before the regular City Council meeting on Tuesday, we convened a caucus of current and incoming Councilors for the purpose of casting non-binding votes for Council President and Council Vice President. The official vote for Council leadership will occur in the first meeting of the new term, but having leadership unofficially in place will help us prep for the new term (setting meeting dates, etc.) before it starts. All Councilors were present, but only those who will be serving in 2024 cast votes. Councilor Bears was voted President-Elect and I was voted Vice President-Elect. I'm very grateful to my fellow Councilors and Councilors-Elect for their support. I am excited to work with Zac to support and facilitate the work of the City Council next year.

Our final regular meeting of the term began at 7pm.

We heard again from Attorney Dash on the Dell Avenue deed restriction amendment. Attorney Dash and his clients are very close to finalizing an agreement with the Administration. The restriction they want lifted prohibits further subdividing their property (prohibits building additional units on their lot). Earlier in their negotiations, it was thought that the restriction could be lifted and replaced with an affordable housing deed restriction, so that when the hypothetical new units eventually turn over, they would be affordable instead of at market rate. Now, what is taking shape is that the restriction on subdivision will be lifted in exchange for a one-time fee to the Affordable Housing Trust to facilitate affordable housing elsewhere in the City. What is left to be decided is the exact formula for the amount of the payment, and the timing. We will hear from the attorney in January after he, his clients, and the Planning Department have finalized their agreement. Worth noting that even if the deed restriction were to be lifted, the current owners would still need a building permit, with clearance from the Fire Department and other City stakeholders as usual.

Following up on his November 14 request for a report on the issues with the 2023 election, Vice President put forward a resolution to have the Elections Manager and Election Commission submit a 2023 Municipal Election Process Errors & Accountability Report by 1/24/2024 and appear at our regular meeting on that date to present their findings. This resolution adds that the report/presentation should touch on: issues with filing with the recount and why candidates and the public were notified slowly/inconsistently; process issues in preparation for the recount; and "what systems will be put in place to ensure prompt and timely notification of any issues or errors to the public to ensure trust is maintained when errors are made."

It is well established that there were problems on Election Day, then with the posting of unofficial results, and then with lead-up to the recount (blocking of ballots). Thank goodness, none of these issues affected the results of the election. As we approved this resolution, we emphasized that what we are now asking for is a plan for where the Administration, Elections Department, and Elections Commission will go from here. We need a plan to ensure that these and other mistakes will not be repeated. That plan must be informed by a thorough investigation and diagnosis of what went wrong and why, so that we can go into our three very consequential 2024 elections will be carried out smoothly by an organized, professional, and methodical Elections Department.

President Morell offered a resolution that the future Council explore a blasting and earth removal ordinance. The target of this would be to regulate commercial developers and create noise protections for residents, potentially groundwater/vegetation protections, potentially prevent large, drastic landscape changes. The cliff on Winthrop St is a good example of the type of project that would be affected by such an ordinance.

We approved Community Preservation Act funding appropriations for the Royall House & Slave Quarters Roof & Gutter Restoration Project and the Shiloh Baptist Church Preservation Project.

Finally, as this was the last regular meeting of the year, we took time to honor, celebrate and congratulate outgoing Councilors Caraviello and Knight and President Morell. Representative Donato and former Councilor Marks joined us for this as well and shared warm words and some good-natured ribbing. On a personal note, while I'm excited for the new Council, I'll miss each of these colleagues. They're all towering figures in their own way, and each brought something unique to the Council and to our ecosystem of work. I'll miss Rick's straightforward style, accessible nature, and all the great gossip and advice I received by dint of sitting next to him in the Chambers; Adam's depth of institutional and parliamentary knowledge; and Nicole's incredible ability to see straight to the heart of any matter before us.

The next evening, Wednesday, the subcommittee on Ordinances and Rules (me, VP Bears as Chair, and Councilor Tseng) convened again on the draft Budget Ordinance with the Chief of Staff and Finance Director. At our last meeting on this topic, the Administration offered its own version of the draft ordinance; at this meeting, we reviewed subcommittee members' feedback and questions on it. I think that we have made significant ground on reducing the daylight between the subcommittee draft and the Administration's proposal. I think we are pretty close on the parts of the ordinance that create a new structure for the submission of the annual operating budget – timeline for Council recommendations to Mayor's office, preliminary budget hearings between Council and Admin/department heads, and submission of Comprehensive Budget Proposal to the Council – and I think we've come to some agreements regarding other budget meetings/updates that we'll have with the Finance Department outside of budget season.

The main thing that we are trying to reconcile now is to what extent we can include non-general fund topics, and a discussion of long-term budget and capital needs, into this ordinance framework. What is clear is that to provide the comprehensive financial updates that we would really like to see, the Finance Department needs more systems, tools, and software, and the staffing and time to implement them. I believe we should, and can, find a compromise where we are at least touching on these topics and discussing longitudinal budget needs on an at-least-yearly basis – even if we refrain from legislating that the Administration provide information and updates that it currently lacks the capacity to follow through on.

Happy holidays, everyone. See you in 2024!

Again, I make no claim of these notes being comprehensive nor reflecting the perspective of any other person or Councilor besides myself. The Council meetings don't get uploaded immediately but they do get uploaded here after processing (by Medford Community Media).

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