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February Updates from the City Council

As regular readers know, over the past few months, I have been challenging myself to share relatively brief, imperfect summaries on Reddit after every regular meeting. Here's the lightly-edited highlights from February.

City Council Highlights, 2/6/2024

On Tuesday, the Licensing, Permitting and Signs Subcommittee, chaired by Councilor Scarpelli, met to discuss additional on-premises signage for Raising Cane’s at 760 Fellsway.

Our regular meeting began at 7pm. First, we passed a resolution celebrating Black History Month, and mentioned that the Administration is hosting a "Celebrating Black History" event in the Council Chambers on Monday, 2/10, from 10am-1pm, info on the City events calendar. We also passed resolutions of condolence to the families of two recently-passed Medfordians.

Since we had a long agenda for this meeting, we took several papers out of agenda order that involved employee/public participation, so those folks wouldn’t be kept at City Hall until late at night.

There was a group of residents who serve on the Jingle Bell Festival Committee who came to speak about that event during public participation; we took that up first. These residents spoke to how the Jingle Bell Festival is a beloved tradition in Medford, a wonderful way to purchase affordable gifts, and a fundraiser for the Community Family Centers in Medford, Everett and Wakefield, which provide care and day health programs for adults with Alzheimer's. Several speakers also spoke movingly about their experiences having family in those care centers, and how Alzheimer’s has affected their loved ones. It is clear that this center provides an incredible service to local families and is so worthy of all the support the community can muster!

A couple speakers mentioned a rumor going around that City Councilors were trying to oust the Jingle Bell Festival from the City Council Chambers, where it is traditionally held. (I hadn’t heard this rumor, but then again, I am consistently the last person to hear Medford gossip.) Councilors assured Jingle Bell Committee members that there is no anti-Jingle plot afoot.

Two Elections Department Commissioners presented the Call for Election for the 3/5 presidential primary, which we quickly passed (this is procedural) and submitted the 2024 Election Calendar. That info is on the Elections Commission web page.

Next, we took up 24-021, a resolution offered by Councilors Leming and Callahan around decriminalizing the adult use and possession of plant-derived medicines. The Councilors worked on this resolution with the advocacy group Bay Staters for Natural Medicine, which I understand has many members in Medford, based on the many emails and calls I’ve received. The resolution is detailed and worth reading. It begins by noting the inefficacy of War on Drugs-era criminalization and incarceration policies on actually combatting drug abuse, addiction, and mental illness. It notes the demonstrated therapeutic effects of some of these substances on treating many medical conditions, i.e., PTSD and substance abuse disorder. It notes the efficacy of some entheogenic plant medicines at helping people overcome opioid addiction, amid the context of the horrible toll that opioid overdoses continue to wreak on families in the Commonwealth.

The paper then goes on to make the following resolutions:

  • That investigation and arrest for “planting, cultivating, transporting, distributing, engaging in practices with, and/or possessing” entheogenic plants and fungi should be made MPD’s lowest law enforcement priority. A city action cannot change the disposition of any substances under the Controlled Substances Act, but municipal police departments have the authority to internally prioritize enforcement of various issues.

  • I appreciated that this paper explicitly doesn't resolve to authorize or condone commercial sale of these drugs, possessing or distributing them near schools, driving under the influence, or causing public disturbance.

  • The paper then makes several broader-scope advocacy resolutions: to the DA, to cease prosecution of people who possess, cultivate, or distribute entheogenics; a request to state leaders to substitute the Natural Psychedelic Substances Act (proposed ballot question) with improved language; and an endorsement of Sen. Jehlen and Rep. Sabadosa’s bill, “An Act Relative to Plant Medicine,” S.1009/H.1754.

Folks who watched the meeting saw it get voted into Committee for further study and discussion with the Chief of Police in a 5-2 vote, with the dissenters preferring to pass it outright. (Remember that passing this resolution won’t enact any policy – at the local level it’s a non-binding recommendation to the MPD, and everything else is advocacy.) At the end of the meeting, I found that I regretted my vote to send it to Committee, and invoked City Council Rule 28 to “reconsider” the paper. I had gone into the meeting planning to vote to pass it that night – having been contacted by advocates for many months, and knowing that I supported it, found it reasonable, and supported the advocacy campaign. Under Rule 28, any Councilor who was on the “prevailing” side of the initial vote (as I was, having voted at first to send it to Committee) is entitled to motion to reconsider. I motioned to pass the paper, and Councilor Tseng put forth a compromise amendment that we request a response from the Chief of Police on the matter, instead of meeting with him about it in Committee. That passed unanimously.

Thanks to the Bay Staters and all who wrote in and gave testimony about this! And to answer the question you’re may be wondering: No, I haven't dabbled myself.

Next, we took up my resolution in support of a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza. I'm going to include more context and explanation around this than I normally would, for obvious reasons.

Like most of our City Council resolutions, this one was born of resident outreach and input. In my personal time, I do a lot of advocacy around this issue with groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now, and in past weeks and months I was approached by several community groups in Medford to request that I put forward a ceasefire resolution, like other cities in Massachusetts and around the country have begun to do.

After I put forward the original resolution last week, I was contacted by many constituents who urged me to reconsider the language. That’s why at the beginning of the discussion on this paper, I motioned for new language to be adopted and read into the record. The recording for this meeting is up on MCM, so you can see the discussion on the paper beginning at 1:00:00, including the amended language being read into the record by President Bears; and with this recap, the original and amended/passed version of the resolution are viewable in the records of the 2/6 meeting, which you can access on the City Council portal here under Minutes. This topic starts on page 49 of the records, you can read both versions there.

With an issue as painful and important as this one, I was reminded by constituents that it is critical to speak with as much clarity and precision as possible, even when it’s uncomfortable. I was asked to amend this resolution to more authentically and fairly represent the harms endured on both sides of the Israel and Palestine border. And while the ultimate ask of this resolution for an immediate and enduring, bilateral ceasefire, I was called upon to not let the historical context go unsaid and unacknowledged. I want to send a heartfelt thanks to everyone who got in touch with me – from the original request to put forward a ceasefire resolution to begin with, to the many people who gave me feedback and worked with me to improve it. On a personal level, it was a really meaningful collaboration.

I gave a statement that described my personal and political rationale for putting this forward. That begins around 1:07:30 on the MCM recording (linked above). I won't transcribe my whole statement all here, but I do want to just add one section about doing things "outside of our scope," because I know a lot of people take issue with that.

To me, this is a Medford issue because Medford residents are invested in the issue, full stop. And also, while the U.S. government condones the killing, and sends unrestricted military aid to Israel, communities right here in the U.S. are starved for funding. If you attend any average City Council meeting, what you’ll hear us talk about is how there aren’t enough public dollars to pay for resident services, fully funded schools, affordable housing, road safety, and on and on. Meanwhile, our federal leaders authorize billions to help bomb kids in Gaza. I find that unfathomable as a human being, and I find it infuriating as a Councilor. Those dollars should be promoting wellness at home, not destruction abroad.  

Personally, I think we take up things “outside of our scope” constantly, and it’s just part of the job as community advocates. Sometimes that’s trying to get DCR to fix a light pole, sometimes it’s trying to get Rep. Clark to do something about airplane noise, sometimes that's around a state-run emergency shelter for migrants. There’s no binding action the City Council can take around any of those issues. Yeah, obviously, weighing in on foreign politics is different than a light pole or something physically within the City, I get that. But all are things affecting residents’ lives, in Medford, right now, and all are things that Medfordians ask us to advocate around.

After remarks by Councilors, an extraordinary public comment section followed. I counted 43 people speaking in favor of the resolution, with many more attending in solidarity. A few people also spoke who were against the resolution, or who preferred the original resolution language. A few people spoke who do not live in Medford, but the overwhelming majority were Medford residents. We heard from residents born in Gaza, with family still trapped in Gaza, Jewish residents, allies. Everyone spoke from the heart. It was made so clear that this issue is fundamentally personal for so many Medford residents. While it is horrible that the Chambers had to be a forum for such trauma, grief, stories of displacement and marginalization, I am glad that we can be that forum for people who need it.

Many people spoke eloquently to the urgency and importance of local ceasefire resolutions. One resident urged us on, saying, “You’re our voice, because our voices are not being heard.” Councilor Tseng noted, “We can’t stop the bloodshed with a resolution, but we can stop normalizing it.” For the interested/open-minded, WBUR’s The Common put out an episode on Thursday with Professor Leila Farsakh discussing local ceasefire resolutions, which I thought was a really good encapsulation of the arguments for using these as an advocacy tool, and as a way to amplify residents’ voices to federal leaders in a time when so many people are feeling frustrated and unheard.

Ultimately the resolution passed 5-1 with one Councilor voting present.

[Note on my tone here: The following paragraph was written with the audience of Reddit specifically in mind.] Neighbors, if you want to yell about this and call me a clown, go right ahead – that’s the job I signed up for. But before you do, give a thought to how your comments might land for all your neighbors who asked this to be brought forward, who testified on Tuesday even when it was painful, who have family trapped in Gaza, whose families have been in any way affected by this bloodshed. If you’re mad about us spending a lot of time talking about this, please remember we stayed so late because so many residents wanted to speak in support. If you’re mad about us wasting taxpayer dollars, remember nobody behind the rail is paid hourly. If you're mad about not spending time on local issues, remember there was a whole rest of the agenda before and after this, and that our Governing Agenda is long because so many people in the community have good ideas about ways to make Medford better – and I think I can speak for all of my colleagues when I say we're committed to having a busy, productive term on as many of these measures as possible.

Onto the rest of the agenda.

Councilor Lazzaro offered a resolution to have the City Council meet with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director twice annually for a training. It was referred to the Resident Services & Public Engagement Committee.

Councilor Lazzaro offered a resolution to have the City Council explore a pilot program for a warming and cooling center for adults experiencing homelessness. I’m particularly excited to see Councilor Lazzaro spearhead this project; she serves the Assistant Director of the Malden Warming Center and comes to this issue with a lot of perspective and experience. We have known for several years now that it is not a sustainable solution to keep directing all of our unhoused neighbors to the resources in other communities; those resources are overburdened. We need to start figuring out a path towards strengthening our safety net and supportive services right here in Medford. This project was also referred to the Committee on Public Health & Community Safety.

Councilor Leming offered a resolution that the City Council discuss the adoption of a commercial vacancy tax as a tool to disincentivize leaving storefront properties empty indefinitely – the thought being, it’s bad for our main streets and vibrant squares (and tax base) to have long-term empty storefronts where there could be something interesting or useful! Depending on the constraints of state law, this proposal may end up as a local option proposal to the state delegation; residential vacancy tax proposals have gone this way in the past, in other communities. As I understand it, the initial goals of this proposal are to discuss potential tax mechanisms for disincentivizing voluntary commercial vacancies, as well as to discuss provisions that would make this fair and feasible (i.e. defining a grace period of some number of months after the initial vacancy). This project was referred to the Administration and Finance Committee to be explored there.

Councilor Leming offered a resolution that the City Council discuss a Transportation Demand Management Ordinance. Such an ordinance would have Medford create a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) program or strategy to manage traffic flow and commuter options in a system-wide way, rather than on a development-by-development basis, to try to get a handle on how new developments affect traffic/congestion in the City; minimize traffic and congestion; and incentivize carpooling, ridesharing, shuttles, transit, and car alternatives. I’m not the paper sponsor, but I found this article to be a good summary of the goals of TDM programs and some of the tools that can comprise them. This paper was referred to the Permitting & Planning Committee for further discussion with Planning, Development and Sustainability staff.

President Bears offered a resolution calling upon the U.S. federal government to end the blockade of Cuba – specifically, to restore the Obama-era policy that reduced travel restrictions and removed Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list; and urging the MA congressional delegation to pass legislation repealing laws relating to the Cuban embargo. Several members of the public submitted testimony on this paper, all but one in favor. The resolution passed.

Councilor Scarpelli offered a resolution about BJ’s Wholesale Club, an entity which has been brought up before the Council many times in recent terms. In our last meetings with BJ’s, they promised to assign the Council a local company representative that the Council could have a direct line to, for whenever neighbor concerns with the property come up (i.e. noise disturbances). I believe that we're workin on having a representative attend the next regular meeting for an update and to speak to some of these neighbor concerns.

President Bears and I submitted a paper about the ongoing zoning ordinance updates project, so that it can be assigned a new paper number and formally be assigned to the Planning & Permitting Committee for work throughout this term. Most of our drafting, feedback, amendment, and public participation on various policies associated with the Zoning ordinances will take place within that committee, prior to referral to COW or voting in regular session.

President Bears put forward a request that the Facilities Manager submit a report to the Public Works & Facilities Committee on the following, and then attend a meeting to discuss:

  1. Complete Inventory of City-owned Properties and City-managed Properties

  2. Cost to restore each property on the above inventory to a state of good repair

  3. Cost to maintain each property in a state of good repair once restored

We don’t currently have this kind of comprehensive overview on status of city-owned properties and individual/summary cost associated with maintenance/repair, so I look forward to the Council receiving this information and incorporating it into our discussions about long-term budget and capital needs planning.

I put forward a resolution to have the Public Health & Community Safety Committee discuss an Overgrowth Ordinance, after talking with constituents and staff about the need to empower Code Enforcement to issue warnings and tickets when sidewalks and streets are made impassable by plants that need to be cut way back. I ended up tabling this until our next meeting. This was kind of silly of me, because it would have less than a minute to describe the proposal and motion to send it to Committee – but this was right before I invoked Rule 28 to redo the Plant Medicine vote and I was feeling guilty about everyone being up so late.

City Council Highlights, 2/20/2024

At 6pm on Tuesday, we had a Committee of the Whole to meet with the Community Preservation Act (CPA) Manager and Community Preservation Committee Chair to go over the Committee’s annual appropriation recommendations (“what should our CPA funds go to this year?”). For basic info on the CPA for the uninitiated, the City website gives a good overview. I always look forward to this meeting because our CPC does such a great and organized job of putting forth projects and organizations that meet funding criteria, do good work in community or are assets well worth our investment, and are at stages where they are ready and prepared to make good use of the funding.

Here are the requests they put forward. After a presentation, we reported the proposal favorably out of committee. (As with everything, we take the formal approval vote in “regular session.”)

  1. $69,000.00 from the CPA General Reserve to Housing Families for the Homelessness Prevention Pro Bono Legal Services Program

  2. $50,000.00 from the CPA Historic Preservation Reserve to City of Medford – Cemetery Division for the Oak Grove Cemetery Access Road Study

  3. $200,000.00 from the CPA General Reserve to City of Medford – Cemetery Division for the Oak Grove Cemetery Access Buildings Restoration project.

  4. $229,000.00 from the CPA General Reserve to City of Medford – Office of Planning, Development, and Sustainability for the Logan Park Natural Play Area project

  5. $10,000.00 from the CPA General Reserve to City of Medford – Cemetery Division for the Salem Street Burying Ground Conditions Assessment

  6. $205,525.00 from the CPA General Reserve to City of Medford – Parks Division for the Tufts Park Basketball Court Resurfacing project.

  7. $106,625.00 from the CPA General Reserve to City of Medford – Parks Division for the Capen Park Basketball Court Resurfacing project.

  8. $99,965.00 from the CPA Historic Preservation Reserve to the Medford Brooks Estate Land Trust (MBELT) for the ADA Pathways and Parking Improvements project

  9. $98,275.00 from the CPA Historic Preservation Reserve to the Medford Brooks Estate Land Trust (MBELT) for the East Elevation ADA Improvements project.

  10. $4,800.00 from the CPA Historic Preservation Reserve to City of Medford – Cemetery Trustees for the Cross Street Cemetery Conditions Assessment.

7pm: Onto the regular meeting. We took several items out of order tonight, but I’ll go in order of the written agenda.

It has come time for voting on the Walkling Court Redevelopment’s Planned Development District Special Permit and Site Plan Review. We have heard from the Medford Housing Authority (MHA) many times in the past 2+ years about this major renovation, and in addition they have held community meetings at and around Walkling Court, presentations before the Community Development Board, etc., so they kept this presentation pretty succinct.

The Planned Development District (PDD) mechanism is a new zoning tool that the Council approved in the previous term, and I am very glad to see it utilized by the MHA on a project that will allow us to take such a significant leap towards our affordable housing development goals.

At this meeting, we reviewed the findings of the CDB, which is that the proposal met the required criteria and the Board had voted unanimously to approve the Site Plan Review and recommend that we approve the permit, with some suggested conditions. One of these conditions was a negotiated $50,000 tree removal mitigation payment to the City to be earmarked towards purchasing and planting public trees.

A huge thanks are due to the team at the MHA for shepherding forward a project of such great logistical, fiscal and material complexity. This project will modernize and improve living conditions in all units, add needed accessible household units, and, through creating a net increase of 94 units on the property, get us 15% closer to our Comprehensive Plan goal of adding 600 more affordable units to the City by 2025. This is a very rare opportunity to make such a stride towards our affordable housing production goals, and the MHA has skillfully leveraged state and federal funding to pay for this project. I’m proud the Council has been so supportive of this project over multiple terms. We voted unanimously to adopt the recommended conditions and approve the permit.

I offered a resolution for the Public Health & Community Safety Committee to develop an Overgrowth Ordinance. The goal of this would be to create the needed regulations to empower the Board of Health or Code Enforcement to issue warnings and interventions when plants and vegetation on private property grow so wild that they render the public way inaccessible (i.e. the sidewalk is blocked, you have to walk in the street). This was coming up a bunch in my inbox last year and it’s my understanding we don’t currently have the language in our Code of Ordinances to allow for relevant City staff to intervene when neighbors can’t sort it out amongst themselves.

The resolution to develop a Real Estate Transfer Fee Home Rule Petition was tabled for one week because Councilor Scarpelli invoked Council Rule 21, which gives any Councilor the right to do that on any financial paper coming before the Council for the first time. (No shade on my pal George. It was late in the night at the time we got to this.) So we haven’t taken any action on this yet, but I know people are talking about it, so I put together some preliminary background thoughts on real estate transfer fees in a separate post. (It seemed like too much of a sidebar to include here, especially given that we haven’t actually taken any action on the paper yet.) (Alternative parenthetical: It was taking up too much real estate in this recap. escorts self out)

I put forth a resolution to meet with staff from the Planning, Development & Sustainability and Outreach & Prevention Offices to talk about the Housing Stability Notification Ordinance which passed in March of last year. Under that ordinance, the City is tasked with creating a document outlining housing rights & resources for tenants, and landlords are required to send that document to their tenants at the beginning and end of every lease. City staff has been working through the process of developing the document. The content is relatively simple, but it has been sent through legal review; we have to be thoughtful about translation into languages other than English; and we must think through what communication channels the City should use to get the word out and make sure that landlords are adequately informed about this new requirement. So we’ll meet (this coming Wednesday, in fact) in the Planning & Permitting Committee to have a check-in about how all this work is going, as staff gears up to start rolling out the document and starting to implement the ordinance.

President Bears put forth a resolution laying out a schedule for the Annual Budget Process for FY2025: Councilors submit individual budget recommendations by 3/1 for consideration in Committee; Council submits its collective recommendations to the Mayor by 3/22; preliminary budget meetings with department heads from 4/15 to 5/15; Mayor’s comprehensive budget proposal due to the Council by 5/31. This timeline aligns with the one we’ve hammered out in the Budget Ordinance through discussions with Administration. The ordinance is still a draft – we’re meeting on it again on Tuesday in the Administration & Finance Committee – but the timeline piece is pretty well finalized. Having a predictable, confirmed schedule for the annual budget process is something that the Council has pushed for, and I’m really glad to see us piloting this timeline with the Administration this year.

The Mayor put forward a request for the City Council to adopt a local option provision within Mass General Law that would extend a property tax exemption to qualifying veterans and their families. The Chief Assessor presented the paper. We approved it unanimously. The provision is MGL C.59, Sec. 5, Clause 22G, in case anyone is interested in reading it from the source.

We took the formal vote to approve the Community Preservation Act appropriation recommendations that we presented to us in the Committee of the Whole at 6pm.

Everyone on this site has already heard about the Mayor putting forward a request to exempt the position of Fire Chief from the Civil Service Law. We spent a long time on this paper: There were many people who attended to speak about this request, and we had a long public comment section. As always, thanks to everyone who took time out from their evening to offer their thoughts and advocacy to the Council.

As I understand it: the Mayor has evidence of sick time/overtime use that she believes constitutes abuse, and is costing the City money; this was brought up to the Chief; the Chief has chosen to retire. Now, the Mayor would like the take the occasion of the Chief’s retirement to take that position out of Civil Service and replace it with a similar process (applicants still must pass an exam and meet other criteria/metrics; the Mayor doesn’t just hand-pick whomever), but one that can be adjusted by the City instead of a more generic template. Under this change, the position of Chief would be contracted, not a de facto lifetime appointment, and be subject to an annual review.

There is obviously, unfortunately, a deep mistrust and acrimonious relationship between the Mayor and the Fire Union. The union has expressed their belief that this move by the Mayor is retaliatory and has the goal of keeping current MFD members from becoming Chief. The Administration and legal counsel has confirmed that all MFD members who are currently eligible for the role of Chief, are still eligible to apply; it would widen the applicant pool, but not disqualify Medford applicants.

The Council voted to have a further discussion about the proposal in Committee of the Whole rather than vote yes or no on Tuesday when the paper was first presented. I know my motion to send to Committee angered a lot of people; here is my reasoning. It is incredibly unusual for the Council to take an up or down vote on any paper, ordinance, appropriation, or policy that is both very novel and very important, the first time it’s presented. I believe that as a City Council, we have the responsibility to consider this as a policy proposal and give due time to considering it on the merits – the same we would with any other novel and important policy that will affect the City not just for one generation of hiring, but for the indefinite future.

Update: As I compile these Reddit recaps into a blog post, the Mayor has appointed an acting/interim Fire Chief from within the Medford Fire Department.

Finally, two Elections Commissioners came before us to present the warrant for the March 5 Presidential Preference Primary, which we approved.

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 after processing by Medford Community Media to

Thanks for reading.

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