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.)
Here's the lightly-edited highlights from January.
City Council Highlights, 1/9/24
City Council rules require that the Council elect a President and Vice President at the first regular meeting of the year. (The City Clerk presides until the president is elected.) Zac Bears was elected President and I was elected Vice President. I am very excited to work in this role to make this an organized and productive term for all of us. Thank you to my fellow Councilors for your support!
Some more first-meeting table-setting: Appointing our City Messenger (the ever-ready Larry), who distributes agendas to us each week and hands out papers at the meeting as needed; transferring Rules of the previous Council to the current Council; transferring all Papers in Committee from previous Council to this Council. ("Papers in committee" are those that haven't been dispensed with in some form, and are still assigned to a subcommittee or committee of the whole.)
President Bears offered two related resolutions proposing a 2024-2025 Governing Agenda framework for the Council, and new standing committees. Essentially, the idea is to take time this month to collaboratively draft an agenda for all the work we intend to do over the term, encompassing all of the projects left over/in the works from last term (i.e. Trees Ordinance, Leaf Blower Ordinance, many others), plus all new proposals from Councilors.
New suggestions will be submitted by Councilors to Council leadership plus the Clerk later this month. We'll have a meeting to discuss and slot things into the governing agenda timeline as we see fit.
President Bears' proposal around new standing committees for the council would replace the existing subcommittees with just seven committees that all meet regularly. Prior to this system, the sixteen subcommittees are all scheduled at the discretion of Council leadership and the subcommittee chair. In my experience last term, only five of those subcommittees ever met, and two of those met just once each. Personally, I found it cumbersome that scheduling every subcommittee was a distinct task, especially when we had to wrangle not only Councilors' schedules but those of relevant stakeholders, department heads, legal, etc. So I love the idea of having it be a known thing that, for example, the Planning & Permitting Committee meets the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month at 6pm.
Previously, all subcommittees had 3 members. Under the new proposal, all Councilors will be members of all Committees, but each Committee only has five voting members (other Councilors can join and deliberate but not vote). Committee members and Chairs are not set yet, President Bears will work on that for later this month.
Under the governing agenda proposal, all papers and projects would be assigned to their relevant committee, and worked on there until referred out for a vote in regular session. The new committees are:
Administration and Finance
Education and Culture
Planning and Permitting
Public Health & Community Safety
Public Works & Facilities
Resident Services & Public Engagement
To me, these are the key takeaways of this system:
I think it will help our productivity to make a list at the beginning of the term of everything we intend to do. This will prompt us to create a timeline for what we plan to work on when, how long we think it will take, and create an order of projects based on external needs and priorities. It will also require us to formally assign a bottom-liner for each project, both a project sponsor (the lead Councilor(s) on the task) and the Committee in which the bulk of the work will get done.
This framework will channel the substantive work of the Council out to the Committees more effectively and, newly, organizes the Committees by City function. 16 subcommittees was so many, and most of them were completely unused.
President Bears emphasized that this governing agenda is by no means set in stone. Other projects will come up, spontaneously or later in the year, and we retain full ability and latitude to work on things that aren't already on our radar in January 2024. I do think that it's true that most of the Council's priorities are things that we know about already, because they are fundamental, glaring or perennial issues: zoning; continuing to improve the annual budget process and long-term budgeting to meet our needs; ordinances to protect natural and built infrastructure; charter review. Of course other things we want or need to act on will come up – this will be an amendable document, and also, Councilors also don't need for a topic to be written into this document to bring it up and propose to act on it. It's just a document to keep us organized, hold us accountable, and help us get done what we say we want to get done.
There will be more on this later in the month, after Councilors submit their proposals and we meet to discuss them and flesh out the document.
President Bears offered a proposal that we review and update the City Fee Schedule, which if anyone's curious is Appendix A of the City Ordinances (google Medford MA Municode). I don't know the last time this has seen a comprehensive update, and it shows. The cost for different fees and licenses are in some cases very obviously unreasonably low and seem arbitrary/out of step with other communities.
President Bears offered a resolution to request the Board of Health implement a winter eviction moratorium.
This isn't in the City Council's jurisdiction to actually do/implement, which is why the resolution is to request the BOH do this. We unanimously approved to refer it to BOH.
Many cities have winter eviction moratoria (Chicago, DC) so that eviction at least does not occur when it is so cold outside that people who must sleep outside don't become sick or die from exposure.
Winter eviction moratoria don't put a halt to the legal proceedings leading up to eviction (a landlord could still take a tenant to eviction court like normal), they just make it so the eviction cannot be executed (tenant cannot be kicked out) until after wintertime (by this proposal, after March 31).
This type of measure is especially urgent for communities in Massachusetts right now, as our state is maxed out at shelter capacity, a genuine crisis. More than ever, if you don't have a place to sleep at night, there's nowhere to go. The least we can do is make it so people who are going to lose their homes aren't also in danger of being sickened or worse from being literally out in the cold.
I put forth a resolution that the Administration & Finance Committee discuss the adoption of the Good Landlord Tax Credit.
This is a local option that was just enabled at the end of 2023 by the state's tax relief package (MGL Chapter 59, Section 5O for all my policy heads 🤘). A local option is something the state says cities can do if they so choose. So we now have the option to enact an ordinance to give landlords a break on their property taxes in exchange for renting their units at affordable rates.
More specifically, cities are now allowed to exempt a landlord for up to 100% of their property taxes if they rent to tenants at rates below 200% AMI.
AMI = area median income, the standard metric for measuring income level, often applied to housing cost. i.e., if you make 80% of area median income, you're low income; 50% AMI, very low income, etc. It's no surprise that this legislation makes landlords eligible for the incentive if they offer rents affordable to folks making up to 200% of AMI, since rents are so high in much of MA, it's so hard to afford rent even if you make more than the median income.
So we have a number of decision points here: Do we want to exempt landlords for the full 100% of property tax in exchange for meeting the criteria, or somewhat less? Do we want eligibility to be for rents affordable for folks up to 200% AMI, or do we want to tailor it so you have to rent at a more deeply affordable rate (affordable for folks who make even less) to get the benefit? We'll discuss in Committee with the Chief Assessor and Finance Director.
I'm excited for the chance to take advantage of a new incentive for keeping rents below market rate, or, put another way, a new way to reward/make it easier on the landlords who already choose to keep their rents lower than market rate.
President Bears offered a resolution to have the Traffic and Transportation Director update us on the MassDOT's next steps from the Wellington Circle Study.
We took the final vote to approve the Water System Bond Order - this is an interest-free loan from the Mystic Water Resource Authority that we will put towards much-needed improvements to our water infrastructure.
We also took the final vote to approve the updates to Ch. 70, the Solid Waste Ordinance.
It was wonderful to start off the term with a convivial and friendly attitude from every single Councilor. I feel very honored to get to work with this team, and I hope that we can get a lot of work done over the next two years while maintaining this collaborative, good-faith atmosphere in the Chambers as much as possible.
City Council Highlights, 1/23/24 and 1/24/24
Tuesday 1/23 brought our second regular meeting of the term. Apart from referring some new projects to committee, the evening was dominated by three main topics of discussion.
Councilor Scarpelli put forward a resolution for representatives from our State delegation and from the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC) to come before us to share an update on the proposed migrant shelter at 400 Riverside Ave. No one from the EOHLC was available tonight, but Rep. Donato volunteered to represent the delegation (Reps. Barber, Sen. Jehlen) as the proposed migrant shelter falls in his district.
To start things off, President Bears shared an update that the City administration shared on Facebook earlier in the day. I'll copy and paste it here:
"The City has been informed by state officials that the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities will be opening its Emergency Overnight Shelter in Medford in February.The State is working on a contract with a provider to assist with services on site and at the insistence of Mayor Lungo-Koehn has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the City, agreeing to several specific terms identified by the Mayor: No more than 75 families or roughly 250 people will be housed at the site for short-term shelter only; the duration of stay will likely not exceed 5 days; school-aged children will not enroll in Medford Public Schools. At the urging of Mayor Lungo-Koehn, the state has agreed to hold a public information session prior to the opening of the shelter with the community to answer questions and give an overview of how the facility will operate. We put a request in for next week, but the state has not given us a date and time yet."
For the uninitiated to this topic, here's the background:
Existing short-term solutions have been exhausted – the state has already been placing people in existing shelters and hotel and motel rooms as a bridge until they are able to be placed in permanent housing (rentals, public housing). All those spaces are already in use. It's not a fast process to move people into permanent housing because it's not like we have all this vacant public and affordable housing sitting around; meanwhile, folks in need of shelter continue to arrive.
I don't know offhand the exact percentage/extent to which this is caused by border-state governors playing craven political games and shipping vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers to other states far from their port of entry – but we do know that is a factor in why states like MA are seeing an influx.
So, the State has been working to develop temporary, overnight emergency shelters in vacant/underutilized buildings in various communities to stem the gap. For example, one opened in December in Cambridge.
This isn't a long-term solution by any means; we need a more resilient shelter system so we're not housing people overnight in municipal buildings (like in Cambridge) or vacant industrial/office buildings (like proposed in Medford). This is a band-aid. The Governor signed a spending bill in December that included $250M for the state's emergency shelter system.
Here's what Medford residents should know:
The proposed migrant shelter on 400 Riverside is not something that the City has initiated, and it's not something that the City can stop. It is a contract between the State and a private property owner.
The expectation and intention, as noted in the Mayor's update, is that the families in the overnight shelter will not stay there for more than 5 days. So, it's expected and intended that children from the families staying there will not enroll in Medford Public Schools.
The Administration has been leaning on the EOHLC to hold a public community meeting near the site to inform local neighbors about the project. It's my impression they are working hard to hold the State accountable to holding that meeting.
I appreciate Rep. Donato being at our meeting tonight to share what information he had, but it is clear that most of our specific questions can only be answered by those administering this project, which is the EOHLC and its partners.
There was lengthy public comment on this issue; I think a lot of folks were understandably surprised and interested to hear that an emergency shelter was opening up in the neighborhood, and understandably want details. In this meeting, we tried to share all the details we currently have. I will be sure to update this post when I receive information about when the public community meeting will be held. [Edit 2/4: We're still waiting on an update from the State.]
It would be weird for me to not mention that while interest and concern about the shelter is completely understandable, during public comment that concern crossed over the line into hostility, anti-immigrant generalizations, and bigotry to a degree I found shocking. These sentiments were overrepresented. I know that the overwhelming majority of Medford understands the severity of this issue and would like for us to open our arms to new neighbors in need (indeed, allowing a private property owner to rent a building to the State so that people can stay there for 5 days before moving on seems to me like the least we can do). As I receive information about how Medford residents might be able to volunteer/offer support, I will update this post.
Onto the next big topic: the submission of the 2023 Municipal Election Process Errors & Accountability Report.
Based on our conversation in the Chambers, I think I can safely speak for many of my colleagues in saying we were disappointed by the report. We requested an in-depth, problem-by-problem analysis of everything documented problem in the lead-up to Election Day and on Election Day itself – not as a punitive measure for the Elections Department and Commission, but rather to be a public testament to "here's exactly what went wrong, and how it went wrong, and why; and here's exactly what we'll do next time to fix whatever structures or protocols led to or enabled that mistake, and why we think that will prevent it from happening again; and here's what we need to ensure that these problems won't happen again."
If folks are interested in taking a look for themselves, the report is in the City Council Drive as an attachment to the 1.23 regular meeting agenda (you have to scroll down a lot).
We had a long discussion about it. Among other things, the Elections Manager and Commissioners emphasized that they had intended to work on this report earlier and spend more time on it, but their work plan was derailed by the recount. I'm sympathetic to this, and it's still true that – like many of the errors we saw in 2023 – this is a symptom of a problematic lack of capacity in the Elections department. Recounts get petitioned for – this is a thing that can happen. If the system only works when problems don't arise, then the system doesn't work.
Our whole goal here is to be of assistance to the Elections Department as its charts a course to greater competence, reliability and resilience. I think we can't do that unless we're crystal clear about what actually needs fixing, and what resources are needed to do the fixing. This report didn't go far enough in depth to accomplish that, so we resolved to continue this conversation in the Governance Committee. We'll continue to advocate for adequate funding for this department, as we have for two budgets; and I'm glad to hear there might be a hire happening soon, but that alone won't be enough. But the bottom line is, with Elections, we have to strive for perfection because credibility and voter trust have never been more important or more precarious. The Council is unified on this.
Finally, we voted on salary increases for School Committee members.
At our Committee of the Whole last week, we advanced four motions:
My proposal to raise School Committee member pay to ~$22K by 7/1/2025 (July 1 is when fiscal years start), which is the amount that SC member salary would equal if SC member pay had been increased by the same % as MTA contracts had in the years since 2000; and then, to reach pay equity with the City Council (~$29K) by 7/1/2027.
Councilor Tseng's proposal to do just the first part of that, to raise SC member pay to ~$22K by 7/1/2025 and stop there.
My proposal for the Governance Committee, during its Charter Review process later this year, to look at charter provisions that would create automatic/regularly scheduled cost of living adjustments and/or evaluation of all electeds' salaries (say, annually or something). The goal would be making it no longer ad hoc or discretionary, leading to things like some electeds getting pay increases several times in 24 years while others get none. (This proposal didn't come up at our meeting on 1/23, I'm just mentioning it here for completeness – it got referred directly to the Governance Committee from COW and we'll talk about it there.)
Councilor Scarpelli's proposal for the Council to lower its own rate of pay to a blended salary that is the difference between the rate of the City Council and the School Committee, and then for both salaries to follow MTA-level percentage increases per Councilor Tseng's proposal.
We took these motions in order. I started by withdrawing my motion. As I said on the floor and have said previously: I believe these bodies are equivalent and should be paid equally. And I believe that Councilor Tseng's proposal is the most actionable compromise that we currently have on the floor. We voted on Councilor Tseng's proposal and it passed 5-2 with Councilors Scarpelli and Callahan voting against.
Councilor Scarpelli's proposal was ruled out of order due to a conflict with a state law relating to timescales on which electeds' salaries may be amended. (I don't remember the MGL offhand, just the outcome. Email me if you're curious and I'll dig it up.)
I said this in Committee of the Whole last week, but I want to emphasize (for those who don't know already), this issue is a total anomaly in terms of what our work on the Council looks like. It is a weird quirk that the salary of the School Committee is something that the Council decides, when we are authorized to make no other appropriations in the Schools whatsoever. The rest of the year, the Council is focused on matters of ordinances and legislation; business development through permitting and zoning; budgetary review and financial matters.
I believe it is completely, non-negotiably crucial that we continue to advocate and work for living wages and better wages for all public employees. I believe that the Council's best shot at being an ally to city workers is to do this work well and expand the pie – to continue to improve the City's bottom line through better zoning, development, permitting and taxation choices that will encourage a robust commercial tax base, help business districts grow and thrive, and enable affordable housing. I believe the results of that work exceeds by magnitudes the impact of this proposal. We must be able to do more than one right thing at a time, and we must get to a point where as a City, we are well-off enough that improvements to one sector aren't seen as an injury to another.
I appreciate everyone who spoke or wrote to us about this issue. Thank you for being engaged and raising your issues.
1/24 Committee of the Whole:
The topic of this meeting was to discuss items that Councilors proposed for inclusion on our 2023-2024 Governing Agenda, and to decide as a group which Committees to refer those projects to.
The point of this exercise is to get on paper everything that we aspire and intend to work on this term, organize it into Committees, and assign goal start and end dates. That includes ordinances, big shared projects (Charter, zoning), non-legislative projects and collaborations with community and Administration, etc.
It's not at all the case that if it isn't on the list this month, we're not allowed to work on it – this is a living document that will surely be added and subtracted to! Rather, I'm thinking of this as a project management tool – a way to organize what's being worked on, who's leading on it, in what Committee, and how many projects are overlapping at once. From there, we can try and budget our time accordingly and spread projects out throughout the term in a way that makes sense.
This is a 33-page document, so I won't go into greater depth here. We will be putting out further versions as it is updated and amended.
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 https://www.medfordtv.org/.