Aaron Dushku seeks re-election in the race for Town Councilor At-Large on Nov. 3.
Watertown News asked candidates a series of questions.
1) If elected, what will you make your top priority for the first six months of your term?
Transportation is where I can do the most work as a creative thinker and policy-maker but my first priority needs to remain in providing adequate public school funding. We need to continue to provide our schools with the resources they need so our kids can keep pace with their peers in a competitive professional world. Investing in our youth is one of the best indicators of the strength of this community and it impacts our real estate values and the character of our neighborhoods as much as any zoning or dimensional requirements of new buildings ever will. While the school committee tackles the hard task of managing the administration of said funds and providing adequate planning and justifications, the Town Council needs to support in the one place that we truly can. Budget hearings and deliberations will progress into June. In this upcoming session of the town council, the town hall will also need to work with the superintendent and WPS business manager on addressing the serious challenges of school buildings and capital expenses. The Town Councilors need to have a presence in the community discussions around needs assessments and we need to be a voice for accountability of these monies as we allocate them. I believe that is part of our role as town councilors. I also believe that our town needs to push harder on developers and private entities here to make investments in the schools and I still have more to contribute towards that end.
It should also be mentioned that the entire town needs to stay active in the effort to fight the epidemic of opioids. I have been a leader in this movement to-date and I promise to stay engaged moving forward.
2) Despite having information on the website, and email blasts available from Notify Me, residents complain about not being informed about what’s going on in Watertown. How can the town connect more with residents and get out information about key projects, votes and more?
The town needs to work harder at distributing materials such as meeting announcements, agendas and minutes. The public has spoken repeatedly about this as a concern and I recognize that. Most every councilor and candidate will agree that the town needs to shape up its web presence and this includes some sort of ACTIVE social media communication plan. I would support further investment in that if elected. As a start, the Watertown Cable Access Corporation (WCAC) has redesigned its website and I persistently insisted that this be completed throughout my first year as a councilor. This new design allows website viewers to finally see an online guide for programming on our cable television channels. It also includes online streaming and viewing of recorded content. Unfortunately, the search tools are still sometimes difficult to navigate and content may take several days to be uploaded. We could do a better job of linking the town website and calendar to live and recorded WCAC programming as it is there that people usually go first for information on meetings or events.
As a councilor, I believe in responsiveness and I feel that I have consistently reached out to communicate my positions to those who want to know. On a daily basis I make and receive phone calls while reading and responding to emails about town council business. I regularly attend meetings and public forums even when they aren’t part of my particular committee assignments. While not an official town mechanism, I use an email distribution list and a very active Facebook blog (www.facebook.com/AaronDushku4you). This blog is public and therefore membership or login is not required to read it. On important issues, I have posted and circulated statements of why I voted as I did in other Facebook communities here in Watertown, as well. Several of these posts reached over 3000 interested viewers and stimulated a lot of commentary in response. I would encourage residents who are Facebook users to explore my blog and these other independent online communities and keep up on the discussions that are always happening there. Additionally, the town needs to employ similar tools to distribute its materials more widely.
3) Would you support a tax override or debt exclusion to raise taxes beyond the Prop. 2 1/2 limit? If so, what projects or areas would you want the override or exclusion to fund?
Such an override would hurt many families and individuals struggling to pay their bills every month –including my own family. Aware of the hardship that an override might bring us, I would prefer not to do it but if we are to pay for some things that the residents are demanding, there may be ways to maximize the returns with a less painful blow to our family budgets. For example, there was an override some years ago that will come off the books in 2018. Without noticing a significant increase on tax bills, another one could slide in to take its place if we needed the money to pay for a much-discussed school building solution. My sense is that this may be the only way to pay for such a thing. I am open to that discussion.
Furthermore, I may also be supportive of keeping a Community Preservation Act (CPA) override in the conversation IF it looks like something we can use to absorb some of our ongoing open space expenses, new lands acquisition, affordable housing or school building construction. If we voted to approve the CPA at the same time as the previous override came off the books in 2018, the law dictates that the state would match a portion of that new revenue. So, as things now stand, the income taxes that all of us pay currently go into the state’s share of funding CPA in OTHER communities. This means that we’re all chipping in money to this state program and leaving it on the table for other communities to tap into. Smart, creative leadership and accounting needs to at least consider ways to access those funds.
4) What would you do to help seniors and others struggling to afford to live in Watertown?
In 2015 I voted with of the majority of Town Councilors to send a special request to the legislature to increase the tax exemption for owner-occupied residential homes in Watertown even more than what it is today. In the same way, I also spoke in favor of and voted with the majority for increasing the minimum requirement for affordable units in new buildings from 10% to 12.5 percent. I would be open to conversations about going even higher. It is my intention to also work towards affordable options also for middle-income families as we have recently seen come about in a neighboring city. I believe that adequate public transit options also make a difference on the bottom line for people with fixed-incomes. The work that I do in this area is guided by many things but when I look in my own home finances at the expenses we bear from car ownership, it is startling. Knowing that residents could save $1000’s a year in this expense inspires me to push ahead.
Other issues that I will work on to help make living here more affordable is continuing my strong support of programs to support home energy efficiency measures and seeking out more opportunities for residents to grow our own healthy foods. I am open to new discussions and ideas as they emerge.
5) The Residential Design Guideline process to change the zoning for Watertown’s residential neighborhoods recently began. What kinds of rules would you like to see include and which would you not want to see in the guidelines?
It is still early to say since the process is only recently underway. That said, I do have some reservations. One of them is that I am concerned about the way that ‘preserving neighborhood character’ sounds and what it can sometimes mean when it comes to dictating the ‘kinds’ of people that certain housing styles may attract to a neighborhood. I think that part of the character of Watertown’s neighborhoods that I love is the diversity and there is a slippery slope that concerns me there. I have also heard many concerns about what dictating design standards on private homes can do to take away personal preference and property rights so I respect those concerns.
On the bright-side, I see opportunities for us to address some important issues with this legislation. For example, we need to always be sure to welcome new residents from diverse walks of life but our transportation network can only afford to welcome so many more Single Occupancy Vehicles (SOV’s) along with them. I think that we should carefully consider parking concerns in residential zones and take a close look at the unique nature of the different neighborhoods with respect to this issue. Second, we should continue to bear in mind the impact on our stormwater infrastructure and river health that increases in pervious surfaces like driveways and sidewalk curb-cuts can have. Third, some of the creative energy efficiency measures that we built into the original Design Guidelines should be brought back for consideration here (roof aspect, energy efficiency standards, required solar assessments, etc.).
6) What do you think will be the next big issue that is not yet on the town’s front burners?
I have been a vocal advocate in matters pertaining to transportation since my very first council meeting in 2014. There is much to be done there and I will continue to work towards the needed improvements and personnel discussions around that issue. I am happy that the majority of the candidates have also discussed it in their campaign literature and speeches. This includes not only working towards the creation and good governance of a town Transportation Management Association (TMA) and shuttle service -which is already underway- but it also means that we need to stay abreast of affairs at the state-level. For example, the 2 MassDOT studies that impact us on the Mt. Auburn and Arsenal Street Corridors will demand the presence of strong advocates here if we are to see substantial improvements in those areas in multi-modal transit and the reduction of congestion. Part of the Arsenal Corridor study will be ensuring that our community is given an MBTA connection to the new commuter rail station in Brighton. Although these matters won’t be discussed at council meetings, our leaders must be engaged in the conversations.
I was a founding member of the steering committee of the Watertown Public Transit Task Force (WPTTF) and with this private citizens group, I will continue to advocate for improvements to our transportation network in Watertown. At the top of the WPTTF’s list of advocacy items is to get more MBTA busses assigned to our routes but we also need to work on short-term solutions that include modernized streetlight technologies, better bus coordination, bump-out prioritization lanes and off-bus fare collection stations. We need to develop some detailed long-term visions for our public transit networks that will allow us to work with developers as they plan their projects so that they fit into our plans. Furthermore, the safety of our smaller streets and intersections needs to be addressed through a detailed study that can assess measures to slow traffic and improve intersections.
Lastly, I believe that we need to continue to reform our zoning regulations to include data collection and monitoring requirements in large parking areas all over town. Where necessary, we need to enforce transportation demand management measures in certain properties depending on the trends that emerge in those data. We should also reassess the rates and locations of municipal parking meters in order to manage the supply and demand of spaces in our most congested areas and to revitalize our downtown and neighborhood commercial districts.
Improving transportation in Watertown has an impact on so many things. It is an issue of safety, the environment and of social equity. It will continue to be one of my highest priorities as it has been over the last 2 years.
7) Tell us about yourself, your family, your life and what qualities would make you a good Town Councilor.
Along with 3 siblings, I was raised in Watertown and am a product of Watertown Public Schools. I was a commuting college student in Boston for many years but I also had the opportunity to study abroad for 2 years of my undergraduate degree. I attained a master’s degree but not before I served for 3 years in the US Peace Corps in an incredibly-poor rural town. The experience taught me uncountable life lessons about friendship and community and I love to talk about them! I married my college sweetheart and we have 3 kids who are passing through the public schools here. As a family, we lived out-of-state for many years and in 2011, we returned home. We are joined in Watertown by my mother, sister, mother-in-law, father-in-law and many wonderful friends -old and new. We feel blessed to live in this town and we love the diversity of perspectives and lifestyles that we see here every day. My wife and I both proudly trace our roots to immigrant families and we know the importance of creating a welcoming community to all. My mother has instilled in me the virtue of service to my neighbor and fellow humans and in our home, we honor that as a foundational value.
As your councilor I have listened to differing viewpoints and I have considered and deliberated on them all. I have worked consistently and feverishly to communicate with constituents. In the last 23 months, I have not missing a single council meeting and I have been an example to others in my willingness to roll up my sleeves and do the dirty-work required to improve our city. I wasted no time making my mark on the council and in encouraging the engagement of our residents in town affairs. I ask humbly for 2 more years to continue serving this beautiful community.