LETTER: A Good Week for Democracy in Watertown

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By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

Are We There Yet? No, but we’re inching closer …

More Community Involvement

Last week was a good week for democracy in Watertown! On Wednesday night there was a meeting of the Committee on Economic Development and Planning in regard to expanding community meetings for big developments in Watertown. Although I think that there could have been a better structure for the meeting, it was still greatly appreciated.

And I think that it was nothing but a show of community disrespect for the Director of the Department of Community Development and Planning Steven Magoon to dash off his suggestions at the very last minute, not posting them for the public to review. There were not enough copies of the ordinance and the planned changes to go around at the meeting as well (a constant issue). I was impressed with how Councilors Lisa Feltner (chair), Vincent Piccirilli and John Gannon listened and responded.

So, in brief, the change to the rules are that large building conversions, like the Manley Way project, will also call for a community meeting. Up until now, only new construction of large buildings required community involvement.

Because of the way the meeting was structured, with the topic restricted to the ordinance and community comments occurring after decisions had been made by the Councilors in consultation with Steve Magoon (DCDP), we still have a few “asks” of the City of Watertown that we presented at the end of the meeting for the Councilors’ consideration. They mostly involved the quality of communication with the community. Here are a few of them:

  1. Any presentations to be made by developers (community meeting, Planning Board, and Zoning Board of Appeals, etc.) should: be current, accurate, and available on-line 10 business days in advance to give the public adequate opportunity to review. These should include summary sheets that alert the public to what is new and what has been changed or
    updated in the plan.
  2. Community meetings with developers should: Have presentations on-line 10 business days in advance Be offered in both an in-person and on-line format (either simultaneously or two separate meetings). Minutes should be taken by both the developer and DCDP so that any inconsistencies can be addressed.
  3. We need to address the changing and varied information needs of the public in order to get more citizens involved and insure transparency
  4. We should have a preliminary meeting during the planning process with DCDP, possibly when City committees like the Commission on Disability are involved, to listen (but not contribute) to the ideas being presented. This meeting is also an opportunity to view what agreements that the City has made with the developers in order for this project to proceed.
  5. We need to address the tremendous information gap between the first community meetings and Planning and Zoning meetings. The community, wrongly, thinks that their job is done after that meeting. And the Boards see no need to review these community meetings to get a feel for what the public supports. This is a major informational gap!

Do any of these requests seem unreasonable to you? Could you please let your Councilors know if these are changes that you would support? These changes have to go before the full Council for consideration, so I believe that there’s still time for this to be tweaked.

This meeting was a step in the right direction. I especially want to thank Councilor Feltner for opening up the conversation a bit, because, in reality, this was not just about one specific ordinance, but holistically, how the public is treated and responded to.

Another personal concern of mine is people who are beginning to show up at City meetings with what seems to be one “talking point” … don’t listen to people who disagree with us.

We heard comments at this meeting asking that community meetings be fewer or even eliminated and that we limit the time to two minutes on all committee meetings, the very meetings that are crafted to be more free flowing and idea-sharing.

None of this advocates for the citizenry of Watertown. In fact, it does just the opposite. It’s a great way to encourage all substantive conversations to be done behind closed doors, never a healthy thing for a community.

More Support for our Neighborhoods

Then, on Thursday, September 28th, there was a meeting of the Committee on Parks and Recreation. I went to just listen, but first, before I went to this meeting, I thought that I’d drop by Casey Park, the topic of that night, to see what the fuss was about.

I got out of my car. For being on a busy street, this park was positively bucolic. Slightly sloping green hill overlooking “kids” of all ages at play. At the time I arrived, parents of all ethnicities were unloading small children with tricycles from their cars and carrying even smaller kids in their arms. The joy and anticipation of a few hours of fun was all over the kids’ faces.

Then I heard “WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! Three loud, gunshot-like sounds in quick succession, followed by what sounded like loud shouts of profanity. What the HELL?!?!? The sounds were coming from a hockey rink, which is situated in a far corner of the park. The sounds overwhelmed any feeling of peace and family values that were my initial impression. Okay, I see … on to the meeting.

Basically, the meeting was about two things: Phase Two of development at Casey Park, and the havoc that Phase One was causing to that neighborhood.

Apparently, at the last committee meeting, where a “walk around” of this park was done, Peter Centola, the Watertown Recreation Director, approached hockey players, because they had parked in the handicapped spots, their response was negative and aggressive.

For your edification, I had planned to include sound samples given to me of this area of the park, but I concluded that life was just too short for this. I’d planned to caution you that before listening, make sure that all children are out of the room. People in that neighborhood, unfortunately, don’t have that option.

The upshot: The vote was 2 to 1 in favor of a pause and a reset on the plans to get them right this time. Although these neighbors have been living with this for years, it was a welcome vote
for them … a hope and a chance for their neighborhood to be heard and healed.

Once again, thank you Councilor Feltner for listening and voting for the reset. And a thanks also to Councilor Caroline Bays, who also voted for the reset, understanding that a patchwork approach to this problem had little chance of making things right. And finally, thanks to Council President Mark Sideris and Councilor Piccirilli for their support for this neighborhood at this meeting.

I hope that in this reset, the planners will create a plan that is more respectful of this Watertown neighborhood and still accommodating to hockey players who abide by the rules.

From the conversation that evening, it appears that the neighbors would at least like the rink moved away from the houses, closing time down from 10:00 pm to 9:00 p.m. and enforcing rules that will make this park welcoming for the handicapped, small children and adults alike. Yes, it was a good week for democracy and neighborhoods in Watertown.

The Mural at Merchants Row

And, lastly, although this didn’t occur at the new mural opening, I’d like to thank Bruce Coltin and Elodia Thomas for thinking that the financial burden for producing this mural was too great to ask of working people. They stepped in and started a “gofundme” site for these artists, hoping to try to help them recoup at least some of the money they spent so that their lives would not be harder for their public contribution.

The artists publicly thanked them. It just would have been nice if the City or the Watertown Business Coalition had given it a mention. Bruce and Elodia had no expectation of this. It just would have been nice.

Finally, as we were celebrating and admiring the art, a bus must have arrived, and a line of exhausted people, their days worn on their faces, streamed through that alley. I’d like to think that whether this art is their cup of tea or not, it will signify something important to them … I’m almost home.

5 thoughts on “LETTER: A Good Week for Democracy in Watertown

  1. It is encouraging that when people stand up and address concerns to city officials that they are listening and responding accordingly. Sometimes that extra push is needed to get the attention of residents and officials.

    The Community Meetings are proving to be an important part of the development process in Watertown. At the Manley Way meeting many very intelligent and well-educated citizens raised some very valid points before that change-in-use of the building goes through, some ideas that may or may not have been raised by the Departments of Development and Planning before going to the Planning Department meeting. More transparency is important to make people feel they have influence in what happens in their neighborhoods.

    The meeting requirements Linda mentions above are critical to the success of the process. Having these meetings recorded and the minutes posted so individuals and people on Boards and Committees can review them when time allows, especially if they can’t attend the initial meeting(s), should be mandated for all these meetings. That is the only true way of keeping people informed and, hopefully, participating in future meetings and making intelligent decisions for all of Watertown.

  2. Thanks, Paul and Joan.

    It can be hard work, this “democracy thing.”! And it doesn’t work if we, as citizens, don’t participate as much as we can.

    Joan’s additional suggestion, mandatory videoing meetings so that that information is available for 24/7 viewing, has become an important tool. I agree that being consistent and all-inclusive with this process is critical.

    Watertown Cable Access is to be commended for the excellent and hugely important role they are playing in keeping this community informed!

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