District B Candidate Q&A: Lisa Feltner

Lisa Feltner seeks re-election as District B Town Councilor.

Tell people about your background — family, professional background, volunteering, government, activism — and how that will help you as a Town Councilor. 

I first came to Watertown in 1990, and my husband Dave and I were fortunate to be able to buy our home in 1998 and raise our son Alexander, who is now in college, through the Watertown Public Schools. We welcomed our beautiful and sweet Labrador Retriever puppy “Cocobella” into our family last year. Over the years I became fully invested in the community. I have always been “all in” when it comes to discovering new people and places. I love bringing people together, whether it is to make music, build a garden, or have fun at the same time you’re fundraising, or as my mom would say, “let’s just sit and visit”. My twenty years of volunteer efforts in the community, which has included actively building relationships between town staff and neighborhoods, in addition to working on groups such as Watertown Public Schools Enrichment, Watertown Cultural Council, MassDOT projects, and Friends of the Watertown Riverfront, inspired me to serve on Town Council since 2016, where I am completing my third term representing District B. 

Since being on Council, I have been very active on several initiatives. Here are a few I believe are worth noting:

  • I recommended that instead of a “first come, first served” approach, we not only create criteria for local Adult Use Marijuana business applicants, but that we also include social equity and diversity concerns in our criteria priorities. Council agreed with my addition to evaluate the state’s positive impact plan and diversity plan as to how it affects Watertown. This informed our decision to select a business for the North Beacon Street location that was the first to unionize, hire locally, actively support career development, and use collaborative strategies with measurable outcomes.
  • I persistently advocated for a first ever town wide bicycle *and* pedestrian plan with a focus on public safety in anticipation of updates to the bicycle network. My efforts to include a member of the Commission on Disability for this new planning team were successful.
  • As a member of the Media and Public Outreach Committee, I initiated collaborating with IT and the Commission on Disability for more accessible election materials. Watertown is offering our voting information using braille and large print, and an accessible electronic remote voting system that allows voters who are blind, low vision, or with dexterity disabilities to vote by mail or perform absentee voting privately and independently.
  • I proposed that the town manager’s office take advantage of existing capabilities to adopt an electronic newsletter, available to anyone who wanted to subscribe, instead of relying on communications through property tax bills or similar paper notices. This turned out to be beneficial throughout the last term.

The pandemic has created some trying and difficult times for residents and along with that for local government, and in other towns elected and hired officials have stepped down. Why during these challenging times did you decide to run for office? And with a robust group of candidates running in 2021, why do you think Watertown has so many people stepping forward to serve?

The pandemic has spurred a lot of questioning on a range of issues in our society, and it has moved people to want to do their part to make things better. Over time, as more notice was given that we were undergoing a Charter review, people in various groups began to engage in how our government works and began learning more about how they might contribute. I think this is a good thing. I have always championed greater civic understanding and participation. 

Why am I running? Because I know I am effective at making needed changes; because I understand the role of a Town Councilor, how important these issues are and how to forge consensus with my colleagues. I have learned that things often take longer than we might want, but we have begun many new initiatives that need to be implemented or adopted. Two examples are the implementation of the new Public Arts Master Plan, and the adoption of a robust Climate and Energy Action Plan, which will require adaptability. I want to leverage my experience when updating our Comprehensive Plan to also include neighborhood focus. Experience will also be important when we conduct a full review of our Rules and Ordinances, which is due in 2022.

Being a new town manager is difficult enough, but following such a long-term and successful Town Manager will be a tough task. What do you look for in the new manager and how will you, as a councilor, help the new Town Manager get established and be successful?

As I have said in prior forums regarding the manager search, I look for a person who has the required fiscal acumen and experience to manage a city of our size experiencing rapid growth. Additionally, this person needs to be open to innovation and active collaboration with the Council on supporting new ways to improve our common good. Because I have experience as both an Administrative and Fiscal Officer at MIT, including starting up a new center while there, and because I understand how the Council has been working with the current manager, I have a unique appreciation for what it is like to build on the success of an established approach to fiscal management. I have a realistic sense that I share with many of my current colleagues of what it takes to uphold the municipal efforts we already have in place, whether that is roads project funding, or successfully working with the school funding, or adequate support for our first responders. I also have a strong belief that we need better visioning in Watertown, and better processes to inspire and enact that visioning. I look for a new manager who feels similarly, and I would be honored to collaborate with the Town Council in providing guidance for a new Town Manager — including a possible interim manager.

Do you think the voters should pass the changes to the Town Charter? Explain why you feel that way. 

Regarding the first question on whether we change our official name: This is a nomenclature issue, as we already have a city form of government and calling ourselves a city instead of a town does not mean we change to having a mayor. I do empathize with the feeling that the word “town” tends to evoke a sense of living in a more close-knit community. We will remain a city form of government no matter what we call ourselves. However, we don’t have a full assessment of the costs or the timeframe required to enact this change.

Regarding the second question: I do support a majority of the proposed Charter changes here and will vote yes on this. Of most importance to me is the new rule that the full Council will not sit on the next Charter Review Committee, as this composition creates a conflict of interest.

Other proposed changes will move us to more accountability overall.

  • A chance to review our Charter in five years (in 2026)  instead of waiting ten years;
  • Some adjustments to the balance of power between administrative and legislative bodies, which will also benefit a new Manager; activate connections with existing and new residents, and give more clear rule-making power to Council, and accountability from both administrative and legislative bodies.

Police funding and the services provided by the Watertown Police have become a big topic of discussion. Should the funding be increased, decreased or is it just about right? And, would you like to see how the Police in Watertown operate (please explain your answer)?

We have already identified there are unfunded mandates with State Police Reform that will need resources. I expect to see additional requests for public safety support given our rapid growth toward becoming a regional destination. This could also include discussions on regionalization of some resources for growing needs in mental health services and crisis prevention. The department certainly is not currently over-staffed. And in fact, we are always keeping our eyes open for additional grant money to help support and expand public safety services and WPD staff, who are also often charitable with their personal time and resources. I remain open to innovative ways to continually improve public safety, but I also believe in fully honoring the good work that has been accomplished to date.

What issue in Watertown that might not be getting enough attention would you want to work on as a councilor, and how would you like the Town government to address the issue?

I can think of several, but here are two: 

1.  Water & Sewer and Stormwater infrastructure with the rising costs of supply & services.

2.  Town internet infrastructure that also supports local businesses and entrepreneurs.

Initial planning is underway for some stormwater and water & sewer needs, but there is more work to do in assessing our infrastructure and associated costs..

We need to address the internet issue by acknowledging it’s a problem. Even for current subscribers there are inconsistencies and limitations with connection and speed. This affects remote learning, work, entertainment and economic development opportunities. Discussion on identifying priorities and funding has not yet begun around COVID relief monies yet to be realized.

Watertown has taken a lot of steps to become more green and to address climate change. Do you think the Town has done enough, or would you like more to be done — if so what would you like to see?

I am pleased with the progress we have achieved so far since receiving a Green Community Competitive Grant several years ago, but there is a lot more to do given our world’s climate emergency. There are too many to include them all here — but  I would like to see us require a landscape architect peer review required in our Design Guidelines, more specific standards for maintenance of green spaces with large projects, improved definition of Open Space in our zoning, increased investment in green spaces such as to reclaim ignored opportunities or preserve existing spaces, raised garden or flower beds and hanging baskets in commercial areas, more public trees and species that are appropriate for locations under wires, planting strips whether or not they have granite curbs with alternatives for protection, pocket parks, identify more bioretention, acquiring and increasing open space, and care and management of our public tree canopy. I also support and believe in community gardens, and better connections to the Charles River.

What is something that people may not know about you that residents would find interesting?

In addition to my musical training that began in childhood, I was the first female honor crossing guard at our elementary school in Ohio. I was also on the first girls’ softball team which started as a summer recreational program. This inspired my love of athletics which led to my competing in Track and Field through High School and instilled in me the importance of courage, determination, and teamwork.