If you haven’t already, please go watch the Ward 6 candidates forum between incumbent Brenda Noel and challenger and long-time activist Lisa Gordon, hosted by the Newton League of Women Voters and produced by NewTV Government. These fora are almost always informative.
1. I’m reluctantly coming to the conclusion that nobody has a plan for better transportation in this city. Candidates have goals: more bike lanes, protected bike lanes, walkable village centers, better transit. And, we already do okay with new-development-related improvements and are at least hit and miss with big, well-funded projects. But, nobody’s got specific policy proposals — that can be implemented by the city — to systematically and systemically reduce driving and increase alternative modes across Newton. (Actually, one came up in the Ward 2 forum, but you’ll have to wait for the takeways post for that one.) We need to know what specific changes candidates propose and by what funding mechanism and what process they are going to be implemented. I do not see how we’re going to fundamentally change our streetscape within our current budgetary constraints. Who’s proposing an override?
2. Candidate Gordon raises some interesting questions with her stated preference for commercial over residential development. She’s right. We have a tax base weighted way too heavily residential. The pressure to develop more housing is only going to make it worse. But, the developers of the two last big developable properties — until we take the golf courses — want to build housing, not commercial space, which suggests that Newton is not attractive as a home for commercial. How is this sustainable? How is it fixable? (Note: Fifty years after Sylvania dropped its plans, Wells Ave. is still not the answer.)
3. Councilor Noel had a crisp answer on affordable housing and development that should be the reference for any candidate’s response on these issues: like it or not, private development is the main source of new affordable housing in the city. We need greater density to accomplish our affordable housing aims. We have to manage the tradeoff, not wish for other sources of affordable housing (that is, if you think it’s a tradeoff). Implicit in her answer: if you don’t want density with your affordable housing, then maybe affordable housing is not your first priority.
4. Candidate Gordon really doesn’t like the way the City Council operates. Across various answers, she didn’t just criticize Council transparency, but the way they schedule public meetings (in small rooms without space for the public), their respect for the public, how they debate, the range of voices, how individual voices are not being heard, the socio-economic representation, the insufficient effort they make to really explain the issues that are before them. Not clear how she’s going to fix these problems as a single councilor, but she’s not happy.
5. Given the really thoughtful discussions about seniors in the two Ward 5 ward councilor forums, it was a shame that this forum didn’t touch on senior issues.
6. Having a tough time figuring out if there’s anything animating Candidate Gordon’s run besides development-skepticism. The candidates’ stated priorities are roughly the same: environment, transparency, affordable housing. Candidate Gordon offered no criticism — implicit or explicit — and drew no distinction between herself and Councilor Noel, except with regards to building more housing. One minor exception: they did disagree about councilor compensation. But, I find it hard to get worked up about a long-overdue raise which amounts to a pittance in the city budget. The two painted different pictures of how well the council is functioning, but Candidate Gordon’s critique amounts to mostly disappointment, not any specific, actionable proposals. If this race has another salient issue besides development, it wasn’t on display in the forum.
7. It may be time for the League to revisit this format. There is a huge need for follow-up questions to draw out and clarify answers. Candidate Gordon made several references to trustee/non-trustee models of governance, but was not clear at all on what she meant. Sounds interesting. The moderator should have had license to ask, “What do you mean?”
8. There is no nice way of saying this, but Candidate Gordon has not done enough preparation to merit serious consideration as a candidate. Despite her 20 years of activism, she only knows that adding density is not going to solve the housing problem. Beyond that, she needs to “grapple” with the complexities of the issue. She’s just plain wrong about density and carbon emissions. What she does propose as possible solutions to affordable housing are not remotely feasible or responsive to the problem, like her suggestion to create programs that will keep properties in Oak Hill affordable. It’s not the size of the house, it’s the cost of the land. Her desire for buses that connect the villages to each other ignores the inconvenient reality that transit requires density, the very thing she opposes, to be feasible. Candidate Gordon wishes the council had more diverse views, delved deeper into issues, collaborated more. And, was more streamlined.
9. A question that doesn’t fit into the League’s ultra-evenhanded approach is one to challengers: why are you running now, against this incumbent?
10. The evergreen “What would you do if an issue before the council were bad for the ward, but good for the city?” question to ward council candidates continues to elicit weird answers. Councilor Noel couldn’t think of an example. Candidate Gordon can’t imagine the council wouldn’t be working cohesively. Puh-lease. Of course there are going to be issues with different impacts across wards. And, basic political reality requires that a ward councilor keep an eye on both the city-wide benefit and the local impact, or end up losing their seat. Crib Kathy Winters’ answer: “Bring ward issues to the table and vote for the city.” Slightly disingenuous, but at least it sounds thoughtful.
11. The development-skeptical folks are beginning to say the quiet things out loud. Candidate Gordon said that additional housing is a threat to our excellent schools. Of course it is. Our schools don’t reflect superior values or a more robust civic commitment to our youth. The concentration of wealth from exclusionary zoning leads to high per-pupil spending. And, she’s just not interested in anybody’s kids but our own. According to Candidate Gordon, an additional 800 families represents a tax on our schools, not an opportunity to share our educational abundance.
12. Moderator Patti Muldoon seemed to be having a good ol’ time in chair during her preliminary remarks.