If you haven’t already, please go watch the Ward 6 candidates forum among Councilors Vicki Danberg (aka Dewberg*) and Greg Schwartz and challenger Alicia Bowman, competing for the two Ward 6 at-large councilor seats. This is another useful discussion in the series of informative forums hosted by the Newton League of Women Voters and produced by NewTV Government

First, a disclaimer: I very vocally supported Councilor Schwartz when he first ran in 2007. I have worked with Councilor Danberg on various issues in her 16 years on the Board of Aldermen/City Council, including the Newton Centre Task Force. And, I am actively supporting Candidate Bowman in this go ’round. I was also at the Ward 6 Zoning Reform introduction that Candidate Bowman mentions in one of her answers, which ended with Councilor Schwartz, Candidate Bowman, and I very enthusiastically discussing the various issues raised by zoning reform. While I am rarely an unbiased, arms-length observer, it’s even less the case here. 

Obviously, my impressions are no substitute for your own. If you have to choose between watching the video or reading this analysis, definitely watch the video. But, if you can do both …

With all that hedging in mind, here are some takeaways, in no particular order.

1. Grace note of the hour: Councilor Schwartz acknowledging the great work that Candidate Bowman has done with Safe Routes to School, the Transportation Advisory Group, and Bike Newton to make streets and sidewalks safer.

2. Given that Candidate Bowman has such experience on mobility-related issues and Councilor Schwartz identifies safe streets and sidewalks as one of his priorities, shame that there wasn’t a specific mobility question or two.

3. All three candidates noted the regional housing crisis and the need for Newton to do its part. Kudos! Relatedly, all three cited the need for more housing in Newton Centre as a long standing need. I would like to have heard more from the two councilors, given their 16- and 8-year tenures on the board/council, why there hasn’t been any significant development in our most obvious place for more housing.

4. Councilor Danberg really digs her job. She said so, twice. More importantly, it shows.

5. Another challenger who, contra to Lisa Gordon (candidate for Ward 6, ward seat) and Paul Coletti (candidate for Ward 5, at-large), is very knowledgeable about the full range of issues raised in the debate.

6. It can be difficult to discern the differences among candidate on their answers to housing/development questions. Everybody is for adding affordable housing. Nearly every candidate says they want more choices for seniors, young families, city workers, &c. Most candidates, including all three here, say they favor more housing in our village centers, particularly the village centers with transit.  

So, how do you distinguish among candidates. Listen very carefully. Councilor Danberg called Right Size Riverside a “very good group to work with.” Regardless of what you think of their objectives, this is a group promising to force a referendum on any special permit that issues from the City Council. This is the group that, with Councilor Lenny Gentile, extracted bad concessions from the developer without any commitment to support the special-permit process. While it appears her heart’s in the right place with regard to the other values she professes — housing near transit and housing near transit, Councilor Danberg is very solicitous of those who oppose development that will deliver those values.

Councilor Schwarz, too, checks all the right value boxes: mixed-use, affordable housing, connection to green space. But, he reveals his position on the spectrum in two ways. One, he notes his support for the 2012 proposal, which was significantly less intense than even the Lenny Tax compromise. Two, he cannot speak about the need for housing without, in the same breathe each time, balancing that need against the potential harm of additional traffic and congestion. If your primary concern is traffic and congestion on a bunch of topics (including marijuana), that’s going to limit the development you’re willing to support. It’s a big “but.” 

Candidate Bowman had the most full-throated support for more housing in the large developments and in village centers, including a strong statement that the new zoning needs to provide the tools to build more housing.

Pretty much a candidate for most folks left of the development-skeptical crowd.

7. Line of the forum: Councilor Schwartz talking about a (then) recent trip to Webster Woods with colleagues described a snake crossing their path: 

We saw a large snake slithering around. And that got a couple people moving a little more quickly than the Council usually moves.

8. Analogies are risky business. Councilor Schwartz, understandably wanting to highlight his physician-ness, compares his work on the City Council to his work as a physician. Views it as a case: diagnosis, treatment plan, thoughtful ear. Yes, we get the point. Thoughtful analysis of the symptoms/conditions, action that meets the conditions, &c. But, there is so little the same between municipal legislating, where there often isn’t agreement about whether or not there’s a problem or opportunity and where there isn’t a narrow range of treatment options, but a spectrum of policy responses that involve a wide range of interests, and treating a patient.

9. Given their combined 24 years on the Board of Alderman/City Council, there was surprisingly little from either councilor about specific accomplishments. They spoke much more about roles they have or have had.

10. Councilor Schwartz used an interesting phrase “environmental excellence” that I hadn’t heard before. Not clear what it means, but presumably housing near transit, which he mentions a few times, is part of it. But his big “but the traffic” concern runs contrary. Candidate Bowman is very clear that climate change is an enormous priority, without qualification. 

11. All three candidates expressed strong support for a properly located (not in a park), multi-generational NewCAL. Candidate Bowman added that the multi-generational program makes sense, but that the city needs to invest more time building support for it. Another set of candidates who seem genuinely concerned for seniors.

12. On the ubiquitous transparency question, all three candidates sounded the usual notes about recent improvement and having more room for improvement. Both Councilor Schwartz and Candidate Bowman noted how difficult it can be to get caught up on big items late in the process. Candidate Bowman noted that important meetings are often scheduled with little advanced notice, even for someone like her who reads the Friday Packet.

13. Marijuana just isn’t a big deal in this race. 

14. Goodness, Candidate Bowman’s introduction was rough. She recovered quickly and answered most questions authoritatively. But, yeesh, bet she’d like that 90 seconds back!

15. Glad the compensation issues is settled. It’s boring.

16. At the Zoning Reform ward meeting, then pre-candidate Bowman and I pressed Councilor Schwartz to take a stronger stance for multi-family housing by right around the city. He demurred. He acknowledged that there was a regional housing crisis and there is a climate crisis, but didn’t think it was up to Newton to significantly address either in our zoning. And, as he did in the forum, he spoke about traffic as an enormous constraint to more housing. 

17. Councilor Danberg cited the Council’s inclusionary zoning law as a recent success. We don’t talk enough about the pros and cons of the inclusionary zoning rule.

* The moderator first introduced Councilor Danberg as Councilor Dewberg. Councilor Dewberg took it in stride.

Introductions 3:25
Opening statements 3:35
Why are you running? 8:50
Development 12:20
Compensation 15:50
NewCAL 19:10
Webster Woods 23:55
Council transparency 32:55
Marijuana 38:05
Right Size Riverside 43:00
Closing statements 48:10

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