By Joe Curtatone
I’ve been hearing from a lot of people on the FRIT affordable housing waiver in recent days. There’s been some frustration that neither I nor the City planning department has picked a side on this issue. What I’d like to explain to you is why, and I apologize up front that this is a long read.
I’m the Mayor of Somerville, and we have a strong mayoral system, but there are limits to that. I am not the King of Somerville. I don’t get to rule by decree. People sometimes create this strawman scenario where I get to control everything. Nothing could be further from the truth. This city operates on consensus and community participation. It’s the reason I use the word “we” rather than “I” when talking about what we’re doing locally. By myself, I can get little done.
And that’s a good thing. A large part of being a mayor is tending to the business of the people. As you can imagine, it’s a lot of work running a DPW, a school system, a police department, a parks & rec department, a fire department, an inspection department, a finance and budget department,an arts commission, a clerk’s department, a health department and a planning department (to name a few). We having an amazing workforce that does this city proud, and a big part of my job is making sure we stay on top of things.
It means much of what I do as mayor is service-oriented rather than political. For instance, we have set up a 311 system where people can alert us about potholes and we then seek to fill them in short order. As a mayor, my focus is on making sure all the parts of that system are working. We constantly review that data. My office does get to propose city ordinances and start new programs, and that can be political. Yet most of the time we’re executing on our existing ordinances and programs.
The permitting process in particular is one of these areas. I appoint boards that get to decide the city’s contentious issues when it comes to development and I get to propose what the rules should be (for instance, we desperately need a citywide zoning overhaul), but a mayor playing politics with permitting creates liability for the City. For our boards and commissions to render decisions that stand up to potential legal challenges, it is important for me to stay removed from the process.
Once I appoint people, they act independently. For instance, if you think former Mayor and current Planning Board member Dorothy Kelly Gay takes marching orders from me, you are out of your mind. She’s not alone. Honestly, I’ve never met a person who operates that way. A mayor appoints committed, reasonable people to these posts and then you just have to trust them. When you do that, the system works.
Here’s an example: at the start of this decade the Planning Board turned down a proposal to move an Ocean State Job Lot into the former Star Market site on Broadway. The planning department issued its report based on our zoning ordinance, but I said nothing on the subject even though plenty of people on both sides wanted me to speak out. The owner of the property then took the city to court claiming I had unduly influenced the process. Eventually the suit was thrown out of court for lack of merit. The board’s decision stood because I stayed out of the fray.
In the case of this FRIT waiver request, the planning department did not take a position. We have a new inclusionary zoning ordinance with a built-in waiver process that has never been tried. As this lacks any precedent, the Planning Board will be the body that weighs the pros and cons of this waiver petition. The appropriate role for me as a mayor is to let the board come to its own conclusion.
And I know that’s unsatisfying to hear for those who feel strongly on this issue, but I invite people to consider what would happen if the board ultimately agrees with you. If I exert significant political pressure on an individual application, it opens up grounds for an appeal. The last thing anyone wants is me snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. What I owe the applicants and the opponents is a full hearing. All interested parties should be able to put their best cases forward.
My job as mayor is to facilitate that process, not to put my hand on the scale in an attempt to influence the outcome. I do not serve as a member of this board. In this instance, it is vital I be a civil servant and not a politician. My job here is to make sure City Hall executes its functionary duties. That’s a bit wordy, but it means we’ve got to process the paperwork and leave the decision to the board charged with making that call.
If you’ve read all the way down to here, I greatly appreciate you taking the time to hear me out. It’s much more comfortable for me to be making a strident case for public policy than to be defending the importance of why a mayor needs to maintain a public stance of neutrality on individual applications. However, it is how I can best serve you (regardless of your opinion) on this issue.