Separated by less than 24 hours, two events that played out at City Hall last week illustrate either how laboriously slow government can move or how fewer than 100 youths can ignite an issue of community concern.
On Tuesday night, the latest in a series of planning/zoning hearings was held on the proposal to build 630 self-storage units at Sand Pond Plaza. This time, experts for the Sand Pond Coalition outlined environmental and legal reasons why the development would be a mistake. The meeting turned into a legal firing match, with attorneys for the developer looking to shoot holes in the testimony and qualifications of pond experts and the attorney for the coalition grilling experts for the petitioner. As the Beacon reported, council chambers were as quiet as a courtroom, although about 40 pond area residents armed with “no storage” placards looked on.
Many from the city side had not seen a proceeding like this with such an extensive lineup of experts for the developer or the emotionally contained yet cutting cross-examination by attorneys. The audience sat quietly, although this has become a personally painful issue for them. I have little doubt that both sides have invested so much that neither will back off, and eventually – maybe years from now – the courts will decide the matter.
Such time isn’t an option for the second issue that brought people to City Hall on Wednesday. As the Zoning Board of Review listened to testimony in council chambers, across the city at Vets Middle School, the School Committee faced with a shortfall of more than $7 million was trimming its budget, including athletics. Cutting school sports has always been a hot-button issue, sometimes used as a ploy to gain additional municipal funding but never implemented.
The $7.7 million reduction is a big nut. This is not a matter of pinching a little bit here and a little over there. Programs and jobs across the board have been cut, and schools are on the edge of a giant leap backward. Legal action seems to be the only recourse for schools, as the administration has signaled it is unwilling to make significant financial commitments and mediation talks have broken off.
The students who picketed City Hall the next morning weren’t interested by the impact of the full cut. They just wanted to hear there would be sports this fall. It so happened that their demonstration coincided with the weekly Beacon meeting Mayor Joseph Solomon initiated as a means to open communications.
Associate Editor Ethan Hartley and I talked to students and parents outside and then headed into City Hall, fully expecting our meeting with Solomon would be canceled because of the demonstration. It wasn’t, thus opening what surely is one of the most surreal news interviews of my career. With the chants of students clearly audible from inside his office, the mayor calmly stepped through his logic for saying the sports program won’t fold and that city funding will ensure it doesn’t. (A video of his comments are on the Beacon website as well as the Beacon Facebook page.)
As we talked about other city issues, the kids turned up the volume, as they had entered the lobby. They started stamping their feet, sending reverberations through the building. This had the potential of becoming ugly, although the mayor professed he wasn’t troubled. These were kids, and he said he could understand their frustration.
I wasn’t so sure this was going to end peaceably. Some shoving, a policeman becoming a little too exuberant in a display of authority, and this could take a nasty turn.
Chief of staff Bill DePasquale stepped into the hallway and asked for a delegation of students to meet with Solomon. Five minutes later, student Lily Brown stepped out of the mayor’s office and announced that the mayor would save sports. There was a cheer.
The students believed they had won.
I imagine they were disillusioned when they learned the mayor’s plan to preserve sports isn’t as easy as he makes it sound. This battle is far from over, and like the fight over a self-storage facility at Sand Pond Plaza will probably end up in the hands of lawyers and before a judge.
I can’t fault students for their passion. It’s a positive that they value what schools provide and they want to preserve that.
I hope it is not lost in the legal exchange that is likely to be the course this budget dispute follows.