We're reeling from recent high-profile police killings nationally with the murder of Tyre Nichols by the Memphis Police Department and locally with the death of Somerville High alum Arif Sayed Faisal at the hands of the Cambridge Police Department. While there are clear differences between these two incidents, the common thread is that both were killed after running from the police. And we need to accept the reality that every time someone dies like this, it increases the chances of others running from the police out of fear for their lives.
I attended the January 29 rally at Somerville High School and the march and vigil for Arif at the Mystic Mural Project because I wanted to hear from the community and recognize the life lost. I agree with the calls for greater transparency and accountability. We insist on these things from the rest of our government, and the police shouldn't be any different.
For me, this starts with good civilian oversight of the police. Part of the problem we're seeing in Cambridge at the moment is that their civilian oversight body, the Police Review & Advisory Board, is a dysfunctional mess. Somerville just happens to be taking up the question of civilian oversight right at this very moment, and this example from next door shows why it's critical to get this right. If you're interested in bringing good civilian oversight to our city, TONIGHT (Friday, February 10) is the deadline to apply to serve on the Department of Racial and Social Justice's Civilian Oversight Task Force.
Body-worn cameras come up a lot in these discussions. While police body cams can help bring a measure of transparency, they didn't prevent either tragedy last month and are only as useful as the structures and policies in place around them. We're currently working on a best-practice policy on body-worn cameras here in Somerville. The City Council cut the funding for body cam equipment and salary bonuses last June, and I supported that cut, given the lack of anything in place in terms of policy or structures. When we have that policy worked out and good civilian oversight in place, I'll support bringing police body cams to Somerville.
I've long been focused on the impact of district attorneys on policing. DAs are absolutely crucial in changing the culture of police departments and bringing transparency and accountability. This is why I strongly support progressive DAs as a way of both moving away from the disaster that is the carceral state by reforming which offenses get prosecuted and their handling of incidents involving the use of lethal force and potential police misconduct. I know these sorts of down-ballot races can be more challenging to engage in, but to me they're some of the most consequential decisions we make as voters.
This past week I had the opportunity to speak with the consultants who are conducting Somerville's search for a new chief of police. I had a lot to say to them on this, but my main points were that we need a departmental leader with a modern, progressive, service-oriented view of policing who understands and embraces the changing role of police and welcomes accountability. Someone with a data-informed approach and a willingness to try creative solutions while fostering a good workplace culture with high morale. I know this might sound like an unrealistic wish list, but I have to believe there are candidates out here who would see this as an opportunity to really make their mark and take our city forward.
I'm particularly interested in exploring bringing an unarmed civilian response (or alternative emergency response) to Somerville as part of increasing our community mental health supports. I've been working with Public Health and Public Safety Committee Chair Charlotte Kelly to put together a panel discussion on these programs. We have a great panel in place now, and that's going to take place at the PHPS Committee meeting on Monday, February 27 at 6 PM. I encourage everyone to attend virtually to hear about the different forms these programs can take and how other communities have approached this.
Here are other important things happening around Somerville:
Last week the Zoning Board of Appeals approved Mark Development's Chapter 40B application to redevelop 299 Broadway, the former Star Market site in Winter Hill. I believe it's important to acknowledge the pain that the neighborhood -- my neighborhood -- is going to feel when new residents eventually move into this new development and bring additional cars that need on-street parking. In the end, the ZBA felt the immense good in this project -- new commercial space, 288 housing units with 132 truly affordable units, and community and green space -- outweighed the negatives, and I agree. This is an absolute gamechanger for our city and as a neighbor of that blighted site I can't wait to see it transformed.
Now the project comes before the City Council with a request by the Administration for what is called Urban Center Housing Tax Increment Financing, or an UCH-TIF. This financing tool basically would cover a project financial shortfall by given a tax break to the developer that would recede over a period of 20 years. Given the minimal tax revenues we're currently receiving for this property and the future tax revenues this development will unlock, this appears to make good financial sense for the city. I do have questions around what we can insist on (local preference/hire, prevailing wage, deeding the new park on Sewall Street to the city, etc.) and how the financial calculations are being done, but I'm eager to see this get worked out. There will be a public hearing on this requested UCH-TIF at the Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday, February 21.
Community Path Extension updated timeline
With the GLX now up and running, the next eagerly-awaited mobility project arriving in Somerville is the Community Path Extension, or CPX. As with the GLX, we've seen the opening date of the CPX get delayed repeatedly -- from early January, to late January or early February, and now to "spring." The City's Acting Special Counsel sent out a memo this week with an update on the work remaining to open the CPX and it's definitely worth a read.
So what does the path forward look like for the CPX? The lease agreement between the City and the MBTA is in the final stages of negotiation and is expected to be finalized in time for the Finance Committee to take that up in our February 21 meeting. Having this signed lease agreement then will allow the City to do things like install additional lighting in the particularly dark sections and ensure that safety measures and signage are in place.
The School Committee held interviews this week with the three finalists for our superintendent position. If you haven't had a chance to watch those, there is archived video of all three interviews on the SPS Superintendent Search page. You can share your thoughts using the Superintendent Finalists Feedback Form ahead of the School Committee's deliberations at their regular meeting on Monday, February 13, or share your comment during the public comment portion of that meeting.
Additionally, the following School Committee members are holding office hours in the coming days, and they've welcomed public input from the public at those:
- Saturday, February 11: Andre Green (Ward 4) @ Winter Hill Brewing Company - 9 to 11 AM
- Saturday, February 11: Laura Pitone (Ward 5) @ Rooted Cafe at the Armory - 2 to 3 PM
- Sunday, February 12: Ellenor Barish (Ward 6) via Zoom - 4 to 5 PM
- Sunday, February 12: Laura Pitone (Ward 5) via Zoom - 5 to 6 PM
- Sunday, February 12: Sarah Philips (Ward 3) via Zoom - 7:45 to 9:15 PM
The City Council has been working on the proposed new city charter with bi-weekly meetings for the Charter Review Special Committee. It's a daunting task coming up with what amounts to the next constitution for our city, but we're taking this responsibility extremely seriously and there have been some really robust discussions happening in this committee of the whole. (That means all 11 of us are attending these meetings.)
We're currently tackling thorny issues like the Chief Administrative Officer position (I really think it should be a Chief Operating Officer), legal advisory counsel for the council, and the confirmation of department heads. In our next meeting on Wednesday, February 22, we'll be taking up something extremely important to me personally: the budgetary powers of the City Council -- and specifically the possibility of giving the council the power to add funds to a budget line.
Somerville Media Fund
You've likely heard me bemoan the state of local journalism as our local news sources dwindle. I was particularly saddened to see the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) announce last month that it was on hiatus while it raised funds to cover the salary of a quarter-time reporter. So I was encouraged by last week's announcement that their initial goal had been reached and that their Somerville Wire operation would be restarting. I urge you to consider donating to the Somerville Media Fund to keep our city from continuing down the path toward becoming a news desert.
As I said to the reporter from The Tufts Daily who spoke with me about the dire local media situation, I don’t know how we’re supposed to have a thriving local government and democracy without good journalism. We need local news coverage to make sure the public knows what's happening in Somerville. Local media is the sunlight that provides transparency, and when journalism is threatened like this, it creates the conditions for corruption to thrive. So we need to come together as a community to affirm the importance of our media.
Meeting our legal & moral ADA obligations
Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became the law of the land back in 1990, Somerville has struggled to achieve compliance. As we look to right that wrong and bring our city up to that standard, the RSJ Department is surveying the community about what to prioritize. I know it's frustrating being asked to rank in importance things in an All of the Above situation, but I'm sharing this ADA Community Survey to help guide the City's decisions about what to tackle first in our quest to fix this.
Media Center appearance
Speaking of local media, I was honored to appear on Somerville Community Access TV as a guest on Kat Powers's "Talking With..." program this week. If you didn't catch the appearance on SCATV, you can watch video of it on YouTube. We discussed a number of things, including the 2021 campaign, my experience in office, my ideas for improving communication and civic engagement, and my re-election campaign.
Last week I conducted a Reddit AMA ("Ask Me Anything") on the /r/Somerville subreddit. For nearly three hours I answered questions from locals about our city, and then circled back over the next few days to answer follow-up questions and new questions that continued to come in. It was a great experience and I definitely plan on doing this again as part of my efforts to increase the public's awareness of what's happening here locally. If you haven't had a chance to read through the questions and answers, I highly recommend it!
Armory focus group
Since taking the Armory building at 191 Highland Ave by eminent domain in 2021, the City has been figuring out what the future should look like for the building. There's an opportunity for 20 members of the community to take part of a 75-minute focus group with the City's consultant drafting the Armory Master Plan. If you're interested in participating in this focus group, please apply here.
RSJ Public Safety Initiative
Want be part of the process of shaping the future of public safety in Somerville? The RSJ Department currently is seeking community members for the Public Safety for All Task Force. Three community members will be selected to be part of a 13-person committee charged with developing public safety recommendations. You can apply to be part of this here. You also can fill out the RSJ's Public Safety for All survey.
Re-filling the campaign coffers
I know fund drives are everyone's least favorite mornings listening to public radio -- and asking people for money goes against my nature. But the 2023 election cycle is here and I'd love to build up my campaign bank account in anticipation of an extremely competitive At-Large race. So anything you're able to contribute is hugely appreciated!
Click here to donate -- and thank you for your support!
One of the biggest challenges facing our city has been filling a large number of vacant positions while facing an extremely tight labor market. I requested data from our Human Resources Department on the number of positions currently vacant, as well as the number of positions filled last year, in hopes that they'll show the problem is getting better.
If you or someone you know is interested in joining me in working for the City of Somerville, please take a look at the City of Somerville positions and Somerville Public Schools openings currently posted.
Get involved in your city
Our multi-member bodies carry out crucial work, and the City currently is seeking a new member for our Urban Forestry Committee. This relatively new body has an advisory role on managing and maintaining new and existing public trees and shrubs in our city.
The Mayor's Appointments Advisory Committee helps select members of the community to serve on these bodies. The City currently is seeking new members to help with this work. Full information on the role and the application process is available here.
Did You Know...
In December, then-Governor Baker signed into law An Act to Reduce Traffic Fatalities. Among the many things this law does is requiring drivers to allow a minimum of four feet of space when passing a "vulnerable road user" -- with cyclists included in the definition of vulnerable users. So make sure you're giving cyclists plenty of room on the streets when you pass, regardless of whether they're in a bike lane.
I'm holding office hours again this Sunday morning via Zoom from 10 AM to noon. Please join us to talk about whatever's on your mind about our city.
Also, I'll continue to offer on-demand office hours in 2023 to fit your schedule via my Calendly.
The Week Ahead
Here's what I plan on attending this this week:
- Monday, February 13: Somerville Comcast License Renewal public hearing (6 PM) & Public Utilities and Public Works Committee meeting (6:30 PM)
- Wednesday, February 15: Confirmation of Appointments and Personnel Matters Committee meeting (6 PM)
- Thursday, February 16: Open Space, Environment and Energy Committee meeting (6 PM)
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