Union Square Neighborhood Council

On February 2, 2018, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Comments and recommendations by Philip Parsons

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

As someone who played a major role in determining the organization and voting methods used for the election of the founding board of the Union Square Neighborhood Council, and who worked with others to determine the winners of the election, I submit the following comments:

The actual election of the Founding Board was scrupulously managed, and achieved vigorous and enthusiastic participation. The results are not in question; there have been no challenges.

I write to advocate for temporary and conditional recognition of the Neighborhood Council and its Founding Board, pending substantive examination of the role and organization of Neighborhood Councils in the City as a whole, including boundaries, election methods, and responsibilities, resulting in a Community Benefits Ordinance.

As someone who administered the election, I was left with questions and concerns, as were many in the community:

Resolution 17779 before the Board of Aldermen, seeking recognition of the Founding Board as the group authorized to negotiate Community Benefits Agreement with the Master Developer, US2, clarifies in its preamble the rationale for recognizing the Founding Board:

“The City of Somerville seeks to ensure that the community as a whole secures appropriate benefits from the development of Union Square”.

The community as a whole received no written notification of the existence of the Council and its potential role, or of the elections. Many, and perhaps a majority, of those living within the district remain unaware of the Council and its role. City resources were unavailable to ensure comprehensive awareness.

“The Master Developer specified in the Master Developer Designation Agreement (MDDA) has agreed to work with a recognized neighborhood organization to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement (“CBA”) under a Covenant signed with the current Mayor of Somerville”.

It is unclear how the Neighborhood Council can be recognized for this role in the absence of a Community Benefits Ordinance. There are other Union Square organizations which, if they chose, could reasonably compete for this role. Completion of a Community Benefits Ordinance seems to be a necessary precondition for recognition of a specific private body, if it is to negotiate distribution of public funds.

“The indisputable need for representation of local businesses, workers and residents in the development of their community confirms the necessity of a strong, independent and empowered voice for the neighborhood……….”

Contrary to meeting this “indisputable need” the elected Board of the Neighborhood Council includes no representatives of brick and mortar businesses. Of the 15 members, 13 were elected from an organized slate of candidates that excluded any such businesses. The slate also excluded members of the CAC and Locus groups, which have worked for several years on Union Square issues, and included only two property owners, while property owners probably account for about one third of those eligible to vote.

The election system developed by Fred Berman and myself allowed voters to pick up to 15 candidates from a roster of 42. A group of 15 candidates calling itself ABCDE was formed to conform minimally with the distribution requirements of the election, and the group then sought endorsement from members of Our Revolution, a group that had been influential in the very recent municipal elections. This strategy proved highly successful, and resulted in 13 of the 15 elected board members being from the ABCDE slate. No other groups in the Union Square district contemplated forming a slate until they became aware at a late date of ABCDE’s existence and its strategy.

In retrospect, a decision to allow voters 15 votes each was an invitation to develop this kind of strategy. Had voters been allowed to vote for, say, only six candidates, the outcome of the election might well have been very different, and a far broader and more inclusive board might have been created.

As it is, the election has had the effect of further dividing the community and marginalizing many who have played an active volunteer role in the planning Union Square redevelopment for many years. It also appears that the elected board has a single focus on negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement consistent with the provisions of the Covenant with US2, while neighborhood councils in the City, if they are to be effective over time, need to have a broader and more long-term view.

Having said that, it remains true that the election was fairly won, and should, I believe, be recognized for now, but under certain conditions:

  1. Any working committees of the Neighborhood Council should be required to include broader representation of the community, including: brick and mortar businesses, advocates for public space and environmental issues, members of the CAC and/or Locus, residents with design and planning expertise and experience. The approved Neighborhood Council bylaws allow for the inclusion of non-board members.
  2. The City should form a working group to review and prepare recommendations for a revised city-wide Community Benefits Ordinance, building on the Union Square experience overt the past year. The group should explore strategies to ensure opportunities for all Somerville residents to participate in Neighborhood Councils; this will mean looking at the question of neighborhood boundaries, and opportunities to participate in particular councils. It should also look at voting systems likely to encourage genuine diversity of representation, while discouraging partisanship. It might also look at the work done by the Locus group in defining the potential responsibilities of Neighborhood Councils.
  3. An independent Union Square group, with equal numbers of elected board members and non-board members, should review election processes and bylaws and make recommendations to the US Founding Board and to the City.
  4. The Founding Board of the Union Square Neighborhood Council should be given a six month trial period prior to being given any more extended role.

16 Responses to “Union Square Neighborhood Council”

  1. Craig says:

    The council is not reflective of the community. When a slate is used, organizations are meddling with the election process thus tainting it. You were given the opportunity to do something different in this city and ruined it. I hope the administration doesn’t listen to a word from the council.

  2. Ruth Ann says:

    Be careful. Some of the people involved in Our Revolution and Union United have a history of trying to shut down other people for expressing facts and opinions that don’t line up with their talking points. They engage in social media attacks, name calling, and circulate lies to win supporters. They’re like the left’s version of the Tea Party.

  3. joe says:

    Here here!

  4. Somerbreeze says:

    @ Ruth Ann – Name particulars, OK?

    Don’t indulge in juvenile innuendo.

  5. Philip Hood says:

    As a resident of the Union Square area I was unaware of this election. When did it occur?

  6. DatGruntled says:

    @Somerbreeze, go to any meeting and look who is doing the hissing.

  7. Union Square Resident says:

    The way this founding board was formed (ABCDE slate) is not representative of the community in which they claim to be representing. Union Square (Ward 2 & 3) is completely divided right now and is in the throws of a community war. I’ve lived in Ward 3 for 25 years and have never seen the community so disenfranchised.

    Good luck to the new Ward 2 & 3 Alderman because they’ll be one-term pols if they cannot figure out how to bring the two sides together. Ignoring the unrest in the community and acting like everything is just fine and dandy will be their downfall.

  8. Courtney O'Keefe says:

    5.) The USNC should abide by the setup submitted and approved in October 2016 by members of the LOCUS group including becoming a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit.

  9. Katie Gradowski says:

    The current board is an interim board and is currently three months into a one-year term. I fail to see how reducing that term to six months will meaningfully address the concerns outlined in this letter.

    It’s true that there is no brick-and-mortar representation on the board right now, and that’s a problem for Union Square. Philip has some points I agree with, but the overall position of this letter is distracting and unproductive, and it doesn’t get us any closer to fixing that problem. This thread, likewise, reflects a high level of fragility and hand-wringing over a democratic election in which over 700 people in the Union Square neighborhood voted on members to represent them.

  10. Katie Gradowski says:

    If Union Square Main Streets is upset about the results of this election, they should work to get business owners elected in the next election which — again — is less than twelve months away. That means fewer editorials, fewer letters to the Board of Alderman, more knocking doors and walking turf and getting “your candidate” out in front and visible so people recognize the contributions they are making. It means working with the USNS board *as it exists right now* to ensure that business interests are represented and get equal air time with other pressing issues.

    Most people in Union Square do not run small businesses and have no way of understanding the pressures we face, which is why it’s critical that the groups representing them be willing to engage with others even if it’s not precisely on their terms. I was in a small biz working group at the CBA summit today, trying to push for guarantees against triple net leases and relocation assistance for small businesses facing displacement on the D blocks. Not only were there no brick-and-mortar business owners in the group — there were no representatives from any of the orgs at all.

    Speaking as a member of Union United and Our Revolution, many of us — myself included — are ready and willing to work with these groups, but we can’t do that if business groups and their constituents are MIA. Small business representation is critical issue, and there’s another election coming up in less than a year. I’d certainly be willing to put in time into helping business owners gain visibility, but not if it’s going to be messy, mean-spirited, or undermine the work of the current board.

  11. Marnie says:

    “Messy, mean-spirited”? That’s some rich irony, Katie.

  12. Joe Beckmann says:

    Beware the polarities. Almost a half century ago a close friend framed her doctoral thesis “on one word: flexibility.” Later that year she married Saul Alinsky. A year later he died. And a year after that I started working for her at Emerson, teaching the way the Powderhouse Studios is now about to.

    Flexibility is as difficult from the left as it is from the right. Union United was diligent in outreach, but only used one-to-one “retail” politics. There are loads of organizations who merit in Somerville who merit enough respect to “wholesale” alliances. What one-to-one ignores is what alliances provide: voices of individuals as well as of their friends and families. Whether from Ruby Rogers or Main Streets, Union Square Neighbors or the housing tenant groups, college students or seniors, those alliances represent many more people than the 700 voters, and many more interests than tenants bound in tenancies, under-funded startups, and others vulnerable to “market” forces geared to the “greed-is -good” ridiculousness.

    The “solutions” we will create – and negotiate – will only work if and when the interests of all are parts of the whole. That includes US2, but it also includes many more than are now in the pool. Shall we swim a little before we regulate who can join us?

  13. Villenous says:

    I’m a Bernie voter and even I find this troubling. Union United’s been short of good ideas its entire existence (beyond saying no to everything). They haven’t been focused enough for my tastes on creating a framework for local businesses to thrive here in the future. They claim they’re for affordable housing, except when somebody actually tries to build it. They were AWOL on our longstanding sewer issues. I fear they’re going to make the new park project into a mess. They’re an echo chamber that hasn’t produced many good ideas.

    I know they care, but they need to recognize the need for different voices and opinions if we’re going to accomplish anything positive.

  14. Claire says:

    What makes you think nonprofits have the time and or resources to campaign for an election? We are not multimillion organizations like scc that can get grants to pay for help and chair fillers for meetings, Katie!!

  15. Craig says:

    Katie: Don’t hold your breathe if small businesses and their representatives do not want to work with you considering your constant public criticism and the fact that they are being beaten to death with meetings, seminars, charrettes, open houses, and summits. Some of these orgs only have one or two paid employees and they don’t have the ability to attend a thousand meetings like the paid attendees of SCC…CAAS…US2.

  16. Kat C says:

    Right on Claire! The “Neighborhood” Council only wants money for itself, and they do NOT represent the entire community. If they did care about Union Square, they would not be so short sighted. There is a million square feet of development in Bonyton Yards moving forward as we type. Why isn’t anyone pushing for more open space and more affordable housing over there?????

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