Birds are chirping for enchiladas!

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and this is going to be one of the most beautiful days of the year. It’s a wonderful day for enchiladas!

Enchiladas? Don’t the birds normally sing on election day? Well, yes, but in many ways today’s primary election is the whole enchilada.  In most of Arlington, the Democratic primary is the election, as there is no Republican candidate on the ballot for our Representative in Congress, (Governor’s) Councillor, Senator in General Court, and District Attorney. Senator Donnelly is unopposed in the primary, but the remaining races will be decided this evening.

Even where there is an opponent, most pundits, birds, and cats all agree that the only really competitive race in November will be the election for governor. That’s why the birds are singing for the voters of Arlington who will be making their choices today.

The birds are also singing for Martha Coakley, a former Arlington resident who has been very responsive to local governments in her role as Middlesex DA and Attorney General. They like her collaborative style and willingness to listen.

They also sing for Katherine Clark, who was recently elected to Congress to fill the unexpired term of Ed Markey. Not many folks are aware she has a primary opponent, but she needs to win the Democratic primary to continue as our representative.

There is a lot to like about both candidates for Attorney General, but the birds sing with pride for Mike Lake (Lt. Gov.), Tom Conroy (Treasurer), Charlie Shapiro (Governor’s Councillor), and Michael Sullivan (District Attorney).

That said, the birds are really singing for Arlington, with the hope that Arlington will once again be one of the top voting municipalites in a primary election. The birds are singing for you if you visit your friendly poll workers and thank them for making democracy work in Arlington.

So get out there and vote! Polls are open until 8:00 p.m.

Let the annexation games begin

Kurt Fusaris has his Arlington Avocado making guacamole out of a possible Cambridge annexation of Arlington. His argument for annexation includes the following analysis:

Arlingtonians who otherwise wish they could afford to live in Cambridge would no longer have to live that as a pipe dream – and they could become Cantabrigians without leaving their current home. Also, Arlington, which has long suffered from a lack of commercial and industrial development due to limited space, would become part of a larger city with a large industrial and commercial base, with plenty of opportunities for further development. As one person said, Arlington would suddenly gain a ton of great new bars, too. Those disgusted with small-town politics would now be part of a larger city political structure – for better or for worse. As part of Cambridge, Arlingtonians would have a lot more clout with the state on matters of education policy, etc. Arlington would also gain many more progressive voters if it became part of Cambridge. Gone would be the days of bitter divisions over overrides and petty political scuffles pitting townies against the establishment.

The talk of annexation comes at a time in which I have been engaged in a question about the optimal size of a municipality. (This conversation has been one of the latest topics in the luncheon seminar on municipal governance that I hold with Wes Beal, Nawwaf Kaba, Joy Wrolson, and assorted other civic leaders on Saturdays.)   In this conversation, there are two theoretical axes that are important for the delivery of municipal services.

  1. Efficiency – economy of scale. If you consider the administrative structure of a town or school system, there is a certain amount of work required to run the operation. So, if a town of 10,000 needs a town administrator, police chief, fire chief, and superintendent of schools, and a town of 20,000 needs the same infrastructure, combining two towns of 10,000 into one town of 20,000 reduces the administrative overhead of the municipality. This starts to break down when the municipality grows large enough that you need to add senior staff to manage the operation.

  2. Accountability – access to municipal leaders. In a small town, it is pretty easy to gain access to and have a meaningful conversation with municipal leaders, elected and appointed. It is relatively easy to influence local elections, either as a candidate or a supporter.  The larger the municipality, the more distant the leadership. Consider the difference between the probability of having coffee with an Arlington selectman and the mayor of Boston.
I think we are in a sweet spot in the accountability axis, but we are smaller than the optimal size for efficiency. How much larger can a municipality get before the greater efficiency results in a significant cost to accountability?
I grew up in a municipality with a population of about 200,000, and local elections are expensive. You don’t have a connection to town leadership that you have in Arlington.
Where’s the sweet spot? My theory is that the theoretical optimal size for a municipal entity is between 80,000 and 100,000. Think Newton. At about 85,000, it is large enough to be efficient but small enough to be reasonably accountable.
So, being annexed by Cambridge would place us in a city with a population of 150,000, considerably above my theoretical “sweet spot.” Maybe I am wrong, but if my estimate is spot on, think about who we should be annexing.
  • Arlington 43,000
  • Lexington 31,000
  • Belmont 25,000
  • Winchester 21,000

Of course, we want Lexington, as it has a really nice industrial tax base along Route 2 and 128. Arlington and Lexington combined would be an interesting municipality, and we could theoretically add Belmont or Winchester (if we want them) and not get above the 100,000 maximum of my theoretical sweet spot.

So, in a nod to Kurt Fusaris, I would love to have a Cambridge parking permit, but if we want to play the annexation game, we should look to our smaller neighbors. Who should we target?

Fixing Ferguson (and beyond)

I can’t stop looking at Ferguson through the lens of my own experience in local government.

I understand how things work in my beloved Town of Arlington, a 5.2 square mile New England town with a population of about 43,000. Ferguson is more suburban than Arlington, in that it has 21,000 people living in 6.2 square miles. (Our neighboring town of WInchester, MA also has 21,000 people living in 6.2 square miles.)

Taking a spin through Ferguson on Google Maps Street View, I see lots of well kept single family homes with more lawn than almost any neighborhood in Arlington. Having done lots of political door knocking in Arlington, I see Ferguson as a flat, pleasant place for a good old fashioned political canvas.

Yes, I am looking at this as a political problem. I know of no other way to view the whole situation. How can a police department think it’s okay to hunt down and shoot unarmed jaywalkers? Who is holding the police department accountable for their actions?

The line of accountability is through the political process. The police chief needs to answer to the mayor and city council, and these elected officials are accountable to the voters.

The crisis we are witnessing began with the murder of Michael Brown, but was fueled by the lack of an appropriate response from the police chief and the elected officials of the City of Ferguson.

A sick police culture
News reports describe the area surrounding Ferguson as a patchwork of small municipalities where African Americans complain of being targeted by the local police. The system is designed to produce this result.

The New York Times reports that the City of Ferguson receives a quarter of its revenue from court fees. This creates an incentive for the mayor and council to expect significant revenue from traffic fines, putting pressure on the police to generate revenue instead of acting in the best interests of the public it is sworn to protect.

Ferguson is not alone in this regard, as the Times reports that some surrounding cities generate half of their revenue from court fees.

Allowing a municipality to keep and budget traffic fines is nothing more than an invitation for trouble. Consider the notorious little city of Hampton, Florida, where they incorporated a 1260 foot stretch of US 301 for the purpose of turning it into a cash cow speed trap.  In Hampton, it was easy for the police to point their speed guns at out-of-towners. They had no remorse for victimizing “those people” in order to generate barrels of cash for a corrupt little city.

In St. Louis County, “those people” who are the targets for the traffic fine revenue scheme are mostly guilty of Driving While Black. White cops, black motorists, and a white political structure that is happy with the cash flow being generated by strict, racially motivated traffic enforcement. The ground rules poison the political culture, poison the community, and leads to a culture where a police officer thinks its acceptable to fire six shots into a jaywalker who happens to be one of “those people.”

In Massachusetts, cities and towns are not allowed to keep revenue from moving violations. Massachusetts cities and towns cannot balance their budgets and raise revenue through strict traffic enforcement. If Missouri is serious about abolishing the toxic culture that produced this crisis, they will act immediately to eliminate traffic fines as a municipal revenue source.

A political failure
My television has been filled with a stream of really good folks, who reside in Ferguson, who are appalled by the actions of the police, the response by the police chief, and the condoning silence of the mayor and city council. Three layers of failed accountability.

St. Louis County reports that the last election (April 2, 2013) in the City of Ferguson attracted 1,614 out of 13,745 registered voters, an 11.74% turnout. I am not writing this to scold the folks who didn’t vote in the city election (most cities and towns don’t do much better). I am merely pointing out how easy it is for the community to exert greater accountability over this whole mess.

Ferguson elects city council members by ward, and in 2013 the winning candidate in Ward 1 got just 518 votes. The winner in Ward 2 got 497 votes. The Ward 3 candidate ran uncontested and won with 162 votes. This is not a sign of a huge political establishment that has a stranglehold on the city. This is a small city where a half dozen folks willing to put their names on the ballot, a few dozen dedicated volunteers, and about 1800 new voters can make all the difference in the world.

Local elections matter. Local elections define the quality of local services, including police and public schools. I am sure the good folks of Ferguson have come to a very real understanding, and they know what to do when the next election rolls around. I guarantee the days of sleepy, low turnout elections in Ferguson are long gone.

Ferguson will get this right.

What about the rest of us?

Please vote for Martha Coakley, Tuesday, September 9

Paul with Martha Coakley

The September 9 Democratic primary offers the choice of three outstanding candidates for governor. I genuinely like all three candidates. I am impressed by the work of Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman as constitutional officers, and Don Berwick’s passion for progressive politics tugs on my heartstrings. However, as much as I like all three candidates, I find it obvious that Martha Coakley needs to be our nominee and needs to be elected governor in November.

Those who know me also know of my passion for K-12 education and local governance. The governor has extraordinary influence over cities and towns, particularly with the appointment powers for a powerful state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Much of the governor’s work is in the weeds of regulations and funding formulas, but this work makes a big deal of difference in our ability to deliver quality services at the local level.

Martha Coakley will be a thoughtful and effective partner for local governments and school districts.

In my conversations with Martha Coakley, I find that she speaks with clarity and specificity on issues of concern, particularly those raised by educators and municipal officials. The reason is obvious. I first met Martha Coakley before she was elected Middlesex D.A., when she lived on Rawson Road. I remember when she visited Town Meeting as she prepared to run for District Attorney, engaging in thoughtful conversations about the office with everyone she met. Ever since she won her first election, she impressed me with her willingness to listen to folks at the local level, to ask questions, to engage in partnerships. She has earned a reputation as an outstanding leader and manager.

Martha Coakley has never been the kind of top down official who would use the power of her office to force thoughtless and arbitrary mandates onto cities and towns. In sharp contrast, Charlie Baker has a longstanding record of disdain for K-12 school districts, and a track record of supporting widespread privatization of local services. His work as a founder of the Pioneer Institute, and his record as a member of the Board of Elementary & Secondary Education, give us significant warning that Charlie Baker would bring us right back to the Pioneer playbook that did so much damage to Arlington during the Romney years.

Charlie Baker is a huge risk to progressive, pragmatic, and sound local governance. I want to elect the candidate who is best able to counter Charlie Baker’s privatization agenda. I know that Martha Coakley is best able to present and support sound, pragmatic arguments that will resonate with Massachusetts voters. Martha Coakley best expresses my values, and is our best hope for taking our commonwealth in a pragmatically progressive direction that supports excellence at the local level.

Please join with me in supporting Martha Coakley for governor in the Democratic primary, Tuesday, September 9.

How to get away with murder

Viola Davis

Note: Since this was posted, The Boston Globe is reporting that the parent company of Hannaford is bidding for Market Basket. Are they trying to buy themselves into the boycott?

If corporations are people, perhaps Professor Annalise Keating has been consulting with some miscreant in the assault on Market Basket. The good professor, played by Viola Davis, is the lead character in the new TV series, How to Get Away with Murder.

We are watching the crime right before our eyes. The stores are on life support. No produce. No customers, except for the few who venture in to get a box of corn flakes or a can of tuna.

I am sure that Professor Keating could talk about motive and opportunity, which all seem to point to Arthur S. and his family’s 51% share of the corporate votes. Plenty of opportunity, and the intra-family animosity would seem to provide significant motive for a crime of this nature.

The evidence also suggests that Arthur S. and his side of the family wants to sell the chain, and they don’t want Artie T. to be the successful buyer.

Market Basket may have been an attractive takeover target a couple of weeks ago, but that’s not the case when customers are entrenched in a boycott unless Artie T. prevails in the current dispute. Not very attractive if Piggly Wiggly wants to expand into New England, because your entire local operation would be a collection of stores that nobody will want to visit.

The customer abandonment of Market Basket brings joy to the owners of Hannaford’s, Stop & Shop, and Shaws. They are probably praying for this dispute to linger into eternity. Might even be worth a billion or two to buy the chain and kill it off. A couple of weeks ago, this may have been a good strategy for one of the competitors, but every day customers are becoming more stubborn supporters of Artie T and the Market Basket workers.  A complicated buyout might have flown under the radar, but if an active competitor buys Market Basket, that competitor would also become a target of the boycott. Thus, we have this interesting triangle in which:

  • Hannaford would be thrilled to see Stop & Shop or Shaws publicly buying Market Basket, with the boycott expanding to their stores.
  • Stop & Shop would be thrilled to see Hannaford or Shaws publicly buying Market Basket, with the boycott expanding to their stores.
  • Shaws would be thrilled to see Stop & Shop or Hannaford publicly buying Market Basket, with the boycott expanding to their stores.

If a mysterious buyer appears and wins Market Basket, one would need to wonder who is behind a Blissful Supermarket Trust, why they would want to buy Market Basket, and why a majority of the board would rather put it in the hands of this outside party instead of a group headed by Arthur T.

Clearly, with the customer boycott in full force and former Radio Shack CEO Jim Gooch at the helm, Market Basket’s death under new ownership could be quicker than an Oklahoma execution. Why would an outside bidder come in to kill Market Basket, and why would the Board of Directors push the chain into a rapid and painful death? We will probably need Professor Annalise Keating to supervise the autopsy and unravel all the details of the crime. Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to that.

If corporations are people, this is homicide

 market-basket  coen_bros

Everyone loves a happy ending.

Someone is going to make a movie about the current Market Basket drama. We’ll
have a good idea who makes the movie when this episode plays out. If Arthur T. (Artie T.) Demoulas and the workers prevail, it’s a happy Disney movie. If Arthur S. Demoulas, Felicia Thornton, and Jim Gooch maintain control of the company and continue on the current course, the Coen Brothers should make the film.

coen_brosI am more than puzzled by the actions of the DeMoulas Super Markets (DSM) board, sacking the CEO who turned a supermarket chain into a highly profitable and beloved local institution. By all accounts, the directors represent the majority shareholders of this family owned business, shareholders who could sit back and watch tens of millions of dollars roll into their bank accounts every year because shoppers and employees were extremely loyal to their stores.

I know that being a school board member is a very different kind of experience, but I can’t imagine any board placing their organization into a deliberate death spiral. Yes, school committees are accountable to voters, and the Market Basket board is only accountable to the pocketbooks of the majority shareholders, but it still makes no sense.


The DSM board has the power to replace Artie T. and the power to take control of their buildings. Of course, this would require a management effort reminiscent of Matewan. Is James Earl Jones a Market Basket store manager?

The problem is that contracted truckers and security guards can force the lettuce into the store, but it can’t force the customers to come in and buy the produce. It certainly won’t trump the goodwill built over the years by the employees and policies put in place by Artie T.

The DSM board will meet again on Friday. They can find common ground, reinstate Artie T., and start to put the pieces back together again. Or they can stand firm, and not let a plethora of workers and customers tell them what to do. If they don’t find a way to bring back Artie T. and the fired employees, I don’t know how they escape the death spiral. The magic will be gone. The fanatically loyal customers will disburse into the land of Hannaford and Stop and Shop. Some large corporation will buy out the business, rebrand the stores, and Market Basket will be nothing more than a fond memory. The folks on the DSM board will walk away with a few less millions in their pocket, but they will walk away with the smug satisfaction that they ran Artie T. and his loyal employees out of the store. Multi-million dollar vengeaartience. I guess they can afford it, but it comes at a very high price.

I hope Artie T. gets his job back and we get the Disney movie of the underdog baggers and cashiers prevailing over the evil corporate directors. Even more important, I hope I can spend a week following Artie T. around as he runs these stores. I want to know how he does it.

Vanishing Arlington?

Our beloved Route 128 is a part of Interstate 95, the main north-south route between Canada and Miami.


For the longest time, Arlington has had a presence on I-95, with signs at a couple of exits pointing drivers to our town. North or south, drivers on I-95 encounter this sign at Exit 29 as the way to go to Arlington.

Arlington Exit
Old sign for Arlington’s exit from I-95

There is currently a sign replacement project on I-95, and it looks like the new signs are going to purge Arlington from the highway. The first new sign has removed Arlington and replaced it with Boston.

Boston sign
Boston exit?

The second new sign, one of those supplemental signs which point folks to the second tier cities, lists Acton and Cambridge.

Acton and Cambridge
Acton and Cambridge

The exit for Middlesex Turnpike once listed Arlington and Burlington as destinations, but Arlington was removed when the signs were replaced. Now Arlington’s only mention on I-95 appears to be vanishing completely from the highway.

It’s likely to be a move that creates confusion and unhappiness. Route 2 to Boston? Really? Savvy drivers know that Route 2 may go to Boston, but it’s not really the best way to get downtown. Heading east, it comes to Arlington, hits the former Alewife rotary, and descends into gridlock from there.

So, MassDOT, how come Arlington is vanishing from the highway signs?

Amending the Minuteman Regional Agreement

Tonight’s remarks under Arlington Town Meeting Article 21,

As a former member of the Minuteman Regional School Committee, I know that our relationship with Minuteman is a complicated mix of partnership and competition. We are partners in educating Arlington students, yet we also compete for students. We need Minuteman to provide the specialized and expensive vocational programs that individual towns cannot provide on their own.

In the past three years, our Minuteman assessment has increased from 2.4 million dollars to 3.8 million dollars, a 61 percent increase in just three years. This is unsustainable.

The reason for this dramatic increase is our percentage of the member town enrollment increased from 27 percent to 38 percent, and our assessment is based on the percentage of member town students from Arlington.

Minuteman is looking to build a new school, and the local costs are based on the percentage of students from each member town. Our share is rapidly approaching 40%, but we cannot afford to pay 40% of the cost of building a new vocational school.

The operative term here is member town.

According to the state, about 40% of the students at Minuteman come from outside the district. They don’t pay for the capital costs of the district. They don’t pay for a new building.

When you count all the students, member town and out-of-district, Arlington sends somewhere in the neighborhood of 21 to 23 percent of the students. I submit to you that Arlington can afford to live in that neighborhood. We can afford to pay for 21 to 23 percent of the local share of a school, but we can’t afford to pay a third to 40% of the cost.

That’s why so we need to take some steps to restore the balance between Arlington, the other member communities, and the non-member towns that send significant numbers of students to Minuteman.

First, we need to support a new regional agreement, which will weigh votes based on the town’s enrollment. Currently, Dover has one student in the school, one vote on the school committee, and their one vote for a $38,000 assessment is equal to our one vote for a $3.8 million assessment.

The agreement before us tonight will begin to fix this inequity, but it doesn’t go far enough. Last January, the Minuteman school committee voted to dilute the proposed weighting system, for the purpose of shifting votes away from the big town and retaining more power in the tiny towns. Instead of a vote that reflects our share of the cost of the district, the agreement was changed to cut proportional voting in half. Half of the vote will be proportional, half of the vote will be allocated equally to each town.

The new agreement also exempts key financial decisions from weighted voting, so little towns will still be able to combine to pass a budget that adversely impacts Arlington.

Minuteman had a major discussion about how to write an unweighted supermajority into the new agreement. Would it be a two-thirds vote or a three-quarters vote? It was a big argument that didn’t make a dime’s worth of difference.

A two-thirds unweighted vote requires 11 towns. This can be achieved with the combined votes of the 11 smallest towns that, combined, send 29% of the students to the school.

A three quarters unweighted vote requires just one more town, and can be achieved with the combined votes of the 12 smallest towns representing 35% of the district. Arlington, remember, is now 38% of the district.

In reverse, the five smallest towns can block an action that requires an unweighted ¾ vote supermajority. The five smallest towns have a combined enrollment of 31 students, or 4% of the district. That’s one heck of a veto.

Should we be bound by a financial obligation imposed by an alleged supermajority of 35%?

Should we grant veto power to 4% of the district?

More important, if you are a large non-member municipality, would you join a district where a collection of tiny towns can impose a multi-million dollar assessment on your city or town?

We are required by law to use one town – one vote of each town meeting or city council, to approve the budget. Shouldn’t the other step, at the school committee level, be weighted by enrollment?

Shouldn’t it be like the Connecticut Compromise in our Constitution, where half of the decisions were based on the population and the other half were apportioned equally among states?

The current Minuteman agreement worked when it was written in 1970, but that was long before Proposition 2 ½ gave towns the right to reject regional school budgets.

That was long before the 1993 Education Reform act reallocated Chapter 70 funding within regional school districts.

Times change, circumstances change, and we must construct a new agreement that aligns with our current reality.

I urge your support for this new agreement, because it is better than what we have now. I cannot, in the future, support a new building under the terms of the agreement before us tonight.

It does not go far enough to align votes with the fiscal impact of the project. It does nothing to attract new cities or towns. It does not bring our cost of any new school down to a reasonable share.

What’s reasonable? I want 20%. I can live with 25%. Don’t ask me to go much higher.

Half of the towns, 8 towns, combined send a total of 54 students to the school. That’s 12.5% of the member town enrollment. Towns that send a half-dozen students to the school shouldn’t expect to have a bloated share of the decision making power in the district. We should allow them to leave the district and cap their non-member enrollment at current levels, particularly if the change in governance makes the district more attractive to the large non-member communities.

We shouldn’t let one small town delay the ratification process until they become the last town to ratify this agreement, which is why I enthusiastically support Mr. Foskett’s sunset provision.

We shouldn’t be afraid to insist on a price tag, and a vote proportionate to our enrollment, before we agree to build a new vocational school.

We shouldn’t be surprised if the Minuteman towns, acting on their own, cannot come to terms with an agreement that will allow for a new school without intervention from the state.

We know that the state can use a variety of sticks and carrots to bring some very large non-member cities, like Watertown and Waltham, into the district.

Those chapters of the Minuteman story, however, remain to be written. They are for another time. What is before us tonight is a proposal to take one step forward. It is a small, incremental improvement. We should take this step. Please support Mr. Foskett’s amendment and the revised regional agreement with your YES vote.

Thank you, Arlington

The voters of Arlington elected three school committee members today. I am pleased to have won re-election, and grateful to the voters of Arlington for their support.

Congratulations to Jennifer Susse, who will join us on the committee, and to Bill Hayner who was also re-elected. I am thrilled with the outcome and look forward to working with my colleagues.

School Committee – April 5, 2104: elect 3
Jennifer Susse 3646
Michael Buckley 2268
Paul Schlichtman (i) 3102
Bill Hayner (i) 3131
Write-In 17
Blanks 6154

The results are even more significant when you consider that my campaign raised and spent no money in this election cycle. We didn’t flood mailboxes with postcards, and we didn’t fill lawns with lawn signs. I thought, in this cycle, spending money on children was more important than spending on campaign materials. The voters proved me right.

I am still looking for contributions for the children of my school in Lowell. Please consider sending a contribution to support the children of the Rogers Early Learning Center. Your check, payable to the Lowell K-8 Activity Fund, will make a difference for the Rogers ELC students. Send your check to:
Paul Schlichtman, Principal
Rogers Early Learning Center
43 Highland Street
Lowell, MA 01852

Public school governance, and other topics of interest, in a large New England town.