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Ordered Liberty

The third anniversary of the most infamous day of this young century has come and gone. Across the nation cities, towns and hamlets in their own way commemorated September 11th. At Ground Zero, the parents and grandparents of victims read the names or their martyred loved ones. Here in Watertown we have elected to call 9/11 “Patriot Day”. That is a fitting name given our history. Watertown was the nations fertile topsoil for self-government and the cradle of American Patriotism.

But what did liberty mean to the Founders and Patriots of our great Republic? Did they envision a society void of personal accountability? Did they define liberty as the freedom to feed every self-indulgent compulsion? Was it their understanding that personal freedom in all circumstances, in every situation, and no matter the crisis, was to override the overwhelming public interest? A non-revisionist study of our history can only answer these questions with a resounding no.

George Washington in his first Inaugural address to the nation said the following.

"The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."

How did Washington view this experiment? Was Washington a relativist and libertine? Did he believe that mankind held in its hands alone the ability to sustain self-government without reliance on commonly held moral principles?

He answers these questions in his farewell address to the nation.

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens."

In short, Washington, like many of the founders believed in “ordered liberty”. Ordered Liberty is based on the view that all laws don’t intrinsically diminish liberty. Further in many laws increase our freedom.

Case in point: As civilization evolved, burgeoning societies passed laws against murder, and theft. Those laws may have restricted the liberty of the thief and murderer, but they made the society not only safer, but also freer. Citizens of those societies were freer to enjoy their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, knowing that the law provided deterrents to those who would kill and steal.

Ordered liberty is also based on the notion that there are certain moral absolutes. Among them, is the belief that murder, theft, infidelity, and greed are objectively wrong. Conversely, respect for life, family, society, and authority are objectively right. These are all self-evident; they require no qualification, no justification. They are immutable truths.

Virtue is the cornerstone of our society and the bulwark of our nation. It is the prerequisite for our beloved freedom.

I believe America; our system of government, our free market economy, and our foundation on Godly principles is a beacon of hope and a fortress of freedom. Although not perfect, our system offers mankind the best hope for universal liberty, opportunity, and prosperity.

Yet, there are voices in the current day political debate, proclaiming our system has failed the American people. Interestingly enough, these same voices seek to purge our public forums from any mention of God. They actively promote moral relativism over objective moral truth. Indeed, many have revised our history books, omitting the importance our forefathers gave to religion and morality.

Children learn what they are taught. If we teach them that right and wrong are relative concepts, we will produce adults with no moral compass. In such a society, self-indulgence rather than virtue is bound to dictate behavior.

Is it any wonder, that many executives and employees steal from shareholders or that many politicians (from both parties) can’t be trusted?

Our system has not failed; the relativists have failed our system. They have subverted the “great pillars”, and the “firmest props” on which our freedom relies.

Nonetheless we press on. The American spirit will not be defeated, not by the terrorists, not by the relativists. For America was built on what Martin Luther called a “Firm Foundation”.

The late Ronald Reagan said it like this: “our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together, with God's help, we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. And, after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans”!

As we remember the victims of 9/11, let us never forget that our nation is only as great as it’s moral fiber. The Patriots of our great nation spilled their blood for ordered liberty. They knew “freedom was not Americas gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty God’s gift to mankind”.

John DiMascio

Communications Director
Watertown Citizens for Common Sense Government


Balancing Property Rights

Watertown residents enjoy a matchless privilege. A leisurely stroll down many of our thoroughfares affords us the pleasure of imbibing New England tradition while dining on Yankee folklore. Walk a little further, turn any given corner and you’ll see a Meeting House, a Church, perhaps an inconspicuous old dwelling place. All tell a variant tale of our nation’s birth or early childhood. Surely, such a privilege inevitably comes with a responsibility to secure this legacy for future generations.

This past November the Town Council expanded the Historical Commission’s demolition delay prerogative from six months to one year. Hopefully this augmented power will enhance the Commissions ability to execute its charge. If properly used, the delay period should help save genuine landmarks. In doing so, the Commission will ensure that our history will not be relegated only to dust-covered tomes or fading photographs.

However, some have suggested, that preserving our history may not have been the Council’s motivation. As the theory goes, this ordinance is a stopgap measure primarily intended to slow the rate of new construction until the town is re-zoned. If this is the case (and I’m not saying it is), the Council should rethink this kind of “back door” approach to public policy making. Even if well intentioned, it generally does not make for good governance. Don’t get me wrong; this one-year demolition delay may well prove to be an invaluable tool. But, the Historical Commissions’ mandate is to safeguard of our priceless heritage. They should never be asked to serve as politically palatable pinch-hitters.

This leads us to the “third rail” of most municipal politics, Zoning!

No doubt, our quality of life has felt the impact of unchecked development. Parking, traffic, and lack of green space are all major concerns that affect our community. Certainly, something must be done about leviathan structures being “shoe-horned” into every available square inch of real estate. Not to mention the esthetically profane edifices that now desecrate the architectural character of some neighborhoods.

Having said that, property owners also have certain rights. A person, who purchased a home located in a particular zone, did so with reasonable expectations. Some may have dreamed of someday building an addition for their children or extended family. Some may have paid a premium for the potential value inherent to the zoning. Suffice it to say, inflexible zoning changes will crush the aspirations and devalue the portfolios of many hardworking taxpayers. Would it be fair or ethical to change the rules mid-game? Shouldn’t we at least make some provisions to protect their interests or somehow mitigate their loss?

Some of us forget that private property rights are civil liberties on par with free speech and the right against self-incrimination. They (property rights) live and breathe in the 3 rd, 4 th, and 5 th amendments.

Our Founding Fathers made it abundantly clear; the rights associated with property are pivotal to freedom’s success. Together with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness they form the foundation on which all other civil liberties rest. James Madison, a principal author of the Bill of Rights, wrote: “government is no less for the protection of the property than of the persons of individuals.” (Federalist Papers # 54) John Adams, a chief architect of the Constitution said: “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, …anarchy and tyranny commence. Property must be sacred or liberty cannot exist”.

The courts have upheld this notion by placing confines on the public regulation of private property. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes found that “while property may be regulated to a certain extent, if regulation goes too far it will be recognized as a taking…” (Pennsylvania Coal Co. V. Mahon).

To be fair, the courts have subsequently held reasonable zoning laws don’t constitute a “taking”. However, they’ve consistently cited the government’s responsibility to consider “the economic impact on the property owner and the extent to which the government’s action interferes with the owner’s reasonable investment-backed expectation”.

I believe there is a manifest principle behind this judicial admonition. The courts are telling us “the bundle of rights” that follows ownership is worthy of evenhanded treatment when it is weighed against the public interest. Consequently, the town should strive to find a common sense balance as it proceeds.

Watertown voters should also pay particular attention to how certain Councilors and special interest groups approach this issue. Will they defend private homeowners’ rights with the same zeal with which they professed to defend other civil liberties? Or will they continue their “a la’ Carte” approach to the Constitution?

As for Mainstream residents, we see the necessity for a new zoning plan. We can certainly suffer reasonable encumbrances in order to preserve our heritage, protect the character of neighborhoods and safeguard green space. But there are effective alternatives to merciless and unbendable zoning changes. We need not scurrilously assail the hopes, dreams and portfolios of homeowners. Grandfather clauses, variance requirements, and linkages, are just some realistic proposals that could strike the subtle balance between property rights and public interests.

John DiMascio

Communications Director
Watertown Citizens for Common Sense Government



Changing the rules mid-game - all players need a say

In weeks past, the TAB has run several stories and commentaries regarding housing, zoning, and the regulation of future growth. These are complex and potentially volatile subjects that require our citizens participate in a conversation. Therefore, this month I will further develop my last commentary ( Balancing Property Rights & Public Interests) by focusing on two very different hot button issues. Both of which should be approached using the same guiding principle; mid-game rule changes require compromise.

The town is considering a “Smart Growth” proposal under chapter 40R. As reported, Watertown could be eligible to receive a state grant if we create a multi-use district. This district must be accessible to the T, allow for greater residential density, incorporate retail space and include affordable housing set-asides. This approach to community development has its appeal and advantages. The grant money is certainly an enticing carrot. Unfortunately, it is rumored some parties want to turn this carrot into a stick with the intent of bludgeoning East Watertown into accepting affordable housing at the Coolidge School.

Neighbors and abutters of the Coolidge School bought their homes knowing that the parcel was zoned for open space/conservancy. Since that zoning is still in place today, ordinances (mid-game rule-changes) are required to clear the way for any alternative use.

Petitions have been signed and submitted; well-attended hearings already held, and the voice of the neighborhood has been heard. The vast majority of East Watertown residents have made their preference abundantly clear. Unless the town has an alternative and acceptable municipal use, “East End Townies” favor the Mitchell Proposal. This would convert the building into an age-restricted facility for those 55 and older. The re-use committee voted 5-2 to respect the wishes of the people. After all, it’s their property values and quality of life that will experience the greatest impact. The neighborhood already has one affordable housing complex and several other affordable units. Councilors really should take their cue from the re-use committee and respect the voice of the neighborhood. The available grant shouldn’t be the red herring used to impose a pet project long rejected by the neighborhood.

In this matter, the Watertown Citizens for Common Sense Government stand shoulder to shoulder with the East Watertown Betterment Association in supporting an open process which is sensitive to the neighbors’ aspirations. By all means let’s explore a Smart Growth District somewhere in Watertown. But when it’s all said and done, the carrot should never be transformed into a stick.

The second issue that needs more in depth discussion is the number of single-family homes being demolished and replaced with massive townhouses; a.k.a. McMansions.

On January 21 st the TAB ran an article entitled “ Home Sweet Two-Family Home”. The article gave voice to anxieties felt by residents who see their neighborhoods changing. Zoning Clerk Nancy Scott is quoted as saying:

    "What used to be a little ranch may now be a two-story colonial, -- I think people look out their windows and think, 'How could they possibly put this house beside me?'"

These expressions of frustration are understandable. However, a home is the largest investment most people make. Don’t home buyers have a certain responsibility to do some prior research? These neighborhoods have long been zoned for two-family dwellings. Zoning is a matter of public record. As a point of law it is presumed that average home buyers have the wherewithal to inquire of the zoning office. Bluntly put, they should have known that “little ranch” could someday be replaced with a “two-story colonial”. If anyone should be crying “bait and switch” it’s the homeowner whose property usage will be encumbered, not those who should have done their homework! Sorry, in such cases the most elementary maxim of commerce; “Caveat Emptor” (Let the buyer beware) must apply.

Nevertheless, we can surmount this apparent impasse. First we must acknowledge; homeowners are being asked to cede their investment-backed property rights. Then we can talk about neighborhood charm and how to preserve it.

It seems to me the problem is one of aesthetics and dimensions not the number of units per house. Perhaps new ordinances should be passed further limiting the size and regulating the sight lines of proposed structures. This can be done without restricting the zones in question to single-family dwellings. Modifying some rules mid-game in this case may be necessary. Changing them altogether is unwarranted, confiscatory, and simply unconscionable. We need proposals that validate everyone’s interest; solutions that require each camp give a little. In return we avoid a divisive struggle, probable litigation, and the political fallout surely to ensue if both sides remain inflexible.

Finally, if self-government is to thrive in Watertown, conversation on this and other controversial subjects is essential. This is our town – we’re the folks who work hard, raise our families, attend our churches, and pay our taxes. How do we envision our future? Do we want our community governed by common sense, consensus, and equitable compromise? Or shall we abdicate our franchise to micro-management, social engineering, and arbitrary edict?

We “townies” have our opinions. I’ve voiced mine. It’s time for you to weigh in.

Communications Director
Watertown Citizens for Common Sense Government


What kind of local government do you want? Now that's the real "No-Brain er"!

If the Watertown Police Dept. has a preference for the Browne school, then the town should try to accommodate them. After all, from top to bottom our men and women in blue are the best and they deserve only the best. But the deal has to make sense and please; please spare us smoke and mirrors presentations.

Council President Piantedosi (referring to the Donham & Sweeney analysis) said: “ you could call it a bias… but it was one based on facts”. With all due respect, this statement is factual but incomplete. It lacks three qualifying words prior to the word “facts”, namely: “selective”, “omitted”, and “misleading”. Likewise it neglects to mention that the study bases conclusions on tenuous assumptions and distorted comparisons. The calculations are best described as “inspired arithmetical engineering”.

The financial breakdown included a potential income comparison between the Browne’s 2-yr lease extended out 50 years and a long-term 50 yr lease for the Coolidge. Here is where the math gets “fuzzy”. The analysis uses the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to project future revenue. Further, they assume this number will average 2%. Now, I’ll spare you a lengthy statistical samba. Suffice it say, that 2% is an unrealistic long-term projection. Moreover, everyone knows Massachusetts’s real estate can’t be compared to national averages. While the current 2-yr lease has a clause linking the rent to CPI, the town is not required to include it in future contracts. All this begs a question. Since the Atrium has been a loyal tenant for 18-years, why didn’t anyone approach them regarding 50-year lease? That would have eliminated the “creative computation” and given us a legitimate comparison. Frankly, It’s disappointing the administration didn’t seek coherent assessment of the figures.

If you think that’s confusing and misleading, let’s talk about acreage. The plan indicated that the Coolidge School sits on 2.2 acres of land whereas the Browne on sits on 4.9. This is “technically” accurate. However, in the case of the Browne School, the lot includes the adjacent park. Whereas the park abutting the Coolidge is divided into 6 parcels totaling roughly 1.4 acres. Comparing apples to apples, we’re actually talking about 4.9 acres vs. 3.6 acres. In the scheme of things, this inane banter about acreage does not amount to a hill of beans. Both locations easily meet the land requirements. However, a nagging recurrent theme begins to unfold. It seems someone really wants to make the Coolidge School option look less appealing and the Cross St. site completely unviable, while making the Browne look like the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Since I mentioned the subject of Cross St., the presentation for this site had a glaring omission. The presentation “featured” three main problems; parking, visibility, and the fact that a large drain and water main run underground behind the Police Station. We were shown a design that essentially eliminates the rear parking lot. It also requires spending money to protect the underground infrastructure, and still leaves us with poor visibility. But is this the only possibility? What if we close Cross St. and build an extension running alongside the Fire Station to Main St. That would give the station visibility and it would not affect the existing parking or the waterlines. Sources confirm; Donham & Sweeney actually put forward such an option. Granted, this proposal still displaces the police dept. during construction and entails losing a Street. Even so, it eliminates the “featured” problems. More to the point, why were townspeople denied this information? Council President Piantedosi said we’d see all plans involving publicly held property. Isn’t Cross Street public property?

My allotted space is quickly running out, so I can’t enumerate or elaborate upon all the other questionable aspects of this twisted chaos. Admittedly, some discrepancies or contradictions can be “technically” explained away. But when you look at the whole picture, you can’t help but see a body of evidence that raises reasonable suspicions.

I’m not impugning anyone’s personal integrity. Rather, the nature of the process begs scrutiny. Zealous advocates overtaken by “group think” tend to exaggerate arguments and omit salient facts. Firms who depend on municipal contracts instinctively seek to gratify the perceived predilections of potential clients. It’s just a natural by-product of free enterprise. Notwithstanding, there is a free market remedy that could remove any lingering cloud of doubt. It will require the Council act swiftly and decisively. Hire three consultants, each charged with developing plans for only one of the three sites. Such a competitive process has a built in safeguard that divorces the firms from any influence, real or perceived. The Watertown Citizens for Common Sense Government urges voters to contact Councilors. Tell them the people deserve and demand such an unimpeachable process. While you’re at it, ask them why we weren’t shown the alternative Cross St. design.

Finally, this matter was kept in executive session far too long. This cloak and dagger approach exacerbates an emergent public perception that this process may have been calibrated for a predetermined outcome. What’s more, the unwarranted and prolonged secrecy forestalled necessary neighborhood dialogue. Now they seek to appease residents with one meeting. Do they take us for fools? There’s even talk of a vote in April. Folks, the manner in which decisions are made really matters. What kind of local government do you want? Now that’s the real “No-Brain er”!

John DiMascio

Communications Director
Watertown Citizens for Common Sense Government


It’s Time for Some Forward-Thinking Change

On March 22 nd the Town Council took the first necessary step in reestablishing the proper system of checks and balances, grievously lacking in our municipal affairs. They did this by sanctioning a more comprehensive feasibility study for a new police station in the Cross St. area. This act stands alone in sending a message. In addition, a most significant but little noticed contribution came from Councilor John Portz. He added a crucial proviso to correct one of the problems with process to date. Councilors will now be able to communicate directly with the consultant rather than through the Town Manager. This should provide needed relief for Manager Driscoll, who justifiably asked for specific instruction vis-à-vis this new study. Rightly or wrongly (most likely a little of both), Driscoll has been getting some heat during this upheaval. Admittedly, I’ve been one to point a small blowtorch in his general vicinity. So I can’t say as I blame the man for seeking explicit guidelines. He doesn’t want anymore flack. Neither would I, were I in his shoes.

Here is the upshot. Councilors must actively participate in this process. Once this study is done, a decision must be made in short order. If there are lingering issues, then perhaps the entire process needs to be scrutinized separately. We can’t hold the rank and file police officers hostage, while we determine who were the Keystone Cops responsible for this slapstick farce.

In the mean time, we should begin to consider the systemic deficiencies that facilitated the current conundrum and how can we fix them.

On November 6 th 2001, the townspeople voted in favor of two non-binding referendum questions. These referenda instructed the Council to pass ordinances allowing them to confirm department heads and consultants. The vote wasn’t even close. Question 1 which dealt with consultants, received roughly 72% of the votes cast. Question 3 dealt with department heads and received roughly 64% of the votes cast. Those are both landslide margins, indicating massive popular support.

However, that Council decided to turn a deaf ear towards the loud and clear “vox populi.” Perhaps some thought it was a slight to the Town Manager. Perhaps others felt that this process would be too cumbersome. Whatever the rationale, the present controversy proves their decision to ignore the people was ill advised. Had these changes been implemented the Council would have had more control of this process and maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t find ourselves in this quandary.

Having a confirmation process for department heads (excluding civil service i.e. Police and Fire) only makes common sense. Although the Town Manager heads the executive branch of our municipal government, he is an un-elected employee. Even the President of the United States must submit cabinet and some sub-cabinet nominees to the Senate for confirmation. It only stands to reason that our elected officials should confirm the nominees of a hired Town Manager.

The same holds true for consultants. The Council should approve their hiring and have the option of communicating directly with them. Furthermore, in certain instances, the Council should be able to require the Manager to submit a list of several firms from which the Council can choose.

Under the current system, the Manager can arbitrarily hire consultants unbeknownst to the Council, funding a study from a discretionary budget. In other instances, the Council may order and fund a study but the Manager hires the consultant of his choosing. As the situation stands, the Council only has two remedies if they don’t like a consultant. They can zero out the appropriation for the study they ordered. Or if they are dissatisfied with contractors the manager hires on his own, they can dismiss the Manager. Both of these extreme options require a proverbial sledgehammer, when under a different system a fly swatter would do.

The bottom line is this. The voters overwhelmingly called upon their elected officials to take more control and responsibility for the people’s business. For whatever reason, they chose not to. But the current melee proves it is high time they revisit that decision.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, this is purely a policy matter and none of this is meant to indict the current Town Manager, department heads, or consultants. No matter who is in charge of the administration now or in the future, he or she will be a hired employee. If the people don’t like the decisions the Town Manager makes, our only recourse is to elect a different Council in the hopes that different Councilors will make a change. If our elected officials are going to feel the wrath of the people because of an employee’s decisions, then the officials should have more control over those decisions. Conversely, under the present system, the Town Manager is too easy to scapegoat. If something goes wrong, Councilors can point the finger. If things go right, they can take the credit on to the campaign trail. In short, it’s time for some forward-thinking change!

John DiMascio

Communications Director
Watertown Citizens for Common Sense Government


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