Author Archives: Suzanne

Everyone’s Somerville – Testimony before Planning Board

I support the Somerville Community Corporation’s proposed development of 181 Washington Street because Somerville is changing.  The Green Line is bringing big changes with it.  If we are to preserver the diversity that is the hallmark of our vibrant city and especially Union Square – we must embrace developers that look not just to build housing, but help us build community.

This project both revitalizes Union Square and retains the spirit of inclusion that makes our city an exciting, interesting and engaging place to live.  Personally, I want to live in a place where all are welcome.

When a Bad Thing Happens at a Good Non-Profit – December, 2012

So here’s what happened. At the May 31 meeting of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS) the agency’s independent auditor reported that the Executive Director had used a CAAS credit card to make many personal purchases and that the Director of Finance knew about it. The three of us in the room, Sonja Darai, vice president, Kellee Middlebrooks, treasurer, and I, president, were, to put it mildly, stunned.

Since hiring the Executive Director in 2009, the Board and staff had been
working steadfastly to improve CAAS. A Quality Improvement Plan, created
with the help of the New England Institute for Quality Community Action and
the Department of Housing and Community Development, was almost fully
implemented. Newly revised financial policies and procedures along with
whistleblower and conflict-of-interest policies had been established. The
Finance Committee regularly met with the Director of Finance and reviewed
reports that he had prepared.

After learning that the credit card had been misused, we took immediate
action. Within 24 hours, we impounded all of the agency’s credit cards,
placed the Executive Director on leave, contacted CAAS’ lawyer, and held a
joint Executive and Finance Committee meeting. At that meeting, we set our
priorities. We needed to get the agency’s money – taxpayers’ money – back.
We needed to improve financial controls. We needed to hold people
accountable for their actions. We agreed that we must act quickly,
correctly, and transparently. I then sent an e-mailed to everyone on Board
outlining our situation and asking for help to restore the organization’s
integrity swiftly and judicially.

At the June Board meeting, we heard the Executive Director’s side of the
story, and then formally discussed ending her tenure. In separating the
Executive Director from CAAS, we discovered that pursuing what seemed just
might not be in the agency’s long-term best interests. Simply showing her
the door would expose CAAS to a lawsuit that would cost hundreds of
thousands of dollars to defend. Early on, it became clear that it would take
months to determine the exact amount misused. A long period of uncertainty
would seriously undermine the important work done by CAAS.

In the following weeks, we talked with funders, elected officials, and
stakeholders; appointed an acting Executive Director; and hired a consulting
firm with extensive experience in identifying fraudulent transactions. Out
of necessity, members of the Board got involved in day-to-day operations,
helping the acting Executive Director hold the agency together.

The crisis took a toll. Several Board members, unable to continue to give
the time and attention needed, gave up their seats. As a representative of
the low-income community, I had been elected to a two-year term in 2010. The
Board president serves a one-year term. Both of my terms expired at CAAS’
annual meeting on October 23. With a vibrant cadre of new members joining
the Board, a strong, committed Executive Committee in place, and the hiring
an interim Executive Director experienced in non-profit turn around
immanent, I had little left to contribute and chose not to seek reelection.

Bad things can happen at any organization. Though flawed, the system worked.
The auditor did what he was supposed to do – he uncovered improprieties. The
Board did what it was supposed to do – it acted quickly and openly to
protect the agency. Good organizations see crisis as an opportunity for
transformation. CAAS, with its extraordinary tradition of diverse community
members working together for the commonweal, is now posed to build on its
past, and continue to improve how it provides vital services to our
community.

Walmart: Fool Me Once…. May, 2012

I admit it. I drank the Kool-Aid. When Walmart proposed opening in Somerville I was interested in learning more. After all, they said they were cleaning up their act. The CEO acknowledged that better business practices would make Walmart a better company. They claimed they were improving their labor practices, providing health care coverage for more employees, and developing initiatives to help promote women. They seemed commitment to selling fresh, less expensive organic food in underserved areas, and they have an aggressive energy conservation plan. Maybe a small Walmart Neighborhood Market in Somerville wouldn’t be a bad thing. The location – the site a former Circuit City next to a Home Depot overlooking Interstate 93, isn’t exactly an oasis for independent, locally owned businesses. Maybe some members of our community would benefit from better access to less expensive, fresh food. Who would Walmart in Somerville hurt? Stop ‘n Shop is owned by a Dutch conglomerate, and Shaw’s by a company in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Maybe the two local grocery chains, Market Basket and Food Master, would feel the pinch. And while that would be unfortunate, perhaps with a store here, some of our non-profits could get a chunk of money from the Walmart Foundation.

Boy, was I wrong! Come to find out that while Walmart were busy polishing their image here, in Mexico they were delivering envelopes full of cash to mayors and city council members, urban planners and permitting agents – anyone who might stand in their way. $24 million in bribes bought zoning approvals, reduced environmental impact fees and the consent of community leaders. And when the big cheeses at Walmart headquarters were told what was going on by their own people, they shut down the internal investigation and then promoted the guy in who’d been charge of Walmart de Mexico.

So what does this have to do with us? Everyone knows that there are places where slipping someone something under the table is how business is done. The wink, the nod, the greasing of a palm – its all part of the game. Who does it hurt? It hurts all of us. It hurts us when we try to buy goods at a fair price in an open market. It hurts the companies that do business honestly. Corruption, fraud and cover-up undermine the integrity of the marketplace, and our trust in those we buy from. This is a corporation with a win at all costs, let’s stick it to the other guy culture. Why on earth would we let a company like this set up shop in our community?

Somerville for Sale? Spring, 2012

Are you buying or are you selling? Savvy dealers always know what side of the transaction they’re on. Have something that other folks want? You’re in the buyer’s seat. Looking to unload something that no one’s really interested in? You’re selling. From the kid trading baseball cards to a broker with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, the key to success is the same. You need to know when you are buying and when you are selling.

Somerville is a gold mine. We are in spitting distance of a major metropolitan area with an evergreen economic base. Education, medicine, and financial services are our major industries. No matter how hard times are, people get sick, go to college and use money. Somerville is cool, hip and happening. We have what people want.

So what should we do with our wealth? How should we develop our assets? When someone comes to us and wants to build houses or a shopping center, shouldn’t we ask them to use local labor to build these projects? Boston has had a residents job policy since 1985. As a community, we have the right to make these demands because our taxes subsidy these projects. According to the City’s web site “…$73 million in public funds were identified and awarded in 2008 and 2009…” to underwrite the costs of building Assembly Square.

When a major retailer opens a big box store, shouldn’t we ask them to give folks who live here first crack at jobs, and to source goods and services from local businesses? The East Palo Alto First Source Hiring and Local Business Enterprise policy didn’t keep Ikea from opening there in 2003. Why wouldn’t a similar policy work here in Somerville?

Over the last ten years the overall percentage of our community living below the poverty line jumped from 12.5% to 18%. Clearly, we need jobs that pay well. Arguing that a local hiring ordinance is a bureaucratic burden that shouldn’t be imposed on businesses is in the same vain as the idea that if government would just get out of the way, private enterprise will create more and better public good. This argument has Somerville as the seller and businesses as the buyer.

We have what businesses want. We are positioned to drive the bargain. To make the most of what we have we must hold out the proposition that the people who live here are great workers – smart, dedicated, skilled and insist that companies that want to do business here have as much faith on our people was we do. Show them our diversity and creativity. Show them our history of industriousness and invention. Show them how we invest in our schools, and how our investment was recognized last year when the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation named Somerville High School Innovative School of the Year. Show them how our city government is a nationally recognized leader in data driven decision making and a creator of cutting edge efficiencies. Show them that we believe in ourselves. Show them how we stand up for ourselves and for what we believe in. Show them why we are an All-American City. And then roll out the welcome mat and invite in those who will truly invest in our community.

Of History and Holidays at JFK Elementary School – November, 2011

A Teachable Moment Revisited [Written in response to controversy over how our schools approach Halloween, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving}

When I was growing up Christopher Columbus as all about the brave explorer who sailed the ocean blue. I owned a book that had on the back cover a drawing of a little Pilgrim boy and a little Indian boy tugging on a turkey wishbone. “Indians” were cardboard cut out characters like Tonto and little plastic figures with bows and arrows that my brother played with. “Geronimo” was something you yelled before jumping in a pile of leaves.

Gradually we learn that some aspects of history have been glossed over. Take the quest for religious freedom, the cornerstone of the Pilgrims’ story – who knew it was an outcome of the violent War between the Roses – which determined which line of the Tudor family would rule England, and pitted Christian against Christian? Some misperceptions are small; technically speaking, Columbus didn’t land in America, but somewhere in the Caribbean. Some are more important; that it was more than insatiable wanderlust that sent Columbus to sea. He sailed to find a new trade route to the Indies (there was a profit motive). It is very hard not to love the history we learn as children. Learning that there are dark sides to what are generally considered heroic acts can feel like giving up on the vain of goodness that runs deep though our national narrative.

So what should we, tell our son, who is in sixth grade at the Kennedy School about Columbus Day and Thanksgiving? He’s old enough to understand that there are more to “Indians” then the boy with the wishbone. Eventually, he’ll learn about Wounded Knee and Sand Creek. Eventually, he’ll learn about the Ursaline Convent fire, and “No Irish Need Apply”, our own contributions to Christian on Christian violence. Eventually, he’ll learn that both in the past, and in the present, parts of human existence are truly horrifying.

So what should we tell him? Saying “Sorry, wish things were different,” or “ It’s the way of the world” or “Can’t do anything about it” seems overwhelmingly pessimist. Perhaps, in the long run, what we tell him isn’t as important as how we help him think through what he’s learning, to help him see and begin to understand how oppression operates in our past and in our present. And we need to help him understand that it is courage, hope and community that bends long arch of history towards justice. Maybe this is something we can talk about as we roll out the crusts for the apple and pumpkin pies.

Somerbridge v. Camberville, or, Can Somerville Keep it’s Cool? May, 2011

The recent dust-up between Mayor Joe Cutatone and Cambridge City Councilor Ken Reeves raises the question, which is the more interesting city? Somerville or Cambridge? Of course Somerville is. With our commitment to diversity, our strong sense of civic pride, and our remarkable authenticity, to suggest otherwise is downright silly. However, with the extension of the Green Line, the coming of Ikea and the development of Assembly Square, will we be able to maintain our high rate of hip? Can we avoid the fate of Cambridge and not become, to borrow Mayor Curtatone’s spot-on comparison, another Natick?

Extending the Green Line through Somerville will improve access to downtown Boston. With an easier commute, housing in our authentic neighborhoods become far more desirable. Will the higher costs of housing displace the artists and musicians that Mayor Joe cites in his spirited defense of our city? Without affordable apartments for rent, will future Presidents be able to live in Somerville, while they study in Cambridge?

Will the opening of Ikea generate jobs for our residents and opportunities for local businesses? (Someone has to sell them the ground beef for all those meatballs, why not McKinnon’s?) Will the traffic generated by Ikea bring shoppers to our hip squares, or will our streets be merely part of the passing scenery?

Who will build the new Assembly Square? Local tradesmen? Or by drivers of pick up trucks with New Hampshire license plates? Will the residences in Assembly Square be luxury, high-rise, one and two bedroom condos? Or will they be family friendly three and four bedroom apartments and townhouses?

While market forces may seem insurmountable, and many changes inevitable, we can shape our city’s future. We can preserve affordable housing by increasing the percentage of affordable units in new developments from the current 12.5% to 15%. We can build on the success of Clarendon Hill Towers and encourage the creation of tenant owned housing complexes. We can regulate the rate of conversion of rental apartments to condominiums.

First Source Hiring and Local Business Enterprise policies, like those enacted in East Palo Alto, California, would require large retailers such as Ikea to hire a certain percentage of local residents, and make a good faith effort to source goods and services from local businesses. We can preserve the distinct qualities of our squares and business districts by limiting the numbers of chain stores and franchises through a Formula Trade Ordinance as Chatham on Cape Cod did in 2009. We can ensure that local tradesmen will build local public and private developments by putting in place a Residents Job Policy similar to the ordinances that have been on the books in Boston since the mid 1980s.

Without question, Somerville is cool, hip and happening. Without question, preserving our cool, hip and happening status requires careful thought, deliberate planning, hard work, and an unshakable belief in the unique quality of our city and the people who live here.

Local Economy/Local Businesses/Local Jobs – April, 2011

When our newspaper headlines are dominated by unemployment figures and budget shortfalls at all levels of government, one can’t help but think about economics. Gross Domestic Product, balance of trade, Federal Reserve policy – the big picture, macro level of economics seems somehow distant, and abstract. What about here in Somerville? What does our local economy look like? And what does our future hold?

In the recent “Laying the Groundwork for the Next Economic Cycle” presentation to the Board of Aldermen, the city’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development (OSPCD) reported that over the last 20 years there has been almost no job growth in Somerville. The presentation concludes that Somerville is at a pivotal moment in its history, and that financial sustainability and our quality of life requires thousands of new jobs here in our city.

Where will these jobs come from? The OSPCD presentation suggests that we identify the next wave of innovation and build relationships necessary to attract these industries to Somerville. While it is exciting to think of having the headquarters of the next Google or Genzyme here, encouraging and protecting locally owned businesses may be a reliable economic engine. A 2008 study of the economy of Grand Rapids, Michigan found that for every $100 spent at a locally owned business, $32 left the local economy; of the $100 spent at a non locally owned business, $57 left the area. We don’t need to wait for the Green Line extension, or the arrival of the next new technology to do this. Through our city’s ordinances we can limit the number of big box stores. We, like Boston, can require public and private developers to employee local residents first. We can, as Somerville Local First suggests, shift our shopping to support locally owned businesses. Failure to do so jeopardizes our financial sustainability and our quality of life.

Union Square Changes – March, 2011

What a winter! Five major storms – mountains of snow, schools closed, traffic a mess, parking impossible, walking hazardous, and shoveling – endless shoveling. In the hours spent wielding my Ames True Temper Avalanche Ergo snow shovel, I thought in increments. When I clear the sidewalk as far as the tree, I’ll take a break…four more shovels full and then I’ll chat with the neighbor…. when the front walk is done, I’ll stop for coffee. The snow wasn’t cleared all at once – but incrementally, one shovel full at a time. Slow, steady, and consistent progress moved mountains of snow.

Over the last several years, the City of Somerville has rolled out large, ambitious plans for Union Square. Making Webster and Prospect two way streets, flipping the plaza to the south side of the square, changing Washington Street to two ways as it passes through the Square, have been explored as options. Woonerfs and District Improvement Financing programs have been part of the discussion that will some day bring parking garages, bicycle lanes, a Green Line station to our square.

But what about now? Are there small, incremental changes that could be made now that will eventually lead to the successful future of this important part of our city? Could the timing of walk signals be changed so that crossing the square becomes less of a foot race? Could the Somerville Community Access Television Building be properly maintained so that a bit more of commercial space might be available? Would it be possible to further streamline the business permitting process so that a little bit economic development might come a little sooner?

Incremental improvements – something to think about as we watch for the first signs of spring.

Having and Having Not in Somerville – October, 2010

October brings an end to the Farmers Market in Union Square. It has been a banner year for what has become a high point in our community. This season saw a near doubling of the number of people who shop in the market on Saturday mornings, the introduction of credit card payments, and the reintroduction of the acceptance of SNAP cards. SNAP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) is part of the safety net that helps those below, at and near the poverty line to remain afloat.

The gulf between rich and poor in our country continues to widen. A recent article in USA Today reports that the top 20% of Americans receive 49% of the income generated by our economy, while those living in poverty receive 3.4% of our domestic income. Among the Western industrialize nations, the US has the greatest disparity between rich and poor.

We can see the outlines of this “winner takes all” approach here in Somerville. The city’s proposal to outsource the school janitors’ jobs, and the Zoning Board’s rejection of the Somerville Community Corporation project to build six affordable apartments at 162 Highland Avenue, strongly suggest that the gap between our vision of ourselves as a city that values diversity, and the city that we are actually building may be a very wide indeed. I hope that you will join me in building a city that values people based on the content of their character and not the size of their bank account.

Affordable Housing – August, 2010

Last month I had the opportunity to speak before the Zoning Board of Appeals in support of the Somerville Community Corporation’s plan to convert 162 Highland Avenue into six affordable housing units. While there are concerns about the density created by this project, we must allow for a distinction to be made between the construction of new properties, and the density of necessity for sheltering families who currently live in motel rooms. This project renovates an existing building, it does not alter the building’s footprint, it does not diminish our city’s open space. To argue against this project because there is not one parking space for each of the proposed units, ignores SCC’s research, which shows that of the 50 families eligible to apply to live in these apartments, less than half actually own cars. It seems almost cynical to get caught up on deeded parking when the objective of this project is to keep families having to live in their cars. I strongly urge the Zoning Board to vote in favor of this important project.

At a recent farmers market in Union Square, Community Cooks offered delicious treats to passers-by. Drawn in by the snacks, I learned for nearly 20 years, the Community Cooks, group of volunteers of Somerville and Cambridge residents, have provided home cooked meals to shelters and service programs in our communities. Once a month, each volunteer makes a meal and delivers it to a drop-off point. Seizing the chance to combine two of my favorite things to do – cooking and supporting our community, I signed up, and am looking forward to making my world famous lentil stew for those in the programs supported by Community Cooks.