I often leave City Hall meetings feeling frustrated, unheard, dismayed, or sometimes simply baffled. On the night of July 11, however, I was very fulfilled, impressed, thankful and hopeful. The vote that I was there to support regarded the mayor’s appointments to the Newton Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). This is the committee that decides the fate of 40B comprehensive permit applications, zoning variances, etc. It is an extremely important board whose decisions can and do have a major impact on our city.
The mayor had approved a few reappointments of existing members, and two new appointments. The problem I (and MANY others) had was not who he appointed, but who he did not reappoint. Barbara Huggins has been an exemplary member of the ZBA since 2011 and provided impressive knowledge of land use law as well as the state 40B law. Her stellar resume includes a bachelor degree from the University of Pennsylvania, a masters in city planning from Tufts University, and a law degree from Boston University. I could go on and on about how lucky the city is to have her on this volunteer board, but let me get to my point.
So when the mayor did not reappoint her, many people questioned why. Various explanations ensued, including the need for more diverse members (she was being replaced by a white male, which comprise the majority of the ZBA board – huh?). Then the reason was communicated eventually that she “had the appearance of bias.” Given the fact that two members of the ZBA who are 40B developers did get reappointed, this explanation also didn’t fly. As a matter of fact, when the developer of Wells Ave. formally accused Huggins of conflict of interest, Newton’s legal department wrote a lengthy letter on her behalf, stating that she had no appearance of bias, nor record of bias or conflict of interest in her performance on the board. The state agreed and dismissed the complaint.
These appointments and, in effect, non-appointment, required a vote by the City Council in order to confirm them. In most cases, these type of appointments fly right through the voting process without much of a second thought. Not this time. The City Councilors had done their homework and knew that something was amiss. They took their roles in this check and balance system of power seriously. They knew that if the slate of the mayor’s appointments were voted down, that the existing ZBA members would remain on the board, thereby allowing Ms. Huggins to continue serving.
So in an impressive act of teamwork, 16 members of the City Council courageously stood up to the mayor and voted NO to his appointments. I left City Hall that night feeling thankful that there is a balance of power in our city government, and that a wrong had been made right. There is hope for Newton after all!