Reflections on the library compromise

Below is the letter I sent to everyone who contacted me about the library and the zoning issues that the council voted on last month.

Hi —,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the library and zoning compromise. My apologies for the delay in responding; I received more than 100 emails and calls on the subject in the last few weeks, and I’m just now able to catch up with the kind of response that folks deserve. I’m not able to respond to everyone’s comments individually, but I wanted to at least send this email to everyone who took the time to share thoughts, as a way of explaining the reasoning behind my votes. I really, truly appreciated all of the input throughout the process, and I assure you that I read, counted, and considered every piece of correspondence as it came in. This was part of a larger process of due diligence that included attending all of the public forums, doing a plot-by-plot development analysis with the folks from the planning department, meeting with stakeholders including the Nolumbeka Project, and spending a considerable amount of time on the French King Highway.

The compromise plan that the council approved at the last full meeting was very difficult, and for all of the talk about how it might bring the community together I’m also aware that it opened a number of old wounds and served to split the community along some unexpected lines. That said, fully 70% of the feedback that I received was supportive of the compromise, whether from a pro-library or pro-development perspective. The process wasn’t perfect and it involved some hard bargaining, but overall I’m proud of what the council accomplished and I do believe that it was the will of the majority of the residents.

For those who haven’t been following every step, I voted yes in favor of all three proposals involved in the compromise: yes to the library, yes to lifting the overlay, and yes to the changes to the major development review. I’ll share some of my reasoning below, for those who are interested:

  • The library was my top priority. I support the library primarily on its own merits, and secondarily as a driver of economic activity downtown. If you’d like to know more about why, I have a recent blog post on the subject.
  • In general, I am an opponent of big box development. The evidence I’ve seen suggests that the era of big box retail is likely coming to an end, as online retail continues to expand and the preference among younger generations walkable, amenity-rich urban environments begins to take over. Additionally, I find the claims that a big box store is a silver bullet to increase the tax base to be questionable. As an example, the land that Stop & Shop sits on is assessed and taxed at $204k per acre. In contrast, much of downtown is taxed and assessed as high as $2.25 million per acre, bringing in more than ten times the revenue with much less invested in the maintenance of roads, sewers, etc. Greenfield is not Kansas; we have a scarcity of land, and it’s incumbent upon us to make smart long-term decisions about how we use what we have. I would not have supported lifting the overlay or changing the MDR if it weren’t in exchange for the library, which was a priority that I campaigned on in 2017.
  • Billing this compromise as a ‘library for Wal-Mart’ deal, as some in the community have, is inaccurate and disingenuous. Wal-Mart has expressed no interest in Greenfield as a location for a store for many years. Additionally, the site in question is a wetland, it’s a Native American burial ground protected by both NAGPRA and our local burial ground ordinance, and it’s currently under lease by Stop & Shop with the specific goal of keeping large-scale competitors at bay. The chances that a Wal-Mart will appear on that site are close to zero.
  • While I believe that real big box development is unlikely, I am concerned about the potential for low-level sprawl development. With the overlay gone, we may see interest in gas stations, fast food, and similar developments, all of which bring in similarly low tax revenue as compared to its impact on the community. This prospect keeps me awake at night.
  • On that note, I do see this deal as an opportunity to re-examine, as a community, the future of that particular section of the French King Highway; to look beyond what we passionately don’t want, and towards what we would like to see. The Mackin property, which has been the center of this conflict for so many years, is an abandoned gravel quarry.  It provides neither a beautiful nor a particularly welcoming gateway to the community, and the ecological and historical value it may have had at one point has been permanently damaged by an operation that stripped the land down to the water table. Wal-Mart is not our only option for development in this area, and the overlay has always been, from a planning perspective, a fairly blunt instrument. Is The French King an appropriate place for a new park? For designated and protected open space? Cluster housing? Senior housing? A mixed-use development, along the lines of the Village Commons in South Hadley? An innovation hub for precision machine industries? Obviously the market plays major role in development, but the city has a number of tools to restrain and encourage certain development patterns. I’m very interested in engaging in a conversation about this (as well as similar conversations about other areas in town) and I would welcome input from all of you on the topic.

I hope that this information is helpful in clarifying how we came to the current decision. Please feel free to be in touch if you have more comments, or if you have ideas for the French King or any others of town that could benefit from some thoughtful planning.


Tim Dolan

Greenfield Town Council

Precinct 5

Reassessing Council and School Committee Compensation

One thing I’ve been thinking about over the last couple of months is a reassessment of compensation for town councilors and school committee members in Greenfield. This is a diversity issue for me. The current stipends for both positions in Greenfield stand at $2,000 per year. I can attest, from experience, that doing anything resembling a good job as a councilor demands a time commitment of 10 hour per week (in other words, $3.84 an hour at the most) and I’m doubtful that the school committee does any less work.

How is a poor person going to justify running for council? Or a person living on a disability income? How can a parent of small children justify sacrificing that much time, while bringing next to nothing home? How can a younger person building a career even think about running, when they’re already immersed in a culture of unpaid internships?

Greenfield has a terrible history of not being able to attract enough candidates for the essential elected positions. In 2015, when all of the positions were up for grabs, 6 of the 9 precinct councilor positions had only one candidate, and there were only six candidates for 4 at-large positions. There were only 7 candidates for six school committee seats. That’s not democracy.

Another case study: below is a photo of the town council in Franklin, MA, where they’ve chosen not to compensate their council members at all. What do you see? I see nine middle aged white people. On closer examination, you’ll find that the council consists of an engineer, an attorney, a corporate vice president, 3 business owners, and two people who work in technology (I couldn’t find information on the 9th councilor). No bluecollar workers. No union workers. No poor people. No young people. No people of color. With all due respect to Franklin, this setup doesn’t strike me as very representative. When we expect government to be free, we get government by the elite.

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As a union officer, I firmly believe that everyone should be compensated for their labor.

But the question remains: what’s the right level? How much is enough? As part of this project, I compiled a spreadsheet with information (mostly complete) from all of the 21 other towns in Massachusetts that have town or city councils and populations of less than 40,000, and I’m sharing that spreadsheet with everyone. I’m interested in feedback on this question.

As we can see, per capita Greenfield residents spend about 30% less than the average for their council and school committee. It’s also clear that, statewide, school committee members are compensated at a much lower level than councilors and aldermen–I want to avoid a situation like that in Greenfield, recognizing that the work of the school committee is at least as time consuming and at least as valuable as the work of the council.

For those who will inevitably be concerned about me trying to line my own pockets, please note that any change in compensation will, by statute, take effect four years after passage. This effort is aimed at improving the quality and diversity of elected leadership in the long term.

Further reading: 

NYT:Black Female Lawmaker in Vermont Resigns After Racial Harassment

NPR:Low Pay In State Legislatures Means Some Can’t Afford The Job

State Flag Resolution

This is the text of a resolution that’s about to begin moving through the council process. Thanks to all of the folks who contributed to this–most of the work is not my own, and hopefully other towns will be passing very similar resolutions this spring.

In short: the state flag is wicked racist and racism is bad, so let’s change it.

Resolution in Support of Changing the State Flag and Seal of Massachusetts

Whereas the history of the State of Massachusetts is replete with instances of conflict between the European colonists and the Native American nations of the region, who first extended the hand of friendship to the colonists on their shores in 1620, and helped them to survive starvation during the settlers’ first winters on their land;

Whereas members of the Native nation for whom the State of Massachusetts is named were ambushed and killed by Myles Standish, first commander of the Plymouth Colony, in April of 1623, barely two years after the Pilgrims arrived on their shores;

Whereas the naked colonial broadsword above the head of the Native man on the Massachusetts state flag and seal is copied from Myles Standish’s own broadsword, borrowed from the Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth by the illustrator Edmund Garrett in 1884;

Whereas the belt binding the Native man’s cloak on the flag and seal is modeled after a belt worn by Metacomet, known to the English as King Philip, who was among the Wampanoag leaders who resorted to a mutually destructive war in 1675-76 in defense of Native lands against colonial encroachment;

Whereas the proportions of the body of the Native man in the flag and seal were taken from a Native skeleton kept in Winthrop, the bow modeled after a bow taken from a Native man shot and killed by a colonist in Sudbury in 1665, and his features taken from a photograph of an Ojibwe chief from Great Falls, Montana, considered by the illustrator to be a “fine specimen of an Indian,” though not from Massachusetts;

Whereas Native nations within the boundaries of Massachusetts were kept in a state of serfdom, and their members legally considered incompetent wards of the state until the nonviolent action of the so-called Mashpee Rebellion of 1833 led to the granting of Native self rule by the Massachusetts legislature in 1834, as if the sovereign right of Native self-government was the Massachusetts legislature’s to confer;

Whereas Native Americans were legally prohibited from even setting foot in Boston from 1675 until 2004, when that law was finally repealed;

Whereas the 400th anniversary of the landing of the colonists at Plymouth Plantation, which gave rise to the long chain of genocidal wars and deliberate policies of cultural destruction against Native nations of this continent, is approaching in the year 2020, affording every citizen of the Commonwealth a chance to reflect upon this history and come to a new awareness of a better relationship between the descendants of the Euro-colonial immigrants and the Native nations of these shores;

Whereas Native Americans have long suffered the many abuses of racism, the appropriation of their symbols, the diminution and pollution of their ancestral lands and the encroachment of their cultural lifeways;

Whereas the Town of Greenfield, settled in 1753, shares a rich Native history, going back 12,000 years, and has put in place a Native American Burial Ground Ordinance;

And whereas the Town of Greenfield has within the township a protected 67-acre Native village and burial ground at Wissatinnewag;

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Town Council of Greenfield, Massachusetts hereby adopt this resolution in support of HD.2968 and SD.1495, a “Resolve Providing for the creation of a Special Commission relative to the Seal and Motto of the Commonwealth,” and request that Representative Paul Mark and Senator Jo Comerford continue their strong advocacy and support for the aforementioned Resolve (HD.2968 and SD.1495) in the General Court, and that the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, after holding a public hearing on the Resolve report it out favorably, and if the legislation shall pass that the governor shall sign it and work with members of the General Court to ensure its enactment.


An Open Letter to Councilor Leonovich

Here’s a letter I wrote to Councilor Leonovich about the library on January 21st. I’ve received no response, so I’m sharing it here.

Hey Dan,

I hope you don’t mind me reaching out. I know you’ve been going through some family stuff lately, and I hope you’re doing okay. Feel free to disregard this note if it’s coming at a bad time.

I read your comments about the library in the Recorder this past week, and I just wanted to offer an insider perspective as somebody who works in a library every day. I don’t expect to change your mind, but I know you’re a reasonable guy and I hope you’ll consider what I have to say. I’m also happy to make myself available if you have specific questions or concerns as the process goes forward.

Here’s my main point: far from being obsolete, libraries are more useful and necessary than they’ve ever been. Furthermore, it’s the most vulnerable folks in the community who stand to benefit the most from this new investment.

A major issue that I see is across this whole protracted conversation about the library, and which I noticed in your comments, is that that lots of folks on both sides seem to assume that everyone uses the library the same way that they use the library. If people go to the library to check out books, they assume everyone is checking out books. If they bring their kids there, they assume everyone brings their kids there. If they never go to the library, they assume that nobody ever goes to the library anymore. Every one of these perspectives is valid, but they all fail to see the reality: that the library is a unique and multifunctional social space with a thousand different uses for a thousand different people. I would invite you as you’re making your decision to consider not just your immediate associations with the library (i.e. checking out books), but also the thousand other experiences that people have in that space.

To make this point, here are just a couple of examples of how people use modern libraries:

  • Research overwhelmingly supports the idea that, aside from basic necessities like food and shelter, exposure to a rich and varied language environment in the early years is the most important factor in early childhood development. Language development is brain development at that age. Children’s books and storytimes may appear to just be fun, but they’re actually some of the basic building blocks for self-awareness, success in school, and the ability to relate to others later in life. The same research also shows that, in addition to the myriad other disadvantages that they experience, poor kids tend to be exposed to less language, which means that the early literacy services of the library are especially important for them.
  • I know for a fact that a huge number of GCC students have neither reliable transportation nor reliable internet at home (I can show you the data, if you’d like). I can only assume that the same is true for our high school students. The basic technology services that the library offers helps these students—again, usually the most vulnerable students—stay on track.
  • Imagine for a second being a teenager in Greenfield who’s homeless, or less than safe at home. How many places can you go? Where do you go to pass time? Dial/Self is an awesome organization but it has limited resources, and vulnerable people also don’t always want to be in a social service context. The library is really the only public place in town where someone can just sit and exist without being asked to leave, and without being asked to buy anything. This situation is sadly much more common than you might think: I can tell you that every semester at GCC we identify at least a handful of students who regularly linger in the library until closing time because they don’t have another place to be that’s warm, safe, and comfortable.
  • In general, the teenagers I talked to at the YELO event at the high school the other day harped and harped and harped on the theme that they have no place to go in Greenfield aside from home and school. (They even said they’d hang out at the senior center, of all places, if they were allowed.) A library isn’t a silver bullet for this problem and not all teenagers are going to want to spend time there, but a comfortable teen-oriented indoor space with some interesting things to do would be a step in the right direction. A former teen librarian at the Holyoke library (which was rebuilt in 2013 with an MBLC grant) lives in town, and I’m sure she’d talk with you if you’d like to know more about how they work with teens and young adults.
  • A lot of hay is made about getting folks in wheelchairs into the library building, but rarely have I heard it mentioned that those folks might want to do something other than check out books when they get there. In a world that is profoundly exclusive, judgmental, and inhospitable, the library is an accepting community space for folks with both physical and cognitive disabilities. Libraries also connect folks with disabilities (many of whom are desperately poor, unfortunately) with assistive technologies and social services. As part of my curriculum in library school, for just one example, I learned how to use a screen reader so that I can be a resource for people with visual impairments when they’re using computers.
  • Even out at GCC, I work with elderly folks (and even some younger folks) every day who have next to no computer skills. GCC offers no classes at a level that basic. There’s no non-profit in town that offers those services. There’s no private company where these folks can sign up for basic computer classes. Libraries are really the only place where people can ask their most basic questions about technology, and receive real support.
  • One last personal example: when I was in my early 20s I was flat broke and unemployed, living in Seattle. The library was a lifeline for me during this phase–I went a couple of times a week to look for jobs, to write letters to folks at home, to print job applications and medicaid paperwork, to find books to read on the bus, and also just as a refuge from the loud and squalid communal living situation that I was in at the time.

That’s really just a short list off the top of my head. I could go on and on, and I’m happy to go into more detail if that would help you make an informed decision. I guess to return to my point: libraries aren’t just about books. They’re dynamic places where everyone, regardless of income or disability status, can connect to information, connect to technology, connect to assistance, connect to employment, connect to community resources, and connect to one another. In an increasingly connected world, these services are essential for the health and viability of the community. As a space of connection, the library now is much more relevant than it was in the past: silent, dusty, and mostly serving folks with the leisure time and resources to embody the Emersonian ideal of the autodidact.

I make these points now because as I follow the debate about the library I notice that, as in your comments in the Recorder, the sentiment that we can’t afford a new library is usually paired with some version of the idea that libraries aren’t relevant, or are nothing but a luxury. The money side of this conversation is serious and understandably gets a lot of press, but I’d like to suggest that underneath the numbers a bigger conversation about the value of the library is happening. Many people just don’t believe it’s valuable–I’ve gotten those letters. I would also contend that many people don’t see the full value because they only view the institution through their own personal experiences. My perspective is that public libraries are every bit as essential as public schools, and that the littlest guys—babies, kids, teens, folks with no housing or tenuous housing, the unemployed and underemployed, the disabled, younger people facing a lack of opportunities, the elderly—have the most to gain from a new library, and stand to pay the least.

Anyway, consider this my Hail Mary. Apologies that it’s gotten so wordy–it’s obviously a topic I feel strongly about. Hope you’re doing well, and I’m at your service if you want to talk more about what libraries do in the leadup to the final decision.