Was the political deck stacked against a new library in Framingham

FRAMINGHAM—Route 9 slices the state’s biggest town almost perfectly in two, and the two halves have come to resemble each other less and less. If you live on the north side, chances are that you make more money than the average resident on the south side. You’re also more likely to own your home and have a college degree. And you’re far more likely to be a white Anglo, as Framingham’s growing immigrant population, most notably Brazilian, is concentrated in the town’s southernmost neighborhoods. Framingham residents may not think about the schism on a daily basis, but this geographical division may have cost the town $1.65 million in state aid, earmarked for the rebuilding of the McAuliffe branch library on the north side. At a special town meeting in March, library proponents won 95-51, but with a turnout of 150, that was five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to move the project ahead—and the lack of support from south side representatives proved to be fatal.

his was the second time in three months that supporters of the branch library narrowly failed to secure the $4.28 million in town funding needed to supplement the provisional library construction grant. (At a special town meeting on January 12, the vote was virtually the same, 94-50.) That grant was awarded to the town by the state Board of Library Commissioners in January 2004 on the condition that Framingham pony up its own share of the construction costs by May 15 of this year. When that deadline passes—and library proponents have no plans to try again before then —Framingham will go to the end of the line, and will not be eligible for another grant for at least four years.

At both town meetings, supporters of the proposal, who saw it as a much-needed replacement for an overtaxed facility, encountered opposition from those who saw the new branch library as an extravagance, if not simply a way for north-side residents to avoid downtown.

Although the populations north and south of Route 9 are roughly equal, town meeting members from precincts that lie mostly or entirely on the north side accounted for roughly two-thirds of the 150 representatives who showed up for the March meeting, and they favored the library proposal by a margin of 37 votes, with approximately 70 percent voting “yes.” (Town meeting has 216 seats, with 12 representatives from each of Framingham’s 18 voting precincts.) But representatives from south-side precincts were almost evenly split, approving the article by just seven votes—not enough to secure the necessary two-thirds vote overall.

The difference in turnout has been evident for more than a decade, and has grown more pronounced. All of Framingham’s south-side precincts have seen a decline in town government participation, and the decline has been most dramatic in precincts with the largest immigrant populations.

At the March 15 meeting, 26 town meeting representative seats were vacant—24 of them in south-side precincts, with the remaining two in precincts bisected by Route 9. (Town meeting members are elected to staggered three-year terms, with one-third of the seats up for election in early April of each year. Sitting members can appoint fellow residents from their precinct to fill any vacant seats between elections.) The language barrier may be one factor, but some say there’s a simpler reason for the lack of participation.

“A lot of the precincts on the south side are filled with a lot of immigrants who are working two or three jobs, trying to get established, and they just don’t have the time to serve,” says town clerk Valerie Mulvey.

Victor Ortiz, the chairman of Framingham’s southernmost precinct and a 15-year town meeting member, acknowledges the time pressures, but he also blames his own neighbors for lack of interest in town affairs. Ortiz, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to Framingham in 1978, has repeatedly invited south-side residents to town meeting, explaining that they can be sworn in as members on the spot, but very few take him up on his offer.

“They don’t show up,” he says. “They don’t want to get involved.”

Mulvey has had similar experiences. She has offered vacant seats to residents who received write-in votes in previous town meeting elections, but most decline.

“We’ve gone out to these precincts and really searched for people,” she says.

Meanwhile, on the north side of town, town meeting elections have become more competitive in recent years. It is not uncommon for six or seven people to vie for three or four seats. Some town meeting candidates on the north side have taken to outright campaigning, knocking on doors and printing up flyers.

Indeed, the influential nature of the McAuliffe branch’s north-side supporters had been part of the rationale for a new building. The application for state funds, written by director of libraries Tom Gilchrist in the fall of 2000, refers to “the political clout of McAuliffe supporters” and offers a frank assessment of Framingham politics.

“The general decline in citizen participation in community affairs does not hold true for the north side of town,” the application states, and goes on to describe Saxonville’s “strong sense of neighborhood identity” and its “very active” neighborhood association. “This community spirit can be harnessed to support the library’s plans to improve the branch library facility.”

That prediction was true, in that library supporters were able to drum up enough interest and collect enough signatures for two special town meetings during an unusually harsh winter. But one neighborhood’s enthusiasm wasn’t quite enough to win over the entire town.

ramingham’s main library is on the south side in the downtown commercial district, an area of newly refurbished storefronts and small Brazilian-owned businesses. A sizeable foreign-language section reflects the library’s growing emphasis on serving the immigrant community, which now accounts for one-fifth of the town’s population (with more than half of these new residents arriving in town since 1990).

Some Framingham residents stay away from the area, citing a lack of parking and concerns about crime. They’re more likely to use to the branch library in Saxonville, a north side neighborhood along the Sudbury River. The current branch library—named after Christa McAuliffe, the Framingham native and schoolteacher who died in the Challenger space shuttle explosion—is a compact, one-story brick building with a turquoise roof that shares the vaguely futuristic look of the main library, though it was built 16 years earlier, in 1963. Directly across the street is the Pinefield Shopping Center, a strip mall with a vast and mostly barren parking lot (part of which would have been bought by the town as the site of the new library), and just north lies a sprawling development of ranch-style homes.

Plans for the new McAuliffe branch called for a building roughly three times the size of the existing one. The proposed design included a vaulted glass space that spans the length of the building, a glass-enclosed children’s room, a room for community meetings, a 50-space parking lot, and landscaped grounds.

Few people in Framingham, regardless of where they live, said they were against the new branch in principle. Even the most outspoken opponents conceded that the existing building is outdated and that the proposed design for the new building was attractive. The real debate concerned the expense.

The town’s share of the library project, including the purchase of land, would have amounted to just under $5 million, to be financed with bonds. According to town manager George King, the cost of debt service would have increased Framingham’s annual budget by more than $400,000 for several years. That is not a trifling sum, but it is just a fraction of Framingham’s total budget, $168 million in fiscal 2005.

Library proponents contended that the need for a new branch justified the price tag. The existing branch still has its original heating and air conditioning systems, and they say there is not enough room for a children’s reading area and public meeting space. Gilchrist, the director of libraries, points out that although the existing McAuliffe branch is roughly one-tenth the size of the main library, it accounts for about 30 percent of the system’s circulation. Per square foot, he says, it ranks as one of the busiest libraries in the state.

Need, however, is in the eye of the beholder—especially in a town where the gap in median income between the most and least affluent US Census tracts is more than $75,000. (By contrast, the gap in Plymouth, a town of about 50,000 residents, is a little more than $40,000.)

Although the branch is one-tenth the size of the main library, it accounts for 30 percent of the system’s circulation.

Opponents of the project acknowledge that the branch’s deficiencies need to be addressed, but they propose cheaper alternatives to a new building, such as renovating the existing library or streamlining the branch’s collection. William McCarthy, a member of the capital budget committee, which advises town meeting on capital projects, was one of many who suggested in the weeks leading up to the March vote that a project of this size was not prudent.

“We’re going to have some difficult times over the next few years, so I question whether spending 5 million [dollars] on a new building is a good idea right now,” said McCarthy, a town meeting member from a precinct that straddles Route 9. “You can’t look at that [proposed] building and say, ‘We don’t want it.’ It’s a question of whether we can afford it.”

The new branch would not have required a Proposition 21/2 override, and therefore would not have raised taxes directly, but the cost of the debt service incurred by the new branch would have been an added expense that could have affected property taxes over time. And even a minimal increase in taxes could prove significant for some residents, says Thomas O’Neil, a town meeting member who also serves on Framingham’s Tax Aid Fund Committee, which provides small tax relief grants to needy residents.

“There are a lot of people in this town who are absolutely at their limit,” O’Neil says. “We forget how this impacts people with less income.”

Supporters also maintained that a new branch library would help spur the revitalization of Saxonville, and potentially draw investors and new residents to the area. In a presentation at the March meeting, Karen LaChance, a library trustee and the chair of the board’s building committee, said that a new branch library in Saxonville would increase property values in the area and serve as “a source of civic pride” for the community.

A common rejoinder to this argument was that, even if those benefits did come to pass, they would not extend far beyond Saxonville—and yet would be paid for by the whole town. As town meeting member Antoinette Burrill (one of the few north-side representatives who opposed the library), told town meeting in March, “The fact that the neighborhood in Saxonville would be rejuvenated is of no help to the average taxpayer and the average senior citizen trying to get by in this town.”

One point of consensus was that the town probably wouldn’t have even considered a new library without the incentive of the state grant, which covered nearly 40 percent of the project when the town filed its application with the state in January 2001. Due to inflation in construction materials and other costs during the past four years, however, the state’s share had shrunk to just under a quarter of the total project cost by the March town meeting.

Some skeptics suggest that the grant was used to create a false sense of urgency, and to goad ambivalent town meeting members into approving a fiscally unwise project. O’Neil, for one, characterized the grant as “bait.”

“I think a lot of people are saying, ‘Grab the money while we can,’” he said before the March meeting. “Many, many people will vote for this simply because the state is dangling money out there.”

But supporters of the new branch, such as Jeanne Bullock, chairman of both the capital budget committee and her north-side precinct, say that taking advantage of state money for a major capital project is merely common sense.

“You try to get the most you can for the town for the least amount of money,” she says.

or all the talk about how library services benefit everyone, the greatest passion for the new branch seemed to come from north-siders and from politically active Framingham residents—two groups with a lot of overlap.

As Gilchrist puts it, “A lot of people who are library supporters are people who are active. They’re active in the schools, they’re active in local government.”

Still, the north side’s clear edge in activism couldn’t produce the two-thirds majority needed to approve the project. State law requires this “supermajority” approval of town meeting for all capital projects that require bonding, as well as in any matters that concern zoning or eminent domain.

In some cases, the two-thirds rule allows a minority of residents with narrow interests to block projects that may be beneficial to the town as a whole. In Framingham, however, some view the supermajority requirement as a check against what would otherwise be the disproportionate political power of the north side. And as animated as the library debate has been, both supporters and opponents of the new branch agree that the requirement ensures a meaningful consensus on certain important matters.

“I would hate to see them change a rule a like that,” says O’Neil, who was skeptical of the library branch proposal. “You have to work harder for it [a two-thirds majority], but once you get it, you know you have the largest majority in town.”

Even Gilchrist, the director of libraries, feels that requiring a supermajority is reasonable for projects that involve municipal debt. “In a vote that will tie the town into a long-term commitment, it doesn’t really seem inappropriate to me,” says Gilchrist. “But it does make it difficult. It means that you have to be that much more convincing.”

In the end, Gilchrist and the supporters of the new branch were unable to convince a resolute minority to go along with their plans, a minority that included south-side representatives such as Ortiz, the town meeting veteran from Framingham’s southernmost precinct. “They’re pushing this issue down our throats,” said Ortiz a few weeks after the January town meeting. “On the north side, they want a new, nice-looking library, and they want the taxpayers to pay for it.”

By all accounts, the debate over the new branch library was one of the more emotional to occur in Framingham in recent memory.

“I actually saw a town meeting member put her face in her hands and cry when the library was rejected,” said Antoinette Burrill after the March 15 meeting.

In some ways, the proposal for the new McAuliffe branch highlighted fault lines in town meeting beyond the familiar north/south divide. Gilchrist alluded to these in February. “Framingham is a town that has a lot of geographic, ethnic, cultural [divisions]—all of the issues that you see in the red state/blue state debate run through Framingham politics through and through,” Gilchrist said. “Framingham is really a unique community because of the way that Route 9 and the Mass Turnpike divides the town in half, and there’s no question that all those concerns play into the debate.”

‘I just hope people settle down. They’re so polarized about everything.’

This complexity leads some to conclude that, after some 300 years,  Framingham has outgrown the
town meeting form of government. Town meeting is “not really a representative body anymore,” says town manager King. Framingham is the largest town in the Commonwealth, and it is also thought to be the largest municipality in the United States governed by representative town meeting. But efforts at change have so far met with resistance. In 1997, a ballot question to institute a city form of government, complete with a mayor and a city council, was rejected by nearly 70 percent of voters.

he divisions in town meeting laid bare by the library debate are not likely to heal quickly now that the project has been rejected and put to rest—if anything, the opposite seems more likely. Library supporters and opponents alike fear that the rejection of the new branch has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many on both sides that could last for some time, and could carry over to Framingham’s annual town meeting, which begins April 26.

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“I think this is going to be a very emotional annual town meeting,” says north-side representative Bullock, an erstwhile supporter of the new branch. “I just hope people settle down. They’re so polarized about everything.”

Burrill, too, suspects that the bitterness caused by the rejection of the library will not be short-lived, if her experience at the March 15 meeting is anything to go by. “For the very first time,” Burrill said the following day, “people I’ve known for many, many years did not speak to me last night when I exited, because they supported the library and I didn’t. I tried to say good night to them, and they wouldn’t respond. One has to ask why.”

Ray Hainer is a freelance writer living in Roslindale.