JPNC debates election process

August 10, 2007
By

John Ruch

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council’s (JPNC) first post-election meeting began with an hour of heated debate over an obscure rule covering the counting of write-in votes.

The debate revolved around Kathy Holland, a write-in candidate in the July 12 JPNC election, who received a relatively large number of votes split between two JPNC membership categories.

At the July 31 meeting, the JPNC ultimately stood by the decision of its election ombudsperson, outgoing chair Nelson Arroyo. But it did agree to form a bylaws committee to review vague election-rules language.

“We need to look into these rules because they are not clear,” said acting chair Jesús Gerena.

The election still left the JPNC with four open seats. Candidates for those seats can present themselves at the next meeting, Sept. 18. [See JP Agenda.] The JPNC will consider appointing candidates at that meeting.

Any JP resident 16 or older can serve on the JPNC. Holland and another write-in candidate, Edmund Cape, are expected to present themselves as candidates.

The election dispute brought tension to Arroyo’s farewell to the JPNC after four years as chair.

“I want to say ‘thank you’ on behalf of the council,” Gerena told Arroyo to general applause. “We often bear a lot of criticism and not a lot of praise,” Gerena said, adding that under Arroyo, the JPNC worked harder “to make sure all voices are heard.”

“It has been a pleasure sitting on this council with each and every one of you,” Arroyo told JPNC members. “To the community, my leadership was what it was.”

He added that he hoped any criticisms of him would be made “in person” rather than “in the paper.” Particularly during the early stages of the Blessed Sacrament Church complex redevelopment, Arroyo and project critics frequently sparred verbally over affordable housing and other issues.
Election dispute

Arroyo certainly heard criticism in person at the meeting. Resident Terry Gibbs implied that Arroyo was not “impartial” as an ombudsperson and has a “vested interest in the status quo.”

“I was impartial,” Arroyo said, “I have no vested interest.” He noted that he ran the election as a volunteer almost entirely by himself when no one else wanted to.

“I’ve heard the word ‘fix’ going around,” Arroyo said. “This is not a fix, just the way it’s been done in the past.”

The election controversy hinged on a rule that reads, “Write-in or sticker candidates must have 25 District votes or 50 At-Large votes before votes are counted against nominated candidates.”

Holland received 20 at-large write-in votes and 16 Area A write-in votes.

The main argument—made largely by Gibbs rather than Holland herself—was that there were only two nominated candidates for five Area A seats, so Holland (or possible other write-ins) arguably were running for open slots, not against nominated candidates. A related argument involved counting, or at least considering, Holland’s district and at-large votes as a combined amount that shows she had substantial neighborhood support.

Arroyo read the rule as a strict vote-total requirement and did not combine categories of votes. Several JPNC members said that is a traditional interpretation rooted in the idea that write-ins should show at least the same amount of support as nominated candidates did.

However, Holland said, she was elected to the JPNC several years ago with a single vote.

“I frankly read the election rules the same way” as Holland’s supporters, said member Francesca Fordiani, who proposed the bylaws committee. The committee was established by a unanimous vote, as several members who supported Arroyo’s interpretation still agreed the rule is too vague.

Gerena emphasized that even though the rule is vague, Arroyo’s interpretation was solid enough. “I don’t think there was ill-will to discount votes one way or another,” he said.

New member Mark Pedulla cut to the chase, noting that the election rules prevent the JPNC itself from judging election disputes due to possible conflicts of interest. “The rule is very clear the ombudsperson has the final say,” he said.

The JPNC also voted to allow Arroyo to destroy the election ballots.

Besides the write-in controversy, residents raised some lesser election complaints that the bylaws committee will also review. Resident Judy Kolligian complained about a JP map used at the polling places to inform residents which JPNC district they live in. The districts are outlined in thick marker that covers many streets, making boundaries unclear.
Arborway Master Plan

The JPNC unanimously supported Arborway Coalition member Sarah Freeman’s proposal that the Arborway Master Plan process be extended at least through September.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has been planning a redesign of the Arborway, mainly turning the traffic circles into signalized intersections. A year ago, it presented four alternative designs in a community meeting, but the lack of traffic data prevented the community from making any decision.

Since then, DCR has met with a “working group” of local activists, including JPNC members. Also, DCR finally conducted traffic modeling.

All four alternative designs “seem to function better than existing conditions” in those models, Freeman said.

“It came out that all four are feasible and would not make any of the intersections worse,” added Michael Reiskind, chair of the JPNC’s Public Service Committee and a working group member.

However, DCR only recently announced the traffic data and imposed a brief comment period that ended in late July. The JPNC will draft a letter requesting more time for community meetings and comment to select a preferred alternative plan.

Other business

In other business, the JPNC postponed discussion until its next meeting on the Jamaica Hills Association’s (JHA) concerns about the Lewis-Dawson Farmhouse in Arnold Arboretum.

The farmhouse, which the arboretum once sought to demolish, was recently named a historic landmark. But the JHA remains concerned that the house has no current use and may decay as a “boarded-up” structure. Harvard University operates the arboretum. JHA member Steve Lerman recently sent Harvard’s president an open letter calling for the house’s reuse.

In a lighter moment, Reiskind announced that the next Public Service Committee meeting will include a request for a city fortune teller’s license. [See JP Agenda.] Several members asked whether the business already knows how the request will turn out. Reiskind wearily put his head in his hands, smiled and said, “That’s what everybody is saying. That’s the joke.”

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