Selectboard logo, May 20, 2019

John Leone: "I recommend keeping the 21 precincts to keep the continuity of the past 50 years."

UPDATED, Oct. 15: Arlington’s Select Board decided Wednesday, Oct. 13, to maintain all 21 town precincts, rather than reduce the number to 16, in a 4–1 vote (Len Diggins voted no). The specific boundary lines will be discussed at a future board meeting.

“A change from 21 to 16 precincts isn’t what most people want,” said board Chair Steve DeCourcey.

Board member Diane Mahon said, “The Finance Committee will have a disastrous result if we support 16 precincts.” The Finance Committee has one representative from each precinct.

“We also need to pay attention to long-range planning, because we’re looking at a massive override, three to four times more than we’ve ever asked. This isn’t the right time for this,” added Mahon.

Town Moderator John Leone also spoke in favor of maintaining the current number of precincts. “I recommend keeping the 21 precincts to keep the continuity of the past 50 years. The financial savings are a minuscule part of the town’s budget, and the mail-in costs are the same, not decreased, because it’s the same number of voters. Cutting out 12 Town Meeting members affects the quorum, and with approximately 60 town committees, it will affect the pool of applicants. Furthermore, we’d have to change all the Finance Committee’s bylaws.” 

Why precinct boundaries are being reviewed

DeCourcey said that the issue comes to the board as a result of the census that occurs every 10 years, requiring town officials to look at the precinct boundaries. Town Clerk Juli Brazile proposed reducing the number of precincts from 21 to 16 this summer. 

The state Legislature released maps on Oct. 12.

“We will follow the state’s mapping process, which must be completed by Dec. 15,” said DeCourcey.

Brazile explained, “The Select Board is responsible for making sure that precinct maps ensure property boundaries and to consider racial and economic representation. Town meeting members are responsible for ensuring racial and economic representation, and residents are also included in critical discussions. Equality doesn’t mean treating everyone exactly the same; our goal is to take active steps to ensure accurate representation.”

“If we reduce the number of precincts, the ratio of town meeting members to the population is in line with other neighboring towns. Fewer precincts saves money when running elections, which gets returned to the voters, and also saves time. Currently, each town meeting member represents 183 people; the proposed way increases that number to 193, a small change,” said Brazile. 

“We value equity, diversity and inclusion. Minimal change is the wrong approach, it minimizes the values we stand for. Our proposal is about drawing ethical boundaries, and precincts that are more coherent demographically,” added Brazile.

Jill Harvey, Arlington’s diversity, equity & inclusion director, said, “We looked at the data ― race, economic level, age―when we redrew the precinct lines to accommodate diversity and equity. We’re trying to make sure that no minority groups ― racial, income, renters/vs. homeowners ― are being divided by boundary lines, and can vote as a single block. The reduction in the number of precincts is not disenfranchisement; no one’s losing the right to vote.”

Diggins explains vote

Asked to comment about why he voted no, Diggins responded Oct. 15:

"Here are the reasons that I supported 16 precincts:

"1. 16 precincts are easier to manage for the clerk.

"2. I see larger precincts as an opportunity for both Town Meeting members and their constituents. For TMMs, it's an opportunity to reach out to and connect with more residents; for residents, it's an opportunity to form a civic relationship with three more residents that represent them in Town Meeting. IMHO, this outweighs the reduction of Town Meeting members from 252 to 240.

"3. Though I understand the concerns with respect to the Finance Committee, I felt that we could come up with a creative solution to keep residents involved in the important work of that committee -- even if they didn't have a voting role. I'm a bit unnerved by the notion that we are "trapped" into having 21 precincts due to FinCom's membership requirement.

"4. Having worked closely with Juli Brazile and Kelly Lynema to support our spring and fall precinct meetings, I know how committed they are to an inclusive democratic process, and if they had concluded that 16 precincts were not good for the town, they would have admitted it without hesitation. Given their experience combined with the experience of Jill Harvey, our DEI director, my confidence in them made it easy for me to support their proposal."

Town residents voiced their opinions

Most people spoke against reducing the number of precincts:

“I request that the town stick with 21 precincts, and recommend adopting the simplest plan possible with the least amount of changes, and to have a community-wide discussion,” said John Worden, Precinct 8 Town Meeting member and former longtime moderator. 

Charles Foskett, Precinct 8 meeting member and chairman of the Finance Committee, also strongly objected to the change to 16 precincts. “The new plan provides no cost savings. There’s no mandate from the public, voters or Town Meeting to make such a drastic change in our town government. The current system isn’t broken; it works.”

Don Seltzer, of Irving Street, proposed a redistricting plan that he said causes the least disruption while satisfying the state requirements. In an email to the Select Board, Seltzer wrote, “The primary advantages of my plan are that more than 98 percent of Arlington residents will remain in their current precincts and continue to vote at the same polling locations. Only nine of our 21 precincts will change, most with very minor shifts of precinct lines. The map that I propose does not dilute minority group votes.” 

See Seltzer's presentation here >> 

Jo Anne Preston, Precinct 9 meeting member, urged the town to reject the 16-precinct plan and adopt what she called Seltzer’s “least-destructive” plan. “A 16-precinct model adversely affects minority residents. Arlington’s nonwhite population is not equally spread out, and is mostly clustered. As we add more and more white residents to a minority cluster, they’re voices are muted.”

Jon Gersh, Precinct 18 meeting member, said, “Changing precincts doesn’t make the town more inclusive.” 

However, Jennifer Susse, Precinct 3 meeting member, liked the 16-precinct model, saying, “It gives us more flexibility.”

Judith Garber, Precinct 4 meeting member, concurred, “I like the new precinct maps.”

See the entire Oct. 13 broadcast on ACMi:

Oct. 12, 2021: Lawmakers propose new districts for Massachusetts’ 200 state House and Senate seats

This news summary, by YourArlington freelance writer Susan Gilbert, was published Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, and updated Oct. 15, to add quote from Diggins.