The following interviews were conducted through email with Select Board Chair Neil Wishinsky and Town Meeting member Lauren Bernard.
How well do you know your town? Did you know that town governance in Brookline has a distinct political structure that handles issues of critical importance? According to locally elected politicians Neil Wishinsky and Lauren Bernard, there is much to learn about the challenges and rewards of working in town government.
What do selectmen and Town Meeting members do? The Select Board is the chief policy-making board of Brookline’s executive branch. The Board handles everything from shepherding the creation of new schools and other public resources to approving new liquor licenses. Wishinsky is the chair of Brookline’s Board of Selectmen and supervises these processes.
Brookline is divided into 16 precincts and each precinct elects Town Meeting members. These members represent the interests of their constituents and also weigh in on issues that benefit the town as a whole. Bernard is a Town Meeting member for Precinct 8 which encompasses much of the Coolidge Corner area.
Both Wishinsky and Bernard mentioned that their jobs can be very rewarding.
“We just opened the Coolidge Corner School as an example of the town successfully completing a very expensive and complicated project,” Wishinsky wrote.
Bernard also enjoys facing the town’s challenges.
“I enjoy being an advocate for town citizens,” Bernard wrote. “I was able to get someone Section 8 housing and food stamps.”
Along with rewards come hardships. Both Wishinsky and Bernard cited plans for a ninth elementary school as a challenge for the town.
“The most challenging initiative is addressing the problem of the overcrowded schools. We are planning an expansion of Brookline High School,” Wishinsky wrote. “We have been attempting to build a ninth elementary school which has been very difficult.”
Bernard wrote that the issue of school capacity is especially relevant to her precinct, which is the most densely populated.
“I think Precinct 8 is concerned about the overload of residential development, both market price and affordable housing,” Bernard wrote. “It’s the most densely populated precinct, and residential development is disproportionate for our precinct – without services to match such as school capacity.”
Budget and leadership issues create additional challenges related to expansion of the schools, Wishinsky notes.
“The greatest fiscal challenge has been trying to deliver a balanced budget as school enrollment has skyrocketed,” Wishinsky wrote.
Bernard wrote Town Meeting members also play a role in budget decisions.
“Town Meeting votes on the release of funds for many projects and initiatives,” Bernard wrote. “We hold the ‘power of the purse.’”
Wishinsky believes Brookline’s unique form of government has both positive and negative sides.
“In the town form of government, making difficult decisions is very complicated,” Wishinsky wrote. “The positive side is that we have broad citizen participation in that with a five-member Select Board heading up the executive branch and Town Meeting, our legislature has 240 members. We have a lot of decision makers all of whom are essentially volunteers (though Select Board members receive a small stipend).”
Wishinsky wonders if there might be some way to increase efficiency or streamline politics in Brookline in the future.
“With so many people involved, it is difficult to hold officials accountable for their votes and for getting things done,” Wishinsky wrote. “Brookline is the largest town in Massachusetts. I believe we need to think long and hard about whether it is time to become a city.”
Taking a role in town governance is a great way to participate in our democracy.
“[It is rewarding] knowing that you made a difference,” Bernard wrote. “Knowing you took something on that could be difficult and challenging, but that you took part in legislation being passed that is good for the town.”