December 17, 2020
From the beginning, the WA21 petitioners were being watched by other municipalities looking to follow Brookline’s lead. But to spread the legislation more quickly, Cunningham and her fellow organizers, Cora Weissbourd of Brookline and Anne Wright of Arlington, partnered with the national climate organization Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) to form the Building Electrification Acceleration Program (BEAP).
“We’re running these workshops that facilitate peer learning between these different towns and cities and share educational resources, presentations and organizing content, so that different municipalities can learn about building electrification,” Cunningham said.
Currently, 16 Massachusetts municipalities are participating in the program, which Cunningham said has had to pivot since Healy’s July ruling against WA21.
“Up until that point, we were thinking that everybody would follow Brookline and produce their own Warrant Article 21-like legislation,” Cunningham said. “But when that ruling came down, we realized we had to figure out new legal pathways.”
Since the attorney general ruled that state law preempted the bill, the program decided on two new paths of action for all of its municipalities to take: pushing for changes to state law and asking for individual exemptions from it. According to Wright, the push at the state level will be more effective because of the unity of the program’s members.
“We are abiding by and putting our money on the strategy of sending municipal messages to the state legislature that we want to electrify our buildings and we want state help, as opposed to random people just going straight to the legislature,” Wright said. “We’re mobilizing around those values from the municipal level.”
Sunrise Brookline, among the newest of the Sunrise Movement’s many hubs in Massachusetts, has been tracking and organizing around this municipality-based strategy. Sunrise Brookline coordinator Iris Liebman, a sophomore at the high school, said that having to send messages to the state to get action means things are moving slowly.
“Having everything go through the state is a problem especially for environmental regulations,” Liebman said. “The problem was that towns can’t have different building and energy regulations, so to say that towns have that autonomy and they can decide to regulate more would allow us to pass Warrant Article 21.”
Accordingly, the BEAP’s second strategy is to seek municipal authority for gas ban bills. Taking the form of home rule petitions, it has already been employed by both Arlington and Brookline, who passed Warrant Article 39 in the most recent Town Meeting session.
As the petitioners put it, the home rule petition “requests the state legislature to grant Brookline local authority to implement Warrant Article 21,” even though it was deemed outside of the town’s authority upon its initial passage. If approved, Brookline would have unique implementation powers, and no other municipalities could pass similar legislation without a similarly approved home rule petition.
Warrant Article 39 passed on December 3rd by a vote of 214 to three, with four abstentions.
The same petitioners also filed Warrant Article 38, which was a resolution calling on the state to enact a similar gas heating ban statewide. It passed by a vote of 217 to three, with four abstentions. Although Brookline’s voice may reach the state, it is helpful for proponents of this legislation at the State House, like State Representative Tommy Vitolo, to hear from many distinct municipalities in the form of home rule petitions, resolutions and general activism. According to Cunningham, this is part of the importance of the BEAP.
“For people like Tommy Vitolo, this is really important because he can point to it and say that it’s not just Brookline and Arlington that want this, but it’s all these other towns and cities that also want this,” Cunningham said.