Frank thoughts on the Swift Hat Shop and the wisdom of televising Warrant Committee meetings

Commentary by Frank Schroth

At a recent meeting of the Board of Selectmen, Chair Katie Conlon recapped a site walk of the wharf area that included looking at the Swift Hat Shop. The building is one of oldest commercial structures in Milton. It has seen better days; but given it’s history there is interest particularly from the Historical Commission in preserving it. Preserving it will take some work given the owner has a demolition order for it. The good news is that Mr. Roberts, the owner, has said he would be willing to pay to relocate the building. But as Ms. Conlon noted there are a lot of moving parts to moving this part of Milton.

The notion is to move the building slightly down Wharf Street onto town owned land. One unanswered question is which town department has jurisdiction over the property. Other rather large unanswered questions are what would it cost to restore the building, who would maintain it, and what use would it be put to. And there this also confirmation of what Mr. Roberts wants in exchange which  he indicated at a meeting of the Historical Commission would be a variance to build residential in a commercial zone.

Maybe there is value in preservation. One could see many benefits to leaving it where it is, tearing down the ugly structure attached to it, and resurrecting it as an attractive retail shop. If it is moved, there are two concerns.

The first is that the area it currently sits on remain commercial or mixed use. Further erosion of what little commercial space Milton has is fiscally unwise in terms of property taxes. Second, Wharf Street is one of Milton’s most important natural assets and the only location in town where residents have direct access to the Neponset. Any development on town land down there should be done with an eye to improving and expanding upon providing access to the water for recreational purposes to benefit all. All too often this town finds itself in a tail wagging the dog situation the comes about as the result of demands and needs by a one of development. This is just one more example of why a Master Plan that takes a comprehensive look at areas of town and develops options and strategies that take in each area’s unique qualities is so important. This is not just about the hat shop. It is about amplifying the value of a unique natural asset and reinvigorating the commercial space.

MATV board demonstrates how not to make a decision

Unbeknownst to many there has been a bit of a fracas regarding Milton Access Television’s (MATV) recent decision to broadcast Warrant Committee meetings. Everything about the decision, which members of the Warrant Committee are not happy about, is a bit confusing including when it was made. The MATV board met and voted this week on the issue. However, at least two meetings had already been televised.

At last nights meeting of the Warrant Committee Mike Lynch, Director of MATV, presented the committee with the motion that the MATV board had voted on. It reads:

MATV shall broadcast, or, if unfeasible, record for a later broadcast, any meeting of the Milton Warrant Committee that has scheduled a meeting or presentation with the member(s) or chairman of any elected or appointed Town Board or Committee, or an appointed or elected Town Official or manager; or a member of the General Court. Other meetings of the Warrant Committee shall be broadcast or recorded at the request of the Moderator, if feasible for the MATV staff. Nothing here in shall be construed to preclude MATV from filming any public meeting.

The motion passed passed by a vote of 5-3.

The question the Warrant Committee had was why now? It is a natural question to ask and one that did not receive a very articulate answer.

The Warrant Committee plays a vital and important role in our municipal government. School Committee, Board of Selectmen, and Planning Board are all televised live. And so it might seem natural and logical to televise Warrant Committee meetings. We are not so sure. The Warrant Committee is a group of volunteers appointed by the Town Moderator to serve in an advisory capacity. They are not elected nor do they have any specific authority. What they do is spend an extraordinary amount of time reviewing, analyzing, and vetting articles in the town warrant. They meet with department heads and town officials to review budgets, budget priorities, and any other matters as stated in the warrant articles (e.g. citizens petitions, zoning changes) for the purpose of making recommendations to town meeting on each article. It is an arduous process. The concern we have is that televising the meetings could inhibit the discussion in ways that are not constructive. Members may not speak as freely or speak at all. Alternatively, members may grandstand or play to the cameras.

Warrant Committee meetings are open to the public. Having attended some, one is struck by the give and take among the members and those they are speaking or questioning. It is difficult to describe but there is a healthy tension and a quality of debate that is lacking in most town meetings. It would be very unfortunate if the presence of live television erased that. And it could. The other aspect of their meetings that is important to note is that they go on forever. It is very rare that any given issue or matter is decided in a single session. Any opinions on an issue arrived at from watching a session or a portion of a session will likely be very ill formed unless all sessions on that issue have been viewed.

When asked last night why now? Mr. Lynch said that as a result of additional personnel resources and the wiring of the Blute Conference room – now we can. There is no disagreement that MATV has the right to televise the meetings; but as one warrant committee member noted last night, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” We agree with that.

One can understand the educational benefits and transparency in government is critical to its health but these meetings are already open and the decision to televise may come at a cost – a cost of possibly inhibiting discussion, resignation of members (Mr. Walsh said members had told him they may resign if all meetings are televised), and who knows what in terms of arm chair quarterbacking and second guessing of decisions. At last night’s session Mr. Hayes referred to MATV’s statement that 45 people had asked for DVDs of warrant committee meetings. It is very difficult to understand how this will improve anything.

The MATV board did not manage this well and they have not explained themselves well. Why the Chair of the MATV board was not present to explain his board’s decision on a matter that has clearly antagonized the committee and put the town moderator in an awkward position was also a head scratcher. The board made the decision and the chairman of that board should have been present to explain it.


  5 comments for “Frank thoughts on the Swift Hat Shop and the wisdom of televising Warrant Committee meetings

  1. Cindy L. Christiansen
    September 9, 2014 at 9:11 am

    I’m in favor of the Milton Access TV decision to record and televise Warrant Committee meetings. Since becoming a TMM I’ve looked for ways to educate myself about articles before voting on them at TM. Attending or viewing WC meetings is the best way I’ve found to be informed. I think it is important for residents and voters to have early and easy access to the level of detail that goes on in these meetings. From what I’ve seen, WC meetings are healthy debates between many smart people bringing up many good points; I learn a lot each time. However, discussion about warrant articles also needs to occur outside of the WC membership to maximize the opportunity for all to have a voice in their local government. Televising the meetings will help make this happen. My thanks to the WC for all of the work they do. I think this addition to the WC committee meeting process provides a substantial benefit to our town government and its residents. Cindy L. Christiansen TMM P7

  2. Michael Chinman
    September 9, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    Frank, I could not disagree with you more about televising the Warrant Committee.

    The Warrant Committee is not an informal group of volunteer advisors; it is a government body, created by our town bylaws (Chapter 3, aptly sandwiched between Chapter 2 “Town Meeting” and Chapter 4 “Finances and Property”), with powers (for example, “the officers of the Town shall, upon [the Warrant Committee’s] request, furnish them with facts, figures, and any other information pertaining to their several departments”), important responsibilities (including creating a written report to be provided to every household in town regarding the matters to be decided at Town Meeting), whose members have terms and are appointed by the Moderator. The fact that they do their work superbly, over long hours, without any pay, is not an argument for removing that work from public view.

    Is there “no disagreement that MATV has the right to televise the meetings”? Then that should be the end of the question. Period. Inquiries of “why?,” or “why now?,” by themselves, have an unwarranted chilling effect. Similarly, grumblings that “just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” miss the point entirely. It is not for the Warrant Committee as a body nor its members individually–even those members who threaten to quit if their work is televised–to decide or even question if the public should be permitted to view their meetings or what about them is proper to be viewed.

    Representative government is messy; a backroom will always have efficiency advantages. Preferring one to the other because of the greater ease of decisionmaking would be a detrimental mistake for the town.

  3. Sheryl Fleitman
    September 9, 2014 at 5:29 pm


    I think it is very important to have the Warrant Committee meetings televised. The fact that they don’t want them televised makes it look like they have something to hide.

    As you mentioned they are under open meeting policy and people can attend. However it is much easier to re-watch at your leisure and fast forward through the minutiae.

    Two many town meeting members are not familiar with the Warrant or the reasons the Warrant Committee recommends yes or no when they get to Town Meeting. I do know that people have sent emails prior to Town Meeting asking questions for clarification and never getting answers.

    If the meetings are televised at least one would have more time to know what is going to be on the Warrant; the Warrant is never received in enough advance time to review it carefully.

  4. Paul Yovino
    September 14, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    The current controversy between the town Warrant Committee and Milton Access Cable sits at the collective feet of the Milton Board of Selectmen. This issue should have been addressed or mediated through the town’s Broadband Monitoring Committee. That committee was set up specifically for issues like this and to oversee the operation of access cable in Milton.

    Unfortunately, I am the only appointed member of the Milton Broadband Monitoring Committee and have been for more than four years. Calling meetings with myself gets a little tiresome and I get little pleasure talking to myself. Over the years with various boards of selectmen I have submitted names for consideration to fill the ranks of that board but to this date neither this currently elected board of selectmen nor the two that preceded it has considered any of those names or any names to fill the roster of the Broadband Monitoring Committee. So much time has elapsed that those individuals I suggested to the selectmen have probably lost interest. Beyond that, the board of selectmen has not acted independently to add individuals to the Broadband Monitoring Committee. The Board of Selectmen must act now without further delay to have a full complement of individuals on that board so that it can function appropriately as in this current dispute with the Warrant Committee.

    As to the issue at hand, it appears that Milton Access Cable and its Executive Director are in the right to tape and cablecast any and all open town and committee meetings. To do less would be a failure of due diligence on their part. More critical to the issue is this; under the agreement with its funding source,Comcast, and in compliance with Massachusetts state cable regulations a local cable access group cannot edit the content of any program live or tape of any committee or group. It can only cablecast the program as is; anything approaching editing is considered censorship and is not allowed.

    However, reading various comments from Warrant Committee members in the press it appears that censorship is exactly what the Warrant Committee would like Milton Access Cable to do. If it complied with the Warrant Committee’s wishes Milton Access Cable would find itself in jeopardy to lose all its funding from Comcast and Comcast is its sole source of funding at this point. In actuality, Milton Access Cable would no longer exist without the funding from Comcast. The citizens of Milton cannot allow that to happen.

    Milton Access Cable today, under the direction of Mike Lynch, has become a vital link to open government and is the local equivalent of C-SPAN which cable cast Congressional meetings and hearings.

    For those who wish to go back to the good old days of smoke filled rooms and quill pens demanding that Milton Cable record only what it predetermines is fit for the viewers to watch I say that attitude is at best misguided and at worse condescending. My warning is that if the Warrant Committee attempts to move back to that era of closed door government it will destroy not only its own credibility but it will destroy Milton Access Cable. That cannot be allowed to happen.
    As to who did not manage this well we must first look at the Milton Board of Selectmen for its failure to appoint a quorum of members to the Milton Broadband Committee.

  5. Judy Gundersen
    September 15, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    Katie Conlon has asked the most important questions on the subject of the hat shop. While I have a healthy appreciation for history and what it teaches us, I have heard no significant history that is unique to this building. What historical purpose will it serve and who will maintain it?To what specific spot is it suggested the building be moved? What effect will it have on the piece of town land….is it where the very successful Farmers’ Market is held from April to October? And what would the rationale be for turning the present building site from a retail site to the
    residential site? When the answers to these questions are provided,
    the citizens of Milton will have a clearer view of what is really planned.

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