Newton City Council candidate pledges to reject developer and lobbyist donations, takes it anyway (Updated)

Updated: Two donations were returned weeks ago. He indicated he won’t return the rest. The mayor also shifted course on zoning. Details below.

“Follow the money.” It’s practically a cliche in legal, government, and journalism circles, but it truly is a powerful technique for exploring relationships and motivations at all levels of society. Earlier this year in Newton, we saw how developer money was used to make a referendum turn in its favor through a massive cash injection to a supposedly grassroots community group (see As sole donor of the “Yes” campaign, Northland’s deep pockets try to steamroll Newton’s democracy). That developer subsequently got the green light to build hundreds of units of luxury housing in Newton Upper Falls, off Needham Street.

Now with two city council seats up for grabs in a special election (following the election of Ward 2 Councillor Jake Auchincloss to Congress and the tragic death of Ward 1 Councillor Jay Ciccone), we see candidates stressing their integrity and dedication to serve the residents of Newton. One candidate, Bryan Barash, even pledged to refuse money from developers and lobbyists on the transparency page of his campaign website, stating:

bryan barash newton developers pledge

When I first heard about this, I thought, good for him. I honestly hope every other candidate for Newton City Councilor now and in the future can make a similar pledge and keep corporate cash out of our elections and local democracy. I love my hometown, and am tired of seeing so many of our elected officials bending over backwards to accommodate developers and other corporate interests.

A recent history of developer influence in Newton

It’s one thing to say you are going to follow high-minded ideals and listen to the citizens of Newton. But when the rubber hits the road, I have learned that in Newton many local politicians will let you down.

In particular, there is a lot of doublespeak and false promises when it comes to real estate development. For many Newton councilors and candidates declaring “we support affordable housing,” they actually mean “we’ll support a sliver of affordable but thousands of luxury condos and boutique apartments,” as we are seeing at Riverside in Auburndale, Trio in Newtonville, and Northland in Newton Upper Falls. In these developments, there is next to nothing for the following groups of people:

  • Seniors and disabled people living on fixed incomes
  • Teachers, firefighters and other public workers
  • Recent immigrants
  • Young people who grew up in Newton trying to move back to their hometown
  • Anyone earning the Massachusetts median income of ~$77,000 per year or less

The numbers show what’s happening. Here’s the breakdown for Riverside:

  • 582 units total
  • 102 affordable (18%)
  • 480 luxury (82%)

Here’s the breakdown for Northland:

  • 800 units total
  • 123 affordable (15%)
  • 677 luxury (85%)

Affordable vs luxury housing in Newton Massachusetts

Successive Newton mayors have also made false promises, making a big show of listening to residents but prioritizing the profit-focused needs of developers. Over the protests of many Newtonville residents, former Mayor Setti Warren and many city councilors gave the green light to develop 28 Austin Street in Newtonville, where the developer paid a mere $1,050,000 for a 99-year lease. It now offers “luxury boutique living” where a two-bedroom apartment requires an annual income of nearly $150,000.

It happened again across the Pike in the Orr Block. Warren and allies on the Newton City Council, with assistance from the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, went to bat for developer Mark Development to force through a mostly luxury development on the corner of Washington and Walnut Street. Renters and small businesses that had been in Newtonville for decades were sent packing. The new complex, Trio Newton, now promotes “luxury apartments in Newton” with prices starting at $2,600 per month to rent a 600 square foot studio (I did the math; your income needs to be at least $104,000 per year to rent an apartment at Trio). 75% of the 140-unit complex are similarly priced. The remaining 35 units (25%) are affordable via lottery.

More recently, a similar farce took place with “Hello Washington Street,” Mayor Fuller’s exercise in building community buy-in for high-density, market-rate housing from West Newton to the Lake. The plans put forth by Mayor Fuller, her planning department, and their consultants ignored the wishes of residents, as demonstrated by the thousands of comments from residents and the survey conducted by the Newtonville Area Council. One influential and experienced stakeholder stands to benefit the most from the proposed zoning changes on Washington Street.

Now we are seeing a “debate” about rezoning Newton. I put “debate” in quotes because it appears the Newton City Planning Department has already decided in favor of high-density housing activists, developers, and their proxies in the Newton City Council. 

Not coincidentally, the beneficiaries of this high-density housing strategy will be developers – any house that can be torn down, chopped up, and divided into overpriced multifamily units will be. The result: thousands of more “market rate” apartments, condos, and townhouses that are out of reach to any household making less than $100,000 per year. In the midst of the pandemic, most residents have no idea of what’s being forced through by activist councillors and the Planning Department.  Update: Much of this has been tabled, per Mayor Fuller’s email of December 18, 2020, reprinted below.

Are there any projects which favor the needs of ordinary residents over luxury housing? Yes: The conversion of the West Newton Armory into housing. I support this project, which will turn an unused National Guard facility into 100% affordable housing. This type of project is the exception, unfortunately.

Following the money to Ward 2

There is a database of campaign donors for local races in Newton and other cities in towns in Massachusetts. I decided to check it out, not only to see who is donating money to the candidates running for the Ward 1 and Ward 2 seats, but also to determine how my own recent donation shows up in public records.

This useful state-run resource is operated by The Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and as I will shortly demonstrate, helps improve transparency in our democracy. It’s a searchable database that shows donations from different corporate and individual campaign contributors, from local council races to mayoral contests to campaigns for state positions.

Here’s how to display all of the donors for a particular Newton City Council candidate:

  1. Go to https://www.ocpf.us/Reports/SearchItems
  2. In the field that says “Provide part of the filer’s name,” enter the first or last name of the candidate.
  3. For the next field, “then select a filer,” chose the correct candidate (sometimes there is more than one with a certain first or last name)

You can also search for specific campaign donors using the “Contributor” field.

The resource is not perfect. Donors self-identify their occupation and other details, which can be left blank or fudged, or data transfer problem may arise when the campaigns attempt to upload information to the state database. I discovered for my own small donation of $50 to Barash’s competitor, the occupation and employer information I submitted via an online form (“small business owner” and the name of my company) did not show up in the OCPF database. The date was also wrong, showing a date in early November when the donation was actually one month later.

But other people donating to Newton political candidates do have more complete information attached to their records. The database shows that the Ward 2 candidate who made a pledge to refuse money from developers and lobbyists has in fact received donations from property developers, lobbyists, and others attached to luxury housing initiatives, high-density zoning reform, and businesses that are regulated at the municipal or state level.

I’m leaving donors’ names out of this post. But I will share some other details about their backgrounds and relationships.

The Newton resident identifying himself as a real estate developer has made regular donations over the years to candidates for state representative, mayor and city council in midsized cities, and the mayor of Boston.

One lobbyist’s website lists a realty and development corporation as a client. There are other businesses and organizations both big and small on his client list and the state lobbyist database.

There are registered lobbyists for retail marijuana and transportation.

There is a person who is listed as a “consultant” and puts his employer as “self employed” on the OCPF database, but his name matches the name of a registered lobbyist in the Commonwealth’s lobbyist database. Update: this donation was returned weeks ago, per Barash’s “No Fossil Fuels” pledge. This was not reflected in the state campaign finance database when I looked at it in mid-December.

Several attorneys donated to the campaign. One of the attorney’s firm’s website lists government relations and lobbying at the top of its list of specialties. The second firm specializes in real estate development law, including zoning, permitting and neighborhood grassroots outreach. Its website lists specific projects in Newton, including dozens of townhouse condos and tens of millions of dollars worth of commercial property.

Another donor works for a nonprofit group seeking to reform planning, zoning, and permitting laws.

And so on.

This candidate is not a bad person, and has a right to ask for donations from followers. Those donors also have the right to donate money to their preferred candidates for Newton City Council, just as I and many other residents are doing. But it’s a red flag when those donors may conceivably have business in front of city officials or councillors, including high-profit housing projects and commercial initiatives worth millions.

It should be noted that lobbyists aren’t bad people either, and in some cases promote important work or advance good and worthy causes. Quoting a 2014 OECD report titled Lobbyists, Governments, and Public Trust:

[Lobbying] can provide decision-makers with valuable insight and data and facilitate stakeholders’ access to the development and implementation of public policies.

But lobbying also grants power to the entities paying for it, and in some cases that power can be abused. The same OECD report states:

However, it can also lead to undue influence, unfair competition, and regulatory capture to the detriment of the public interest and effective public policies.

In my view, Newton residents should indeed be worried about the pernicious influence of  money in our local democracy.

Feel free to leave comments below.

Update 12/14/20: Someone has accused me of posting misinformation and says I should “not be allowed” to write about a public candidate for Newton City Council taking money lobbyists and developers. A reminder to readers that this is a blog, hosted but not controlled by Harvard University (through my affiliation as an alumnus of the Harvard Extension School), and everyone has a right to disagree and express their opinions (I invite anyone to do so in the comments below). It is not illegal or wrong for me or others to post facts obtained from a public database, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable they may be. If there is something factually incorrect about those donations, please let me know and I will update the blog post accordingly.

Update 12/15/20: In a closed Facebook group, Bryan criticized negative campaigning but explained that his pledge only applies to donors “who [are] paid to lobby at the city level in Newton or [have] a special permit for a development in Newton” and called on other candidates to do the same. To his credit, he said he did return donations from two people who violate his No Fossil Fuel pledge – these lobbyists were apparently connected with the Weymouth gas compressor station that was the subject of a front-page Boston Globe article this month (“In Weymouth, a brute lesson in power politics“). As for his call for other candidates to not accept certain contributions, I would call on Tarik Lucas in Ward 2 as well as Ward 1 candidates Madeline Ranalli and John Oliver to go even further, and unequivocally reject ALL campaign contributions from for-profit developers and registered lobbyists. The Northland Investment Corporation’s approach to the March 2020 referendum set a terrible precedent for elections in Newton, in which winners can be decided by which side (or which candidate) has the biggest for-profit sponsors. These three candidates can do the right thing and set a new precedent that keeps special interest cash out of our local democracy.

Update 12/17: Removed the graphic referencing a donor who no longer works for the listed real estate firm. The donor also said the firm only operated in Cambridge, not Newton. I apologize for the error.

Update 12/19: Mayor Fuller and the ZAP have pulled back on “by right” multifamily conversions citywide. Here’s what she said in her newsletter dated 12/18/20:

I have had many discussions lately with our residents, members of our building community, City Councilors and Planning Department staff about where we are on evaluating and updating our zoning ordinance. These conversations come near the end of a year of intensive reviews of possible updates for our residential areas and, in the last few weeks, the engagement of 500+ residents in discussions of various options.
I’m pleased that a consensus developed in the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee last Monday night. There is agreement on three important points:
(1) To wait to vote on an overall updated zoning ordinance beyond 2021 so Councilors can undertake considerably more analysis, assure broader understanding of options to address shared goals,* and develop more of a consensus,
(2) To move away from considering both two family zoning as well as the conversion of very large homes into up to six units as by right options applied everywhere in Newton,
(3) To use 2021 to delve deeper into critical challenges that our zoning can be used to address, including how our village centers and mixed use areas can better accommodate housing that is affordable at a range of price points, support our local businesses, protect our environment, and create more vibrant community life for everyone.
This is a wise approach considering the circumstances and the very real concerns raised by some residents, councilors, and experts.

 

What did the Fessenden School know about “Howie” Leung?

There is a deeply disturbing report in the Concord Monitor, a New Hampshire newspaper, about how school administrators in Concord had failed to act upon red flags relating to the behavior of teacher Primo “Howie” Leung around students at a middle school there starting in 2015. Leung, who was concurrently a teacher at a summer program operated by Fessenden School in Newton, Mass., was arrested earlier this year and charged with two counts of aggravated rape of a child, one count of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14, and one count of indecent assault and battery on a child over 14. Some of these alleged assaults took place at a summer program operated by the Fessenden School.

To date, Leung has been the only teacher ever charged with abusing children at the Fessenden School, despite decades of reports and the arrest of two teachers in the 1970s for assaults that took place outside of Fessenden. At the time, Fessenden administrators lied to the media and to investigators about abuse on campus by teachers there, and at other times never reported claims of abuse to authorities. Since 2011, even though myself and many others have called for an independent investigation about abuse at the Fessenden School, the school and its administrators (including former Headmaster David B. Stettler) and lawyers have striven to cover up reports, downplay allegations, and deflect responsibility for the horrors inflicted upon students.

However, where Fessenden failed, investigators in New Hamsphire persevered and published what they learned. The reporters at the Concord Monitor, Alyssa Dandrea and Jonathan van Fleet, summarized what happened. We now have a better idea of Leung’s alleged M.O., even while the Fessenden School claimed it had cleaned up its act. Here are some excerpts:

The girl, a former Concord student who is now 17, told police she was sexually assaulted by Leung multiple times in 2015 and 2016 at the Fessenden School in West Newton, Mass., which provides an overnight English Language Learning summer program.

In 2015, the girl would have been 13 years old. Think about that for a moment. This is during the tenure of David Stettler, the same administrator who pledged that the safety of students was the school’s “highest priority.”

Concord school officials were alerted Dec. 10 [2018] that Leung had “engaged in inappropriate conduct” with an 18-year-old female student, who is a different student than the victim Leung is accused of sexually assaulting. Leung was reportedly seen by other students kissing the senior girl in a car in Concord.

District officials said they did not report the incident with the 18-year-old to Concord police because of the student’s age. However, they did forward the results of their investigation to the Department of Education, which ultimately notified authorities.

Leung remained on the job for 3½ months before he was put on paid administrative leave.

Here, we see that this school took the Fessy path, avoiding notifying authorities and even keeping the teacher on the payroll — and around students — after serious red flags were raised. The difference between Fessenden and Concord, though: Concord at least notified somebody, who eventually dropped a dime.

At school board meetings in recent months, community members said there were many red flags before Leung’s arrest that should have caught the attention of administrators. Parents said he had close relationships with several female students he taught and would bring them coffee or buy them lunch.

Perkins said students should not be permitted to spend “significant time” with teachers whom they don’t have for class, and that students should not be permitted to change their schedules without written permission from their parents. She also encouraged the development of a policy that discourages staff from socializing with students outside of school.

Some Fessenden alumni will remember similar tales from the dark days of Fessenden in the 60s and 70s, when teachers like Arthur Clarridge groomed young boys with offers of car rides and special attention.

In 2014, a Rundlett Middle School student told her friends the way Leung treated some female students made her feel uncomfortable.

The girl, who was in seventh grade at the time, was called into the office the day before Christmas break, accused of spreading “malicious and slanderous gossip” and suspended for three days by principal Sica.

“A sexual predator will use any tools at his or her disposal, including ambiguity of rules, a lack of enforcement of rules, or a charismatic personality to accomplish it,” the report continued.

Sound familiar? Look at the comments by students who were abused at Fessenden and tried to report what had happened. Adults ignored them, and in some cases Fessenden victims were expelled.

District communications obtained by the Monitor in a right-to-know request this summer show that officials were aware of interactions between Leung and the 18-year-old student that included “friendly emails,” the “frequent” presence of the student in Leung’s classroom, Leung’s recruitment of the student to the Fessenden School summer program, and Leung giving rides home to the student and a $200 gift to the student that he said was for her mother.

So the Fessenden program was allegedly used by Leung in cases involving two students. The question I have: How old was the second student when this started?

More importantly, what did Fessenden do when it came to training and monitoring this teacher? Remember, Leung was only charged for alleged abuse at Fessenden after New Hampshire educational officials reported him. The Fessenden School (led by Headmaster Steven J. Armstrong since July 2018) either failed to monitor him, or if they had suspicions, never reported them to authorities.

Two reports about Leung were made to the Concord School District. The longer 100-page report which probably contains additional details about Leung, has not been made public. The shorter 10-page report consists of recommendations for schools to detect predators while improving student safety.

But at least the reports were made. Fessenden has not attempted any sort of independent report. Indeed, of the six points I highlighted at the end of “Headmaster David Stettler’s latest (and probably last) letter to Fessenden alumni“, five still remain true:

  • David Stettler only told alumni about some of the earlier cases in 2011, and only because the Boston Globe had just reported some of the cases. In other words, it was damage control, not an effort to promote transparency or justice.

  • No Fessenden administrator, board member, or legal counsel has ever been cited for negligence in failing to report abuse of children at the Fessenden School.

  • The child predators were able to get away with their crimes for years at Fessenden, and possibly continue their activities after they left. They got away with these sickening crimes, scot-free.

  • The victims were left without support, ashamed of what had happened to them and traumatized by the abuse. Many have been unable to come to terms with what they experienced, and as adults became addicted to drugs or suffered problems relating to people. Some committed suicide.

  • There has never been any independent investigation into what happened from the 1940s through the 1980s and how the school handled those episodes (the “comprehensive, detailed, and impartial investigation” he refers to below relates to a current member of the Fessenden faculty).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: There needs to be an independent investigation of what happened at the Fessenden School over many decades and why administrators, Fessenden’s lawyers, and Fessenden trustees failed to monitor staff and report predators to authorities even after reports of abuse surfaced.

Since Leung’s arrest, the Fessenden Summer ESL program has apparently been shut down. The director of that program (who oversaw Leung) is still employed by Fessenden, according to the staff directory.

Why Amazon’s “Buy Box” policy attracts counterfeit books and cheaters

If you follow publishing news like I do (I own a small publishing company that specializes in how-to guides and technology cheat sheets) you have probably heard about Amazon’s misguided policy change from a few years ago that allowed third-party sellers of books to “own the buy box” on publishers’ book listings. I predicted at that time that it would attract a wave of counterfeit books, which has proven to be true. But I didn’t anticipate another kind of cheater: Third-party book sellers passing off used books as new.

Amazon opened the buy box to booksellers in 2017. It said that it was following the same policy that was used in other parts of its marketplace, which allows third-party sellers to control the buy box on product listings if they offer the product at a lower price than the official source, which is usually the manufacturer or distributor.

Publishers immediately cried foul. This statement from the Independent Book Publishers Association outlines the concerns of independent publishers (disclosure: I was an IBPA board member at the time and gave feedback on early drafts).

The types of books most likely to be pirated

As an Amazon FBA seller of other types of goods (namely, genealogy charts and forms) I knew very well the threat posed by counterfeits. It’s a long-standing problem that has attracted lots of negative press (“Amazon May Have a Counterfeit Problem“, “Leveeing a Flood of Counterfeits on Amazon“, “How counterfeits benefit Amazon“) and impacted my company, which was forced to invest in Amazon’s anti-counterfeit service Transparency.

For an example, one publisher, Bill Pollock of No Starch Press, reported repeated incidents of counterfeit books being sold by Amazon. The first reports surfaced in 2017, and earlier this month it happened again.

I have been impacted by another problem that IBPA predicted: Third-party sellers flogging used books as new. It’s actually a far bigger problem for me than counterfeit books, and I now pay an independent contractor to help me monitor my own listings.

Here’s what I think is happening:

Publishers or Amazon sellers who have products that are easy or cheap to copy and have high list prices have the most to lose with the Amazon buy box policy. There is a real risk of pirates taking over listings with counterfeit, low-quality copies. Potentially, they will have to deal with third-party sellers passing off used goods as new.

My company publishes IN 30 MINUTE guides and cheat sheets. They are relatively low-margin and have a low retail price – $11.99 to $12.99 for most books, $6.99-$7.99 for the cheat sheets. Yes, they could copy the books, and do some cheap digital short runs to get bogus inventory into the system, but because my list prices are already so low I don’t think they could make much. The pirates know this, and tend to go for higher-priced titles (including textbooks) from other publishers. No Starch Press was a repeat victim of this, and I have heard of other cases, too.

Third-party sellers flogging used books as new

As mentioned earlier, I do have issues with other sellers listing used items as new. They are almost always third-party sellers concentrating on the book market, and offer the books as “new” with amazingly low prices to win the buy box or push my listing out of it. They have not purchased the book new through wholesale channels in which I operate (such as Baker & Taylor or Ingram), because the discount is below my wholesale prices — in some cases, below the cost of printing and shipping the book from the printer!

In all cases in which I have ordered one of these “new” books to determine the source, they have turned out to be used. This seller even sent a copy of our shrink-wrapped book about LinkedIn with a USED sticker on it:

Amazon Buy Box used book sold as new

This book was sold as “new” on Amazon, winning the buy box, yet was a used copy by the seller’s own admission!

Third-party book sellers playing games with shipping prices

Here’s another trick third-party sellers use to take publishers out of the buy box: Offering a new book for a ridiculously low price and then charging a ridiculously high shipping fee.

Check out the example below for C. Diff In 30 Minutes. The paperback retails for $14.99, but my listing is no longer am shown in the buy box because a third-party seller from Missouri is offering the book for $3.99. Sounds like a great deal, right?

C Diff Bogus Buy Box 3-99 sample croppedBut clicking “4 new from $3.99” takes people to a page that shows the seller charging an additional $27.99 for non-expedited shipping from Missouri to the Boston area, even though USPS Media Mail costs $2.75 for book that size, USPS First Class around $5, and a two-day Priority Mail flat-rate envelope $7.95.

C Diff Bogus Buy Box 3-99 plus shipping 640pxIt’s also not clear if the book being sold is actually new. At least one customer of the third-party seller reported that a book sold as new was actually used and “looks stolen”:

Amazon stolen book report

When I notified Amazon of this problem, they restored my publisher’s listing to the Buy Box … but the “3.99” version is still listed for sale, even though the actual cost to the customer is more than $30.

Used sales are an important option

Don’t get me wrong — it’s fine for sellers who resell used copies listed as used for a profit, and think it’s a good option for students and others who can’t afford a new copy. I also have no issue with a customer or library which received a copy of one our new books not wanting or needing it, and turning around to sell it as new (or returning it).

That said, every time a third-party seller lists a used book as new on Amazon and underprices the publisher, it’s taking money that the real publisher would otherwise get from the sale of an actual new book. It deceives buyers, and it cheats authors and publishers out of revenue and royalties.

What they are doing violates Amazon TOS, too. Despite repeatedly reporting the bogus “new” cases to Amazon, I have not received any indication that Amazon took any action. The seller of the shrink-wrapped example with the “USED” sticker mentioned earlier is still selling books as a third party seller, and has lots of negative reviews:

Amazon seller negative reviews

After observing the mess caused by the Buy Box policy, and the apparent inaction on the part of Amazon to proactively stop the cheaters or punish wrongdoers, it’s clear that publishers are on the losing end of this fight. Pirates and sellers know it, too. Amazon’s message to them:

Win the buy box however you can. We don’t care if the original publisher/creator gets nothing. We won’t police your listings. We probably won’t punish you if you get caught, or we will only give you a light slap on the wrist. Even if many of Amazon’s customers are complaining, you can still stay in business on Amazon.

In terms of sellers of other types of goods winning or losing the buy box, Amazon makes available special services to brand owners (trademark owners with items in the Amazon Brand Registry) to fight counterfeits, including expedited take-down requests and access to paid services such as Amazon Transparency. The number-one point on the Amazon Transparency “learn more” page is “Proactive counterfeit protection.”

Sounds great in theory, but brands have to pay for it! For me, it works out to about 15 cents per item to use this service, not including additional manufacturing and design fees.

In other words, I’m paying for Amazon’s failure to police their own marketplace and prevent pirates and cheats. I’ve told them I won’t be proactively signing up brand SKUs for this service unless Amazon greatly reduces or eliminates the cost.

What has your experience been with Amazon counterfeit books or other goods?

Riverside and Newton’s draft zoning plans for Washington Street reveal “visioning” for what it really is

Recently, the Newton Tab published an article about the massive new development proposed for the MBTA Riverside T stop. The Tab article, titled “Crowd offers feedback about Newton’s Riverside site,” quoted Mayor Ruthanne Fuller describing the visioning process for Riverside:

“‘This process, in part, is trying to figure out what is the right size,’ said Fuller.”

I have news for Mayor Fuller: The “right size” of the Riverside development is already known.

The last time local residents were asked for input to right-size development at Riverside, discussions took more than five years. The resulting agreement, finalized in 2013, determined that the right size for Riverside was 580,000 square feet, including nearly 300 hundred new housing units.

It’s not local residents who want to go through this process all over again. It’s being driven by Mark Development and business partner BH Normandy (who negotiated the 2013 agreement). Instead of the agreed-upon 580,000 square feet, they are demanding 1.5 million square feet, including two 200+ foot tall towers, and many hundreds of additional units of luxury housing. They stand to add hundreds of millions of dollars in additional value to their project, while residents of Auburndale, Newton Lower Falls, Waban, West Newton, and other parts of Newton are saddled with massive costs related to traffic, schools, infrastructure, planning, and more.

And despite the mayor’s insistence that she is listening to local residents, the evidence that we see in the actions and policies of her administration is that while we may be heard, the preferences of Newton Voters are largely ignored.

For example, the Newtonville Area Council’s recent survey of Newton residents found that only 12% (Per NAC email: “Actually, it was 4% of all respondents, and 5% of those with a height preference”) were receptive to buildings five or more storeys tall along Washington Street. Of those who expressed an opinion about the number of housing units, 86% supported 500 or less.

Similar opinions were articulated during the long “Hello Washington Street” visioning process. The following comments were left by citizens on one of the “pop-up” centers in West Newton to collect feedback about Washington Street:

Hello Washington Street Visioning Process pop up center Newton

The comments include:

“Too tall”
“Too big”
“Bad shadows”
“Big buildings ugly”
“Too urban”
“Air rights over pike”
“This doesn’t look like a suburb. Where are the trees?”
“No trees. Towers destroy neighborhood feel”
“Too tall. Too many people for the space. Too many cars. Overshadows existing homes. Overcrowding of the school system.”
“Seniors have few school age children and many no longer drive.”
“This is bogus. So unappealing I;m sure it’s only offered to make the other scenarios look better by comparison. West Newton resident.”
“No. This is not Boston. We do not have to agree to make Korff rich.”
“Never. We don’t wan’t Manhattan. “
“Have you been to Manhattan?”
“I love Manhattan and Tokyo.”
“No high rises in Newton!”
“Be careful. You will drive away all of the [] who make Newton a magnet.”
“No one who wants to make Newton a magnet can afford to live here now.”
“Underground parking is good. But these cars will still be driving around the city.”
“Way too tall. Big shadows on small houses.”
“Large number of affordable units”
“Build this over the pike”
“What about the existing residents who cannot unfortunately [] this monstrosity”
“Boston? MGH?”

Now that the second draft of the vision and zoning plans for Washington Street have been published, it’s clear that there is a huge gap in what residents asked for and what we will be getting. Huge tracts of land from West Newton Square to the Armory/Trader Joes, parts of Newtonville on either side of the Pike, the lots where Marty’s and Whole Foods now stand, and the commercial parcels diagonally opposite Our Lady’s church in the Lake, will fall under the new “Village Gateway” (W-VY), “Station Area Central” (W-SC), and “Station Area Commercial” (W-SM) zoning designations:

draft washington Street zoning map feb 2019

According to the draft, the maximum height by right for all of these designations will be 5 stories. If developers successfully apply for special permits at any of those sites (a requirement to maximize the value of their investments) they will be able to place gigantic buildings between 6 and 10 stories tall.

This represents thousands of new units of housing (most of it market rate/luxury), and millions of new square feet of office and lab space. That’s not what residents asked for, but that’s what we’ll be getting if city councilors approve the plans for Washington Street. Similar zoning designations will likely be applied in other neighborhoods all over the city — a handout to developers worth billions of dollars, and a nightmare of traffic, massive infrastructure and school costs, and lost quality of life for the residents of Newton for decades to come.

Nobody cares about preserving an MBTA parking lot (or, for that matter, run-down commercial properties along Washington Street). But when it comes to replacing what’s there now, the people of Newton are tired of negotiating deals that are later ripped up because developers insist on getting more, and participating in acts of political theater in which their opinions are solicited and subsequently ignored. Any new vision for Riverside should align with what we asked for — and the city, the MBTA, and developers agreed to — six years ago.

If you are a Newton resident, please contact ALL Newton City councilors TODAY (easy way: EMAIL THEM ALL AT ONCE via citycouncil@newtonma.gov) and let them know what you think about the Riverside development. Even if you don’t live in Auburndale or Newton Lower Falls, your taxes will end up paying for developers’ profits through increased road, school, infrastructure, and other costs. The developers’ tactics to rip up a signed agreement also sets a precedent for similar gambits in the future all over Newton, including Washington Street, Newton Upper Falls, Newtonville, and elsewhere.

Riverside MBTA developers Robert Korff and BH Normandy negotiating in bad faith?

Developer Robert Korff and his company Mark Development couldn’t have asked for a more helpful boost from the Newton Tab in the article titled, “Some concerned over short timeframe of Riverside visioning process,” published online on December 28.

In addition to publishing verbatim developer Korff’s Riverside PR spin points, the Tab failed to question some extremely dubious claims. “The Riverside development could be the economic engine for the city of Newton, but it’s going to require the density that we’re proposing,” he told the paper.

Economic engine of the city? What he’s proposing sounds more like a profit engine for Korff, with no additional benefits for Newton — in fact, it comes with significant costs, as I will shortly explain. And why were there no questions about his intention to rip up a signed deal he and his partners already have to develop the parking lot area at the Riverside MBTA station?

Let’s be clear about what’s happening here, since the Newton Tab wasn’t. In 2013, Korff’s business partner BH Normandy was granted approval to build a 580,000 square foot development at Riverside that includes more than two hundred new housing units. This deal came after six years of negotiations and lobbying with neighbors, local politicians, and city planning officials.

Now developer Korff and partner Normandy want to rip up the 2013 agreement, and force through approval for a far larger development that’s 1.5 million square feet in size, contains two 200+ foot tall towers with mostly “market rate”/luxury housing, and is only reachable by Grove Street, a narrow road connecting Auburndale and Newton Lower Falls.

Why are the developers trying to ram its new proposal through now? It apparently relates to the fact that Newton city council elections are taking place in November 2019, which would require them to start the application and lobbying processes all over again — possibly with a new slate of councilors voted into office based on their stances on the waves of oversized luxury development taking place in Auburndale, West Newton, Newtonville, Newton Upper Falls, and other parts of the city.

Developer Korff is orchestrating a PR campaign in the pages of local media, in “fireside chats” with neighbors, and PR street teams going door-to-door in Auburndale and Lower Falls that aims to grant himself and his business partners hundreds of millions of dollars in additional property rights. We don’t know what the exact figure will be, as this is surely a starting point that will be ‘reluctantly’ scaled back to something that still grants him a huge payout. He’s done it before — check out his tactics with the Orr block in Newtonville, which included using the threat of 40B and having the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce criticize skeptical councilors and community groups on his behalf.

His new plans for the MBTA Riverside development represent an aggressive land grab that would come at the expense of Newton residents, who would be forced to shoulder massive costs relating to schools, traffic, infrastructure, and parking. Meanwhile, there’s nothing in developer Korff’s PR points about affordable housing, housing for seniors, or housing for middle class families, as shown in the flyer his PR team dropped off at my house last month (see below).

The impact would be especially hard on residents of Newton Lower Falls and Auburndale, who thought the Riverside deal was settled five years ago but have since learned the negotiation was merely a preamble to yet more aggressive demands from developers. No one cares about preserving an MBTA parking lot, but there’s already a signed deal that developers, residents, and politicians agreed to. Developer Korff’s attempt to renege on it should be shot down not only on principle, but also to avoid setting a precedent for other real estate deals signed by Korff and other developers throughout Newton.

If you are a Newton resident, please contact all ward councilors TODAY (EASY WAY: Email everyone at once by using this email address: citycouncil@newtonma.gov) and let them know what you think about the Riverside development. Even if you don’t live in Auburndale or Newton Lower Falls, your taxes will end up paying for developers’ profits through increased road, school, infrastructure, and other costs. The developers’ tactics to rip up a signed agreement also sets a precedent for similar tricks in the future all over Newton, including Washington Street, Newton Upper Falls, Newtonville, and elsewhere.

The misleading flyer handed out by MBTA Riverside developers. The actual size of the proposed development is 1.5 million square feet, not 547,000 square feet. The “new neighborhood” phrase suggests this is intended as a luxury enclave, distinct from the existing village structure of Newton.

Robert Korff Mark Development RIverside MBTA parking lot development flyerflyer 121818 SMALL

 

All about Amazon Transparency

Amazon has rolled out a new program for brand owners, manufacturers, and Amazon Sellers called Amazon Transparency. I’ve explained what Amazon Transparency is and the requirements for getting started over on the Lean Media blog.

In a nutshell, Amazon Transparency is the answer to a very vexing problem: How to crack down on counterfeiters who are using the Amazon Seller program to flood Amazon with counterfeit goods.

My Amazon Transparency blog post touches upon some of the legal aspects involved (First-Sale Doctrine and U.S. trademarks) but also gets into some of the practical requirements for Amazon Transparency, including production, packaging, UPC/GTIN registration, and more.Amazon Transparency

You may also be interested in my Amazon Deep Dive for Publishers.

The Supreme Court shifts and businesses suffer

For more than 25 years, Internet businesses in the United States have enjoyed a big break: If a customer in another state buys something online, the company doesn’t need to collect state sales tax or file taxes in that state unless they have operations in that state such as a warehouse or branch office.

That is about to change, thanks to the recent South Dakota v. Wayfair ruling from the Supreme Court. This essay by a tax expert explains the situation and the impact pretty clearly. I draw your attention to the concluding paragraph (note: nexus is the ability of a state to require businesses to be responsible for taxes):

Many states have enacted economic nexus rules for income taxes that create a filing responsibility based on the amount of sales in a state. These amounts have generally been set at $500,000 and above. Now, states may seek to lower those thresholds to impact more sellers, and states that have not sought income tax nexus may move forward with new legislation.

I own a small business and use the Internet to sell goods to customers all over the country. The Supreme Court ruling is going to be a big headache. I don’t have a problem with paying taxes, but I do have a problem with dealing with 50+ entities (including states and territories) that have different filing requirements that will likely entail a lot of red tape. I don’t have a full-time accountant or staff that can deal with this stuff, so it falls on me to implement systems and processes to handle state taxes outside of Massachusetts.

I blogged my thoughts on this topic in As a small business owner, this is what I fear post-South Dakota vs. Wayfair, but the end result may mean not selling to customers in states whose red tape is too much of a pain … which hands even more power to big Internet businesses like Amazon.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren’s dangerous Planning Department report

The following ~725-word essay about a Planning Department report sponsored by the office of Newton Mayor Setti Warren was originally submitted to the Newton Tab as an op-ed column. The Tab asked that it be shortened to a 400-word letter, which appeared in the printed paper earlier this week. Here is the original column. You are welcome to leave comments below.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren Planning Department ReportLast month, the city released the “Management and Organizational Analysis” of Newton’s Planning Department. The report was commissioned by the Mayor’s Office and co-authored by Sasaki Associates, the same consultancy that helped organize a housing strategy workshop last November that had residents and developers placing LEGO blocks on a map to indicate where they preferred high-density housing to be built. The LEGO exercise was rightly called out as a fait accompli and dismissed by many councilors and residents. Similarly, I would like to call out the new Planning Department report as a flawed document whose recommendations threaten to undermine our elected representatives while giving Mayor Warren’s administration—and its successors—unfettered control over special permits and related processes.

The Planning Department report purports to provide a “clear and honest” accounting of the problems facing the department. While it presents a list of legitimate concerns (e.g., a lack of documented processes, project management inefficiencies, high turnover, no long-term IT plan, etc.) it proceeds to assign much of the blame to a group of stakeholders who happen to represent Newton’s citizens—the City Council. The report basically throws Councilors under the bus, blaming them for being too numerous, taking up too much staff time, and generally getting in the way of the special permitting process.

The report states, “The City should strongly consider removing the special permit granting authority from the City Council and placing it with an independent, less political body comprised of knowledgeable professionals, citizens, and business owners.” Practically speaking, this would mean that if a special permit were required for a large condo development or a new commercial project that exceeds the zoning limits of the parcel, our elected representatives would have no say in the matter. Instead, the approval would be up to city staff as well as unelected appointees who represent the interests of commercial developers, not citizens.

This and other oversight recommendations in the report are dangerous and unwarranted. I think many others will agree. The recommendations, if implemented, remove an important channel for residents and their elected representatives to influence specific proposals. As citizens and taxpayers, we have a right to be heard, which includes appealing to our councilors to ask hard questions and request changes that the Mayor, developers, and other parties would rather ignore. You may like the mayor’s development plans, or you may object to them, but regardless more citizen input is needed to guide development going forward, not less. Elected representatives play a critical role in bringing neighborhood concerns in front of the staff responsible for implementing housing policies.

The Planning Department report also points to a problem with a “lack of leadership.”  However, the report confines the leadership problems to the department. It goes no higher than that. It fails to mention the Mayor even once, despite the fact he has led the city government since January 2010 and could have addressed legitimate concerns with the Planning Department’s organization, turnover, technology, and processes years ago.

So, why is this report coming out now, instead of during Mayor Warren’s first term? In my opinion, it’s because the Mayor needs to overcome local opposition to his new development vision, and he needs to do it soon. As reported in the Tab, the Mayor and developers hope to build thousands of new housing units across the city and transform the villages into small urban centers. We have seen the responses in the pages of this paper, in letters from residents who say they won’t be able to afford “market rate” apartments and condos in the new developments, as well as those who object to the scale of the giant buildings and the impact of large-scale development upon Newtonville, Newton Center, West Newton, Oak Hill, Auburndale, and other neighborhoods. This strong grassroots opposition suggests that developers won’t be able to build thousands of units of new housing and commercial space unless Mayor Warren and his administration are given free rein over zoning, permitting, and other development approvals. Removing elected councilors from the picture is crucial to achieving the Mayor’s goals.

In summary, I believe the new Planning Department report was created to justify changes that would reduce the power of councilors and make it easier for the current Mayor—and future mayors—to force their strategic visions for development upon the citizens of Newton with limited oversight. It’s unfair, unwarranted, and undemocratic.

Spotlight: More abuse at Fessenden and other schools. But why no official investigation?

Boston Globe Spotlight report Fessenden School Newton Massachusetts

The Boston Globe Spotlight team — the same group of investigative journalists who opened up the decades of abuse and coverups involving the Catholic Church — published a story in this morning’s Boston Sunday Globe that details the horrors and sickness that pervaded the Fessenden School in West Newton as well as many other prep schools across New England.

The response from the prep schools was not surprising: Only 10% responded to a Globe survey about their experiences handling reports of sexual abuse. The schools clearly want this story to go away. They don’t want to deal with the negative publicity, the lawsuits, or the questions about policies relating to screening teachers, reporting abuse to authorities, or helping former students who have been victimized.

Readers of this blog know that 5 years ago the Fessenden school admitted a pattern of “inappropriate sexual behavior” involving faculty and staff that started in the 1960s and extended right through to the 2000s. The 2011 letter named one faculty member, Arthur Clarridge, who along with another named James Dallmann, were arrested in 1977 for crimes against children that took place outside of campus, and suggested that Clarridge may have abused a student. No other names of abusers were revealed in the 2011 letter by current headmaster David Stettler. The comments at the end of my 2011 blog post detailed not only names, but claims that inappropriate sexual behavior took place over a much longer period of time (one former student indicated it started as early as the 1940s) and involved many more staff and faculty members.

Several victims of the abuse at Fessy were brave enough to step forward and tell the painful and explicit details of the sexual assaults. The Spotlight article added two more faculty names to the roster:

Of the 17 total alleged [Fessenden] victims, four settled claims, nine continue to pursue them, and four filed no claims, according to a school spokesman. The accused former employees include assistant headmaster Arthur Clarridge, teachers James Dallmann and Claude Hasbrouck, and school psychologist Mickey Clampit.

Clarridge made no secret of his preferences. This is the update he sent his Harvard classmates sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, when he was at Fessenden:

Fessenden assistant headmaster arthur clarridge harvard class report

The Globe Spotlight report included one former student’s descriptions of Hasbrouck’s Nazi paraphernalia and sexual abuse. Hasbrouck died in 1997.

As for Clampit:

Two other former Fessenden students told the Globe that Clampit abused them, too. One, who said Clampit fondled him at school and on a trip to Arkansas and Mexico, sent the school a letter demanding compensation for the abuse through attorney Mitchell Garabedian in 2015. The other man, who settled a claim against Fessenden in the 1990s, said Clampit was among four people there who abused him.

Clampit, who left Fessenden in 1976 and whose license to practice psychology in Massachusetts expired in 1996, could not be reached for comment at any of his known addresses or through his family. But his niece, Michelle Clampit of Los Angeles, said she never heard such accusations about him and was puzzled why they were surfacing now.

Note that Clampit was responsible for screening incoming students in private and counseling existing students if they reported abuse or other problems. Think about that for a moment. Fessenden’s gatekeeper and guidance counselor — the trusted adult a confused or abused student might turn to after encountering Clarridge, Dallmann, or Hasbrouck — was himself a child predator, according to several former students.

I would like to add a correction here to the Spotlight Team: Clampit did not leave in 1976. He was still at the school in the early 1980s. I know this because he screened me in 1979 or 1980 at his office in one of the upper-story dormers in the administration building and one of the commenters on the other blog post who worked at Fessenden from 1979 to 1986 said she and her colleagues knew of Clampit his behavior:

Does anyone out there remember Mr. Mickey Clampitt? He was the school psychologist/test administrator, and lived in an apartment on campus next to the “learning center.” He would hand out “creepie crawlies” (!) , little plastic bugs, to boys and would proceed to “tickle” the boys with them. The boys would squirm and giggle as Mickey, obviously enjoying the whole affair, held the boys close to his body. Well, you get the picture. Not exactly rape, but clearly NOT OK., and possibly the tip of the proverbial iceberg…as is obvious from reading this blog.

The 2016 Fessenden Letter

Just before the Spotlight article came out, Stettler sent another letter to alumni, dated May 5, 2016 (see below). Like the 2011 letter, it was timed to blunt the shock of the negative news coming from the media (although the headmaster claims in his latest letter that the 2011 information was “proactively shared”). The 2016 letter says “the School has received reports of sexual abuse involving at least 16 former students and one non-student by at least 5 individuals who were members of our community.”

Note that the 2016 Fessenden letter acknowledges “at least” 5 individuals, but the Spotlight report only names 4. Who is that fifth person?

The letter goes on to say that instances of abuse were reported to the school’s administration in the 1960s and 1970s but the school “according to these alumni, failed to take appropriate action.”

The school’s latest response? A symbolic one. “The school has removed the name of Robert F. Coffin, headmaster from 1967 to 1980, from the Fessenden ice rink,” Stettler wrote.

If you’re shaking your head in disbelief, I don’t blame you. Fessenden’s headmaster has tacitly admitted there was a nest of pedophiles at the school, and the school’s response is to remove a long-dead headmaster’s name from the hockey rink.

It’s absolutely pathetic and infuriating.

Why hasn’t Fessenden been investigated?

As you digest this information, there are several important facts to keep in mind:

  • Not one Fessenden faculty member or staffer has ever been charged with abuse of a Fessenden student.
  • Not one Fessenden administrator or trustee — from the 1960s to the current timeframe — has been fined or charged for failing to notify local or state authorities of abuse, as required by law.
  • Because the people who reportedly committed abuse against Fessenden students were never charged with a crime, they were potentially able to move on to other schools or professions or neighborhoods and commit more vile acts against other innocent children.

I raised this question in my original blog post in 2011, and I will raise it again here:

Why hasn’t Fessenden reported incidents involving sexual abuse or assault of children to the police and DAs office, not just to satisfy the minimum “required documentation” rules, but to help authorities prosecute anyone who has broken the law?

I welcome your comments below.

A note about comments: Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the author of this blog and the hosting service are not liable for comments left by readers. Per the Digital Media Law Project, “Immunity covers defamation and privacy claims, as well as negligence and other tort claims associated with publication.”

About: My name is Ian Lamont. To contact me, please email ianlamont -at- yahoo dot com

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Fessenden’s 2016 letter:
Fessenden letter from headmaster David Stettler, p1

Fessenden letter from headmaster David Stettler, p2