For the record: Strong community suport for redesign

Town Hall, June 22 2010: Seventh design meeting

Santyana said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Is that why we have been invited to return to Town Hall on February 26 for another hearing on Mass. Ave.?

In any case, gentle reader, I have been spending time with the transcript of the 25%-design hearing held April 12 2011, and if you’d like to revisit that halcyon day, you can!

I hereby link to the transcript (191 pages including 6-page speaker index) and attachments (46 pages including 26 sign-in sheets), which I have obtained and parked online for your reading pleasure.

If that’s a bit more than you need right now, here is a quantitative summary and a few observations about process.

Of the 77 people who expressed their own opinion at the 2011 hearing, a total of 27 opposed and 46 supported the project. 4 were neutral, or at any rate expressed neutral opinions. An additional two individuals expressed the opinions of their paying client, Eric Berger.

This is only a little different than my original tally of 30 opposed and 46 in favor. It also corrects the Town’s own widely reported estimate at the time of 28 against and only 36 in favor, and shows (again) strong community support for the redesign, warts and all.

A lot goes on at these events: people stage little demonstrations, have to be reminded to stay on topic or to listen respectfully, and so forth. Meanwhile speakers are not casting a vote but expressing opinions, which may be nuanced,  involve questions, or be ambiguous or off topic.

So it’s not so easy to collate the remarks on the fly. This count is based on the transcript.

In any case the exact totals are not that important. As MassDOT reminded us at the hearing (see Attachments at unnumbered 7th page):

The hearings are not intended to be a popular referendum for the purpose of determining the nature of a proposed improvement by a majority of those present.

That was good news for opponents of the project, who were outnumbered nearly two to one. That despite being allowed to testify early, with many others still waiting to speak when the hearing adjourned at 10:40 pm, nearly two hours late.

How did this happen? The Town handed everyone a number, then drew numbers at random, to be fair and to avoid long lines to speak. Project opponents took a boatload of numbers, then handed them to their speakers as the numbers were called.

Consequently, of the first 15 speakers, 9 were against the project, including Maria Romano, Eric Berger, and Eric Berger’s paid engineering consultant. But of the last 15 speakers, all but one (a Somerville woman) were in favor.

Consequently, opponents got their licks in early and many of them went home. They did not stay to listen to their neighbors and may have left with the impression that their views are widely shared.

Indeed this arrangement exaggerated the weight of the opposition in several ways.

At the start of the evening speakers were asked to confine their remarks to 3 minutes, and especially at the very beginning of the night people would often exceed this limit with only gentle remonstrance. At 10 pm, an hour after the hearing was originally scheduled to end, speakers were asked to stop after a minute, and that limit was more strictly enforced.

Moreover, when the hearing finally adjourned at 10:40, there were still people waiting patiently to speak.

So by maneuvering to speak early, opponents at once spoke for longer, left sooner, and prevented others from speaking at all.

Eric Berger, an outspoken opponent, spoke third and had two paid proxies, a lawyer and and an engineer, also speak on his behalf. Between the three of them Berger aired his views for 10 minutes, long enough to hear 10 of the speakers left waiting at the end of the night.

That’s the quantitative summary, but numbers are not supposed to count as much in this process as substance. So take all of the above with a grain of salt.

Still, if the issue is where the community stands, it’s not even close. Public support for this project is strong.


13 comments so far

  1. Mark Kaepplein on

    Adam, can’t access the attachments. Wish I could see sign in sheets for the other supposed 29 public meetings also!

    Personally, I find these sorts of hearings pointless and tedious because officials are only bound to listen, not to act based on comments. Presenters and audience members can all make claims, but nobody listening can fact check them on the fly, much the same as Town Meeting. Fact checking can be done afterwards using the transcript, and I have.

    I go to these sorts of hearings, but its mostly to ask questions to learn more. I can send my opinion to them in a letter, while hearings afford me the best opportunity to get questions answered. I hope people use their time to ask questions and just send in most of their comments, not that I expect it.

  2. Steven Cella on

    Sorry Adam, no disrespect but using this analysis to say that there was strong community support for the project or for that matter strong community opposition is nonsense.

    The point being, there was both strong support and strong opposition and it was about an even split, maybe a few % one way or the other.

    The main problem is that we only heard from 77 out of several hundred people in attendence. If this was allowed to continue then maybe the next 20 people may have been against the project and the next 20 after that may have been for and so on. In addition you have all the people who did not show up but maybe wrote a letter later on.

    This is further complicated by the fact that many of the opponents (like myself) are not against the project per se or are not opponents per se…but are against reducing mass ave to 2 1/2 lanes (remember at that point only half of the east bound land was going to be a full lane)…which by the way for some reason this point still escapes supporters….why they still don’t get this point I will never know…

    In any case as I mentioned, from what I could gather from being at the meeting it was about evenly split and that is the most I could say about support or opposition.

    The fact is without an actual nonbinding ballot vote… nonbinding being the keyword…which could have been done on the ballot just before this meeting…….we just don’t know how it really breaks out, how much support or opposition there is/was.

    In fact at the very start of the project the consultants should have proposed several designs with different configurations which could have been voted on in a non binding ballot.

    At the very least at the point of this meeting it should have been on the ballot.

    What we do know (if I remember correctly) is that mass dot as one part of their criteria for evaluating the project needed to measure if there was significant opposition to the project which there was but yet they ignored this and instead relied on what the town told them…that being there was a process and there were a certain amount of meetings and and using the meetings to infer support and so on. In this aspect mass dot failed!!

    So as you said you say you have to take this with a grain of salt!!

    • Adam Auster on

      Steven, I’m not sure how to describe the opposition at this point, but surely the characterization of strong community support is correct.

      And to MassDOT, that (not the opposition) is the important factor.

      In this the transcript is one data point, but I think the overall record is really clear, especially from 2009 onward.

      Skepticism about this project probably reached a high-water mark at a meeting at the Hardy School in the spring of that year.

      At that meeting and subsequently, changes were announced to the design that answered the most pressing concerns that people had.

      Opinion generally coalesced in favor of the plan after that.

      I do not mean that this was unanimous, just that there was strong support. And Steven, that is all that MassDOT was looking for at that hearing.

      Your idea that opposition from any group is or should be sufficient to block the project is mistaken. Consensus is not required.

    • dr2chase on

      If the choice was truly random, it’s quite unlikely that you’d ever get 20 in a row pro or con in the presence of an even split. The fact that the last 15 speakers included only one opponent makes it unlikely that the remaining speaker pool was evenly divided (if it were 50-50, there’s one chance in 2184 of that occurring).

      If you’ve got engineers or scientists in the panel listening to the Town Hall, they’re going to notice these shenanigans, and they’ll take them into account. They’ll also take the crazification factor into account, if they have much experience at all with the public. (Crazification factor, you can Google it).

      • Mark Kaepplein on

        Only one opponent in the last 15? That just speaks to crazified doggedness or stamina (from bicycling?)! Many people heard enough of similar statements on both sides, judged little additional value was likely, and left. No announcement that the point of speaking was to count pros and cons – no reason to stick it out. The practical method of greater statistical value will be the ballot question on April 6, instead of our speculation. Some may skip the 2/26 hearing and just vote, expecting little new at the hearing worth hearing directly instead of reading in the media afterwards, again making counting of less value than the ballot question.

        • dr2chase on

          To restate your position, perhaps the opponents were too lazy to stick around for the whole meeting, and didn’t really care as much as they claimed. And you contradict your comrade-in-opposition, who supposes that this was just a statistical fluke that only one of the last 15 speakers was an opponent, and that all those remaining who did not speak might have been a 50-50 crowd.

          • Mark Kaepplein on

            We don’t know why people left without speaking. no exit poll. Ones against 3-lanes might be more shy speaking in public than those willing to play in traffic. Statistical fluke to me seems least likely, less than someone picking up discarded speaker numbers for better spots, like I recently did at the Stop&Shop deli counter. Moot speculation answered April 6,

            • dr2chase on

              “We don’t know”, but you thought it was “crazified doggedness or stamina”. Does “we don’t know” mean “I like to make stuff up, till called on it” or “I’m not doing so well in this argument”?

  3. Steve Cella on

    Dr Chase, I did not mean that the next 20 people would literally be for or against the project.

    I was using that extreme to make the point that there were something like 400 people in attendance and you really cannot draw conclusions of support/opposition based solely on the 77 that spoke. The actual comments may have been helpful but to draw conclusions on the amount of support/opposition just by the 77 who spoke needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

    In any case my point was that the only way to know for sure how deep the support or opposition runs within the community as a whole is to have a nonbinding vote…. which the town has refused to do!!

    I think this post proves the need for a vote and that it should have been done a long time ago!!

    Adam, I don’t know of anyone who is suggesting that there is not support for the project. There clearly is.

    In the same vane I would hope that your not suggesting that there not opposition to the project or think that the opposition is only token…especially considering your comments about consensus not being necessary …I don’t even know what that last sentence means??…consensus may not required but measuring support and opposition to the project is part of mass dots criteria!!

    As for mass dots criteria, this may sound contrary or like I am playing semantic games but one way to tell how much support there is for a project is by how much opposition there is.

    Maybe there are some instances where it has happened but one would hope that a town would not bring a project forward to mass dot if there was absolutely no support for it. If the town brings a project forward I think mass dot assumes there is some level of support for it and what they are looking for is how much opposition there is!!

    Finally I am not sure how you can suggest the peek of opposition was the hardy school meeting or that opinion came together just after that?? I seriously do not know where you got that from?? That was just the beginning of the opposition!!

    Anyway the point is if you really want to know ask and the best way to do so is to have it on the ballot. It is simply unbelievable to me that the town has refused to put it on the ballot considering the impact this project will have!!

    • dr2chase on

      If they’re (really) randomly chosen, and you get 77 our of 400, then you get (I just went and checked) a confidence interval of +/-10 on 40%, at a 95% confidence level. It’s not as good as I had thought off-the-cuff, but you can tell something. 99% confidence level is an interval of only +/- 13.

      I start with 40% by assuming that the 4 undecideds were really opposed. I’m trying to be generous, to show that the chance that a majority was in opposition was low. That’s what we observe. The confidence interval calculation is intended to tell us if we should use this information to make bets or not (i.e., it tells is what is likely to be true, given what we observed).

      That is, *assuming randomness, which is in doubt here*, there’s a 95% chance that the crowd was between 30 and 50% opposed, and (roughly) a 97.5% chance it was 50% or less. The 99% chance is between 27% and 53% — a very small chance of a slim majority.

      The randomness assumption is in doubt three ways — there’s the assertion that the opponents somehow loaded up on “random numbers”, plus the assertion that they “ran out the clock”, countered by the claim that they were less-crazed/more-apathetic and thus left the meeting early.

      But at this point, I can confidently say that the smart money would bet that the opponents were in the minority at this meeting.

  4. Steve Cella on

    Dr. Chase if you include everyone there
    …all 400 or this really a random sample?? Or is it self selected??

    In any case it doesn’t matter..again no one is arguing that there is not support…even if we take the middle 40% then that is still significant opposition which mass dot would need to take notice of. In any case this does not include the people writing letters nor the larger community!!

    Again you have you have to take this with a grain of salt.

    So my point stands the best measure is ballot vote!!

    • dr2chase on

      400 is definitely a selected, interested sample. But the 77 out of that 400 is supposed to be random, and we can therefore make educated guesses about the composition of that 400.

      • Mark Kaepplein on

        Really tedious with little value. Yes, its a self-selected group who chose to attend. People who could and did speak was a self-selected subset of the self-selected 400 attending. Not that any of this matters, but data on who wanted to speak vs. who only wanted to watch and listen is missing.

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