A Place at the Table: Who Should Get the Vacant Seat on an Important City Commission?

 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a champion of equal rights, joined by John F. Kennedy on her visit to Waltham, January 2, 1960.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a champion of equal rights, joined by John F. Kennedy on her visit to Waltham, January 2, 1960.

There has been a game of musical chairs in our city government over the last few weeks, after a series of unexpected resignations and appointments. As a result, we have a new city councilor, a new school committee member, and now an opening on the city’s powerful Community Preservation Commission (CPC). In no uncertain terms, the city councilors charged with naming a replacement should appoint a woman of color to this post, and in the interest of ensuring that it happens, any other nominees should remove their names from consideration.

The CPC is an important, perennial source of dedicated funding for community housing, historic preservation, and open space projects. It currently has over $19 million in its coffers, to be spent on initiatives large and small. Commissioners review, propose, and oversee these efforts. Of the board’s nine members, however, there is only one woman (the chairperson) and every member is white.

This is a problem, and unfortunately, it is not a new one.

In 1913, Mayor Patrick Duane appointed Ida Annah Ryan to be Waltham’s city building superintendent. Ryan was an accomplished and renowned architect, and she was also the first female Master of Science graduate of MIT. By hiring her, Duane was making history. She is believed to have been the first woman ever hired to lead a city building department in America. But she didn’t serve for long.

Instead, the council rebuked the mayor. A heated confrontation broke out in the council chambers. When the councilors relented, they also cut her pay in half. She resigned instead, moved to Florida, and went on to a distinguished career partnering with a noted apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright.


“Much like elite colleges, our boards are not diverse because most people don’t even know how to apply, not because they wouldn’t want to do the work.”

I was reminded of Ryan when I became chair of the Waltham Historical Commission in 2013. Like the CPC today, our only female member had been the chairperson before me. When she stepped down, we had an all white and all male board. One evening, I explained to our members that they needed to be more respectful of city employees. Everyone agreed. Then two members joked on camera that they would be more professional toward a particular female employee when she appeared in front of our board, but then assault her after the meeting.

This was the kind of world Ryan had faced exactly 100 years earlier, unchanged. That night, I took the first steps toward completely overhauling my commission’s membership.

In part, the reason why such an awful thing could happen in the 21st century is that our boards and commissions are not representative of the people who live here. As a result, we lose tolerance and civility. We also lose dedicated people with valuable ideas for making a better city.

Despite this fact, two arguments are often made against taking concerted steps to fix the problem. The first is that it is too hard because qualified applicants don’t submit applications. The second is that appointments shouldn’t be made on the basis of race or gender. Neither one is a valid.

Much like elite colleges, our boards are not diverse because most people don’t even know how to apply, not because they wouldn’t want to do the work. As for ensuring that diversity is a factor in selecting appointees, it makes simple sense that decisions affecting the community are made by a government that has voices from all quarters at the table. Otherwise, government has a tendency to become non-representative in frightening ways.

Most of all, though, seeking out diversity for our boards and commissions is easy to do, and the positive effects are immediate.

In my efforts to reform the Waltham Historical Commission, I reached out to people to identify potential members, explained what the board does, and asked if they would join up. Some said no, but many said yes. By the time I stepped down at the start of this year (that seat is currently vacant too), three of our members were under forty, including the current chairperson, who is also African American. Two were women. Three were not from Waltham. Two were Jews.

Our new members brought a wealth and diversity of professional expertise, too. We gained an attorney, a career teacher from the Waltham public schools, a professional historian, and a retired professor. Their skills have all been essential to the board’s work. What they didn’t know, they learned, because valuable members stayed with us as well. One member has served for thirty years, and is recognized as one of the great historians in the history of the city. Taken together, diversity and change, balanced by institutional memory, have invigorated the board. It is now an active, influential, and respected component of municipal government.

The city councilors on the selection committee for the open CPC seat are all people who can take this important step by appointing the first woman of color to the board, and they should. They have seen how it has transformed a small city commission. They know the benefits we will reap when it ultimately happens for all the boards and commissions, ensuring that our city government reflects the voices and ideas of all the people it is called to represent.


Key Information

Which seats are currently vacant?

There are vacancies on the CPC, the Board of Conservation and Recreation, and the Waltham Historical Commission.

Who Appoints Commissioners and Board Members?

The City Council appoints the four main seats on the Community Preservation Commission annually or when there is a vacancy. They also appoint vacancies on the city council, and participate in appointing vacancies for the School Committee.

The Mayor appoints all other members of the boards and commissions for multi-year terms, pending approval by the City Council. Members from five boards are representative and voting members on the Community Preservation Commission.

Who is on the City Council Committee to Fill the Current Seat?

Stephen Rourke (Chair), George Darcy, Bill Fowler, Gary Marchese, John McLaughlin, Kathy McMenimen, and Carlos Vidal.

How to Contact the Councilors:

http://www.city.waltham.ma.us/city-council

How to apply for the boards and commissions:

Submit an application to the Mayor’s office

http://www.city.waltham.ma.us/mayors-office/pages/boards-and-commissions-application

Posted on January 21, 2017 and filed under Opinion, Waltham History.