Over the years the Council on Aging and allied groups have tried a number of times to site a Senior Center for Dedham. Their approach was simple: a small COA-run group of interested people would come up with a proposal that they thought made sense and they would try to convince Town Meeting or the voters to approve it.
But their proposals failed. And that wasn’t because Dedham voters or Town Meeting members are anti-senior. We think the proposals failed because they were never developed by and “owned” by the Town as a whole. However hard the small COA-oriented groups worked, they could not include enough of the other varied interests and people that live in Dedham to develop Town-wide majority support for any location.
The latest attempt uses that same model: a small group (this time a private committee) comes up with another location that - to the private group – seems just fine. Their solution to the problem of getting Town-wide buy-in is simple: bypass Town Meeting and go directly to the Selectmen for a decision.
The controversial questions about their plan – whether an 8000 sq. ft. senior center AND a new barn AND a still unknown number of additional parking spaces should be built on the open space of the Endicott Estate; why a 20,000 sq ft Senior Center was needed in 2008 but an 8,000 sq ft building is fine in 2012; what the costs are to operate the center and how the Town will pay for it; whether smaller options that leave the existing barn instead of demolishing it make sense; whether the offer of private financing will be there if a different location is selected by the Town – are all left for someone else to resolve.
Since those issues were not worked out beforehand in a public, Town-wide process, they are emerging now in the media. The COA has reacted by appearing to change their process to officially sponsor the private group; people raising reasonable questions about the wisdom of more paving and an 8,000 sq. ft. at the Endicott Estate are being called anti-senior; instead of leading a public discussion of why this project makes sense for the Town, the COA’s approach seems to be that the Town owes them an approval for what they want. The lack of a clear public process has turned what should be a positive and unifying event – finally siting a Senior Center in Dedham - into a political firestorm, with fiery letters in the Times answering the many questions about the proposal by calling for approval now.
We have a better idea. Instead of fighting this out in the papers, leaving Town Meeting out of the loop and allowing a private group to make what are really public decisions, let’s use the talent and expertise of Town Meeting to select and recommend a Senior Center site for Dedham. Using the already proven and successful model of the School Building Rehabilitation Committee, in the fall we will ask Town Meeting to set up a Senior Center Siting Committee which would be responsible for selecting and recommending to Town Meeting a location for a financially viable Senior Center in Dedham.
Will that process magically produce a result acceptable to all? Of course not; we are a vibrant Town and people are not shy about saying what they like and don’t like. But through a wider group – including the Selectmen, the FinCom, the Council on Aging, the SBRC, and At-Large Members - we have a better chance at working publicly through all these site selection and budget issues together.
And this kind of committee has already succeeded in Dedham. In the late 1990s the Dedham School Committee believed that the Town should build a new middle school. The easiest path would have been for the School Committee by itself to study the issue and recommend what would be best for the Town.
But the School Committee took a different approach. It wanted the process and the resulting recommendation to come from a wide cross section of the Town, not just the School Committee. It wanted to dispel the notion it was only a “schools” project; it wanted the decision to belong to the entire Town. And it could not truly be a Town-wide project if the School Committee insisted on controlling the process. The Middle School recommendation was too important to be left to the schools.
So the School Committee proposed to Town Meeting that 7 of the 9 seats on what would become the School Building Rehabilitation Committee come from OTHER interests in Dedham. This guaranteed that the process . . . and criteria . . . and recommendation . . . would have to be acceptable to other interests than just the School Committee.
It’s time for Dedham to take this same approach for a Senior Center. With a clear public process, with wide representation among many Town interests, and with the possibility of private funding for construction of a Senior Center, this is an excellent time to finally make real the decades-long goal of siting and operating a Senior Center in Dedham. The Council on Aging has built up a good head of steam to meet that goal. We can continue to play politics with this issue, or we can shift gears and use Town Meeting to finally get the job done.
Lindsay and Cindy Barich
Maurice and Ellen Burns
Jim and Susan Fay
Bob Frasca, Jr.
Andy and Roberta Lawlor
Mark and Cathy Lawton
Bob and Kathy Schortmann
Dave and Cherylann Sheehan