by Pete Mazzaccaro

As long as I’ve lived here (going on 14 years), the Chestnut Hill Community Association has had a mixed reputation in Chestnut Hill. In the many years I’ve spent going to CHCA board meetings, I’ve always found myself among other members of the public who will alternately, laugh, roll their eyes or even gasp at what goes on at these sessions. Even many on the board leave these gatherings bad-mouthing the whole experience.

I was at just such a board meeting two weeks ago. As the 45th minute ticked away during a surprise debate and eventual tabling of the Balance Chestnut Hill variance request – a request most in the room assumed would get a five-minute overview before a unanimous passage – I looked around and saw the look of shock and bewilderment on the faces of those in the crowd.

Not long after that debate, a lengthy discussion about a series of bylaws began that stretched another 45 minutes. Those still left in attendance squirmed and shifted in their seats, they looked up at the clock and rubbed their foreheads in tired exasperation.

But on that night, unlike the many before, I began to wonder: just how did this happen? What is it about a board meeting that can transform a group of well-intentioned neighbors into an assembly that rivals the U.S. Senate for mastery of the deliberative quagmire.

Critics of the organization would likely blow the whole question off as evidence of widespread incompetence and the pervasive effects of self interest among board members. These people, on the board, you see, are just too conceited or they just don’t care.

But that’s too simple. I know a lot of the people on the board, and whenever I speak with them, they have really good ideas about what they’d like to accomplish – from charitable causes to quality of life improvements. A lot of the people who are on the board got on because they wanted to see change that would benefit the community.

Yet, when 7 p.m. rolls around on the 4th Thursday of the month, these same neighbors suddenly find themselves snared by the sticky trap of the process. Instead of neighborhood improvements and community issues, they’re stuck with an hours-long agenda of budgets and bylaws. Even those with the best intentions find themselves reduced at that moment to technocrats, pouring over fine print again and again.

I can’t help but think that it shouldn’t have to be like this. When the difficulty of conducting business by the board is the regular subject of jokes by board members mid-meeting, and when it becomes difficult to find willing candidates to run for seats or to find more than 200 people willing to vote, I think it’s time to consider a change.

Some people are now, no doubt, thinking that such is the nature of democracy. It’s not pretty. And, furthermore, the process is important.

I would agree. And I’m not here trying to suggest that the CHCA doesn’t do good work. It does a lot of good stuff. But that’s the point. The many good things it does do are often overlooked or pushed to the side by lengthy zoning debates and bylaws battles. These things should not be the the sole focus of a neighborhood organization. [In many ways, the Local falls into this a bit as well. We are expected to cover these meetings and the disputes are news.]

For the CHCA to change its reputation and to change the way it does business, I think it needs to double down on that which is really important to the community.

First, it should spend more time on the things that it does do very well. For example, it just led a fund-raising effort that collected more than $100,000 to be distributed to local nonprofits. It has planned a series of popular concerts in Pastorius Park.

Next, it needs to work to connect efforts it has already begun with the community. It already has a zoning committee that may just represent the most professional volunteer effort in the city. But what about crime? What about education? How is it connecting there? Why can’t it put the same effort it puts into budgets and bylaws behind membership?

The CHCA is not a bad organization. It’s just suffering a malaise caused by the weight of an institutional process that’s become bigger than anyone involved. That has to stop.

These things are easy for me to say. I’m both paid and expected to say them. But I know for a fact that many people involved feel the same way and would like to see things change, too. As the board gets ready to begin a fresh term in May, maybe it can consider a change of pace. I’m sure many would welcome the chance.

 

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