Good morning and welcome to this week’s LexObserver newsletter, marking our shift to sending this news roundup out on Saturday mornings!
In case you missed it, we announced last week that we were going to shift regular newsletter publication to this time starting today because that works better for some readers, according to our December survey results.
In any case, we have lots for you to read about today…so without further ado, here’s the news:
Week of Jan. 22: Lexington News Roundup
Reported by Sophie Culpepper
- After a months-long hiring process, the Town Manager has announced Lexington’s new permanent police chief.
- How does the Vision for Lexington Committee’s town-wide survey inform town decision-making?
- Lexpress was down for three days this week due to staffing shortages, but will resume normal service on Monday.
- How LexHAB plans to use its $430K in ARPA funding.
- Weekly COVID-19 update: Light at the end of the umpteenth tunnel? New town and LPS cases begin to drop…
- Community announcements: Resolution Run to Kick Cancer today; Town-wide Lunar New Year Virtual Gala a week from Monday
After eight months, interim Chief Michael McLean clinches permanent police leadership role
- McLean, who has worked for the Lexington Police Department for over 25 years, was appointed Interim Police Chief last April to oversee the department during the search for a new permanent chief after former Chief Mark Corr retired. About 15 candidates in total applied to the position, Malloy wrote in an email to LexObserver, including six internal candidates.
- McLean’s “demonstrated commitment to fair and impartial policing, transparency, community engagement, accountability, and his familiarity with issues facing Lexington is what set him apart from other candidates,” Malloy stated in a press release announcing the appointment. McLean has worked for the Lexington Police Department since September 1995; over the years, he rose through the ranks from Patrol Officer, to Sergeant, to Lieutenant, to Captain of Operations in 2015, before being appointed Interim Chief six years later.
- The press release highlighted the town’s effort to reach “a diverse range of prospective candidates” by sharing the job posting with a number of regional and national police and municipal associations, including some identity-based associations – specifically, the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association (HAPCOA), the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) and the National Asian Peace Officers Association (NAPOA). But, no candidates applied as a result of advertising in those specific places, Malloy wrote in an email to LexObserver.
- Lexington, like many communities nationwide, has engaged in intense conversations about equity in policing since the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in May 2020. That year, the town commissioned a review of the department’s policies and practices “for the purpose of ensuring that the Lexington community is free of racism, discrimination, and hate” by a team from the law firm Anderson & Kreiger; the findings were presented publicly in May 2021 after several months of departmental review and community outreach. The team, led by former U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz, noted many departmental strengths and positive aspects of its relationship with the community, but also outlined more than 30 recommendations to improve equity and transparency in the local police department. Of these, eight have yet to be completed, according to Malloy’s Town Manager Report to the Select Board at their Jan. 10 meeting. Some of the incomplete recommendations are not scheduled for completion until June of this year, and Malloy expects the state to issue some additional guidance relevant to at least one recommendation about how communities should uniformly report traffic stops; “until they issue those guidelines, we don’t really want to jump into just doing something and setting up a whole procedure and having to redo it,” he explained at the meeting.
- In September 2021, Christiana Severe was promoted to Sergeant, LexObserver reported; during the previous four decades, no Black or minority police officer in Lexington had been promoted or served as a sergeant, supervisor, lieutenant, captain or chief, as noted on Page 4 of the Anderson & Kreiger Report to the Select Board.
- In addition to the community outreach involved in the Anderson & Kreiger report, Select Board Vice Chair Doug Lucente and member Joe Pato spoke with over 20 community groups to determine whether community members supported moving forward with an architectural design for a new police station in time for 2022 Annual Town Meeting; they presented their findings last July, concluding that community members on the whole supported moving forward with designing a new station, and Fall Town Meeting approved additional design funding which in part accounted for the incorporation of more community input into the station’s design. The town will vote on construction funding this spring.
- Beyond his general role leading the department throughout the implementation of the recommendations in the Anderson & Kreiger report, the press release highlighted McLean’s efforts during his time as Interim Chief “to increase communication to the public through social media, email updates, and having additional information on the Department’s web page” and his weekly meetings with the Town’s Chief Equity Officer, Martha Duffield. Minutes from an Oct. 18, 2021 Select Board meeting note that “Ms. Duffield reported one surprise of her job is how often she has met with the Interim Police Chief and the hard— but mutually respectful— conversations they’ve had.”
- The town sought to incorporate community input into the hiring process in a few ways. This included creating a community interview panel of seven residents from more than 60 who expressed interest. (While the town can’t pass on private residents’ contact information, if you are one of the seven residents who participated in the interview panel, I’d love to hear from you next week – email@example.com.) Additionally, members of the public had the option to submit questions “to be considered for inclusion in the interview process,” resulting in 25 questions being submitted, per the press release. Of these, 12 were actually asked during interviews, Malloy wrote to LexObserver.
- McLean said he was “deeply honored” by the appointment, per the press release; “I look forward to keeping an open dialogue between the Department and the community through increased transparency and community engagement; I want to ensure all residents have a voice in the way the Department approaches policing in Lexington,” he added. While McLean told LexObserver he could not comment further on his appointment by press time this week due to other obligations, we look forward to hearing more from him about his approach to the permanent leadership position in a conversation next week.
- If any community members have questions you’d like me to ask Chief McLean next week, or reactions you’d like to share to this appointment – including those who may have worked with McLean previously – please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How does the Vision for Lexington Committee’s town-wide survey inform town decision-making?
- This type of formal five-year survey has been conducted in Lexington twice previously, in 2012 and 2017. Select Board and Vision for Lexington Committee Member Joe Pato noted that this is the fourth town-wide survey ever, but “it is the third following the current basic format that allows for a longitudinal study of community attitudes,” he wrote in an email to LexObserver.
- How it works: Director of the Center for Social Research at Framingham State University Marian Cohen has contributed to Lexington’s town-wide survey design since 2012. This year’s survey, which takes about 20 minutes to complete, will be open for approximately six weeks, Cohen told LexObserver. Questions explore residents’ experiences with town services and community priorities, related to everything from economic development to environmental protection to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) measures. To determine the questions, the Vision for Lexington Committee conducts extensive outreach with community groups to figure out what people want to be asked, while also seeking to ask questions similar to previous surveys, so that old and new data can meaningfully and usefully be compared. None of the questions in this year’s survey specifically focus on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on town services, but there is room to address such impacts explicitly in the survey’s open-ended questions, Cohen added.
- Results around August: Once the survey is closed, it will take a few months to compile a report summarizing the results; in collaboration with her colleague and fellow Center Director Ruth Remington, Cohen expects to submit a first draft to the Vision for Lexington Committee around May, and complete the final report by the end of August, similar to the timeline of previous years. “We do want to get a response to the community as quickly as possible, there’s nothing worse than participating in something, and then waiting forever to hear the results,” Cohen said. (Residents can also sign up to delve into details about the survey results in focus groups while the report is being put together).
- “I think it’s been a very valuable tool… because it gives you some feedback for what people are interested in and what they… think is important,” Vision for Lexington Committee Chair Margaret Coppe said.
- Directly informing town leaders: The Vision for Lexington Committee includes voting members who are also members of three other major decision-making bodies in town: The Select Board, the School Committee and the Planning Board. While the Vision for Lexington Committee is not responsible for taking action based on the survey results, the report is presented to and shared with these three committees/boards, who can all take its findings into account in their decision-making and actions.
- LexObserver heard from Select Board member Joe Pato and School Committee Chair Kathleen Lenihan about how the survey results impact their work and decision-making, but could not reach the Planning Board’s designated Vision for Lexington Committee member for comment by press time.
- “As a member of the Select Board, I find these surveys very helpful in understanding what is driving community concern and, to some degree, how residents balance concerns,” Pato wrote in an email to LexObserver.
- Previous survey results have resulted in concrete changes in town:
- Communication is key: For instance, the 2017 survey results indicated a widespread dissatisfaction with town communication strategies and information availability. As a result of this feedback, the town hired its Public Information Officer, Sean Dugan, about two years ago, Pato wrote.
- Following those survey results, the Vision for Lexington Committee (at that time called the Lexington 20/20 Vision Committee) formed a subcommittee called Enhancing Communication in Lexington (ECiL) to study and propose specific possible improvements to town-wide communication. In August 2020, they issued seven top recommendations in their report to the Select Board. Some of these recommendations have been completed and some are still in development, Dugan wrote in an email to LexObserver. He outlined the current status of each of the seven goals in an email:
- Develop a Town-wide communication plan and update the plan regularly as town priorities change. This objective “is in development,” Dugan wrote, explaining that he has collaborated with other Public Information Officers across the state “to develop a basic framework for us to work off of and adapt to our specific community.” But, he has found that not many, if any, other communities have this kind of written plan; “it’s important to note that of the 30 PIOs I’ve spoken with, no other Massachusetts community has a written communications plan they work off of, and that includes communities such as Somerville, Cambridge, and Needham. It’s a much more involved process than one may think, and it’s a large task to tackle for a single person,” he wrote.
- Implement a shared communication structure for Town and School communications. Dugan pointed to sharing information about Lexington Public Schools regularly in his Friday Link to Lexington newsletter, and sharing many of the school district’s social media posts, as aligning with this goal. “There isn’t a formal communication structure between the Town and Schools, but the improvements to communication between the Town and Schools have made significant progress toward this recommendation,” he wrote.
- Implement actions to increase enrollment on electronic communications platforms maintained by the Town. “We regularly ‘cross pollinate’ our electronic communications platforms so folks are aware of the different ways to connect with the Town,” Dugan wrote. This includes e.g. posting on social media about signing up for town email lists, and vice versa. This town website page also lists all of the ways the community can be informed.
- Identify and incorporate non-Internet centered communication platforms for residents who choose not to use social media or listservs. “We use a variety of communication channels to reach residents that don’t use the internet to get their information,” Dugan wrote. “For emergency communications, we use the Town’s CodeRED reverse-911 system that sends voice messages (as well as text messages and email) to those who have opted into the system, but it also reaches everyone with a listed phone number within the boundaries of Lexington.” He also cited mailings, physical signage, and collaborating with print local news outlets as pieces of the town’s communication strategy.
- The Town website should serve as the launching point through which residents can find the information they are seeking about Town related issues. One key requirement to increasing the usefulness of the Town website is to improve the search function capability embedded in the website. Coppe recalled one memorable illustration of the town website’s search function challenges, also described in the report: “When you asked the question, [How can I contact the principal of Lexington High School]? The answer that came up was the trash collection schedule,” she said, chuckling. “The Town’s website currently is the launching point for residents seeking information, and by that it means that if we send information out on social media, email, CodeRED, mailing, physical signage, etc., that that same information also is available on our website,” Dugan explained. But, a new website is also in the works: “We are currently in the process of redesigning the Town’s website to improve the search functionality, site navigation, look/feel, and calendar function,” he added. Another survey is currently posted on the town website for community members to contribute feedback about the website. The new website is expected to launch this summer, Dugan added.
- Update the systems for reporting potholes, streetlights out, missed trash pickups, etc. This project is paused while the new website design continues, Dugan wrote. “We are going to find a solution that integrates with the new website, and we hope to have a solution identified sometime this year,” he added.
- Enable a method for Town Committees to more easily be notified of attempts to contact the committee. “The Select Board and Town staff are currently working to identify improvements to the board and committee appointment process,” Dugan wrote. “Once that work is complete, there should be an opportunity to improve training so that board/committee members have the tools available to better communicate with residents.”
- Prioritizing diversity: Prior to 2017, “community desire for the opportunity to have a vibrant gathering place for all ages and interests was expressed in the 2012 survey,” Pato wrote, which contributed support to the plan to purchase property for the Community Center and therefore helped influence that concrete outcome.
- In a similar vein, five years later, the survey showed that diversity remained a major community priority – but that the focus had largely shifted toward a prioritization of “ensuring the availability of diverse housing and housing for a diverse population,” Pato explained. “This has led to support for senior housing projects and exploration of how to increase affordable housing,” though Lexington’s affluent housing market continues to pose challenges to these priorities.
- A voice about public schools: “From the school point of view, I think it’s a little different than the municipal [use of the survey],” School Committee Chair Kathleen Lenihan told LexObserver. It’s a bit harder in the school realm to “point to any specific thing where we have said, Ahah, based on this information, we are going to do this,” she explained. Rather, from her perspective, the survey “serves as sort of a check…so, we have our priorities as as the School Committee and the school system, and [the survey provides some sense of] is what we’re doing kind of matching what the residents feel is important…it serves as a check-in that we’re on the same page.”
- In past years, the survey results have suggested that the community priorities do indeed align with the School Committee’s priorities, she added. On the other hand, if results were to suggest that the community valued different priorities than the School Committee, the survey results could raise a red flag for the School Committee that they need to take stock of why such a difference exists; “if the results came in, and they were wildly different, then…we need to figure out why there’s this divergence in what our priorities are and how we think we’re doing,” Lenihan said.
- Participation matters: Cohen doesn’t have a target number of responses in mind this year, but hopes to receive as many responses as possible. While “there is no magic number of responses required,” she will compare the demographic information of the survey respondents to demographic information in census surveys; “we hope that, as we saw last time, the demographic distribution for respondents on the survey compares favorably with the demographic distribution for residents,” she wrote in a follow-up email. That said, unlike in other circumstances, this survey’s goal is not necessarily to sample the population because “we want all who are interested to participate,” she added. To increase accessibility, copies of the survey are translated into both Korean and Chinese.
- Statistically, some groups tend to respond at lower rates to surveys than others, and these limitations also apply to this town-wide survey, Cohen said. For instance, men tend to respond to surveys in general at lower rates than women, she said, so “getting more men to respond would be great.” Similarly, younger people, such as families with young children, tend to have less time to contribute to these kinds of surveys, but it is crucial to collect their input on what is and isn’t working in the community, Cohen stressed. It can also be harder to engage people with less education as survey respondents; “we are fortunate that we have an extremely well-educated community [in Lexington], but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of people here with less education. And we want to hear from them, too.”
- Overall, “we’re hoping for a good cross-section of responses from the community,” she summarized.
- Not the same as LexingtonNext: Lexington is also currently in the process of completing its Comprehensive Plan called LexingtonNext, which is another long-term planning initiative taking many community perspectives into context. But while the Vision for Lexington Committee certainly pays attention to this separate initiative, this town-wide survey is “a little broader than that,” Cohen said, with more of a social focus on interactions with town services than on the built environment – while the comprehensive plan focuses primarily on the latter.
- Bottom line: “This is really an important thing for people to participate in,” Cohen said. “It only comes around every five years, and it is the most comprehensive way for people to tell the town what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, what they want, and to have the elected boards be able to respond to that. It’s the best way for us as residents to have input.”
Lexpress was down for three days this week due to staffing shortages, but will resume normal service on Monday
- The staff shortages were not all directly COVID-related, Lexington Transportation Manager Susan Barrett said, though multiple drivers were absent due to testing positive. Lexpress typically has four full-time drivers, as well as one part-time driver, she explained; last week, all four could not be at work for a range of personal and covid-related reasons. The part-time driver was ok, “but we can’t rely on one part-time driver to run the whole system,” she said.
- Barrett tried to inform as many people as possible of the canceled service, but “not everyone gets those messages…So it’s really tough when we come to learn that someone was waiting for the bus.”
- These staffing challenges are hardly unique right now. Lexpress buses are contracted from Woburn-based M&L Transit Systems; their staffing shortages have been so severe of late that Michael D’Ampolo, the company’s president (the ‘M’ in M&L), has been driving a Lexpress bus himself, prior to being among those out of commission last week.
- Lexington’s taxi service also struggled to maintain service this week due to multiple drivers testing positive, Barrett added. Contracted from Checker Cab of Woburn, “it’s generally focused for seniors and people with disabilities that for whatever reason may not be using paratransit…Although we do use the service as needed for other people as well, if they truly need a ride,” Barrett said. When the taxi service is at capacity, the town tries to turn to other providers, but has limited options.
- Beyond staffing challenges, both the taxi service and Lexpress buses have had riderships negatively impacted by COVID; “we were climbing back up and then Omicron came and, you know, started declining again.” As cases begin to decline, and whenever COVID reaches endemicity, “hopefully we can get our ridership back,” Barrett said, especially youth riders, who used the service relatively often pre-covid, she said.
- “This might sound weird, given that we have no service right now, but I would really like people to support public transit when it is running,” Barrett said. She also encourages people to volunteer for Friendly Independent Sympathetic Help (FISH), a service separate from Lexpress which provides free rides for Lexington residents to medical appointments. “It’s really helpful; it relieves some of the burden on the other transportation services, and it’s just extra convenient, particularly for seniors and people that have to rely on those services,” she added.
- Despite the recent challenges, “we are committed to making sure that we have a strong, valuable service for people and just have to get through this little bump here,” Barrett said. Lexpress will be running full service Monday, according to a Lexpress announcement Friday afternoon.
How LexHAB plans to use its $430K in ARPA funding
- Of the $1,215,000 in ARPA funding allocated, $430,000 was allocated to the Lexington Housing Assistance Board (LexHAB) for two different projects. This week, LexHAB Chair Bob Burbidge explained the importance of that funding for the group’s work to LexObserver.
- Adding to the Town Employee Program: First, LexHAB had requested $1,254,400 to purchase four homes “appropriately priced and well suited for the needs of LexHAB tenants.” The Select Board granted $315,000 for this purpose, enough for one house, in their Jan. 10 meeting.
- “Affordable housing in Lexington is a bit of an oxymoron in that housing in general is just not affordable, period,” Burbidge said. As a consequence, it’s challenging to find – and get – houses suited to LexHAB’s needs. Indeed, this ARPA funding request came as a consequence of the group’s recent attempt to purchase a property in Lexington which was sold before they could receive the funding to claim it. Although the Select Board “saw the need [for the purchase], they had to post a meeting [to allocate the funding]. By the time they posted the meeting, [and] we got together for them to get approval, the house went under agreement, so we lost it,” Burbidge explained.
- Now, having funding pre-approved to purchase a suitable home that comes on the market decreases the likelihood of this scenario being repeated, Burbidge said, and puts the group in a good position before “the spring market starts to heat up.” LexHAB respects the Select Board’s decision to fund just one of the four requested houses for now, he added; “we were happy to get the funding for one” for the moment, and they will return to the request for additional funding as needed later.
- The group plans to use the property they eventually purchase with this funding for its Town Employee Program, which is intended to allow town employees who could not afford to live in Lexington otherwise to do so, Burbidge said.
- Burbidge is a lifelong resident of Lexington himself; “when I was a kid growing up, you’d have a school teacher on one side of your house, a police officer on the other side…everyone work[ed] and live[ed] here, [but] you can’t do that anymore,” he said. Now, of 1,787 full-time Town employees, just 242 are residents of the town (13.5%), according to LexHAB’s presentation to the Select Board.
- Burbidge doesn’t have a specific timeline in mind of when LexHAB will use this funding to purchase a house. “I’m hopeful that spring market will spring something loose for us,” he said, adding that by the middle of February, when the market tends to pick back up, “we want to be poised and ready if we see something that works.”
- Vine St: LexHAB also received $115,000 in ARPA funding for an ongoing affordable housing project at 116 Vine St. This project has been in the works for several years, and its goal is to ultimately house six families, Burbidge said.
- LexHAB requested this funding so that they can bring a well-developed, watertight design plan and request for construction funds to Town Meeting this spring, hopefully receive approval, and move the project forward as quickly as possible. One reason this ARPA funding for additional design work matters right now is that the tangled supply chain has driven up construction prices – meaning if Annual Town Meeting doesn’t pass the Vine St. design plan now because they don’t agree with or approve of the design, construction will be delayed, which will likely lead to a higher overall cost of the project, Burbidge explained. “We want to go into Town Meeting with everyone’s eyes wide open, and this [use of ARPA funding for design work] is the best way to do it.”
- While the Omicron variant has not specifically exacerbated the need Burbidge has seen in Lexington for affordable housing, the need was already intense enough to warrant urgent funding and action: “If we had a few units open up, we could have 150 people on a waiting list,” he said. Regardless of Omicron, “The need for affordable housing has been great. And it continues to be great.”
COVID-19 Weekly Update: Finally, cases in town and at LPS begin to drop again (but, they’re still way too high.)
- While Lexington’s recorded cases are still in the triple digits, this week’s triple digit is better than last week’s…as of Thursday, Lexington had 394 new COVID-19 cases, compared to the town’s all-time record of 478 the previous week.
- The case number outlook improved somewhat at Lexington Public Schools as well. As of Thursday, the school system had a total of 235 students and teachers absent who had tested positive, and 21 students, but no staff, on quarantine. Last week, 314 students were absent who had tested positive, while 35 students and staff were on quarantine. Onward and upward.
- Later today, at 11 a.m., Lexington will be holding its annual Resolution Run to Kick Cancer 5K. It’s supposed to be chilly but beautiful, so you can go register in-person last minute before 10:30 a.m. or cheer on the runners at Lexington High School, where the race begins and ends. You can also participate virtually and submit self-timed results anytime between yesterday and Feb. 1.
- The Chinese American Association of Lexington (CAAL) will hold its second virtual gala to ring in the Lunar New Year on Monday, Jan. 31, from 8-9 p.m, in collaboration with Boston Asian Radio and TV Station, New Legacy Cultural Center and the Town of Lexington. The evening will feature performances from local and Boston-area artists in a variety of styles. You can view online streaming options here.
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Nicco Mele, Sophie Culpepper, Sarah Liu, Vivian Wang and Seiya Saneyoshi