Dear Candidate: Please Answer these Four Questions. Part 1: Snyder-Grant

On behalf of Acton Forum, I contacted the candidates running for office in the upcoming election (June 2, 2020) and asked them each four questions on topics many voters believe are important. I received two replies by candidates for Board of Selectmen and I thank them for their participation. The questions were carefully worded to avoid introducing bias. There are many more questions that could be asked, but to increase the likelihood of participation, I wanted to keep it brief.

1. Please introduce yourself and explain what makes you qualified to serve in the elected position you are seeking to hold?

Thanks for this opportunity to address the Acton Forum. If readers are left with more questions or comments, they can learn more about my candidacy at JimForActon, and they can reach me at or 508-572-2985.

I was raised on the south side of Chicago, near the university where my father taught history. I spent summers in New Hampshire, where my grandparents lived and where I learned to love being outdoors. I met my wife Dana in 1987. We smooshed our last names together to become Jim and Dana Snyder-Grant. We moved to Acton in 1993 in anticipation of moving into New View cohousing on Half Moon Hill, where I have served on the condo finance committee, the board of directors, and the facilitation committee. In 2004, I retired from a career as a manager of teams of software developers, for Lotus and IBM, and began to focus on service opportunities in the Town of Acton.

I have learned about the interconnected systems that make up Acton by serving on these boards and committees, in these roles: Acton Land Stewardship Committee, chair; Acton 2020 vice-chair, with a focus on environmental goals; Acton Conservation Trust, vice-president; Acton Commission on Disabilities, associate member; and the Community Preservation Committee, associate member.

My work with Green Acton for the last 12 years, as a founding member, co-president, and clerk has helped me learn how to research and advocate for local policies that support positive environmental outcomes, and has given me many opportunities to collaborate with Town staff and the Board of Selectmen.

All of my experience on Acton boards, committees, and civic organizations has helped me understand the work of the Selectmen, and how best to contribute to it.

2. After being elected, what will be your top priority and explain the regulatory process that must be negotiated to follow through on the objectives.

I expect the Board to continue to focus on the health and financial aspects of the COVID-19 crisis at least through 2020. The regulatory processes that must be negotiated include:

  • sorting out the overlapping powers of the Board of Health and the Board of Selectmen in making decisions to close, open, or limit various venues and activities;

  • understanding the recent state legislation and emergency executive orders that give extra flexibility to the Town, and its residents and businesses, in running their operations;

  • determining the limitations in state law and regulation on the ability of the Town to adjust taxes and fees for households and businesses that are under financial stress because of the pandemic, and the legal and behavioral aftermath of any such decisions.

    As a new Selectman, I would expect to be doing a lot of listening and learning in my first few months. What I've learned by talking with current and past members of the Board is that there is a firehose of information to be sorted through as a Board member in order to make effective contributions to the work of the Board. I don't expect to be able to come in with a set of personal priorities and start implementing them right away. There are now over 50 boards and committees to be covered by the 5 Board members, so I will be attending a lot of meetings, talking to committee members and residents, and looking to understand what unique or complementary contributions I can make in these areas. The main regulatory process I will need to be careful about in this process is the Open Meeting Law. I am very familiar with the requirements of this law, having been a committee chair for more than a decade, and having attended three different Open Meeting Law trainings over the years.

    3. On difficult issues like opening public schools, how can we know your decisions are based on facts, data and careful analysis and not influenced by emotional outcries based on bad arguments and inductive reasoning?

    In my two decades as a computer programmer, I learned that to fix problems, you need to be explicit about your assumptions about what is causing a problem, and then figure out how to test those assumptions, by experiment, modeling, or research, and analysis. When the Board is being asked to change or create new policies, or recommend legislative action to Town Meeting, it's because there is a perceived problem in the current state of affairs, and a fix is being explored.

    I'm happy to share with the public my reasoning behind any vote I might make, including sharing my assumptions, and to listen to alternative points of view. I understand that bad decisions can flow from overgeneralization, incorrect facts, bad analysis, or unexamined assumptions about the relationship between a proposed policy and the problem to be addressed.

    The more important decisions the Board faces are usually made in the absence of complete information, and with the challenge of addressing competing priorities. In these cases, a key task for Board members is to be explicit about how each of us may be “filling in” the unknowns, and to be clear about how we will check for the failure or success of the change in addressing the problem, so that we can look back afterward and learn from our actions.

    4. Besides COVID 19 related topics, what other items do you consider important to address after being elected to office? Explain how you will approach each topic.

    There are three areas to which I think I can best bring my skills and experience. I expect I would adjust and refine this list as I get deeper into the work of being a Board member.

    A) Bringing better decision-making outcomes to boards and committees by encouraging best practices for meetings.

    The effectiveness of Boards and Committees varies tremendously. Some are capable of respectfully and effectively bringing any important conflicts to the surface, and working together to sort out whether these are disagreements about facts, priorities, or previous experiences, and finding ways to forge strong agreements. Others either get lost in conflict, or avoid it so assiduously that the decisions don't reflect the best thinking of all members.

    My experiences as a manager, board member, and committee member have given me a lot of experience and training in this area. I am expecting that for some of the committees I am assigned to, I will be able to help the chair improve the group’s process by coaching outside of the meetings, and sometimes by example at the meetings. If this process works well, I'd like the Board to consider scaling this effort by providing, to all board and committee chairs and members, the opportunity to participate in some training by people skilled at this work.

    B) Building consensus around a set of specific sustainability goals for the Town.

    The Town's sustainability policy, approved in 2018, requires the Board to agree on a set of sustainability goals, to be revised and re-examined regularly, to direct the operations of the Town. This process has been slow and stalled.

    This kind of work has been at the heart of my time with Green Acton. I expect to help drive this process forward by coordinating work between key Town staff and boards to bring draft goals to the Board for its own discussion and for public comment. This was a short-term goal for the Selectmen last year, and was not completed. I'd like to accelerate this process.

    C) Widening the discussion and agreement on housing policy to include market-rate housing as well as affordable housing.

    The Town is about to agree on a Housing Production Plan that has had an extraordinary amount of citizen interest and input. There is growing urgency to address the rising number of residents under financial stress and housing insecurity due to housing prices rising faster than incomes. The Housing Production Plan is a state-mandated document that focuses on affordable, deed-restricted housing as part of reaching the State-mandated 10% affordable housing goals. That's a good start, but we need to work more broadly.

    Simply building more houses is not a helpful approach. Acton has reached the point where new market-rate, stand-alone residential housing does more harm than good in terms of financial impact (additional tax revenue is often outpaced by new expenses for infrastructure and services), traffic impacts, and environmental impacts. We need to find ways both to discourage the building of more large, single-lot houses, and to provide more small and compact housing close to services like shopping and public transit for people who need it. Often, those are folks on the lowest ends of the income scale, seniors and empty-nesters looking to downsize, people that work here but who can't afford to live here, and adults with disabilities who face challenges continuing to live in Acton.

    To do this, we will need an effective process to (1) design and agree on zoning, building, and land use changes; (2) to enhance the capabilities of the Acton Community Housing Corporation (ACHC) and the Acton Housing Authority (AHA) by seeking additional funding and grant opportunities; and (3) by continuing to look for creative ways to reuse existing buildings when possible, rather than building new ones. I expect this to be a multi-year process that will require building consensus about what we want Acton to be like as a place to live; this may best be done as part of the creation of a new comprehensive community plan to replace the current Acton 2020 plan. In the short run, this work will play out in the interchanges between residents, the ACHC, the AHA, and the Board in considering new affordable housing projects, and in the work of the land use departments in prioritizing and encouraging some projects and not others. I will seek more open communication between the Board and the land use departments on assumptions and goals about which housing-related projects are helpful to the Town's goals and which are not.

    There is too little overlap between those with housing and other urgent issues and those who are involved in Town government. This can mean that decisions about housing and other policy get made without the full set of experiences in which such decisions need to be grounded.

    In all of this work, I will look for ways to bring more voices to the table. I commit to transparency and honesty in communication, and to supporting an inclusive and deliberate decision-making process.

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