, Salem, MA

January 18, 2013

Our view: Taking a closer look at city board members

The Salem News

---- — Salem’s City Council was wise to insist on meeting, and vetting, the mayor’s nominees to serve on the planning and zoning boards. In the past, candidates have generally been approved with little discussion. But councilors, after all, have the right to approve or reject candidates, and they should feel comfortable that those candidates are qualified.

What is troubling in this scenario is some of the reasoning behind this increased interest in nominees. Some boards have approved developments to which neighbors — and some councilors — have objected, and this seems to be an effort to emphasize that board members should place more weight on popular sentiments, and less on the city and state regulations they are bound to uphold.

Many — some would argue most — changes are unpopular. Salem residents need only think back to when the Peabody Essex Museum was contemplating building its new wing. The debate was not just heated, but at times vitriolic, as some complained about the old Armory facade being torn down and a city street being taken over. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, including the most stalwart fans of the burned-down Armory, who feels that project has been anything less than a huge success for the museum and for the city it has helped revitalize.

That doesn’t mean popular objections should be ignored, just put into perspective.

Sometimes, as in the case of the Salem Oil & Grease development, board members listened to all the objections but concluded that the proposal met the requirements of the law. In others, such as the plan to site a methadone clinic in Salem a couple of years ago, board members listened to all the objections and concluded they were sound — and that such a clinic should not be sited where it was being proposed.

The test here is not whether board members agree with neighbors — or city councilors — all the time, but whether they treat both supporters and opponents of a project respectfully, hear them fully, and give their views equal and serious consideration. In the end, board members must be bound by the law, and they open the city to lawsuits if they are not.

Most nominees easily avoided the pitfalls before them during City Council questioning Wednesday night, declaring, as they should, that they would approach issues on a case-by-case basis, and of course would weigh the merits of neighborhood arguments carefully.

Councilors wisely let it go at that. But we’re glad they took an interest, met the candidates firsthand and assured themselves of their qualifications. A little more light on these boards and the people who serve on them never hurts.