Newton's CPA Astroturf scandal: Interview with Guive Mirfendereski

Borderline first heard about the CPA-astroturf scandal in Newton last month, while at the barber's.

"You hear about that guy in The Lake?" The owner said to the customer on the other chair. "Taking the city to court for the baseball diamond at South."

"Yeah, I saw it in the paper yesterday. CPA, right?" They both agreed it was terrible that Community Preservation Act funds were being used to refurbish Newton South's baseball diamond.

When Borderline got home that night, I flipped open the Newton Tab and read the rest of the story ("Resident taking on city over new turf," by Dan Atkinson, in the March 15 issue). Guive Mirfendereski of Nonantum had filed suit, objecting to "plans supported by Mayor David Cohen to spend $5 million in CPA dollars to lay artificial turf at Newton South High School's baseball and soccer fields." Mirfendereski's reasoning: The CPA was never intended to refurbish Newton South's athletic fields. The Tab article even cited the key passage from the law: The money "cannot be used to rehabilitate or restore assets owned by the municipality before the adoption of the act."

This guy's attitude struck a chord with Borderline, and I am sure, a lot of other people too. Borderline voted for the CPA when it came up for vote in Waltham last year. The CPA, when passed by local towns and cities, lets the local governments levy a small tax on residents to pay for projects aimed at preserving the community. The examples cited by politicians before the vote usually involve the city government buying land with CPA money before developers can get at it. Installing five million bucks worth of Astroturf at the local high school is never part of the vision.

The CPA seems quite clear regarding what the money can be used for. From the Tab article:
Excerpted from 2002 Informational Guideline Release, which is an amendment to Massachusett General Law Chapter 44B:

"The purpose of the CPA is to give communities a dedicated funding source to expand certain community assets: open space, historic resources, recreational land and community housing. With respect to rehabilitation of those assets, however, cities and towns may only use community preservation fund monies to rehabilitate or restore assets that were originally acquired or created with fund monies. Fund monies cannot be used to rehabilitate or restore assets owned by the municipality before the adoption of the act or acquired with other municipal funds.

"Under the recent change in the law, this restriction no longer applies to any rehabilitation or restoration projects involving historic resources...It does continue to apply, however, to such projects involving open space, recreational land and community housing..."
Yet the City of Newton is not backing down. City lawyers and pols have decided to play hardball with Mirfendereski. The Tab article cited this gem from the cityĆ­s motion to dismiss:
"It is both shocking and outrageous that (Mirfendereski) seeks to impede the democratic process of CPA funding by preventing the CPC from even making a recommendation to the Board of Aldermen and preventing the Board of Aldermen from taking a vote."
Borderline was approached by Mirfendereski today via email, and asked to consider "writing a few paragraphs" on this issue. Borderline agreed. I was thinking about writing something about it even before he contacted me, and tying it into Newton's current (and future) school funding woes, but this gave me an opportunity to do an interview. One thing that I made clear before I asked my questions: I support the CPA. At that time, I suspected he did not, but his answers were surprising. Here's the complete, unedited transcript of the interview:

Borderline: Did you vote for or against the CPA when it appeared on the ballot?

Mirfendereski: I voted for it and in so doing I relied on the language of the ballot and the legislation that set out the purposes for establishing the dedicated fund.

Borderline: Could you tell me how you found out about this proposed use of the CPA?

Mirfendereski: Originally, I read about the SynTurf project in the Newton Tab's story (11 January 2006) about a meeting that the abutters of Newton South High School had with the planners of the project and mayor.

Borderline: How did you feel when you first learned about it?

Mirfendereski: The story contained a quote from a gentleman named Jeff Seideman who stated that the law did not permit the use of the funds for what the planners were proposing. The article also contained the mayor's rebuttal on this.

Borderline: Why do you think Newton Officials attempted to do this with the money, if it's so clearly against the guidelines?

Mirfendereski: Because there is no accountability on the state level about how these monies are being appropriated. Times are tough, money-wise and there was a pot of honey they could dip into without anyone having the ability to stop them. There is social good that comes from this project except the furtherance of the politics of pandering to a select group of interests -- they will get their flied (or maybe kickbacks too), the contractors will make millions and the mayor will get their collective gratitude and contributions when he decided to run for another office (possibly, US representative Barney Frank's seat if the latter decides to run for the Senate).

Borderline: What would be an ideal use of CPA funds in Newton?

Mirfendereski: When the CPA was originally proposed in the Legislature it contained the following statement of findings, which is illustrative of what they wanted to accomplish:
"It is hereby found that the fundamental character of the communities of the commonwealth is now endangered as the result of the combined effects of a series of factors, including: a. the loss of open space and park land as the result of continuing sprawl; b. the loss or deterioration of structures and landscapes that are of historical importance to the communities in which they are located; c. the inadequate supply of low and moderate income housing, which forces people of all ages to leave communities where they have roots or deprives them of housing that meets reasonable standards of habitation; d. It is further found that traditional financing mechanisms, including statewide and national grant programs, do not provide an adequate dedicated funding source for communities attempting to preserve their fundamental character in the face of those dangers, and that a dedicated funding source will allow communities to address those needs."
To give you an example of what is suitable under CPA -- If a building and parking lot owned by a person were demolished and left to sit, the city can buy it with CPA funds and build affordable housing on it, or turn it into a field (even cover it in synthetic turf). If an old house that has some historical significance but its owner can no longer maintain it or if it is falling apart or being eyed by developer, then the city can use CPA funds and acquire it and rehabilitate it.

(end of question/answer session)

Borderline is not sure of the current status of Mirfendereski's case, but the Tab article from last month notes that 10 people need to bring a complaint, not just one. If you'd like to get in touch, email Borderline (borderlineblog@gmail.com) and I'll forward the message to Mirfendereski. Additionally, Borderline urges Newton voters to contact the people that you elected to represent you in the city government -- i.e., aldermen and the mayor -- and let them know what you think about the planned use of the CPA.

For those readers who don't live in Newton, there's another issue to consider: If Newton's lawyers prevail, there's a very good chance that the CPA will fail when it's brought up for a vote in other towns, or be repealed -- CPA opponents will rightly say that the law can be used for totally unworthy projects, and use Newton South's multimillion-dollar Astroturf installment as an example. Borderline knows that he never would have voted for the CPA in Waltham had Newton successfully funded the Astroturf project at Newton South High School.


Blogger Lisa said...

This is odd, because installing a turf field at Victory Field (where Watertown High plays football) was a frequently referenced possible use for the money; it was often mentioned by former state senator Warren Tolman, who appeared at many community meetings supporting the CPA.

The CPA failed in Watertown. However, it seems to me you guys should have some control over what the town spends the CPA money on via your town council (or whatever form of municipal government you have).

12:24 AM  
Blogger Borderline said...

My sense of what the CPA was intended for were projects like open space preservation and rebuilding historical structures. Mr. M also cited building affordable housing. But I never thought of installing astroturf at the High School as a suitable CPA project. Besides the fact that good old fashioned grass is a fine turf for athletes to play on, I believe refurbishment of these types of school facilties should come out of the school budget.

Of course, as we all know, the City of Newton is having a tough time adequately funding the schools. The CPA looked like easy pickings, so the pols decided to raid that piggy bank, never supposing that people would actually protest.

7:49 AM  

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