Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, February 2014

A series of civic-engagement exercises in Melrose in 2012 led to numerous new programs and policy changes.

Among 20-plus new programs and services are a website designed for parents of children under age 6, the formation of a bike and pedestrian advisory committee, and the use of Twitter to announce such events as school snow closures and public works projects likely to impact traffic.

Four two-and-a-half hour evening sessions held in May 2012 were coordinated by Gary Romano, a Melrose resident and founder of the consulting firm Civitas Strategies who provided his services for free.

Mayor Robert Dolan said he took a keen interest in the exercises, but chose not to attend out of concern that participants would be less willing to speak honestly if the mayor were in the room. Mike Lindstrom, Melrose’s community services director, did take part.

Participants were asked to write down three things they liked about Melrose and three things they’d like to change. A series of proposals were presented for a vote, but instead of asking participants to simply vote “yes” or “no,” participants had the options of placing their five votes on one proposal or spreading them among multiple proposals.

“Basically, this made people place a value [on each proposal], so we weren’t just creating a wish list,” Lindstrom said. “There were trade-offs. There’s a finite set of resources.”

The process, Lindstrom added, also helped participants understand the logic for certain city policies, such as a prohibition on overnight parking. (The policy, according to Dolan, is designed as a deterrent to the subdividing of large 19th century homes and the creation of illegal apartments.)

Dolan said that while he did not read the follow-up interviews with residents who participated, he was very interested in the results.

“We learned that many subgroups had different ideas, but there was a subset of core values,” Dolan said. “One assumption was that only people with children care about things like possible overrides. That’s not true. The two things that people value most are their safety and making sure that the next generation of children have equal or greater opportunities than they have.”

One metric suggesting that the process was successful is that, despite the emergence of more than 20 new policies, projects and services, the city’s bond rating is as high as it has ever been, according to Romano.

“All of the new service costs could be seen as the city going on a spending binge,” Romano said. “That tells you something, that they did this without increasing the borrowing costs.”

For more information, contact Robert Dolan at (781) 979-4440.