By Kim Siebert MacPhail
Last Friday morning, coming directly from a joint transportation meeting with area Planning Boards, Representative Ken Gordon held his first constituents’ forum since being sworn into office on January 2. Gordon said he intends to hold regular meetings of this type at Bedford’s Council on Aging (COA) and that other district-wide forums will also take place as appropriate and timely. An upcoming town-meeting style discussion with Massachusetts Department of Transportation Secretary Richard Davey, arranged by Gordon, will take place in Burlington later in February— although a date has not yet been set.
Gordon began his meeting at the COA by saying that there are a lot of important issues being discussed now on Beacon Hill such as taxes, gun legislation, double utility poles and medical marijuana.
“These are controversial issues that, frankly, I’m happy to be there [for] at this time because there are passionate arguments on both sides and there’s a responsibility to use your judgment—and in using your judgment— to consider opinions that sometimes you bring to the legislature and sometimes people share with you. You keep an open mind and listen and, in the end, make a decision,” Gordon said.
On the subject of decisions—and how the legislative process works—Gordon emphasized that although Governor Patrick has presented his version of the budget, “the decisions aren’t made yet.”
“The Governor proposes a bill [but] that’s not the law. . . .The legislature – especially the House of Representatives where I serve—we make the difference,” Gordon explained. “Many of the votes that you see are the result of negotiation. By the time something comes to a vote, it’s been negotiated, changed, hammered out. It’s not going to be what [it] started out [as].”
Gordon added that his philosophy is that “government serves us best when government protects the people that earn support from the public, from society. Which is to say, we contribute to society. . .when we’re paying our taxes, and we’re putting in. We earn things like Social Security, we earn that safety net. I think that ‘entitlements’ is an unfortunate term. . . .I think when it comes to veterans, to seniors and to education, we have a responsibility—as a society—to pay back. People have a right to expect that our society will be there because they were there for our society.”
The topics covered by Gordon and residents who participated were wide-ranging, and included transportation and the MBTA, income and sales taxes, housing, health care, medical marijuana, taxes on businesses, unfunded mandates, perquisites for state politicians, and lack of trust in government.
One of the lengthiest and most detailed exchanges was on the subject of one particular unfunded mandate: the education of the children of transitional families that live at the Plaza Hotel. This mandate includes transportation, provided by Bedford as a host town, of students returning to their hometown schools. Families temporarily living in Bedford, by law, can opt to have their children remain in their original school district rather than being educated here.
Leading up to that discussion, one participant asked Gordon if he could please ask the State “not to pass laws that require the towns to do something, but then they don’t fund it.”
“Unfunded mandates are a huge problem and may not even be legal,” Gordon said. “We have transitional families living in a motel in Bedford—families that otherwise would be out on the street. The Commonwealth has a temporary plan—they say this [arrangement] won’t last beyond 2014.
“Bedford is educating the kids that come to Bedford [and] choose to go to Bedford schools,” he continued. “If someone comes from another community, they can either stay in school there or they [may] say ‘Bedford has a great school system; I want my kids educated in Bedford.’ They have that option and we have to pay. As a community, our money goes for either educating the kids or busing. That’s an unfunded mandate and the Governor just cut transitional benefits [in his budget], which means he’s cutting something we’re doing anyway because we’re not going to tell these kids, ‘You don’t live here, you can’t go to school here.’ Kids need to go to school. We need to have a way for paying for these kids who are here or for transporting them [to school in the community they came from].”
Saying that no funding goes directly to the schools or the town, Gordon added, “The State pays the hotel, so [the transitional families’ stays] are funded but [the Town is] paying to educate the kids. [How it came about is that the Bedford Plaza] had room so they put their hand up and said, ‘We’ll take them.’ They were the ones who volunteered and the State said ‘fine.’ The State doesn’t pay very much; [the hotel is] not getting market rate. [This is happening] all over the state.”
A member of the audience suggested the unused Coast Guard housing as a better solution for homeless families. “Nobody seems to be able to get anything done [with it] and it just sits there,” he said.
“It would make wonderful senior housing,” said another attendee. “It’s all on one level and the railroad bed goes right by it. Most people could walk uptown from there. I would love to see it turned into senior housing—not ‘affordable housing.’ We have enough of that in town.”
As for the benefits that state legislators are rumored to receive, Gordon tried to correct some widespread assumptions.
“The per diem is $18.00 [for me, coming from this distance] if I go in [to Boston], and I haven’t elected to take it. I hear from people—from friends—about these perks [that state legislators have] and I don’t know where they are.
“I get the same health insurance as my wife who’s a teacher in Bedford gets—the GIC (Group Insurance Commission); we’re on the same plan,” Gordon continued. “I have to buy stamps [for my official mailings]. I don’t get free business cards. I have to buy my own stationery, and if I want to give someone a citation, I have to buy that, too. There are no hidden perks that I can see. I get a parking space [but] it’s taxed [at a value of about $200 a month]—and I love that parking space, I admit that.”