Monday, August 24, 2015
Controversy Over Feehan Gate Ending??
Posted: Sunday, August 23, 2015 10:45 pm | Updated: 11:14 am, Mon Aug 24, 2015.
The Great Feehan-Gate controversy is inching closer to a final resolution - or more accurately, another long-term temporary settlement.
What erupted into a huge debate during its initial stages has slowly and much more quietly begun to return to what it always was: A dispute between neighbors in which government should never have been significantly involved.
The Attleboro City Council recently voted 9-2 to approve a written deal that calls for Bishop Feehan High School to carry forward with their plans to open a long-closed driveway that leads onto Harvard Street, a public way. In exchange for being allowed to do something they have always had the right to do anyway, city officials will agree not to take extraordinary steps and abandon city land to specifically prevent the private school from utilizing its access to the public way.
That seems fair, right?
Of course, the residents of Harvard Street have a perfect right to be concerned about increased traffic on their quiet road. They have enjoyed a virtual dead-end street for 40 years now. They quite understandably were upset at the prospect of hundreds of cars per day being funneled by their homes.
So under this tentative agreement, the driveway will be used by Feehan only on school days, and even then for only 75 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes in the afternoon. While Harvard Street residents have not proclaimed their approval of said plan, it certainly has to allay most of their fears concerning public safety and quality of life.
Or then again, maybe not.
This still has to be signed off on by the mayor and school officials. Mayor Dumas could still conceivably insist on changes, although that appears unlikely at this stage. Retiring Councilor Walter Thibodeau has skillfully and carefully guided both sides through the web of emotions and legal threats this situation has created, and it almost seemed inevitable all parties involved would end up where they currently sit.
Several councilors boxed themselves in with their initial overreaction to the situation. In their zeal to appease angry voters and taxpayers, they overstated their positions and thrust the city into a precarious legal predicament. The move to abandon part of the roadway - which is still being held up as a possibility at this stage - could have opened Attleboro up to a lawsuit from the private Catholic school.
In the end, many will say the city council worked out a thoughtful compromise here. And that will be at least somewhat true.
But this is also an example of how it is never a good idea for local public officials to jump into a volatile situation too soon.
Elected officials generally love to take any opportunity to help voters, especially when it potentially involves public safety and the sanctity of the home. And while Bishop Feehan is home to many Attleboro students, a large portion of the parents who pay the tab for their children's private education are not Attleboro voters. From a purely political standpoint, going hard on the side of the taxpayers is a no-brainer.
But you need to see the big picture before going too far. While councilors will no doubt say their initial strong reaction was intended to bring Bishop Feehan officials to the bargaining table, the truth is Feehan probably never needed to use the driveway for more than what is called for in the compromise.
Of course, school officials had the luxury of being able to work primarily in private. City councilors have to conduct most of their dealings under the glare of the public spotlight.
Feehan has maintained a very calm and reasonable public stance. It is possible they took a much harder line when only city officials were in the room.
The two votes against the compromise came from Council President Frank Cook of Ward 3 (which includes Harvard Street) and Jonathan Weydt, who is running in one of the few contested races as an at-large candidate after deciding not to run for re-election in his current ward. Coincidence? Perhaps.
It is good to remember that a gate has to open and close - otherwise it is just a fence. It's now time to take the rust off this gate, and close the door on the entire controversy.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.