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Arena-DeRosa hits stride at State House

by | Aug 1, 2023 | Featured: News, News

State Rep. James Arena-DeRosa

State Rep. James Arena-DeRosa discusses the issues Hopkinton is facing during a June interview at the State House. PHOTO/MARY ELLEN GAMBON

Now six months into his term as Hopkinton’s state representative, James Arena-DeRosa is beginning to hit his stride as a legislator.

Sitting in a State House conference room in between hearings recently, Arena-DeRosa spent an hour sharing his goals for Hopkinton with the Independent and how his current duties differ from the public policy work he previously has accomplished on the federal and state levels. In this position, he said he has devoted up to 70 hours per week between constituent outreach and legislative work.

“I’ve been involved in public policy for a long time,” the Holliston resident said. “I’m enjoying the job a lot, but there’s still a learning curve. I’m still learning new approaches, new personalities, new alignments and the way things are set up. The officials in Hopkinton and my colleagues in the State House have been very helpful and welcoming.”

He added that this work reminded him of his previous role as director of public advocacy for Oxfam America.

Committee assignments welcomed

Given his work experience, Arena-DeRosa’s assignment to the Joint Committee on Agriculture seemed like a natural fit. He previously served in the Obama administration as the Northeast Regional Administrator of USDA Food and Nutrition Service, a $12 billion federal agency that focuses on areas such as food insecurity, education and agricultural issues.

“The committee assignments I was given were a nice mix,” he explained. In addition to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, DeRosa also serves on the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Business, the Joint Committee on Emergency Preparedness and Management, and the Joint Committee on Public Health. They will allow him to focus on areas critical to Hopkinton’s growth as well as the needs of the other communities in his district, which also includes Holliston, Sherborn and two precincts in Millis.

Contact with constituents crucial

Constituent services have become a priority for Arena-DeRosa. In June, he held office hours at Hopkinton Town Hall, and he plans on returning to engage more residents and hold focus groups with key stakeholder communities, including older residents and veterans. He also appeared at June’s Eversource LNG facility meeting, where he volunteered to compile reports on the project, and he marched in the annual Pride Parade.

One of his goals is to increase public awareness about who government officials are and how constituents are served. A recent study performed by the Holliston Senior Center showed that 40% of older residents in that town did not know who to contact with their concerns.

“I’m happy to help the people who reach out to us,” explained Arena-DeRosa. “But what about the people who don’t know who to call?”

Arena-DeRosa will be holding office hours at Town Hall’s Lower Level on Monday, Aug. 21 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. to address constituent concerns.

Party-based town election system questioned

The most popular question Arena-DeRosa said he heard at the Hopkinton office hours session was how the town can move toward a nonpartisan local election system. Concerns have come to the forefront since the May election. Ashley Fogg, an independent candidate for the School Committee, accused the Hopkinton Democratic Town Committee of negatively targeting her campaign. Then in June, HDTC chair Darlene Hayes resigned from her position as well as two town offices after an investigation showed that Hayes posted critical comments about Fogg online under various aliases.

“People from all sides of the spectrum have been saying this to me,” he said. “But it’s up to the community whether they want to do that.”

The three other towns in Arena-DeRosa’s district already have nonpartisan elections at the local level. Hopkinton is one of just 16 towns in Massachusetts that has partisan caucuses preceding its town elections, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

LNG facility concerns prompt response

Arena-DeRosa said all reports on the LNG facility were sent by his office to Town Manager Norman Khumalo and are available at Town Hall for the public to review.

“The fascinating thing about it is it’s a case where you have local government issues, state government issues and federal regulations,” he explained. “Everyone has their little piece of it.”

He is “happy that there is more dialogue” between the community and public safety officials about what to do in the event of an emergency since the June meeting. Development closer to the tanks, including Legacy Farms, may have prompted an enhanced awareness of the facility’s activities, he said.

Arena-DeRosa also discussed the LNG facility with the Joint Committee on Emergency Preparedness and Management. He plans on meeting with Massachusetts Emergency Management Association officials soon.

“It’s kind of an anomaly,” he said of the LNG plant. “You might see a willingness for Eversource to do some things, but it could bump up against federal and state regulations. It’s going to be an interesting dialogue, and I’m glad that we started it. I don’t know exactly what role I can play, but I’m happy to take a look at it.”

One positive step he commended the facility on is putting in a new mixing station that will generate less noxious fumes as part of its remodeling effort.

But a concern he mentioned is that LNG has been seeking tax abatements, noting the company’s argument is that it is among the largest taxpayers in town.

“I’m looking at whether or not there should be a limit on how many times someone can do that,” he explained. “But if someone owes a lot of back taxes and uses that as a strategy, I mean, come on.”

Support for small businesses important

Arena-DeRosa called small businesses “the backbone of our local communities.”

“In the work that I’ve done, I’ve taken on corporate largesse, whether it’s oil companies or Amazon,” he said. “The small town community businesses are what keep the town going. Sometimes, if we aren’t careful, we put out these rules and laws that affect everybody the same way. That’s not always the right approach.”

He added that the previous administration under Gov. Charlie Baker “has made a multibillion-dollar mistake.”

What concerned him the most was that the state paid out a couple of billion dollars on fraudulent unemployment claims. Some were made by people who honestly thought they might be eligible for relief during the pandemic, and those will be indemnified.

“What I do not like is that the state decided to get money back by putting a surcharge on unemployment insurance,” he stressed. “It offends my sense of fairness.”

While he understood the need to build back the unemployment insurance fund, he argued that it was wrong for the state to put that responsibility on small businesses. A better idea, he explained, would have been to exempt the first 50 employees so that many small businesses in the area likely would be exempted from the surcharge.

“My whole life has been about social and economic justice,” Arena-DeRosa explained. “But on economic development and financial issues, I tend to be very pragmatic. For our economy to work, it has to work for everybody, especially since so many small businesses in the area have been impacted.”

PFAS concerns raised

Arena-DeRosa also talked about the concerns in Hopkinton about PFAS, a group of synthetic, potentially harmful chemicals used in a wide variety of household products and industrial processes that have been found in town wells.

“While we all want people to have access to clean water, the regulators got so far ahead of the appropriators,” he said. “You don’t want to cripple small towns. There has to be balance in there.”

There is an earmark he proposed in the current version of the state budget — H. 2018 — that will provide funding for the town for an economic development and grants officer. A conference committee vote was pending at press time. This employee would research funding opportunities to help mitigate the elevated PFAS levels, among other town needs, he explained.

“I sponsored that because of all the federal money that is coming in, especially ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] money,” he said. “Substantial money is available in tranches, but towns have to have shovel-ready projects. One of the arguments that I made is that small towns are not set up with staff to go after these grants or look for opportunities for economic development.”

Future goals identified

“I think one of the biggest challenges we face in Hopkinton and our other small towns is how do we hold onto the character of a town that has become so expensive?” said Arena-DeRosa. “I think that Hopkinton and Holliston are very welcoming for people from different backgrounds. However, it can be challenging for people to feel welcomed if it can cost a million dollars to move into a community.”

He said seniors are being priced out of their homes, and some young people can’t afford to live in the towns in which they grew up.

He also worried that a small town’s character can change if some officials are commuting up to an hour to their jobs.

Said Arena-DeRosa: “They care about the community, of course. But it changes the fabric of the town.”

One suggestion he presented was more support for in-law apartments. He also discussed the need for environmentalists and affordable housing advocates to work together to support cluster housing that allows for the preservation of open space.

Hopkinton has been growing rapidly in recent years, necessitating new schools and housing opportunities, he stressed.

A long-term statewide goal of Arena-DeRosa, who formerly worked with the Peace Corps, is to explore student debt relief for those who engage in public service.

“It’s important for equity as well as people applying for jobs,” he stressed, noting that the current structure allows for more participants from wealthier families.

Said Arena-DeRosa: “If I could do one thing during my term, it would be to make sure that the voices of the community are represented at the table.”

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