By Nick Grabbe
Six candidates for three at-large Town Council seats answered questions Sunday on conversion of houses to student rentals, the master plan, building sidewalks, and working with the town manager.
They also addressed issues of racial justice, the Jones Library project, development, and “vanity projects.”
It was the first in a series of candidate forums before the Nov. 2 town election. (See “Candidate Information and Events” in the menu for the dates of future forums.) Sponsored by the District One Neighborhood Association, it also featured Michele Miller and incumbent Cathy Schoen, the two candidates running unopposed for seats representing North Amherst. Outgoing At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer asked the questions.
Incumbent Mandi Jo Hanneke advocated for strengthening the inspection requirements for student houses and imposing penalties for landlords who don’t obtain rental permits. Vira Douangmany Cage suggested that the Amherst Housing Authority or a non-profit create an incentive to help families get into home ownership.
Ellisha Walker said Amherst should encourage the University of Massachusetts to build housing on campus and stiffen requirements for upkeep of student apartments. Vince O’Connor said the Town should consider taking some apartment complexes by eminent domain.
Incumbent Andrew Steinberg said the rental registration bylaw should be better enforced, and suggested public-private partnerships to build housing on land owned by UMass. Robert Greeney said that the Planning Department spends too much time on zoning and should focus on this problem instead.
Douangmany Cage said the town should be flexible in its implementation of the master plan and accommodate contemporary voices. “Town Hall needs to respect people’s wishes on issues that impact them, regardless of the funding source,” she said. O’Connor suggested greater public access to a committee overseeing the Public Works department.
Greeney said, “It seems a lot of people are not satisfied with our roads and sidewalks,” yet there’s a proposal for $150 million in spending on four big capital projects. Steinberg said he’d like to achieve the goal of devoting 10 percent of tax revenue to capital projects, but cautioned that these projects compete for funding with the operating budget.
The challenge of building a sidewalk on East Pleasant Street has been frustrating for many North Amherst residents. Hanneke said the Council needs to track money that’s not been spent, and “make sure plans like the East Pleasant sidewalk actually get done.” Walker said that “community members have to be able to advocate for what’s best for them.”
Brewer noted that the charter gives the manager executive authority and the Town Council policy leadership and legislative powers. She asked the candidates how they would handle that.
Hanneke stressed her collaboration with 10 other councilors on issues such as wage protection and affordable housing. O’Connor said that two Councilors should attend all meetings of the manager and department heads, and the Council should do a better job of supervising the manager.
Walker said the that Town should lower the barriers to participation in government, perhaps with stipends and access to technology. Douangmany Cage said she’s running because she felt disrespect for the Community Safety Working Group. Steinberg stressed setting goals for the manager and evaluating his performance in achieving those goals.
In opening and closing statements, the six candidates offered reasons why they deserve votes on Nov. 2.
Greeney urged voters to select candidates who are “open and genuinely inclusive of all views,” adding that “a large number of people don’t feel represented.” He noted that he applied four times for eight Planning Board openings but was not appointed.
Steinberg said that “we need new development” but his goal is “to assure a downtown that fits your visions and serves our needs.” He stressed his experience on the Finance Committee and Select Board and the need to “assure the best use of limited funds.”
Walker said that residents are “tired of the status quo and are ready for change,” adding that she wants to “make way for a better and anti-racist Amherst.” She said, “I am an activist. Wherever I land I work on changing structures,”
Hanneke stressed her support for the Jones Library project and for guiding housing growth while minimizing the impact on open space. She advocated “redefining the meaning of safety” and making Amherst carbon-neutral by 2050.
O’Connor urged voters to vote for Walker and Douangmany Cage as well as himself. He said that Amherst should “put excellent K-12 before commitment to housing undergraduate students. We must become the body that focuses on housing and education for 12-month residents,” he said.
O’Connor and Douangmany Cage urge a “no” vote on the Jones Library referendum, which also takes place on Nov. 2. “The town does not need a new library palace,” O’Connor said, “nor do we need a Public Works or fire palace.”
Douangmany Cage criticized Steinberg and Hannneke for voting for the library project and against a 180-day moratorium on building permits. She advocated “a pullback on vanity projects like the library,” which she called “fiscally irresponsible.”
This report has focused on the competitive at-large race, but Schoen and Miller deserve some mention.
“I want to shepherd a new elementary school and use my skills as an economist to address the fiscal challenges to minimize taxpayer impact,” Schoen said. She stressed her “unfinished agenda,” including climate action, affordable housing, racial justice, and development in downtown and village centers. “I want to listen, weigh choices, respond quickly and make informed decisions,” Schoen said.
Miller, an advocate for reparations for African-American residents, said this work “has taught me valuable lessons on how to move complex issues forward.” She promised weekly listening hours and said her goal is “to get to know neighbors and understand the issues they care about.”