By Sarah Marshall
The six candidates for Town Councilor At-Large shared their views on six questions posed by Jessica Ryan of the Amherst League of Women Voters during an on-line forum Thursday evening. The candidates include two incumbents, Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andrew Steinberg, and four challengers, Vira Douangmany Cage, Vincent O’Connor, Ellisha Walker, and Robert Greeney. A video will be posted, we expect, but here is a summary, using surnames for brevity.
In the first question, candidates were asked to give their assessment of how well the inaugural Council performed with respect to some of the goals of the new charter, such as enhancing citizen participation, providing accountability and transparency, providing a clear voice for Amherst, and avoiding big-money politics. Cage stated that the Council has not been transparent and is not representative of the community. Hanneke stated the Council has done better in some areas than others; it has been very deliberative and has revised proposals in light of public comment, and participation has greatly increased. Steinberg was very pleased with how the charter has been brought to life. Compared to his experience on the Select Board, the Council has heard from many more constituents. The Council has also developed a culture of mutual respect. Walker, in contrast, maintained that the Council has not done well with transparency or civic participation. Residents face barriers of language and knowledge about how to access information. One of her goals is to promote two-way dialogues between Council and residents. Greeney doesn’t feel that the first Council successfully implemented the charter. Sending letters is not substantive engagement, and more community members should be part of policy-forming committees. [O’Connor could not respond because of technical problems.]
The second question pertained to the goal of reducing the town’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25% by 2025, and asked candidates for their ideas for how to reach this goal. Hanneke noted that she voted in favor of library projects that will eliminate a major source of fossil fuel use; she also described examining other capital projects and town vehicle fleets for GHG reduction. Retrofitting existing buildings throughout town will take federal, state, as well as local, action. Walker said that, as Councilor, she would look at decisions through racial and climate justice lenses. She advocated delegating the various tasks for reducing GHG and requiring reporting on why, in any decision, the most climate-friendly choice may not have been pursued. O’Connor advocated using federal dollars to help single- and multi-family homes insulate and deploy better heating and cooling technology. He would involve neighborhoods because the work is too much for Town Hall to manage. Greeney endorsed many ideas already offered, and advocated harnessing the collective wisdom of the community, which includes people with great expertise. Cage advocated removing police cars from the roads as they drive and idle too much, and asserted that debris from the proposed Jones Library project would add GHG. She said Councilors who commit to mitigating climate change should be elected and held accountable. Steinberg said his involvement in mitigating climate change through government action preceded his service on the Council, as he worked on development of the zero net-energy bylaw during Town Meeting. He also noted that the energy savings to be realized through the Jones Library project vastly are vastly larger than the small emissions from the debris.
In the third question, candidates were asked for their ideas for encouraging more people to vote in our local elections. Steinberg noted that the League’s tradition of holding candidate forums was important to informing the electorate, and that voters will have four options for submitting ballots this year: early voting, mail-in ballot, absentee ballot, an in-person on Nov. 2. Greeney said that more candidates are needed and that races should not be uncontested. Perhaps this panel, with its diversity of voices, will energize voters. Further, if more people participate in local government, more people will vote. Hanneke noted that the state could legislate automatic mailing of ballots and election information to all registered voters, and this could greatly increase turnout, including among college students. The state could also permit same-day registration. O’Connor said that voters would vote if they felt that candidates listen to their concerns and offered the recent moratorium petition and the voter-veto petition, both of which failed, as evidence of Council’s indifference to voters’ concerns. Walker spoke about activating young BIPOC residents who now feel disengaged by educating them (and others) about how decisions of Town Council affect their lives. Removal of technology and language barriers can also increase engagement, as could changing the times of day when residents are invited to participate. Cage argued that candidates need to show that something is at stake in elections and said recommendations by BIPOC residents have been disrespected and dismissed.
Candidates were asked, fourthly, how they would strive to represent all voices as At-Large Councilors. Walker said she would represent all but especially those traditionally disengaged, who could be brought in through two-way dialogue. Drop boxes, texting, and other mechanisms could enable easier communication. O’Connor said that, for 40 years, he has helped people navigate local government to get their ideas or concerns to the right ears, whether he agreed with those ideas or not. That is the essence of the At-Large Councilor’s job. He also advocated committees with Council representation for DPW, the Board of Health, and other town departments. Greeney said a diversity of voices should be sought for all committees, and argued that the Planning Board, for example, comprised technically qualified but like-minded people. Opposing voices do not get appointed. Cage stated that institutional racism is evident in Council decisions around the future of the Community Safety Working Group, and that some parts of the community benefit from town spending more than others. She noted the lack of BIPOC-owned businesses and said she wants to defund the police. Steinberg noted that Council may consider making stipends available to committee members, and that language barriers limit who can participate on committees. Hanneke said that At-Large Councilors need to hear from the whole community to represent the whole community. She also noted the need for more diverse candidate pools, and to reduce the work load of Town Councilors, which discourages potential candidates.
Next, candidates were asked what the Town Council can do to retain and promote small businesses, and do they support building a parking garage downtown. Greeney was not convinced that the current garage plan is the best and wants more voices heard. He wants to include the wisdom of the residents. However, parking is not the only problem. Steinberg noted that the changing nature of retail and increasing rents as properties become more valuable both affect local businesses. Council has not gotten very involved yet in the parking garage question, but he noted that Northampton has done very will with its garage. Cage said she opposes building a garage behind CVS, that other locations should be considered, and that a garage is not the solution. She asserted that the same few people “run the show” and they should be open to new ideas. Hanneke noted that Town Council is a legislative body and has limited ability to attract businesses other than by changing zoning bylaws. For example, under consideration is a bylaw requiring that 40% of ground-floor space of a mixed-use building be for retail businesses. Council, through zoning, can promote creation of buildings that will attract business. O’Connor would not support “another failed parking garage.” Town Council should be giving the Planning Board more direction. He considers mixed-use buildings to be a joke that destroys small businesses and that is the fault of Town Council. Walker offered community engagement as a way to develop a shared vision of a downtown that promotes equity, creativity, and different identities and cultures. She is open to parking options but more research is needed.
For the final question, candidates were asked about approaches, other than apartment buildings, to address the town’s housing needs. O’Connor blamed UMass and wants to make them responsible for housing their students. In addition, the town should seize, by eminent domain, apartment complexes where bad behavior is frequent and repurpose them for low-income, family housing. Cage would ask the Amherst Housing Authority to do more, for example by increasing the number of Section 8 vouchers, exploring rent control, renovating its existing properties, and increasing affordable housing. Scale down the Library project and direct the money to housing. Walker advocated better maintenance of the existing rental housing and noted that the town used to employ as Human Services Director to assist residents in need. Steinberg noted Town Council’s accomplishments regarding affordable housing, such as offering town land, granting CPA funds, offering tax credits in return for affordable units at North Square, and revision of the inclusionary zoning bylaw. Hanneke also noted the inclusionary zoning bylaw for buildings of 10 or more units and said changes to the rental permitting program should be explored, such as inspections rather than self-certifications and imposition of fines. Changes to zoning can enable housing production. Greeney said that this panel demonstrates the diversity of voices and ideas. He agreed that duplexes, triplexes, and other housing types should be promoted to fill “the missing middle” of housing types.
In their closing statements:
- Cage noted her endorsements and said she would fight for public education and fire fighters, and urged voters to unseat Hanneke.
- Greeney stated that the wisdom of the many is superior to that of the few. Capital projects have been delayed because differing points of view are ignored.
- Steinberg noted his experience on the Select Board and Town Council, and that he delves into the complexities of issues such as the Jones Library project and the budget. He listed his reasons for voting in favor of the Library project and said it will not jeopardize the funding for a new elementary school.
- O’Connor stated that he will shortly have a Facebook page and argued against re-electing Hanneke and Steinberg. He also urged voters to vote No on the Library project.
- Hanneke said she will continue to support a sound financial plan for realizing the four capital projects and named ways in which she will work on housing, such as form-based zoning, infill, and enabling a greater variety of housing options.
- Walker said that as a low-income, single-mom BIPOC candidate who rents, she will be the only such person on Council. She wants to bring more people like her, with their untapped potential, into government.
(Please excuse any errors as there was no tape or transcript to review.)