By Sarah Marshall
Incumbents Dorothy Pam and George Ryan and challenger Jennifer Taub, contenders for two District 3 seats on Town Council, participated in a forum Sunday afternoon hosted by Susan Millinger of the Amherst League of Women Voters. The forum was recorded by Amherst Media and will be broadcast and made available for streaming.
Candidates had 90 seconds each in which to respond to seven questions and then two minutes for closing statements. Surnames will be used here for brevity.
The first question was the same one posed to the forum for at-large council candidates last week: How well have the goals of our new charter been realized during the first Council’s term – citizen participation, representation of the electorate, effective deliberations, transparent and accountable government, tolerance, and strategic planning? Pam said that a big task for the first Council was to develop a deep understanding of the charter it was to implement. She feels the Council was not truly representative of the town. One challenge is how large the job of councilor turned out to be – it is more demanding than expected. As for transparency, so much is happening that it is hard for residents to keep up unless they devote a good deal of time to it. The Council has engaged in strategic planning but it has tried to do too much. Ryan, in contrast, gives the Council high marks, but agreed that it was not as representative of the town as hoped – perhaps the next Council will bring change. Community engagement is a challenge, both for councilors and the community. Not everyone is yet comfortable with the representative form of government or knows how to reach out to councilors with concerns. As for respect, current councilors have indeed developed a good working relationship. Long-range planning is a challenge as 13 visions compete, but the Council has, for example, developed a Comprehensive Housing Policy. Taub complimented the current Council for its hard work but feels that the charter gave too much power to one body, and one vision dominates there. In particular, a subcommittee, the Community Resources Committee (CRC), appears heavily weighted in favor of one vision for the future that may not be widely shared in the community.
Second, candidates were asked what the Council can do to retain and attract small businesses. Ryan noted that some of the millions of dollars of federal pandemic relief funds provided to the town may help, and that 70 percent of downtown business owners are women, BIPOC, or LGBTQ+. Businesses very much want more parking, and a garage behind CVS may bring more shoppers to the area. Pam said more parking is needed but should be provided on streets or in existing lots – perhaps land can be acquired next to the Amity Street lot for expanded parking. Wide sidewalks in good repair and plenty of green space make downtown attractive. She said that increasing retail space in mixed-use buildings and making rents affordable will help. She wants to bring some of the energy from the new Mill District to downtown. Taub said developing and supporting the downtown business area is a priority of hers, and outreach to businesses in the Pioneer Valley will help – invite popular businesses, from say, Easthampton, letting them know there is demand in Amherst. However, commercial rents must be affordable.
Next, candidates were asked what policies or programs of the Town Council could increase the representation and voices of minority communities in government decisions. Taub said this goal should be a council priority and that more minority members are needed on our boards and communities. However, it is difficult to know what vacancies are available or how to apply. The process should be public and not conducted behind closed doors. Ryan said that the Town Manager aids in this effort through the Community Participation Officers. Ryan’s monthly newsletter alerts constituents to issues and opportunities, and he often invites people to apply for openings. He challenged Taub’s assertions about the process, noting that it is robust and open. Finally, he was deeply impressed by the outreach efforts of the group that launched the Mobile Market, including live translation, which is expensive but necessary. Pam said the issue is a challenging one. She agreed that she and Ryan have engaged in a lot of outreach. But to enable more people to serve in town government, it may be necessary to offer stipends to all members or elected officials to cover childcare and meals. Stipends should be offered to all who serve, not reserved for those who request the support.
Fourth, what can be done to heal the divides that have developed between groups? Pam named Amherst Forward as one of those groups and asserted that she is independent. Increasing the diversity of the Council will help. She asserted that “party discipline” is in effect and is contrary to the goals of the charter. Taub said that we should acknowledge that reasonable people can disagree about policies, even as they all love the town. She feels “litmus tests” are used to assign people to factions and then dismiss them. Ryan objected to the assertion that any group exerts party discipline. He talks to everyone, works to do well by everyone in District 3. He is happy to have Amherst Forward’s support but thinks and votes for himself and does not report to anyone.
Fifth, what can Town Council do next to reach our goals for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction? Ryan said building a 21st-century Jones Library is important and will be a model of sustainability for future building projects, such as a 21st-century elementary school. We have a sound plan for building these four major projects, and following it is at the heart of reaching GHG goals. Taub said that Council must monitor our progress. People of lesser means may need financial assistance to make changes to their homes to become more sustainable. She hopes we can preserve our older building stock, which creates so much character, while helping to retrofit them. Pam agreed with Ryan regarding the new building projects, and with Taub about retrofitting existing homes. She wants us to stop densifying the R-G zoning districts by building over green space and cutting down trees. We need to preserve the “urban forest” near downtown.
The sixth question was to name the main issues for District 3. Taub named development and densification, noting that most new construction was aimed at students and that few permits for construction of single-family homes were sought. She said the growth in the town’s population has been driven by students, and that some councilors seem to want all densification to occur in District 3. She also named possible revision to zoning “footnote M,” which puts restrictions on development, as terrible for the district. Ryan said that footnote M is a red herring and a revision will not happen because councilors did not like it. He wants to densify responsibly. The quality of life in the district – the impact of students in the neighborhoods near UMass – is very important, and he thinks the rental permitting bylaw needs to be strengthened. Pam also spoke about the impact of students in the neighborhoods and expressed disappointment that UMass presented its plans for new construction after those plans were set and significant input from residents was no longer possible. She agreed that strengthening the permit system for rental housing is important. We must keep out exploiters who rent properties by the bed.
Finally, candidates were asked to share their efforts to expand affordable housing. Taub worked hard to develop the rental permit model. Councilors need to protect their neighborhoods from conversion of family homes to student rentals. Pam hopes for the development of single-family, duplex- and triplex-housing alternatives that can promote home ownership by enabling homeowners to receive rental income. She wants the reparations program to help promote BIPOC homeownership, specifically. Ryan emphasized that he would not support footnote M as it was proposed. Pam has interesting ideas around housing and hopes she will support the zoning changes that would be required. He also listed some actions on affordable housing taken by Council, such as providing or procuring land for affordable housing on Belchertown Road and at the East Street School.
In their closing statements, candidates shared the following thoughts:
- Pam used the metaphor of the Greek phalanx, with soldiers presenting a united front, to describe the feeling of being pressed on all sides by development. She bemoans the direction of development away from family housing.
- Ryan said, in contrast, that he “dwells in possibility,” that he sees possibilities everywhere. He asked people to remain open and to trust in the robust processes for dealing with change. He highlighted three votes of which he was particularly proud: in favor of the revised inclusionary zoning bylaw, in favor of the affordable housing project at 123 Northampton Rd. (which cost him support in his district but was the right thing to do), and in favor of the bylaw against wage and tip theft.
- Taub is seeking a seat because she wants to preserve what makes Amherst unique while increasing its vitality. No one moved to Amherst to live in a densely populated area. There is little new housing for families. She supports the recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group and will work for transparency and accountability.
(Please excuse any errors as there was no tape or transcript to review.)