By Nick Grabbe
Evan Ross, the youngest member of the Town Council, said its meetings are too long and the job needs to become more manageable and not an option only for retired and well-off residents.
Anika Lopes, a relative newcomer whose roots go back six generations in Amherst, said the Town needs to invest in BIPOC youths and “open doors that lead to generational wealth.”
Pamela Rooney said that other college towns can provide examples of how to stem the tide of conversion of single-family homes to student rentals with absentee landlords.
District 4 has one of the most competitive races for Town Council in the Nov. 2 election. There are three candidates for two seats, and they presented their views in a Zoom forum Sunday, sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
They were asked about the political divide in Amherst, with two PACs endorsing different candidates. Rooney said that as the former manager of space on the UMass campus, she has experience listening to differing perspectives and seeking “win-win situations.” Lopes said she hopes to represent residents’ hopes and “not be hindered or distracted by arguments that predate me.” Ross said he has reached across the divide to forge alliances with Councilors Darcy DuMont and Dorothy Pam, and differed with Councilor Stephen Schreiber on a campaign finance bylaw.
The candidates were asked how they would support Amherst businesses. Lopes cited plans for a music and performance venue, a bandshell on the town common, and the Mill District as steps forward. Ross said the Town should make permitting easier, build wider sidewalks, plant trees, build a second parking garage, and fill the position of economic development director. Rooney encouraged development that “brings beauty and liveliness,” and supported greater retail space on the bottom floor of new buildings.
All three supported the work of the Community Safety Working Group and encouraged greater participation in government by people of color. Ross said he’d like to double the number of community responders and said, “We need to implement (the working group’s recommendations) to have the BIPOC community feel safe and supported.” Lopes emphasized her 20 years of experience “bringing people together.” Rooney suggested “tweaking other departments” to provide funding for implementation of the working group’s goals.
Asked how to provide more affordable housing, Rooney proposed encouraging sellers to sell their houses to families and suggesting that real estate agents seek out families as buyers. Lopes encouraged Amherst to “consider threats and opportunities” and build bridges to housing developers. Ross suggested “smart, progressive zoning changes” such as allowing more duplexes, as a way to make housing available to “folks like me who can’t afford a $500,000 house.”
On climate change, Rooney suggested making energy audits a requirement for landlords seeking permits. Ross encouraged approval of the Jones Library project, saying that it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent. Lopes said that the four big capital projects should “meet every sustainability measure possible.”
The candidates were asked if the new charter’s goals have been met, including citizen participation, representation of the electorate, effective deliberations, transparent and accountable government, tolerance and strategic planning. Lopes said that the Town Council should be “diversified” and she knows how it feels not to feel included. Ross said that the appointment process in Amherst is now “more transparent than in any surrounding community.” Rooney said she found it difficult to communicate with the Council and track an issue, and said many people feel it is “dismissive” of community comments.
In her final comments, Lopes said she is a creative problem-solver and small-business owner who rejects “political gamesmanship,” adding that “bridge-building is my strength.” Rooney cited her 10 years in Town Meeting and six years on the Planning Board, adding that “being heard is critical to having confidence in your government.” Ross said he has “worked incredibly hard” on the Council and is the only member who is a renter, adding that he “has proved my investment in the community.”