By Shalini Bahl-Milne
After reading comments that were misrepresentations and outright lies about my Town Council colleagues, I feel compelled to set the record straight and share my experience of working with those who have been targeted and maligned.
As a certified mindfulness coach, teacher and practicing Buddhist, I am known on Town Council for being balanced, truth-seeking and inclusive. I hope that after reading my observations, you will reach out and get to know all Town Council candidates before deciding who you’re voting for.
Thirteen of us elected to the first Town Council in 2018 came with different passions, skills, and endorsements from different groups of people in town — people who supported the new charter and those who preferred Town Meeting. Since then, we as a Town Council have been through difficult times together. And yet we have achieved so much to be proud of! Implementing a new form of government in the middle of a health, economic, racial injustice, and climate crisis, we:
- Oversaw a large town as a pandemic shut down our schools, businesses, and life as we know it;
- Resolved to be an anti-racist town and correct the harm done to Black residents;
- Brought a social justice lens to issues;
- Formed the Energy and Climate Action Committee to address climate action goals and bring a climate action lens to discussions;
- Dealt with inadequate social infrastructure of schools/library and high housing and property taxes that make it hard for families to live in town.
After having worked and struggled together, supported and respected each other, it’s disheartening to see attacks against majority decisions and individual councilors come from one of our own councilors.
I worked closely with Andy, Mandi Jo, George, and Evan. The Amherst Current is not endorsing candidates in the Nov. 2 election, and I am not trying to tell people how to vote. I am only relating my impressions of these four incumbent Councilors from working with them for the past three years.
As the Vice Chair of the Community Resources Committee (CRC), I got to work closely with Mandi Jo Hanneke, who is the chair of the committee. As the chair she has the power, one may say, but she also has the responsibility for coordinating all the meeting dates, agendas, minutes, and writing hundreds of reports that go to the Town Council summarizing our work in CRC. She is the chair because no one else wants to take on that responsibility!
I admire Mandi’s work ethic and sense of fairness and justice. She wrote bylaws protecting workers from wage theft and is working with me to create an inclusive engagement process with the team at UMass to ensure that we hear the underrepresented voices. There’s a reason she has cosponsored bylaws with ten councilors—she is approachable, reliable, and has great legal knowledge!
As Vice Chair of the Council, Evan Ross is also on CRC. He played a lead role in crafting a Comprehensive Housing Policy, focusing on affordable housing and home ownership. As a renter, he has been a strong advocate for renters and for making changes in our zoning bylaws to make housing affordable for young professionals and families. Zoning is a complex and nuanced issue. In my experience, no one understands zoning as well as he does. I’ve learned a lot from him. We may not always agree but that’s OK, and in fact it ensures that we’re looking at issues from diverse lenses. We need more young, thoughtful and hard-working Town Councilors.
Andy Steinberg is the chair of the Finance Committee and one of the most informed and kindest people I know. His entire career has been dedicated to public service. After graduating from law school, he worked in the field of civil legal aid, providing aid to poor people, the elderly, and the disabled.
Andy’s been in local government since 1996 and is the most knowledgeable Councilor about town finances and budgets. Moving forward, we’re looking to invest in our new community responders’ program, address systemic harm to Black residents, our four capital projects, and climate action goals. We need the unique strengths that Andy brings that combine financial expertise and empathy.
I’ve worked with George Ryan in his capacity as the chair of the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL). He’s always supporting his colleagues’ work through resolutions and bylaws. I respect most his commitment to affordable housing, which is a Town Council priority. George’s commitment was tested when we voted on the Valley CDC’s proposal for 28 affordable units in his district. Many of his neighbors were against it and his fellow district Councilor abstained from that controversial vote. George voted in favor of affordable housing despite the high probability of losing neighborhood votes because he believed in this project and Valley CDC, which he knows from his work on the board of Habitat for Humanity. George had the courage and integrity to stand up for what he believes is right for the underrepresented in our town.
Reading this post may not change your mind about these councilors. If you already appreciate Mandi Jo’s, Evan’s, Andy’s and George’s hard work on Town Council, you’ll continue to like them, even though you may disagree with them at times. If you don’t like them, then you’ll continue to feel that way, regardless of their support of issues that you also care about. But don’t believe me. Get to know them for yourself!
Beyond correcting the record about my colleagues, I want to invite us all to do a better job of getting to know each other as human beings and not just through the lens that divides us and filters all we see and hear based on what we already believe about people.
Zoom and social media have made it easier for us to dehumanize and say what we want without realizing the impact of our words on others and the stress and trauma that others might be experiencing. We need to stop doing that. If we’re going to solve the big problems that lie before us — systemic racism, climate change, unaffordable housing, high property taxes, homelessness and our dysfunctional schools and library buildings — then people with different viewpoints and experiences need to feel safe and know that their questions, ideas, and perspectives will not be attacked or quoted out of context.
The only way that I know to disrupt our assumptions about others is by getting to know them.
I’ll end with an invitation for all to reach out to at least one person who we disagree with and go for a walk or coffee/tea and get to know them as a human being.