Happy New Year! Our second Town Council will be sworn in Monday evening. We invited all outgoing Town Councilors to respond to questions and will post the responses over the next couple of days. Today we hear from at-large Councilor Alisa Brewer.
What achievements during your term are you most proud of?
We did a lot of work setting up structures while also making progress moving forward on the work our community needs.
We continuously asked ourselves who we are not hearing from, and how we might hear from them.
We regularly paid attention — to the chagrin of some of my colleagues — to what history has taught us and brought us in municipal governance in Amherst, so we could do better, instead of relying solely on what some inexperienced Town Councilors thought sounded good out of context in other communities.
We learned to trust the work of both Town Council subcommittees and the many appointed bodies in order to improve our thinking and deliberations on multiple issues.
I am proud that:
- we achieved temporary zoning flexibility to support local businesses by enabling outside dining,
- we provided Zoom live coverage and readily accessible recordings that surpass any coverage of Amherst municipal governance meetings in the past (except for 20+ years ago when our local newspapers apparently provided comprehensive coverage),
- the majority of us agreed that we cannot go back to the old, pre-pandemic days of forcing people to drive to Town Hall to speak for three minutes on camera,
- we made progress on the Elementary School project, and
- we lived our values on affordable housing, racial equity, and social justice by investing both time and money and by pushing beyond the comfort zone of many residents and staff.
I am proud that I was able to convince many of my colleagues to give the less obvious suspects a chance to lead both the Town Council and the Town Council subcommittees, rather than choosing the easiest route for leadership. As I said at our last Town Council meeting in December, it is a mistake to rely on the same folks over and over just because it’s easier to sit back and let them do the work. We can and must support each other in developing leadership skills.
Yet I will never forget the colleague who said publicly during annual officer elections that the youngest Town Council member would be around and could wait his turn –this was both unbelievably short-sighted and thoughtlessly biased, while demonstrating poor judgment in a Town that says it values many types of diversity. And I will never forgive the colleague who purposefully mischaracterized both her own Town Council subcommittee leadership and the work of another colleague in order to damage that colleague’s re-election.
Any suggestions for reducing the workload?
The Clerk of the Town Council has never been a full-time position, stretching the amazing Athena O’Keeffe in too many directions. The Town Council needs at least one full-time staff person working for the Town Council in addition to our only other employee, the Town Manager. The Clerk of the Town Council also needs to continue to be empowered to hire contracted minute-takers for all full Town Council and Town Council subcommittee meetings. It is ridiculous to expect the Clerk of the Town Council to take all Town Council-related minutes, or to expect any part-time elected officials to take their own minutes.
Town Councilors have to serve on too many Town Council subcommittees, and most meetings of both the full Town Council and Town Council subcommittees are too long. There is no obvious solution to this. There is no benefit to compressing the number of Town Council subcommittees, given their charges. There is always more work to be done than we feel we can accomplish in both Town Council meetings and numerous Town Council subcommittee meetings. If we decrease the number of Town Councilors on each subcommittee to three, that would be more manageable, as none would be required to serve on more than one subcommittee (except for the seats we also have on the Finance Committee, the Elementary School Building Committee, the Jones Library Building Committee, Joint Capital Planning Committee, and Budget Coordinating Group). Unfortunately, under Open Meeting Law, no two members of a three-member subcommittee could talk about subcommittee business outside a posted meeting. I recommend that the next Town Council at least try having GOL (Governance, Organization, and Legislation) be a three-member subcommittee and see how that goes.
We have seen some progress in the Town Manager requiring Town staff to submit their presentation materials further in advance of Monday meetings and subcommittee meetings. But we still have room to improve in that area, especially for big annual presentations like the financial indicators presentation that was purposefully withheld from part-time elected officials, out of some misguided sense of tradition, until a couple hours before the meeting. It often feels as though the Town Manager is placing the Town Council in the position of not having time to prepare questions in advance of our meeting.
It is also completely unacceptable to expect part-time elected officials to devote a huge chunk of their weekend to reading and analyzing packet materials for a Monday night meeting, and it’s ridiculous to assume that any part-time elected official can spend Monday afternoon doing that as well. As I’ve been saying for over a decade, everyone is busy and does things at the last minute — make the “last minute” sooner, so the reading and processing of packet materials happens over a longer period of time.
One workload item that must be addressed, if we expect to attract and retain part-time elected officials who have jobs and families, is to not expect Town Council subcommittee meetings to be held during the traditional workday. This was a misstep by this Town Council and broke with years of precedent for having most Amherst committee meetings be in the evening. Of course, evening meetings are also difficult for those with jobs and family members to care for, but it doesn’t make much sense for the public to be expected to follow daytime meetings, either. And a Town Councilor’s desire to serve on a particular Town Council subcommittee should not be thwarted by that subcommittee’s “traditional” meeting schedule.
Small modifications should also continue to be pursued, as well, such as the recent development of an online Public Comment form that immediately distributes to the full Town Council. This may seem minor, given that every email sent to TownCouncil@AmherstMA.gov always was and is also immediately distributed to the full Town Council, but having the Public Comment be in that format makes it clearer which things to attack in our Town Councilor email boxes first, and which things are automatically being uploaded weekly to the Town Council webpage. They’re both public records, but it is useful for the public to check that web page regularly to see what people are talking about rather than guessing at making a public records request.
The Town Council President should not be required to read the Consent Calendar aloud, as this takes a long chunk of time at the beginning of meetings when everyone is fresh — as fresh as anyone can be at 6:30 p.m. on a Monday. Resolutions and Proclamations should automatically result in press releases on the Town website so that less meeting time is spent describing them.
The Town Council President should ask Councilors for their expectations of upcoming staff presentations in advance of those meetings, so that it’s clear that no staff presentation should generally last more than 10-15 minutes plus lots of time for questions.
The Town Council President should continue to ask Councilors to provide input to the Town Council subcommittee that will be exploring the issue in more detail. We have done a good job of not making unnecessary referrals when the full Town Council has appropriate information to act, and we should continue to evaluate when referral is helpful and when it just slows things down. Each Town Council subcommittee Chair should similarly be asking the subcommittee their expectations for upcoming staff presentations in advance of those meetings, as we experienced several really frustrating subcommittee meetings where staff presentations were repeated verbatim from the full Town Council and strangely had taken none of the questions and comments into account.
The Town Council may need to periodically remind the Town Manager that he is to support what the Town Council believes it needs in the way of staff time or presentation length, not just tell the Town Council what it is going to get. Obviously, the Town Manager should not let the Town Council or the staff waste each other’s time, so there needs to be clear, ongoing communication between the Town Manager and the Town Council, and between the Town Manager and his staff, to meet everyone’s needs.
The Town Council needs to agree on the annual Town Manager Performance Evaluation instrument soon after the annual Town Manager Performance Goals are established, rather than once again waiting until the last minute to try out yet another new, and potentially disastrous, instrument right before the evaluation period commences. Revisiting the instrument as well as the written goals throughout the year would make completing the evaluation less time-consuming for each Town Councilor. Town Councilors who do not complete the evaluation instrument as written should be noted clearly, as having some Town Councilors refuse to choose rankings or provide any written comment warps the entire evaluation process. The evaluation period also needs to be moved back to June-August rather than the one-off move to election season in 2021. And it would do our community a huge disservice to assign the annual Town Manager evaluation to a third party, or to a Town Council subcommittee, rather than expecting each of the 13 Town Councilors to pull their weight.
What are your hopes for the incoming Council?
I hope the incoming Town Council recognizes that their job is not to tote up the number of public comments they receive for and against and call that a mandate, because it isn’t. The Town Councilors were voted into office to use their judgment on our behalf, not to serve as a tally board.
I hope the incoming Town Council stops allowing some members to pretend they aren’t themselves part of an Independence Party while criticizing the publicly organized PACs.
I hope the incoming Town Council finds a way to effectively censure any colleagues who write or speak falsely about their colleagues’ motives and actions. Assuming people will “consider the source” and disregard obviously false aspersions may well have cost a Town Councilor re-election. I hope the incoming Town Council finds a way to remind each other to live the values described in the Town Council Statement of Values within the Town Council Rules of Procedure.
I hope the incoming Councilors recognize the value of working with Town Councilors they’re not sure about, and really try to forge perhaps unexpected alliances on mutual goals. The full Town Council acts with more respect and trust — and authority — when its members work with each other freely, not according to some arbitrary division.
I hope the incoming Town Council does not learn to rely on the Remote Participation roll-call vote to see which way the wind is blowing, and understands that normally the yeas all vote at the same time, as do the nays and abstains.
I hope the incoming Town Council recognizes that the point of the Charter 2.10 (c) “nuclear” option to postpone is not to irritate colleagues you don’t agree with, or to frustrate the public who expected the Town Council to act on the night the Town Council advertised they would act, but to await actual new information that could change the outcome. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
I hope the incoming Town Council views the Town Council President not as their boss or as their mother or as their confidante, but as the person who facilitates the work the Town Council desires. I hope the incoming Town Council does not view the President and Vice President as an Executive Team with the Town Manager, but instead that the Town Councilors who aren’t President take turns working on Agenda setting and Motion review, and that the incoming Town Council sees the Vice President only as someone who steps in if the President is not available, and does not assume the Vice President will be the next President.
I hope the incoming Town Council shares leadership, not via the awkward and unworkable concept of co-Presidents or co-Chairs, but instead by mentoring each other in leadership roles within the full Town Council and in the Town Council subcommittees. The Chair of each Town Council subcommittee is there to do the work the subcommittee desires, and the Chair does not set subcommittee agendas without input from the full subcommittee. The President and the subcommittee Chairs should always be looking for ways to delegate officer tasks to other Town Councilors so as to not only make the officer role less onerous, but also increase each Town Councilor’s investment in the work.
I hope the incoming Town Council does not view the Town Manager as their boss or as their father or as a friend, but as the person to whom the Town Council communicates all policy leadership and who is in fact the only staff member directly responsible for meeting the Town Council’s needs. Please also note this is the Town Council’s needs, as determined by the majority, not by what individual Town Councilor X wants at any given moment.
I hope the incoming Town Council respects the long-established Amherst culture of sending all requests for information to the Town Manager for him to manage, rather than reaching out to any staff — other than the Clerk of the Town Council — directly. Yes, it’s faster to call up or email a department head or other staff yourself, but it’s not appropriate. If the Town Manager is not responding to your request, that’s a Town Council problem with the Town Manager, not one to be gone around to other staff.
I hope the incoming Town Council recognizes the fine precedent the initial Town Council set in not publishing separate Minority Reports. If four members of a subcommittee agree on something, then the fifth member does not get pages or paragraphs to explain why they disagree, as that obviously ends up giving less space to the four members in agreement. If the incoming Town Councilors are unfamiliar with the Chair or designated report writer incorporating minority views within Town Council subcommittee reports both fairly and accurately, they have plenty of examples to look at in TSO (Town Services & Outreach; previously Outreach, Communications, & Appointments) Reports to Town Council.
I hope the incoming Town Council does not see their role as whipping up public sentiment for one or another Town Councilor’s preferred position in order to inspire emails and appearances at public comment, but rather as both regular and creative communicators of what the Town Council is working on and why, and as listeners to all members of the public, not just those in their District or the ones who write most often.
I hope the incoming Town Council is willing to read all press coverage of community issues, not just one blog or one newspaper.
I hope the incoming Town Council recognizes that they are the ones who were elected by voters to represent our community, and that in fact the public does not have an equal voice to elected Town Councilors at the decision-making table.
I hope the incoming Town Council finds their service more rewarding than frustrating. We appreciate their willingness to serve!