By Nick Grabbe
Amherst residents who supported the creation of a new form of government may be disappointed that three of the five voting districts have no contested races for Town Council this year.
One argument for the new charter was that voters would finally be able to choose all the officials who would make decisions on their behalf. And in the first Town Council election three years ago, that was indeed the case.
But the job of Town Councilor turned out to be much more difficult and time-consuming than expected. The four- and five-hour meetings, the occasional abuse from citizens, and the mounds of materials to master may have deterred some citizens from running this year.
So six of the 13 candidates for Town Council are running unopposed in the Nov. 2 election. On Sunday, the League of Women Voters hosted a forum for these six candidates who are guaranteed a seat on the Town Council. It also featured four of the six candidates for Jones Library trustee, who also face no opposition for the six seats.
Newcomers Michele Miller and Ana Devlin-Gauthier, who will significantly lower the average age of the Town Council, presented their views at the forum.
Miller, of District 1, is co-chair of the African Heritage Reparations Assembly. She said she has become aware of the leadership role that Amherst can play in “the big conversation to reconcile 400 years of harm to people of African descent.” She said that “we have the power to change history,” and “I will bring that lens to everything I do as a councilor.”
Miller also said that although the Town Council has not lived up to all the values expressed in the new charter, “in the early stages of its life it needs time to be nurtured.” She added that the Council needs to better define its role vis a vis the town manager.
Devlin Gauthier, of District 5, said that the first Town Council has been “building an airplane while it’s launching it, and we’re still in the Kitty Hawk era,” but has laid the groundwork well. She said that despite the fact that she is certain to be elected, she wants to meet people and “show I’m there to listen to you.” She has been holding office hours on the South Amherst common.
Cathy Schoen, of District 1, said that she tried to recruit people to run for the Council, but many cited the long hours and the need for more substantive and strategic discussions. She said the Council needs to allow for focused discussion well before a vote.
Schoen said her main goals over the next year are to shepherd the proposal for a new elementary school and to use her skills as an economist to address the Town’s fiscal challenges with minimal taxpayer impact.
Lynn Griesemer, of District 2, said that as president of the Council, she has responded to between 4,000 and 6,000 emails over the past three years. It’s time to start planning for the use of an empty elementary school building, perhaps as a Senior Center and/or early education center, she said.
Griesemer will deliver the State of the Town statement on Dec. 6. “Government is clunky, but the structures allow every issue to have a body that looks at it,” she said.
Pat DeAngelis, also of District 2, said that she voted against the charter but has come to believe that a council/manager form of government has been beneficial to Amherst. She highlighted the Council’s response to national issues such as racism and climate change.
Shalini Bahl-Milne, of District 5, said that as an immigrant, she has “a unique perspective and I know firsthand what it’s like to be ignored because I look and sound different.” She supported the creation of a BIPOC youth center, and said the Town needs “leadership that’s comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
The library trustee forum featured four of the six candidates: Austin Sarat, Lee Edwards, Farah Ameen and Tamson Ely. The other two candidates, Robert Pam and Alex Lefebvre, submitted statements that moderator Nancy Eddy read.
All six candidates support a “Yes” vote on the ballot question affirming the Town Council’s 10-2 vote in favor of the Jones Library’s expansion and renovation project.
Sarat said he is grateful for the work that prior trustees have done, and is “moved by the spirit of love for the Town and the library.” He called libraries “places of remembrance that preserve our history and help keep that history alive, places where communities are forged, where rich and poor, English Language Learners and native speakers, come together as equals.”
Edwards said that the Friends of the Jones Library has increased its annual fundraising from $80,000 three years ago to $150,000 for the year ending June 30, and a new goal of $170,000 is attainable. She called the Jones “iconic,” and said the renovation project will enable the library to “truly serve the entire community.”
Ely, a retired librarian, said that the question on the ballot represents a “stark choice.” “We either spend money for a new and expanded library” or it continues to waste fossil fuels and provide “no new space to serve our growing community.”
Ameen called the library “an economic anchor of the town.” She said it’s “most crucial for the diverse and less-represented populations in town: single-parent, single- and/or low-income families who rent and don’t have additional resources for books or computers; teens who don’t have extra cash to hang out at coffee shops; immigrants, who are relieved to find their communities so far from home.”