By Sarah Marshall
Unofficial results of today’s hand recount of district 4 ballots: Lopes 595; Rooney 479; Ross 474.
By Sarah Marshall
Unofficial results of today’s hand recount of district 4 ballots: Lopes 595; Rooney 479; Ross 474.
By Sarah Marshall
One of my favorite political podcasts, “Left, Right, and Center,” allows each participant time for a brief rant at the end of the show. Consider this post my rant.
Several times lately I have heard that, for democracies to remain strong, losers of elections must accept defeat, and winners must not suppress the losers. This could have been written for Amherst as well as today’s national GOP.
In the past few months, some citizens on the losing side of votes, races, or the ballot question have questioned the legitimacy of the results, impugned the integrity of the staff in the Clerk’s office, elected officials, and volunteers, or petitioned courts to reject the results. Unhappiness on the part of some elected officials who voted in the minority led to very personal criticisms of other elected officials.
All in all, I hear too much whining. I hope that the disgruntled among us are not spreading their own version of Trump’s Big Lie and corroding confidence in our local democratic order. I lost my race for Elector of the Oliver Smith Will on November 2 and am disappointed. However, I am confident that I lost fair and square and emailed congratulations to the victor on November 3. I am not spreading baseless and/or anonymous accusations or suing.
The race for a council seat in District 4 (my own), is so close that a recount has been requested. I do not consider a request for a recount to be whiny or an attack on our system, since a margin of 5 votes is very small and perhaps the result of error when there are multiple ways by which to vote. And I have every confidence that, should Evan Ross be found to have lost to Pam Rooney after the recount, he will abide by that outcome and not badmouth the Clerk.
However, the numerous and continuing challenges to Town Council’s April vote to approve the appropriation for the Jones Library project, Council’s decision to put the issue on the ballot, and the conclusiveness of the results, are prime examples of sore losing. I do not believe that pursuing the voter-veto option permitted by the town’s charter was illegitimate or whiny – but everything that has happened since gathering signatures, yes. And if a 65-35 vote to undertake the library project doesn’t persuade the losers that they have lost, I don’t know what will. They should respect the bedrock principle that democracy requires losers to accept that winners won and stop wasting taxpayer money.
Another set of complaints is, essentially, that our new form of government is not enough like our previous form of government. For example, I have heard calls to give more power to more people. And like a software designer, I say, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. I understand that some people miss Town Meeting, but it is time to move on.
I also hear claims that decisions are “unfair,” when the decisions don’t uphold the complainers’ policy preferences. It is astonishing to me that some Amherst voters consider their local government to be illegitimate or corrupt simply because they don’t get what they want. This is how children behave.
To be clear, disagreements or unhappiness with the decisions, policies, and priorities of our elected officials do not constitute whining – the debate over issues is essential, and few decisions can please everyone. I am not telling people to happy up. But, in my opinion, voters on the losing side of any contest should pursue one or more of these options instead of challenging the integrity of officials or elections without good evidence of malfeasance:
Unhappiness with the defeat of the school building project several years ago was acute and widespread. But the losers, after the Town Meeting’s first vote not to authorize borrowing, built support, turned out residents, and tried again. And then, deeply disappointed, they accepted the second defeat. New candidates for Town Council recently arose in Districts 3 and 4 (perhaps in other districts as well) because of unhappiness with the records of incumbents – and won. These actions honor our democratic process. On the other hand, complaints that voters who organized themselves into a local political action committee were thereby acting unethically were sour grapes. (Hopefully, we can retire that complaint now that we have two PACs.)
Finally, one frequent whine is that residents were not consulted by committees or elected bodies. To this I say: Take responsibility for your own civic participation. If you care about the Jones Library project, or the elementary school project, or a zoning bylaw, or a significant policy change, then put in the work to follow and understand it. Attend or watch the meetings, or read the minutes, or ask questions by phone or email, or reach out to your Councilors, or participate via the Engage Amherst platform, or read the reports. (A tip: Watch meeting videos at 2x speed.) Do not wait until a vote is imminent or someone shows up with a petition to discover that an issue is important to you. If you don’t have time for this work (and not everyone does), then at least don’t complain that decision-makers have acted in bad faith or that they should come to your door to update you, personally, and ask for your thoughts. If you haven’t participated, don’t blame others and don’t accuse them of failing to seek public input. Democracy is work.
By Nick Grabbe
The “Yes” side of the Jones Library referendum picked up 14 more votes, while the “No” side added two, as 17 ballots that were not counted on Election Day were opened Monday at Town Hall.
The 14 extra “Yes” votes brings the unofficial total to 3,201, or 65.5 percent. The unofficial “No” vote total is now 1,685. Some overseas and provisional ballots remain to be counted.
The closest race on Election Day was for second place in the District 4 Town Councilor competition. There was no change in the outcome; Pamela Rooney was still ahead of Evan Ross, but Ross has called for a recount.
Extra votes for at-large Town Council candidates were: Ellisha Walker, 13; Mandi Jo Hanneke, 11; Andrew Steinberg, 9; Vira Douangmany Cage, 4; and Vince O’Connor, 3.
By Sarah Marshall
This is the time of year when decisions about how our local tax dollars will be spent in the next fiscal year begin taking shape. Even if the phrase “municipal finance” makes your eyes glaze over, you may want to know a bit about what will happen over the next few months so that you can share your thoughts with the planners and decision makers, including your district councilors, at the appropriate time. If you have opinions about funding of our schools, roads and sidewalks, public safety, “green” infrastructure, affordable housing, or any other area of town expense, make a plan to be involved. Don’t wait until it is too late!
First, if you were not following this blog in the summer, you may want to read this post that gives the basics of our town’s finances.
Second, you may want to attend, or watch later if you cannot attend, the virtual Cuppa’ Joe event on Friday, November 19, from 8-9 a.m. Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Finance Director Sean Mangano will answer questions large and small about town finances and the upcoming budget development schedule for fiscal year 2023 (which begins July 1, 2022).
Third, you may be interested in watching the presentation of Financial Indicators to representatives of Council, the Amherst School Committee, and the Jones Library Trustees on Monday, November 15, or having a look at the slides. Here are the slides from a year ago. You can see that they show 10-year trends for various types of income and expense, give a qualitative judgment about the significance of each trend for the coming year, and finish with the general outlook for town finances for the year ahead. Of course, much is uncertain at such an early point, but these indicators set the tone (looking good! or, uh-oh, tough year ahead!) for budget development. (When the slides of this year’s presentation are posted, we will link to them.)
Fourth, a public budget forum will be held on Monday, November 15 by Zoom – visit the Town Council’s website for details on watching or participating. We believe that the budget calendar will be made public at this time.
Even if you cannot participate in or watch any of the public meetings described above, you can always submit your ideas and opinions about public spending to Town Council, the Amherst School Committee, the Regional School Committee, the Jones Library Trustees, the Town Manager, or the Finance Department.
Fortunately, local taxes are not the town’s only source of revenue. Amherst has received significant funds from the federal government during the pandemic, and is currently deciding what to do with almost $12 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds. Have a look at this presentation from October, in which spending of 80% of those funds is proposed. Public health/racial equity, homelessness, and housing support are targeted for the largest awards.
Furthermore, town staff are frequently successful in landing grants for projects that otherwise might not be undertaken. Recent grants include:
Hats off to town staff for bringing these extra funds here.
(The numbers below reflect the vote totals from all precincts on Election Day. The Town Clerk’s office received 17 ballots on Election Day that were unable to be delivered to the polls prior to closing. These ballots will be counted by a team of election workers on Nov. 8 beginning at 10 a.m. in the second floor meeting room in Town Hall.)
AT LARGE (Top 3 elected)
Robert Greeney 1,030
Vira Douangmany Cage 1,701
Andrew Steinberg 2,61`7
Mandi Jo Hanneke 2,661
Ellisha Walker 3,164
Vincent O’Connor 1,087
Michele Miller 295
Cathy Schoen 351
Lynn Griesemer 511
Pat DeAngelis 485
DISTRICT THREE (Top 2 elected)
Dorothy Pam 227
George Ryan 190
Jennifer Taub 238
DISTRICT FOUR (Top 2 elected)
Evan Ross 451
Pamela Rooney 454
Anika Lopes 568
Shalini Bahl-Milne 1,158
Ana Devlin Gauthier 1,101
JONES LIBRARY TRUSTEE (6 elected)
Robert Pam 2,410
Farah Ameen 2,511
Lee Edwards 2,306
Alex Lefebvre 2,400
Tamson Ely 2,269
SCHOOL COMMITTEE (Top 5 elected)
Peter Demling 2,465
Irvin Rhodes 2,259
Phoebe Merriam 1,875
Jennifer Page 2,336
Hala Heather Lord 1,941
Benjamin Herrington 2,877
Allison McDonald 2,308
HOUSING AUTHORITY (Top 3 elected)
Nancy Schroeder 2,092
David W. Williams 1,615
Jessica Ruth Mix Barrington 1,561
Michael Burkart 1,873
ELECTOR, OLIVER SMITH WILL
Carol Gray 1,797
Sarah Marshall 1,445
Voter Turnout: 30.65%
By Nick Grabbe and Sarah Marshall
Finally, Election Day! We hope every voter will have exercised this important right by 8 p.m. tonight. Be sure to turn over your ballot to see the question regarding the Jones Library project (and vote Yes!). **Check this blog tonight for unofficial results**
Precincts are the same as they were last year; if you are unsure about your precinct or polling locations, see this page.
If you haven’t yet done your homework, or want to refresh your memory, we encourage you to
Please give careful consideration to the choices before you.
We will post unofficial results this evening as they come in. If you read our evening post, refresh it occasionally to get the updates.
By Nick Grabbe and Sarah Marshall
By Sarah Marshall
When the new charter was being debated, one fear was that running for office would cost a lot of money and candidates would be beholden to wealthy donors. In fact, most of the candidates for Town Council three years ago listed expenses at this point in the campaign of under $2,000.
Today we summarize the 8th-day-preceding reports of candidates in contested Town Council races. Note that donors who give no more than $50 in 2021 do not need to be individually identified. Multiple contributions from an individual are combined.
At-large Town Council candidates (in alphabetical order)
Vira Douangmany Cage
No receipts, expenses, liabilities, or cash on hand reported.
Mandi Jo HANNEKE
No receipts, expenses, liabilities, or cash on hand reported.
You can view campaign finance reports at https://www.amherstma.gov/1327/Campaign-Finance-Reports
All candidates, campaigns, and committees will need to file end-of-year or dissolution reports over the coming months.
By Sarah Marshall
Today I look at the 8th-day-preceding reports of the two ballot questions committee, Vote No – Start Over Smart, and Vote Yes for Our Library. Unlike for PACs or candidate committees, there is no limit to the amount of money that can be given to a ballot question committee. As in previous summaries, multiple contributions from the same individual in a calendar year are combined. Individuals contributing no more than $50 do not need to be identified.
Vote No – Start Over Smart
Vote Yes for Our Library
First observation: Fewer people donated to the No campaign than to the Yes campaign, but potentially a larger percentage of its donors contributed $500 each. (Without knowing the precise number of total donors, this comparison cannot be conclusive.)
Second observation: In any campaign, expenditures are generally made for purposes such as postage, signs, printing, advertising, and website hosting. All of the Yes committee’s expenses and some of the No campaign’s expenses are for such items. However, the No committee reports additional expenses about which I am curious. I am the first to admit that I am no expert in campaign finance, so perhaps these expenses are completely legitimate, but why would a library ballot question committee have expenses for affidavit letters, moratorium letters, and Voter Veto letters? Perhaps the descriptions are insufficiently detailed, but none, on their face, seem to me relevant to the ballot question. Moreover, while those expenses are dated in September (the committee was organized on August 31), the only moratorium and Voter Veto efforts I know about occurred in the spring. I hope to learn more about these expenses.
By Nina Mankin
I grew up in Amherst. I served on Town Meeting. I own a home here, and a business. I am raising a child here. I’ve seen and experienced firsthand how our town and school officials can be dismissive of public input. I’ve experienced the rage when I feel personally disrespected by that dismissal. I experienced the awful divisions revealed through the loss of state funding for new schools and our shift away from Town Meeting toward a new council form of government. And I’ve come to believe that we, culturally, for good and bad, are driven by symbolism. This symbolism is a factor of both our specialness and, as is so often the case with specialness, our privilege.
In Amherst, we do things “on principle” and, while I am proud of our principled culture, I’ve also seen it bite us in the ass. It was our privilege to turn away $34 million on principle because half of our community didn’t like the way the School Department reconfigured our schools to solve what they, and the state, had determined to be core problems in our system. It is our privilege that has, for decades, made it so difficult for developers to build new housing and create new business opportunities in town, leaving residential taxes to carry so much of our infrastructure burden, because while our main economy is driven by students, we don’t want our aesthetics to be ruled by financial interests that take advantage of that.
It was our privilege that, years ago, resulted in our failure to adopt a “form-based” zoning overlay that would have created height and setback restrictions (and pre-empted recent aesthetic blunders) because of vocal outcry against what many saw as an attempt to throw us to the developers. If we vote against the library project, it will be our privilege to turn away $13 million in state funds to build a truly 21st century learning center, an investment that I believe aligns with our core values of equity and community. Our principled stance will then allow us to say “Take your money and we’ll spend the same amount just to fix the building as it is!” because some very vocal, very angry and principled members of our community are horrified by the symbolism of spending so much money on a new library, even if the project won’t increase our taxes and the money won’t go toward other needed projects (two of the many false rumors spread in rage over what is perceived as an unprincipled act of fiscal and cultural irresponsibility).
This driving force of symbolism (or principle; I’m still parsing the difference) can be a powerful force for good; it is also, I believe, what makes us such a difficult community to govern. Town Meeting was a symbolically beautiful institution but it met only a scant number of times a year, and during those times there was a history, that I experienced firsthand, of destroying plans and budgets our extremely qualified hired professionals had spent months and even years working on — with one raised hand, one symbolic gesture and a room full of people who felt great about doing work to advance what they (we) saw as progress.
These symbolic/principled actions had real consequences, for good and ill (depending on your perspective) like the half-percent for art vote that added sometimes many tens of thousands of dollars for art into our capital budgets, or the time we added extra funds to enable more scholarships for low-income children to participate in public programs. Unfortunately, I believe, these gestures also created a history of antagonism between those struggling daily to govern our community and the public they serve.
It’s complicated. We have a population of very smart and often very privileged (again, for good and ill) people with the time and resources to put a lot of energy into how our government runs and what it does, and a governing staff and body that I believe sees those folks largely as a threat. There’s a legacy of, dare I use the acronym, PTSD on both sides of this equation. It’s why so many people I know, myself included, would never want to run for public office in Amherst. Engaging in a battle of symbolism is necessary for change to happen (think any progressive social movement) but it is also exhausting, often thankless and sometimes deeply counterproductive.
By The Board of Directors
Recent negative campaign rhetoric has placed the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID) board and our executive director in the middle of debate around Town Council politics, municipal and private development, and other less germane issues. The Amherst BID would like to set the record straight about its function and positions.
Who we are. The Amherst BID is a made up of downtown businesses and property owners organized to provide downtown Amherst with supplementary services such as cleaning streets, beautification like flowers, streetscape enhancements, and marketing and advocating for the area and its businesses. The Amherst BID is funded through a tax assessment on commercial property owners with additional financial support through memoranda of understanding with institutional partners – UMass Amherst and Amherst College and the Town of Amherst. With our staff of two fulltime and one part-time worker, we advocate for over 200 small businesses in Amherst’s downtown.
Our goal is a strong, commercially viable downtown. A strong downtown benefits the entire community. We want to create a place where people want to visit, shop, eat, congregate, and enjoy a wide range of cultural offerings. We are very proud of our partnership with our community. The Amherst BID works with and collaborates with our public schools, the Town of Amherst, Amherst Recreation, our cultural institutions, the colleges and the university and more. The BID has been a lead donor to the John P. Musante Health Center and provides fiscal support to dozens of Amherst nonprofits, benefitting all members of our community.
We have worked overtime for our small businesses during the pandemic. In the last 18+ months, the Amherst BID, alongside the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, has secured over $500,000 in private donations and state funds that have gone directly to Amherst businesses. Nearly $100,000 of that money raised supported families in need as we partnered with Family Outreach of Amherst and the Amherst Survival Center through our Dinner Delights Program. We have written scores of successful grants for small businesses for state, federal and other small business programs. Through our lobbying and advocacy we have worked with downtown businesses to open popular new and expanded outdoor dining areas, which provided a needed economic infusion during the pandemic.
We are working to bring small and diverse businesses to our downtown. The BID actively recruits new and diverse businesses to Amherst. Our team works hand-in-hand with small business owners, many new to business or those with English as a second language, to navigate town permitting processes and steer them to successful openings. A most recent example is the successful launch of Mexicalito and the soon to open Hazel’s Kitchen – and there are more in the works.
Our work is making a difference. The BID’s efforts have been lauded by state government officials who have celebrated its initiative and innovation including being the only community cited in testimony before the U.S. Congress by Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, Mike Kennealy who cited the Amherst BID’s economic development work during the pandemic as a beacon of success in Massachusetts.
If you have been to the Block Party, a concert on the Common or at Sweetser Park, or WinterFest, or if you will enjoy the Halloween parade or lighting of the Merry Maple, the BID organized, funded or contributed to each of these events.
We are proud of our indefatigable executive director, Gabrielle Gould, who has done the hard work of helping businesses survive during the pandemic, recruiting new businesses to join our downtown, and advocating for the things that need to happen to ensure our downtown stays vibrant well into the future. She’s smart, savvy, and knows what she’s doing. The BID Board unanimously supports her and the work she and her team are doing.
Making Amherst a cultural destination is crucial to our long-range economic viability as a small town. That’s why we support these initiatives:
Our mission is clear: A strong, economically viable downtown anchored in culture and the arts. Ms. Gould has embraced this mission and carried this message to all levels of government and the public. We look forward to continuing this dialogue in and to working closely with the incoming Town Council. It is in the best interests of our community that this discourse be civil and about the issues.
By Sarah Marshall
First, the two local Political Action Committees. Three years ago, the formation of Amherst Forward provoked many accusations and worries about Big and/or Dark Money entering local politics. At that time, and continuing today, Amherst Forward asks individuals to limit contributions to $52 per year. Now that a second PAC, the Progressive Coalition of Amherst, exists, we thought you might be interested in their financial reports covering Jan. 1 to Oct. 15 (called the 8th-day-preceding report).
Progressive Coalition of Amherst:
It looks to us like the Progressive Coalition was bankrolled by a small number of people, four of whom provided more than half of all donations by giving the maximum permitted contribution of $500.
It looks to us like Amherst Forward has a large base of small-money donors. No individual contributed more than $104.
You can view all campaign finance reports at: https://www.amherstma.gov/1327/Campaign-Finance-Reports
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:
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.
By Sarah Marshall
Any registered Amherst voter can vote this week at Town Hall, 8:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., except on Thursday when the poll will stay open until 8:00 p.m. Use the Main Street entrance if you need an elevator to the main floor. Here is a link to sample ballots for each precinct.
If you haven’t yet done your homework, or want to refresh your memory, we encourage you to
Please give careful consideration to the choices before you.
By Sarah Marshall
Before you vote on the ballot question regarding the Jones Library expansion and renovation project, you might want to check your understanding of some of the issues that have been swirling this fall. Early voting begins on Monday, Oct. 25. Vote “Yes” if you want the library project to proceed, or vote “No” if you want to cancel the project.
#1 The Jones Library expansion and renovation project will increase our taxes. True or False? Click for the answer.
#2 The Town can’t afford to take on $36 million in debt. True or False? Click for the answer.
#3 We could save a lot of money by only making necessary repairs. True or False? Click for the answer.
#4 We don’t need to enlarge the Jones Library because we can refuse to let college and university students in – we will tell them to stay in their own libraries. True or False? Click for the answer.
#5 We don’t need a Teen room because we can refuse to let high school students in – we will send them to the school library. True or False? Click for the answer.
#6 We can reject this project, re-do the plans, and then get another MBLC grant. True or False? Click for the answer.
#7 This huge new building, plus all the debris generated during construction, will be a climate disaster. True or False? Click for the answer.
#8 A new school is more important than an expanded library. True or False? Click for the answer.
#9 Branch libraries will have to close. True or False? Click for the answer.
#10 Town Meeting voted against this project. True or False? Click for the answer.
#11 The beautiful, historic building will be ruined. True or False? Click for the answer.
#12 We weren’t consulted. True or False? Click for the answer.
#13 The proposed library is too big for our small town. True or False? Click for the answer.
#14 It looks like the cost has already changed from $35 to $36 million. True or False? Click for the answer.
How did you do? Well, we hope. Ignore the dark rumors and wild predictions. If you haven’t yet read our Town Councilors’ reasons for voting as they did, you can read excerpts of their remarks or their complete statements. You can find key resources about the library building project under the Town Government 101 page in our menu.
Editors’ Note: We welcome readers to write comments on the following opinion column, but suggest reading our comment policy first.
By Bob Rakoff
Nothing could be more American than the politics of grievance. Just think of the Declaration of Independence! A laundry list of grievances against the British king and his minions. Enough grievances to start a war.
More recently we have Donald Trump, who built a presidential campaign and administration on little more than the harnessing of grievances against foreigners, people of color, liberals, coastal elites, women . . . you know the drill. His rhetoric combines the evocation of a lost Golden Age with a commitment to avenge the disrespect he, and his followers, have suffered. Vicious attacks against his enemies are central to his appeal. Trump revived and legitimated the politics of grievance, and our politics will never be the same.
And this election season, the politics of grievance is coloring the discourse among candidates for the Amherst Town Council. Candidates for the Council, especially for the hotly contested at-large seats, are offering two competing narratives of what’s at stake in the election.
On the one hand, the two incumbents are defending their efforts over the past three years and describing in some detail the projects and policies that they hope to continue working on, building for the future. Their language is practical, technical, all about the details of capital budgets, zoning changes, planning processes. This is a typical strategy for incumbents.
Some challengers, on the other hand, speak the language of grievance. They speak of being disrespected, forgotten, dismissed, in large part because of racism. While they state their opposition to the projects and policies of the current Council – especially the library expansion – their focus is less on specific policies than on their lived experience of disrespect and marginalization. This is an important message for all voters to hear.
For some of the challengers, however, this central focus seems to demand and justify harsh language and personal attacks. A strong current of revenge has crept into the challengers’ campaign discourse, amplified by the reliance on social media in this virtual campaign. As with Trump, it’s easy to attack and demean your opponents on Twitter or Facebook since you never have to meet them face-to-face. In this atmosphere, it’s no surprise that someone has been circulating anonymous flyers attacking the incumbents as being “in the pocket of developers” and that old allies have been publicly shunned.
This is a sorry turn in Amherst politics. The powerful language of grievance has become abusive. When personal grudges dominate campaign discourse, we all suffer. It hurts to be attacked personally and publicly. Nobody witnessing such attacks wants to be the next target. The fear of retaliation isolates the target of attacks and intimidates others from responding. And it’s very bad for democratic participation: the more it happens, the less inclined new people are to engage in civic matters at all. “Why don’t more people serve on boards, run for office or just let their voice be heard?” This is a big reason. Why would people risk being subjected to this kind of vicious treatment? I know that I have stayed out of local government for over 25 years now because the culture of nastiness and pettiness makes it not worth the effort.
Look, I know politics can be rough. And I know that there are sharp divisions in town. But local governance depends on collaborating with folks you disagree with, finding compromises when possible, moving on to new issues whether you’ve won or lost. The more we let a politics of vengeance shape our public life, the closer we will get to the day when Trump comes to town.
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.”
By Sarah Marshall
Seven candidates for the Amherst School Committee – four incumbents and three challengers – answered a range of questions posed by Nancy Eddy of the Amherst League of Women Voters on Thursday evening. The challengers are Phoebe Merrian, Jennifer Page, and Irvin Rhodes, and the incumbents are Peter Demling, Benjamin Herrington, Heather Lord, and Allison McDonald. Surnames will be used below for brevity.
The first of the six questions asked how the candidates would ensure a smooth transition to a new grade configuration if the 6th grades are moved to the Amherst Regional Middle School. Demling noted that the move has not yet received final approval from the Regional School Committee, but that, assuming the move is approved, the school administrations and staffs have an extended time in which to plan, since a move would not occur until the the fall of 2023. The Committee will engage with students, families, and staff, and will be particularly mindful of the challenges facing the first grades to make that move. Herrington also named thoughtful planning, definitely with input from the educator and parents, so that the experience is a positive one. Lord urged outreach to families at apartment complexes. Learn if some of the elementary teachers will move with the students, helping to ease concerns. Perhaps the 6th-graders should have a day or two at the school by themselves to become familiar with the space and routines. McDonald endorsed the earlier comments and noted that the extensive work of the Grade Span Advisory Group would be a useful resource for planning the transition and communications to families. Merriam noted that a large group of families may not agree with the move and that their concerns need to be identified and addressed. Page agreed that engaging with families, particularly of the two grades that, in the first year only, will move to the Middle School at the same time. The Committee will also need to watch for unintended consequences of this grade shift. Rhodes said that the change will bring anxieties and concerns and that robust community engagement will be needed. Traditions will be lost – one grade (finishing 5th) will never get to be the top grade in elementary school, for example.
Candidates were then asked if they had ever looked through entire budgets for the elementary and regional districts, and were they comfortable making multi-year comparisons. Merriam has tried to become familiar with these documents and has many ideas, including how to bring back arts, music, and technology. Demling said the budgets, especially for the Region, are hard to understand and use unfamiliar terminology, so he reached out to the Finance Director and Superintendent for assistance. But understanding them is important so their meaning can be conveyed to the community. Page noted that she is a data analyst and former math major and enjoys exploring Excel spreadsheets. Multi-year comparisons are important. She is comfortable speaking up and asking hard questions. Rhodes said he had taken deep dives into budgets, and that a budget is the heartbeat of an organization – a document that demonstrates the organization’s values. Herrington noted that much of the Committee’s time was spent on budget matters, and that budgets are moral documents. Looking at changes in budgets over the years is important to understanding the district’s direction and whether the district lives up to its mission statement. Lord said she had read through them all, and that their complexity inevitable serves as a gatekeeping function, controlling who can participate in the conversation. She sought membership in the budget subcommittee because of its importance and hopes to make the budgets more transparent to the community. McDonald acknowledged that reading and understanding the budgets is a slog, and the Committee needs to make the finances clearer to the community. What the budgets don’t show – thereby presenting an incomplete picture of district finances – is all the various sources and uses of money. The budgets generally focus only on the funds that will come from Amherst (elementary schools ) or the regional towns (middle and high schools). Finally, level-service budgeting is difficult to explain.
The third question addressed how the district could improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in its hiring practices, staff, disciplinary procedures, and curriculum. Page stated that hiring directors should seek out communities that might not know about the standard job website. She noted that Amherst disproportionally disciplines BIPC students. Lord noted progress in hiring BIPOC staff, but just as important is supporting and retaining staff. Are new and/or BIPOC staff heard and seen? She also noted that all grade levels were working to address anti-racism in curriculum, and finally that she advocates a model of caring, rather than of discipline, for the student whose behavior perhaps indicates important underlying needs. Demling commended the work of Asst. Superintendent Doreen Cunningham with respect to incorporating DEI practices into hiring. He also noted that history teachers at all levels were thoughtfully addressing anti-racism, and, finally, that the restorative justice program has not been expanded as desired because of budget cuts. Rhodes said he co-chaired the DEI efforts of the Hampshire County United Way. Collecting data throughout an organization so that progress towards DEI goals can be measured is important. DEI must be a daily effort Herrington noted that what connects DEI in hiring, curriculum, and discipline is culture. He is pleased with the district’s progress, but we need to show the public that our BIPOC community, and their contribution, is valued. Amherst schools carry a stigma in the eyes of the BIPOC community. He also strongly endorsed a restorative justice approach to discipline. McDonald stressed the need to be developing new ideas to maintain progress. She agreed that, to meet DEI goals, improving hiring must be matched by improvements in retention, which is proof of success. Continuous self-evaluation is needed. Merriam endorsed being thoughtful in all the district practices, and noted the importance to students of seeing themselves in the adults in the schools. New hires might look at the curriculum with fresh eyes and have ideas for improvement.
The fourth question noted the continuing anger and division caused by the defeat of the previous elementary school building project and asked how candidates would bring the community together around a new project. McDonald noted the extensive listening sessions and data collection that the Committee had undertaken a few years ago while developing its new application to MSBA. The goal was to develop a unified commitment to a new school that would provide a healthy environment for all. The School Committee will shortly begin to collaborate with the School Building Committee as the process moves along. Page agreed that sadness and frustration persist, and said one way to heal is to focus on moving forward. She will engage in genuine listening to students and families. Everyone involved needs to respect differences of opinion and keep an open mind. Rhodes said that he had served on that previous Building Committee and indeed it was an unhappy experience. They had tried hard to engage all parts of the community. But one can’t drive into the future by looking in the rear-view mirror, so listening, collaborating,and connecting emotionally are needed. Demling said he was first elected just as the building project was defeated so was plunged right into the aftermath. He made a strong effort to reach out to opponents of the project and learn to understand their perspective. As for the current project, he feels people are in more agreement about the need for one building and its size. Lord recommended slowing down the process, listening, and learning to disagree with respect. Merriam said people need assurances that they will be heard, their questions will be answered, and they will not be steered toward a particular solution. Herrington said that people won’t remember what you said but they will remember how you made them feel. Respectful conversation is key. He has had v conversations with people he strongly disagrees with – it is hard but necessary work. The district won’t build a school without building bridges.
Fifthly, candidates were asked how the district might help achieve the Town’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25% by 2025. Lord mentioned installing solar canopies in parking lots, and noted that the new school building will significantly reduce GHG emissions. McDonald seconded that point, and added that the possibility of installing rooftop solar will be examined. She named the transportation system as the next target for emissions reduction, and that a Task Force will be tasked with exploring options. Electric buses can not be the entire solution as they make too many trips in one day. Perhaps routes can be shortened. Herrington thinks first about building operations and noted the very leaky buildings that waste energy. As for buses, idling times can also be reduced. Merriam endorsed the new school and changes to transportation as options for GHG reductions. Demling reminded the audience that the regional buildings, ARMS and ARHS, also need significant repair. But the Town faces fiscal restraints. He therefore encouraged listeners to vote for Town Council candidates who will expand the tax base so that more money is available. Finally, he noted that, next year, citizens will vote on a proposed state constitutional amendment, Fair Share, that will generate more money for schools and infrastructure. Rhodes’ professional experience includes many years developing capital for start-ups, and it has given him insight into evolving technologies. He said 25% reduction is doable, and the cost will be less than feared. Solid state batteries that can power buses for many hundreds of miles will be coming. He agreed that efforts to develop more local revenue are needed. Page advocated examining all investments through a climate-justice lens, and named students as an untapped resource for ideas about improvements to the schools.
In the final question, candidates were asked about the primary reason(s) for declining district enrollment and possibilities for mitigation. Rhodes noted that enrollments have been steady for the last few years, but declined significantly over the past decade. One factor is loss of students to charter schools; decreased funding for the schools may be another. Merriam noted that many people point to charter schools as a reason, but no one can control what is right for a family. However, we should be learning why families leave the district. Some BIPOC families have been disappointed in how their concerns have been addressed. McDonald noted population shifts within Amherst and competition with charter schools. The Caminantes program has reversed the declining enrollment at Fort River, and the Seal of Biliteracy program is also encouraging some families to stay. Such programs require commitment and resources. Lord named housing costs as a major factor. Racism is also sometimes a factor, leading some families to home-school their children. Page noted a decreasing trend in births, and lack of family housing in town. She encouraged listeners to vote for candidates who will create more affordable housing. She also encouraged holding exit interviews with leaving families to identify other actions the district can take. Herrington seconded the high cost of housing, and classism in addition to racism. He also said we should do a better job of championing what we get right. Demling noted that the district lost its communications director a few years ago to budget cuts, making it hard to trumpet the good news. He continues to prioritize revising the charter funding formula to halt the death spiral and continuing to oppose increasing the size of charter schools.
In their closing statements, candidates made these points:
[Please excuse any errors as there was no transcript or tape to review.]
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.”
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:
(Please excuse any errors as there was no tape or transcript to review.)
By Nick Grabbe
Rumors about the referendum on the Jones Library project were smacked down Friday by Library Director Sharon Sharry and other town officials.
One persistent rumor is that if voters affirm the Town Council’s 10-2 vote (with one abstention) to support the project, the library’s trustees plan close the two branches. “Absolutely not,” Sharry said. “The branches are not going anywhere. The trustees are committed to maintaining them. Both buildings are owned by the Town, and the deeds require that libraries be maintained there.”
Town Manager Paul Bockelman added that the rumor makes no sense, because an expansion of the North Amherst Library is already in the planning stages. It will provide a meeting room, accessible bathrooms and a lift, all paid for by an anonymous donor.
Another rumor is that current library staffers will be laid off because the project includes an automatic book handling system. “This will help staff manage increased usage and will perform tasks staff don’t need to do,” Sharry said. “They can then focus on patrons. No staff member is going to lose their job.” She added that this book-sorting system is typical for renovated libraries.
Opponents of the project have speculated that the library project would put approval of funding for a new elementary school in jeopardy. “Our goal is to not pit projects against each other,” Bockelman said.
The $36.3 million library project is funded by a $13.87 million state grant, $15.75 million in borrowed funds approved by the Town Council, $5.6 million in private fundraising and $1 million from the Community Preservation Act. Unlike the school project, it will not require a tax increase.
The debt payments on the borrowed money will not be burdensome because the Town’s indebtedness will drop to near zero in three years, “which is unheard of for an enterprise the size of Amherst,” Bockelman said. He added that interest rates are low and the Town’s bond rating is high.
The library rumors came up at “Cuppa’ Joe,” a program in which Bockleman meets regularly with residents and answers their questions.
The advocates of a “no” vote Nov. 2 have signs that read “Start Over Smart.” Sharry was asked Friday if the library could seek another state grant if voters insist that the current one be rejected and the entire project is reconsidered.
“The mechanical systems are all at the end of their lives, and it’s time for them to be replaced,” she said. The next round of grants would be in eight to 10 years, and Bockelman said that with construction costs rising at 4 percent a year and the possibility of 6 percent interest rates then, the scope of the project would be greatly diminished.
Town Council President Lynn Griesemer said she “struggled” with her position on the library project. But after two years of considering the facts, she was convinced to support it because without the state grant, the Town would have to spend almost as much money on library improvements, without getting an improved building.
“The real choice is ‘Do you want the existing library with the same facade and building, or do you want a modern library?’ Either one has the same cost,” she said.
Another rumor is that demolition of parts of the library would create more greenhouse gases than greatly improved energy efficiency in a renovated building would save. This assertion has been refuted by one energy expert on this blog, and another expert will be writing a post on this topic soon.
Town Council candidate Michele Miller asked how the library was advancing the goal of racial equity. Sharry said that last summer she received a comment that the Jones Library is not welcoming to people of color and is seen by some as a “white space.” “The library’s mission is to provide buildings that provide services that are open to everyone,” she said. “If someone is not comfortable, we are not meeting our mission. The library has never had this conversation, and it’s time we did.”
This equity initiative includes book displays, programming and even art on the walls. The library removed “a big painting of a wealthy white man so it is no longer the first thing people see” when they enter the building, she said.
The library’s endowment is now near $10 million, and trustees spent 4 percent a year to help cover operating expenses, Sharry said.
In other news at Friday’s webinar:
You can watch the video of the conversation here.
By Sarah Marshall
The six candidates for Town Councilor At-Large shared their views on six questions posed by Jessica Ryan of the Amherst League of Women Voters during an on-line forum Thursday evening. The candidates include two incumbents, Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andrew Steinberg, and four challengers, Vira Douangmany Cage, Vincent O’Connor, Ellisha Walker, and Robert Greeney. A video will be posted, we expect, but here is a summary, using surnames for brevity.
In the first question, candidates were asked to give their assessment of how well the inaugural Council performed with respect to some of the goals of the new charter, such as enhancing citizen participation, providing accountability and transparency, providing a clear voice for Amherst, and avoiding big-money politics. Cage stated that the Council has not been transparent and is not representative of the community. Hanneke stated the Council has done better in some areas than others; it has been very deliberative and has revised proposals in light of public comment, and participation has greatly increased. Steinberg was very pleased with how the charter has been brought to life. Compared to his experience on the Select Board, the Council has heard from many more constituents. The Council has also developed a culture of mutual respect. Walker, in contrast, maintained that the Council has not done well with transparency or civic participation. Residents face barriers of language and knowledge about how to access information. One of her goals is to promote two-way dialogues between Council and residents. Greeney doesn’t feel that the first Council successfully implemented the charter. Sending letters is not substantive engagement, and more community members should be part of policy-forming committees. [O’Connor could not respond because of technical problems.]
The second question pertained to the goal of reducing the town’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25% by 2025, and asked candidates for their ideas for how to reach this goal. Hanneke noted that she voted in favor of library projects that will eliminate a major source of fossil fuel use; she also described examining other capital projects and town vehicle fleets for GHG reduction. Retrofitting existing buildings throughout town will take federal, state, as well as local, action. Walker said that, as Councilor, she would look at decisions through racial and climate justice lenses. She advocated delegating the various tasks for reducing GHG and requiring reporting on why, in any decision, the most climate-friendly choice may not have been pursued. O’Connor advocated using federal dollars to help single- and multi-family homes insulate and deploy better heating and cooling technology. He would involve neighborhoods because the work is too much for Town Hall to manage. Greeney endorsed many ideas already offered, and advocated harnessing the collective wisdom of the community, which includes people with great expertise. Cage advocated removing police cars from the roads as they drive and idle too much, and asserted that debris from the proposed Jones Library project would add GHG. She said Councilors who commit to mitigating climate change should be elected and held accountable. Steinberg said his involvement in mitigating climate change through government action preceded his service on the Council, as he worked on development of the zero net-energy bylaw during Town Meeting. He also noted that the energy savings to be realized through the Jones Library project vastly are vastly larger than the small emissions from the debris.
In the third question, candidates were asked for their ideas for encouraging more people to vote in our local elections. Steinberg noted that the League’s tradition of holding candidate forums was important to informing the electorate, and that voters will have four options for submitting ballots this year: early voting, mail-in ballot, absentee ballot, an in-person on Nov. 2. Greeney said that more candidates are needed and that races should not be uncontested. Perhaps this panel, with its diversity of voices, will energize voters. Further, if more people participate in local government, more people will vote. Hanneke noted that the state could legislate automatic mailing of ballots and election information to all registered voters, and this could greatly increase turnout, including among college students. The state could also permit same-day registration. O’Connor said that voters would vote if they felt that candidates listen to their concerns and offered the recent moratorium petition and the voter-veto petition, both of which failed, as evidence of Council’s indifference to voters’ concerns. Walker spoke about activating young BIPOC residents who now feel disengaged by educating them (and others) about how decisions of Town Council affect their lives. Removal of technology and language barriers can also increase engagement, as could changing the times of day when residents are invited to participate. Cage argued that candidates need to show that something is at stake in elections and said recommendations by BIPOC residents have been disrespected and dismissed.
Candidates were asked, fourthly, how they would strive to represent all voices as At-Large Councilors. Walker said she would represent all but especially those traditionally disengaged, who could be brought in through two-way dialogue. Drop boxes, texting, and other mechanisms could enable easier communication. O’Connor said that, for 40 years, he has helped people navigate local government to get their ideas or concerns to the right ears, whether he agreed with those ideas or not. That is the essence of the At-Large Councilor’s job. He also advocated committees with Council representation for DPW, the Board of Health, and other town departments. Greeney said a diversity of voices should be sought for all committees, and argued that the Planning Board, for example, comprised technically qualified but like-minded people. Opposing voices do not get appointed. Cage stated that institutional racism is evident in Council decisions around the future of the Community Safety Working Group, and that some parts of the community benefit from town spending more than others. She noted the lack of BIPOC-owned businesses and said she wants to defund the police. Steinberg noted that Council may consider making stipends available to committee members, and that language barriers limit who can participate on committees. Hanneke said that At-Large Councilors need to hear from the whole community to represent the whole community. She also noted the need for more diverse candidate pools, and to reduce the work load of Town Councilors, which discourages potential candidates.
Next, candidates were asked what the Town Council can do to retain and promote small businesses, and do they support building a parking garage downtown. Greeney was not convinced that the current garage plan is the best and wants more voices heard. He wants to include the wisdom of the residents. However, parking is not the only problem. Steinberg noted that the changing nature of retail and increasing rents as properties become more valuable both affect local businesses. Council has not gotten very involved yet in the parking garage question, but he noted that Northampton has done very will with its garage. Cage said she opposes building a garage behind CVS, that other locations should be considered, and that a garage is not the solution. She asserted that the same few people “run the show” and they should be open to new ideas. Hanneke noted that Town Council is a legislative body and has limited ability to attract businesses other than by changing zoning bylaws. For example, under consideration is a bylaw requiring that 40% of ground-floor space of a mixed-use building be for retail businesses. Council, through zoning, can promote creation of buildings that will attract business. O’Connor would not support “another failed parking garage.” Town Council should be giving the Planning Board more direction. He considers mixed-use buildings to be a joke that destroys small businesses and that is the fault of Town Council. Walker offered community engagement as a way to develop a shared vision of a downtown that promotes equity, creativity, and different identities and cultures. She is open to parking options but more research is needed.
For the final question, candidates were asked about approaches, other than apartment buildings, to address the town’s housing needs. O’Connor blamed UMass and wants to make them responsible for housing their students. In addition, the town should seize, by eminent domain, apartment complexes where bad behavior is frequent and repurpose them for low-income, family housing. Cage would ask the Amherst Housing Authority to do more, for example by increasing the number of Section 8 vouchers, exploring rent control, renovating its existing properties, and increasing affordable housing. Scale down the Library project and direct the money to housing. Walker advocated better maintenance of the existing rental housing and noted that the town used to employ as Human Services Director to assist residents in need. Steinberg noted Town Council’s accomplishments regarding affordable housing, such as offering town land, granting CPA funds, offering tax credits in return for affordable units at North Square, and revision of the inclusionary zoning bylaw. Hanneke also noted the inclusionary zoning bylaw for buildings of 10 or more units and said changes to the rental permitting program should be explored, such as inspections rather than self-certifications and imposition of fines. Changes to zoning can enable housing production. Greeney said that this panel demonstrates the diversity of voices and ideas. He agreed that duplexes, triplexes, and other housing types should be promoted to fill “the missing middle” of housing types.
In their closing statements:
(Please excuse any errors as there was no tape or transcript to review.)
By Nick Grabbe
Six candidates for three at-large Town Council seats answered questions Sunday on conversion of houses to student rentals, the master plan, building sidewalks, and working with the town manager.
They also addressed issues of racial justice, the Jones Library project, development, and “vanity projects.”
It was the first in a series of candidate forums before the Nov. 2 town election. (See “Candidate Information and Events” in the menu for the dates of future forums.) Sponsored by the District One Neighborhood Association, it also featured Michele Miller and incumbent Cathy Schoen, the two candidates running unopposed for seats representing North Amherst. Outgoing At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer asked the questions.
Incumbent Mandi Jo Hanneke advocated for strengthening the inspection requirements for student houses and imposing penalties for landlords who don’t obtain rental permits. Vira Douangmany Cage suggested that the Amherst Housing Authority or a non-profit create an incentive to help families get into home ownership.
Ellisha Walker said Amherst should encourage the University of Massachusetts to build housing on campus and stiffen requirements for upkeep of student apartments. Vince O’Connor said the Town should consider taking some apartment complexes by eminent domain.
Incumbent Andrew Steinberg said the rental registration bylaw should be better enforced, and suggested public-private partnerships to build housing on land owned by UMass. Robert Greeney said that the Planning Department spends too much time on zoning and should focus on this problem instead.
Douangmany Cage said the town should be flexible in its implementation of the master plan and accommodate contemporary voices. “Town Hall needs to respect people’s wishes on issues that impact them, regardless of the funding source,” she said. O’Connor suggested greater public access to a committee overseeing the Public Works department.
Greeney said, “It seems a lot of people are not satisfied with our roads and sidewalks,” yet there’s a proposal for $150 million in spending on four big capital projects. Steinberg said he’d like to achieve the goal of devoting 10 percent of tax revenue to capital projects, but cautioned that these projects compete for funding with the operating budget.
The challenge of building a sidewalk on East Pleasant Street has been frustrating for many North Amherst residents. Hanneke said the Council needs to track money that’s not been spent, and “make sure plans like the East Pleasant sidewalk actually get done.” Walker said that “community members have to be able to advocate for what’s best for them.”
Brewer noted that the charter gives the manager executive authority and the Town Council policy leadership and legislative powers. She asked the candidates how they would handle that.
Hanneke stressed her collaboration with 10 other councilors on issues such as wage protection and affordable housing. O’Connor said that two Councilors should attend all meetings of the manager and department heads, and the Council should do a better job of supervising the manager.
Walker said the that Town should lower the barriers to participation in government, perhaps with stipends and access to technology. Douangmany Cage said she’s running because she felt disrespect for the Community Safety Working Group. Steinberg stressed setting goals for the manager and evaluating his performance in achieving those goals.
In opening and closing statements, the six candidates offered reasons why they deserve votes on Nov. 2.
Greeney urged voters to select candidates who are “open and genuinely inclusive of all views,” adding that “a large number of people don’t feel represented.” He noted that he applied four times for eight Planning Board openings but was not appointed.
Steinberg said that “we need new development” but his goal is “to assure a downtown that fits your visions and serves our needs.” He stressed his experience on the Finance Committee and Select Board and the need to “assure the best use of limited funds.”
Walker said that residents are “tired of the status quo and are ready for change,” adding that she wants to “make way for a better and anti-racist Amherst.” She said, “I am an activist. Wherever I land I work on changing structures,”
Hanneke stressed her support for the Jones Library project and for guiding housing growth while minimizing the impact on open space. She advocated “redefining the meaning of safety” and making Amherst carbon-neutral by 2050.
O’Connor urged voters to vote for Walker and Douangmany Cage as well as himself. He said that Amherst should “put excellent K-12 before commitment to housing undergraduate students. We must become the body that focuses on housing and education for 12-month residents,” he said.
O’Connor and Douangmany Cage urge a “no” vote on the Jones Library referendum, which also takes place on Nov. 2. “The town does not need a new library palace,” O’Connor said, “nor do we need a Public Works or fire palace.”
Douangmany Cage criticized Steinberg and Hannneke for voting for the library project and against a 180-day moratorium on building permits. She advocated “a pullback on vanity projects like the library,” which she called “fiscally irresponsible.”
This report has focused on the competitive at-large race, but Schoen and Miller deserve some mention.
“I want to shepherd a new elementary school and use my skills as an economist to address the fiscal challenges to minimize taxpayer impact,” Schoen said. She stressed her “unfinished agenda,” including climate action, affordable housing, racial justice, and development in downtown and village centers. “I want to listen, weigh choices, respond quickly and make informed decisions,” Schoen said.
Miller, an advocate for reparations for African-American residents, said this work “has taught me valuable lessons on how to move complex issues forward.” She promised weekly listening hours and said her goal is “to get to know neighbors and understand the issues they care about.”
Alert for print subscribers of the Daily Hampshire Gazette: after Oct. 7, the Amherst Bulletin will no longer be delivered to your home with the Gazette. If you wish to continue receiving the Amherst Bulletin, call 413-584-5000 and tell the Circulation Department you want the Bulletin mailed to you. We don’t believe there will be a charge for this.
In addition, the Bulletin will still be delivered in bulk to several locations around town: Sawicki Real Estate (24 Dickinson St.), the Jones Library, Jones Group Realtor (200 Triangle St.), Visitors Information Center (35 S. Pleasant St.), A.J. Hastings, and the Inn on Boltwood. In Hadley, the paper will be available at the Hampshire Mall, Stop & Shop, and Liquors 44, and several hotels and motels.
We expect that the Bulletin will be carrying election-related letters, columns, and other information, so encourage readers not to miss October issues.
By Sarah Marshall
The 2020 census shows not only changes in the town’s total population and make-up, but uneven changes in populations across local voting precincts. The changes are large enough to require the Town to “re-precinct” for elections beginning in 2022. A Districting Advisory Board (DAB) began work earlier this summer and must submit its recommended precinct map in mid-October; Town Council must approve the new precincts and submit them to the State by the end of October. (The urgency of the work explains this weekend announcement.)
The DAB invites the public to comment on two maps it has drafted. The draft maps, available census data, interactive mapping tools, and related materials can be accessed from the DAB committee webpage, https://www.amherstma.gov/3624/Districting-Advisory-Board.
The first draft map is available at https://bit.ly/DABMapV1 and the second draft map at https://bit.ly/DABMapV2. The link to the current precinct and district map is available here: https://bit.ly/2010AMAPrecinctMap for comparison (note that polling locations have since changed for precincts 2, 4, and 10).
To provide feedback on the draft maps, email firstname.lastname@example.org (with the subject line: DAB). The weekly DAB meetings include public comment periods and residents are welcome to offer feedback at that time. The next DAB meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, September 21, at 5:30 p.m.
The nomination papers are in, but certification is not complete. In addition, some candidates will need to decide by Sept. 30 which of two races to run in, as no one is allowed to run for two elected positions on the same ballot. So, keep checking our Election Update page, where we will also post the updated list of poll locations. In addition, once the ballot is set, we will either post or reproduce a draft, including the ballot language for the Jones Library question. Finally: candidates, remember to submit information for inclusion on the Candidate Events and Information page.
By Bob Rakoff
Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, when I was heavily involved in Amherst politics, friends and work colleagues would come up to me before local elections and ask whom they should vote for. And I would give them the bullet list of my favorite candidates. (Later on, I passed this task onto my Hampshire College colleague, Jim Wald).
That’s how folks got their political info in the old Town Meeting days. Local politics was personal. It was assumed that voters could rely on their friends and neighbors for political advice. Even if you didn’t know the candidates, someone you knew and trusted would know them.
It’s been clear for years, however, that this sort of personal politics has been overtaken by the changing demographics of the town and by the increasing complexity of local government. A growing and diversifying and more transient population, along with ever more complex and consequential decisions on capital spending, zoning and development, meant that the old informal processes for informing citizens regularly fell short. The result was declining participation in local government, rising distrust of the governing elites, and growing alienation from local politics for many people.
Over the last few years, however, ever since the battle over the last school building project, all this has started to change. Politics in Amherst has gotten more organized, better informed, and more transparent. We now have a growing array of political parties (or party-like organizations), and we are better off because of this. Political parties, ballot question committees, unions, political action committees (PACs), special interest groups — they all play important roles in defining problems and issues, informing voters, and creating narratives that help us make sense of the public choices facing us.
But many Amherst people are suspicious of these developments.
When I first ran for Town Meeting in the early 1980s, I was pretty new in town. I had a background in housing issues and had been involved with a group that promoted a form of rent control in town. Some of us decided to run for Town Meeting as a progressive slate. On my first canvassing outing, I handed a neighbor my flyer and gave my spiel about being part of a progressive slate. His response was “I don’t like the sound of that!”
This is not an uncommon response from many longtime political activists in town. During the campaign for the inaugural Town Council in 2018, one member of the League of Women Voters was reported to be so upset about Amherst Forward, a new PAC, that she vowed to not vote for any candidates it endorsed. She would make her own independent choices!
But that election saw the highest level of turnout for a local election in decades, testimony both to the popularity of the new regime and the impact of Amherst Forward, which had succeeded Amherst For All, a group that formed to promote adoption of the new town charter. Amherst Forward, an official local PAC that endorses candidates for office, continues to play an organizing and information role for many voters and activists.
There has always been organizing around local politics, of course. But in the past it was done in the local equivalent of back rooms, with little transparency about whose interests were at stake and who was planning strategy. Bringing these efforts out into the light of day is one of the best things that has happened in our local political scene.
And we need more of this. The recently announced Progressive Coalition of Amherst, a PAC whose platform focuses especially on issues of racial justice, offers another positive addition to the local political conversation.
What we really need, however, is a genuinely conservative party or PAC, one that brings a public voice to traditional concerns with the size and cost of local government. Who knows: I might even vote for their candidates!
By John Bryan
In March 2018, the voters of Amherst approved the first major changes to the Town Charter since its original adoption in 1938. The new charter incorporated many now-familiar changes, the most significant being a shift from a Town Meeting to Town Council form of government. A less heralded change mandated by the new charter consists of a shift to ranked-choice voting (RCV) for local elections. In 2019, the Town Council appointed a commission to study and report on options for implementing RCV. The Commission submitted its report last December (https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/53914/RCVC_Report_2020-12-01).
What is RCV? Ranked-choice voting allows voters to express multiple, ranked preferences among candidates for elected office. Unlike traditional plurality and approval voting, which requires voters to express a preference for only one candidate per electoral seat, RCV encourages a citizen to cast a vote that essentially says, “If my top choice for this position doesn’t win, here’s my second choice, here’s my third choice, . . .” with those preferences potentially influencing the eventual winner. Under RCV, campaigns tend to be less negative, often-marginalized voices get heard, winners usually enjoy broad support among the electorate, and extremists and spoiler candidates tend to lose. For all its problems, New York’s use of RCV this summer is producing the most diverse city council in its history.
The implementation of RCV in Amherst, unlike most American jurisdictions using RCV, will be complicated slightly by the predominance of multi-winner elections (elections that fill the several seats) rather than single-winner elections (such as the election of a mayor).
In Amherst, four of the five municipal elections conducted biennially are for more than one seat:
The complications arising in multi-winner elections — all quite manageable — arise mainly in ballot design and in the calculation of winners from voters’ ranked preferences. These topics were addressed in the RCV Commission’s report. It also addressed and made recommendations regarding requirements for successful adoption: technical (new hardware and software), legal, policy (how to assess a voter’s intent if ambiguous), resources, and voter education.
Covid-related restrictions on meetings delayed the Commission’s report submission and the Town Council’s unanimous approval until last December, but adoption still requires a special legislative act, which the Council proposed last February. Representative Mindy Domb and Senator Jo Comerford co-sponsored “An Act Relative to the Implementation of Elements of the Charter for the City Known as the Town of Amherst” (https://malegislature.gov/Bills/192/H777). The Joint Committee on Election Laws held a hearing in late June (https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/3803).
In a recent conversation, Rep. Domb expressed hope that the Committee will advance the bill this fall to the other House and Senate committees, and that the full legislature will pass the bill into law before the end of the current session next July, enabling implementation in fall 2023. Passage is not assured, especially in the shadow of last November’s failure to pass Issue 2, which would have approved RCV statewide. That failure does not directly affect Amherst’s adoption of RCV for local elections, but some incumbent legislators — who may shy away from approving an alternative to the system under which they won — could use the statewide results to suggest that RCV lacks popular support. They would be wrong. Some 78 percent of Amherst voters approved Issue 2. In the meantime, based on legal advice from the Town’s attorney, the Council must propose an interim preservation of the Town’s traditional electoral process until RCV can be approved by the legislature and implemented by the Town. (The charter does not have the power to change voting procedures for state and federal elections.)
I mentioned voter education, which is among the most important factors in moving toward a fall 2023 implementation. RCV, even when done well, is complicated and not as easily explained as simple approval voting (our current method). Some of the terminology (such as “fractional surplus vote”) has the potential to spook reasonable people and incite conspiracy theorists (“What ever happened to one-person, one-vote?”). Add to that the use of software to aid in counting and allocating votes, and we could have an environment primed for exploitation by sore losers. (By law, recounts must be done by hand.) Recent disputes locally and nationally illustrate that for RCV to succeed and avoid court challenges, we will need robust, professionally produced voter education programs to instill confidence in the system and in those running it.
So, will RCV be worth all this effort? I believe so. Witness the State of Maine where, in 2010, only 37.6 percent of voters elected Paul LePage as governor in a five-candidate race. In 2016, after six years of his incendiary rule, the voters of Maine adopted RCV. RCV might also have prevented Donald Trump from becoming the Republican nominee for president in 2016. In the early primaries, he was winning in large candidate fields with pluralities in the low 30 percent range among less fringe candidates like John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie, whose combined percentages were higher. Under RCV, Trump might have received 35 percent of first-rank votes, but the remaining 65 percent of voters might have ranked him last, ultimately denying him the nomination. RCV is the anti-fringe approach to governance.
The New York City mayoral primary this summer delivered an unfortunate blow to the reputation of RCV, as the public waited two weeks after the polls closed to learn who won. The reporting delay was attributable to other factors, but RCV got the blame. The rollout of any new voting system entails glitches. Many will remember the confusing “butterfly ballot” in Florida’s 2000 presidential election, which may have given the nation eight years of George Bush instead of Al Gore. When Minneapolis first implemented RCV a dozen years ago, the hand count of some 70,000 votes also took about two weeks. Experience and machine counting have since reduced the counting process there to two days. And RCV has been used successfully for more than a century in Australia, Ireland, and Scotland. In Massachusetts, Cambridge has used it since 1941.
True, RCV won’t compensate for a field that lacks competent, committed candidates from whom to choose. But once understood, RCV may draw to the field candidates who previously believed they had no hope of winning because they aren’t bomb-throwers. Sometimes everyone’s second choice is better than several factions’ different first choices. And that’s a good thing.
[Editors’ note: The RCV Commission Members were Tanya Leise (chair), Jesse Crafts-Finch (vice-chair), Susan Audette (ex officio), John Bryan, Ellen Lindsey, Rob Robertson, and Peggy Shannon.]
By Nick Grabbe
Amherst now has two Political Action Committees (PACs) that are poised to support candidates in the Nov. 2 town election.
Amherst Forward has been around for more than two years, and succeeded Amherst for All, the group that successfully lobbied for the new town charter. The Progressive Coalition of Amherst formed last month.
The activity of these PACs is regulated by the Commonwealth, and all the required filings are posted on the Town Clerk’s website at https://www.amherstma.gov/1327/Campaign-Finance-Reports. Donors giving $50 or more in a calendar year must be identified and then reported.
I sent the same email to both groups, asking the questions you see below. Amherst Forward provided answers, but the Progressive Coalition declined to do so. Instead, its board referred me to their press release and website. Where relevant, I have quoted from those two documents.
(Full disclosure: My blog partner, Sarah Marshall, is part of Amherst Forward’s leadership but did not communicate with either PAC about this post or edit any responses.)
Why did you establish a PAC? What are you allowed to do, and what are you prohibited from doing?
“We established a PAC for the sake of transparency. As a PAC, we’re required to publish how much money we raise, and how it was spent, all according to state-mandated legal requirements. Informal, unregulated groups in town have been doing the same type of organizing for years, but there’s no clear way to know anything about their technically informal efforts.
“As a PAC, we’re allowed to formally support candidates, and while we can legally donate directly to campaigns, we choose not to do so. Any contributions we make are ‘in kind’ contributions, such as postcard mailers on which we endorse several candidates at a time. We have no real need to build up a huge campaign war chest. We accept no more than $52 per person per year – a dollar a day for advocacy, only from individuals (not corporations or other political organizations) who live in Amherst.
“We’re prohibited from advocating on behalf of federal or state legislation. And while there are some contribution limits for PACs, we don’t even come close to approaching those limits. “
The Progressive Coalition of Amherst did not respond to the second of these two questions Here is a quote from board member Jennifer Page that relates to the first question, from the group’s press release:
“We feel that the time is ripe in Amherst for a political action committee that truly supports progressive causes. It is becoming more and more clear that town government is not only about zoning and development; it’s a venue where issues like
racial equity, reparations for Black residents, police violence, and more, can be addressed. At the same time, we know that Amherst residents have been disappointed by the actions of our town government when it comes to development and zoning decisions in the downtown area.”
What are your top priorities? Do you see current policies or officials as blocking progress on your priorities?
“Also in the spirit of transparency, we publish our priorities on our website, www.amherstforward.org. We just updated them, in fact:
“On the question of whether current policies or officials are blocking progress on these priorities, no, that’s not the case. People in Amherst broadly agree on our priorities. When we disagree, it’s usually about how best to achieve those priorities.”
Progressive Coalition of Amherst’s “initial focus,” from press release:
“● Thoughtful planning and zoning policies to assure that development is designed to benefit the town and the community as a whole
● Initiatives and programs to attract and support locally-owned small shops and restaurants
● Transparency and fiscal responsibility by town government
● Increasing the availability of affordable housing
● Properly maintained roads and sidewalks for all modes of transportation
● Sensible and well-informed spending for any municipal renovation or construction
● Prioritizing public safety resources for mental health, addiction, and other social services, including fully funding the recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group
● Robust reparations for Black residents
● A well-crafted school budget that prioritizes the needs of students
● Significantly reducing the town’s carbon footprint
● A fully inclusive democracy, and protection of voting rights for all residents
● Accessible social and cultural programs for the community”
Will you promote or endorse candidates for Town Council, School Committee, Jones Library Board of Trustees, and Housing Authority?
“We will endorse candidates for the Council, the School Committee, and the Jones Library Board of Trustees. We’ve never endorsed candidates for the Housing Authority and have no current plans to do so.”
Progressive Coalition of Amherst (from their web site):
“We are working to assemble a pool of progressive candidates who can bring unique perspectives to the Amherst Town Council, School Committee, and Jones Library Board of Trustees. We’re looking for people who are willing to fight for needed changes.”
What is your position on the elementary school project: One building or two? On the Jones Library project? On a new fire station and Public Works building?
“Our support for a single elementary school building project is one of the reasons our organization was launched. We support a single new building project built with the help of MSBA funding, to replace Wildwood and Fort River schools. At this point we can’t believe anyone in town is still talking about two buildings.
“We support the Jones Library project. And we support a new fire station and Public Works building, although those plans are not as far along in terms of specifics. We know all these key elements of our infrastructure in Amherst are desperately needed – they’ve been in discussion for decades and they’re long overdue.”
The Progressive Coalition of Amherst did not respond to these questions.
Do you have a policy regarding privacy of the information you collect from donors and subscribers?
“Our policy is that we do not share any of that information with any third parties, including candidates for public office. That means we don’t share our large, constantly growing list of supporters with any campaigns. As a PAC, we are legally obligated to share donor information with state regulators – another win for transparency.”
The Progressive Coalition of Amherst did not respond to this question.
By Jon McCabe
When considering the way forward, many in Amherst tend to engage in binary thinking. We play one value or priority against another. A school against a library, a fire station against a school, one budget item against another, preservation versus economic development. The thinking tends to be zero-sum.
That said, current town leadership has made real progress in taking a more holistic or organic approach to planning and problem-solving. The position taken by Town Council and the Town Manager on the four major capital projects is a good example of this. Instead of playing one project against the other in a self-defeating zero-sum game, they recognized that state funding ($13.8 million for the Jones renovation and more than $30 million for the elementary school project) should be considered a major contribution to Amherst’s capital needs as a whole. State funding for two much-needed capital projects frees up town funds to cover the cost of two other essential projects, building a new fire station and a public works headquarters, that do not have access to state funding. Instead of zero-sum thinking, this approach seeks to creatively grow the capital budget pie.
The recently concluded Amherst Commission on Participatory Budgeting was required by Section 10.11 of the new town charter. As a member of the commission, I was glad to see that we considered a similar strategy when thinking about the feasibility of implementing a participatory budgeting process here in town. Participatory budgeting (PB) — which I will describe in more detail in a moment — is a laudable ambition that we as a town should take seriously. Citizen participation is the hallmark of democracy, and that should include participation in budgetary decisions.
But given the budget pressures we face as a result of the Covid pandemic, and the push to implement the town capital plan, we decided that recommending a carve-out from existing capital resources to fund PB would be unrealistic. We did recommend, however, that funding request processes for the Community Preservation Act, Community Development Block Grants and the town’s Joint Capital Project Committee be simplified and better publicized to increase citizen participation.
As the commission explored what PB is and how it is implemented in a variety of communities across the country and around the world, we began to see the creative possibilities for securing new resources for the initiative beyond reliance on the town’s annual budget.
First, let’s describe what PB is. In brief, it is a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making in which ordinary people are invited to decide how to allocate a part of a municipal budget. Typically, these are capital expenditures or one-time operating expenses. As implemented in places like Cambridge and New York City, a designated funding pot is made available to elicit project proposals from citizens to meet small-scale local needs. Project selections are then vetted for feasibility and
affordability and then voted on by the public. Cambridge’s most recent PB cycle funded projects ranging from urban micro forests to pedestrian controlled cross-walks: https://pb.cambridgema.gov/pbcycle7 .
PB efforts have garnered considerable attention in recent years from both academia and the philanthropic world. At a time when democracy has come under attack at home and abroad, PB is viewed by many as a way to promote and expand grass roots political participation. PB has become an area of study in both public policy and political science programs across the country. The PB Commission recommended that the town pursue possible collaborations with our Five College partners as a way to leverage our unique position as a multiple college town.
PB collaborations could include securing seed funding from our college partners or in-kind contributions through faculty release time or credit-bearing student internships to help staff the development and implementation of PB processes in town. Faculty could also be instrumental in helping secure philanthropic support for PB. The Robert Wood Johnson and Geraldine R. Dodge foundations, for example, have provided significant funding to promote PB processes in towns across the state of New Jersey. Grant writing is now an essential requirement for academics seeking tenure. We can leverage that and offer opportunities for town/gown collaborations.
Most important, an entrepreneurial approach to PB would seek to get away from zero-sum thinking about our town budget. Instead of trading one project against another, we should be looking for ways to grow the size of our overall budget pie. PB might offer an opportunity to do that.
By Bob Rakoff
Control over the levers of government in Amherst has shifted, and it’s driving some people bananas!
Many observers have commented on the toxic nature of recent political discourse and activity in town. Is this simply obstruction for obstruction’s sake? An angry campaign for revenge by neglected groups? The result of a failure to understand and respect other points of view and seek common ground? A rejection of democracy?
All of these may well be factors that help us understand what has been going on. But I think there is a more basic explanation for the changing nature of our local political culture.
It’s all about the loss of power.
The minority of people who were able to wield power in the old Town Meeting have lost their power to set agendas, manipulate the rules, and frustrate the will of majorities. In response, they have resorted to name-calling, conspiracy-mongering, promoting citizen limits on our elected Town Council, and wielding various means of obstruction in an effort to regain that lost power and influence. Just in the last few months we have seen local officials called autocrats, claims that petition-signers were singled out for retribution by the Town Clerk, and the filing of lawsuits to override Council decisions that were approved by overwhelming majorities.
The roots of the shift in power and the quality of our political life are well known. The immediate cause, of course, was the infamous vote in Town Meeting to reject the huge state grant for a new school, despite voters’ support, and the subsequent abandonment of Town Meeting for a Town Council. But those events were merely the culmination of several decades of more fundamental change in town, moving us away from that small, relatively homogeneous, pre-1960s New England college town.
Think about what’s been behind the big changes in town in recent decades. The explosive growth of UMass, with its ever more diverse population of students and staff. The disappearance from downtown of many basic, locally owned businesses — the hardware stores, the supermarket, the clothing shops — all unable to compete with nearby malls and big box stores. The growing diversity of our local schools
and the demands placed on them by students and families from so many different backgrounds.
In all these cases, change has been driven, not by the longtime families that dominated local politics and commerce for generations, but rather by newcomers. People from all over the globe, connected to the University and the colleges, believing that government could be a force for good, espousing the liberal ideals of post-World War II America. Build new schools. Expand the library. Intervene in the market to create affordable housing. Raise taxes to pay for these efforts.
The more a minority of Town Meeting members were able to block these sorts of programs and policies, the greater the resolve of the newcomers to find a way around what they saw as knee-jerk obstruction. This led to the successful campaign to replace Town Meeting with a Town Council form of government, one less amenable to behind-the-scenes manipulation by those who had resisted change.
So what we have been seeing in the current struggles over new capital spending, the direction of the schools, density and development downtown and in neighborhoods is, at heart, the playing out of the shift in power over the levers of local government. Some people have, inevitably, taken advantage of this unsettled period of change to fight old battles, attack opponents, propose limits on our elected Town Council, and try to destroy reputations. But I think that, on the whole, this inaugural Town Council has reflected the divisions in town pretty accurately. And in contrast to Town Meeting, it has deliberated and acted largely in the way its proponents hoped: with reasonable competence, attention to detail, and the promise of accountability.
by Kristin Leutz
In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall,” two neighbors meet in the Spring to repair damage done to a stone wall forming a fence between their properties. While one questions the need for a barrier in that particular location, the other brushes the suggestion of change away, referring to his father’s old adage, “Good fences make good neighbors.” As a life-long New Englander, I have often told friends from other parts of the country that we may be a little irascible in our debates, but in the end, we are devoted to our communities. We may not be the type to always pop over to borrow a cup of sugar, but we still go deep when we connect. Like the two men in Frost’s verse, we find ways to meet up and reaffirm our boundaries from time to time.
In Amherst, this used to happen at Town Meeting. My husband and many good friends served their time at Town Meeting. They all saw the appeal of pitching in and having discourse in this uniquely quaint form of democracy. But rather than encountering a folksy connection, they found something else. They came home with tales about witnessing rudeness at the meetings, or about bitter debates, with grudges formed and held by bullies. I thought to myself back then, “Gee, really? How can the stakes be so high in a small town like this? We all know we’ll bump into each other at the grocery store. Can’t we just get along?”
Now, we have a new form of government, but things have gotten worse. The ideological camps in town cemented when the school vote failed. It seemed as if a door to civil discourse had closed with a heavy thud and many are still labeled according to their chosen side in that bitter contest. Various friends over the years were flattened by stress as they took public roles, either by writing, serving in office, or taking jobs with the town. They remained quiet about it when they were torn apart on Facebook or in blogs by people engaging in cyberbullying. But their burnout was real, and we may never know who decided not to run or to write because they did not want to risk feeling exposed to such negativity. We have squandered some of our best human resources.
It doesn’t even matter what position you take. Almost anyone who takes a position on something in Amherst will be subject to some level of “call out” culture. After I penned a recent opinion piece in the Bulletin, I saw an immediate personal effect. I received disturbing direct messages online and heard through the grapevine about which folks I’ve known for years now were “so mad” at my article. The messages happened to all be sent by men, which felt threatening as a woman just beginning to find her voice in public discourse. On the other hand, I felt emboldened to keep writing as I also got a big handful of emails from others whom I haven’t spoken to in a long time, thanking me for expressing what they often feel – that our town’s political culture has grown toxic. I called a few other women working in public spheres in town to ask if they had similar experiences of feeling targeted. Sadly, each at some point had to ignore anonymous phone calls, troubling emails, and other personal attacks.
Come on, Amherst, can’t we do any better? I am turning to myself first to ask what it will take to hold judgment, to engage authentically, and invest some time into putting myself out there to call folks in, not call them out, so I might hear differing views. I will need companions in this effort. I hope you will join me.
We will need first to ensure that we can find real facts to formulate our opinions and to center our discussions. As an organizational psychologist, I am well aware of the many forms of cognitive bias that keep us apart from each other in civil life. We tend to find facts that align with what we already think we know. We simplify and center other people’s comments based on our own egos and sense of moral righteousness. We all do this, regardless of what side of the fence we’re on.
Good neighbors may benefit from tall fences between houses, but we have to take a moment now to cast away the stones that have driven us apart in our civic life, rather than tossing them at a neighbor. We are all human, subject to our psychological limits, living in a small town that faces real and modern challenges. The only things that will enable more civility are acknowledging our shared humanity, moving beyond the idea that our self-proclaimed rational arguments will solve anything, and committing to shared responsibility to understand and deeply listen to each other.
We also need to lavish some energy and attention to curb the slow, but steady erosion of local journalism outlets. Our local papers, like most small media businesses, have faced consolidation, downsizing, and other challenges that have left the facts just out of reach. As we know all too well from our recent painful federal political turmoil, finding and discerning facts without trusted journalistic sources is tough and fraught with destructive potential for a media diet that only serves to deepen the sense of the “otherness” of our neighbors.
Where do we go from here? Build in time for self-reflection and mindfulness – we happen to have a local expert or two on that subject in Shalini Bahl-Milne. Reach out to write and share with your local blogs. Subscribe to local media. Attend more meetings and listen before judging. Consider your social media habits and tilt towards hosting more real discussions, not to posting. And, now that the weather is good, call a neighbor to meet over the fence, not just to rebuild it for the oncoming winter, but to truly value what they bring to your life here in Amherst.