The recent campaign leading up to the Nov. 2 election was indeed acrimonious.
Some candidates and supporters behaved quite badly. Some library renovation and expansion opponents engaged in widespread misrepresentations, and some are apparently continuing to pursue anti-democratic efforts to get their way. An outgoing Town Councilor repeatedly criticized some of her colleagues who were running for reelection, and called for their defeat. And the unpleasant, even vitriolic, tone of public discourse continued in a recent email in which a re-elected Town Councilor misrepresented the processes of town government, and more.
The ongoing nastiness certainly takes up a lot of space and energy. It’s both the manifestation and the cause of a lot of suffering, but is it representative of our town?
Voter turnout on Nov. 2 was 31.15 percent, as 5,042 of 16,187 registered voters cast ballots. While canvassing for a “yes” vote on the library renovation and expansion project, a HOT issue in the Amherst Bulletin and on various listservs and web pages, I spoke with folks who were completely unaware of the situation.
It seems that apathy, rather than acrimony, is actually more representative of our community. Can we find a way to address both, and restore our community together?
The problem is (at least) two-headed: 1) How can we create an attractive civic life in which people will want to participate, and 2) how might we offer opportunities for people to engage in good faith with those with whom they disagree?
Among the politically engaged, the polarization that has so injured us nationally exists right here in Amherst. We’re not using the same labels here, but the features of our civic disease are the same:
We have become two factions, each angry at the other, and neither trusting the other’s basic humanity or good intentions; and
We view our political opponents as uninformed, misguided, stupid or bad people whose ways of thinking are both incomprehensible and dangerous.
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.” If that’s a remedy for this disease, could we do it in Amherst? Is there a way, as individuals, that we could try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it? At a community level, is there a way to engage with those with whom we disagree in an effort to find common ground and ways to work together? Can we find ways to identify and support principles that unite us rather than divide us?
Does our formal civic process attract and engage most Amherst voters, or residents? I deeply appreciate volunteers’ and Town employees’ efforts, and at the same time I wonder whether we are doing enough as a community. Is what we’re doing now working? I’ve heard “doing the same thing and expecting different results” is one definition of insanity. How’s that working out for us? Should we try something different?
I suspect the unpleasantness and acrimony that so stimulate some of us is precisely the thing that drives others of us away from civic engagement. But what if Amherst offered “Common Ground Conversations,” a public dialogue process emphasizing listening to our neighbors and understanding their values, hopes and fears?
Imagine a series of structured public conversations that offer people an opportunity to speak respectfully, and to be heard respectfully. Imagine a process that would encourage people to listen without becoming defensive, and to speak without attacking. We could agree to allow others to hold their own views, no matter what they are – and we could sincerely try to understand their views, and the values underlying those views. We could abandon all hope of persuading others that we are right, knowing that others won’t try to persuade us that they are right.
By no means am I suggesting that we must suppress our views and values, or mute our passion. However, for this process to be effective, we must together agree to speak respectfully to each other, and to refrain from attacking each other. That, in itself, would be a change for the better!
If we agree to do this hard work together, what might we expect?
Maybe we’ll come to understand our neighbors better through thoughtfully listening as they express their nuanced views. As our understanding increases, our stereotyped thinking about those with whom we disagree may decrease, and we might find that we develop greater trust in our neighbors’ good intentions and their basic humanity. Common ground might emerge. We might start working together, rather than working against each other. Folks who have been uninterested or alienated might be attracted to participating in developing our community. And those who continue to speak disrespectfully of others will find they gradually have less impact on our public discourse.
On the one hand, it’s probably best to do the work without having any expectations as to its outcome. On the other hand, I can’t help but hope for a decrease in rancor and vitriol, and a gradual, steady improvement in the quality and tone of our conversations. And, just as important, perhaps we’ll also see an increase in civic interest and participation.
Shall we try something new? Or will we continue to do the same thing, expecting different results? Are you ready for a change? I know I am.
Since Amherst was accepted into the MA School Building Authority (MSBA) funding program two years ago, the town and the School Building Committee have been engaged in formational meetings to get the project underway. Now, with the recent selection of DiNisco Design as project architects, we are delighted to be entering the next exciting phase of the elementary school building project.
Last night the teams from DiNisco Design and Anser Advisory, our owner’s project manager (OPM), met in a joint meeting with the school committee and building committee to present key milestones and target dates for the next phases of the project. If all goes smoothly, Amherst students will enter the new elementary school by Fall 2026.
This next phase is when we’ll create the plans for what the school building will look like and where it will be located. We’ll build from the community listening sessions three years ago and engage teachers, staff, families, and community members as we develop priorities that will inform the design of our elementary school building.
Early in the new year, the design team will meet with teachers, parents and caregivers, and residents, and will study a variety of site selection considerations, such as traffic and geography, to inform the town’s decision on location. They will also work with the school community to develop the education plan and input on design features for the school.
With the 6th grade moving to the middle school in the Fall of 2023, the new school will be designed for kindergarten through grade 5, replacing both Fort River and Wildwood and including the innovative Caminantes dual-language program.
The school building committee has outlined some other initial design goals, including spaces for project based learning, small group breakout areas, plenty of daylight in classrooms and throughout the building, and outdoor spaces both for education and play; we look forward to refining these goals through this next phase of the project.
Importantly, the school will be a model for sustainability, built to be net-zero and eliminate reliance on fossil fuels. The DiNisco team was selected in part because of their experience in designing green elementary school buildings. With our school building project, we have the opportunity to innovate and make substantial impact on the town’s progress toward our sustainability goals.
The MSBA requires development and consideration of multiple alternatives in this next phase of the building project; these alternatives include a K-6 building to replace only Fort River in addition to a K-5 building to replace both Fort River and Wildwood, as well as renovation, renovation/addition, and new construction. This consideration will be part of the work that will happen in the early half of next year.
The school building committee launched a website (https://www.amherst-school-project.com/) with comprehensive information about the project. Progress updates as well as information about when and how community members can engage throughout the project will be shared on that website. We plan to update the community on our progress regularly through columns like this. We anticipate a variety of opportunities for public engagement throughout this process, and we will seek to engage families, teachers, and the broader community.
The new year will bring with it exciting and intensive effort in this next phase of the school building project. We look forward to uniting to bring a new elementary school to our children that is a source of joy and pride, and is a solid investment in all of our futures.
Allison McDonald is chair of the Amherst School Committee: you can email her at email@example.com. Cathy Schoen, chair of the Elementary School Building Committee, is a Councilor representing District 1. You can email Cathy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opponents of a parking garage on Town-owned land behind the CVS store talk as if they believe that the Town Council is about to decide to put one there. In fact, a “yes” vote on the proposed “overlay” zoning would be merely the first step in the decision-making process.
They say they don’t think a decision should be rushed. In fact, this zoning change was first brought up last spring, and speculation about using this town-owned site for a parking garage has been going on for several decades.
Residents of North Prospect Street say a parking garage would be incompatible with their historic district. But plantings can minimize the visual impact. And the current vista of a crumbling parking lot doesn’t exactly say “historic district,” does it?
These residents like the convenience of living on the edge of a commercial district but are outraged at the prospect of something designed to improve the commercial district. They are not the ones who need a parking garage, because they can easily walk downtown. And people who say they want businesses downtown that sell everyday items should not oppose things that make it easier to attract enough customers to come here to support those businesses.
So they don’t want to have a parking garage built across from their homes? Of course they don’t! No one wants to see development outside their front doors. Their voices have been heard, and they’ll be heard again, but now the Town Council must make a decision next Monday based on what’s in the best interests of all the residents of Amherst. “Our job is to take the community-wide view,” said Council President Lynn Griesemer.
I don’t know whether Town-ow ed land just north of the CVS lot is the best site for a second parking garage, but I don’t think it should be ruled out. And I’m willing to consider the opinion that we don’t need another garage at all. But all a two-thirds vote on the Town Council for “overlay” zoning would do is make a garage there possible.
I know a former town official who has studied the parking issue for many years, and he thinks the Town-owned land just north of the CVS lot is the most centrally located of the possible garage sites and is the most useful in terms of revitalizing adjacent properties. It could be the most accessible with some traffic modifications, it would provide the biggest net gain of spaces, and it is the most easily, affordably and efficiently developed, he says. And this may be the only site where a private developer would be willing to finance the construction and operation of a garage.
There are, of course, serious questions that need to be answered about the CVS site. Would access from North Pleasant Street cause traffic backups? How would egress onto narrow North Prospect Street work? How would it be financed and run? How big would it be? How would public safety be assured inside the garage?
And what are the advantages and disadvantages of having a garage there as opposed to other possible sites, such as just west of the Amherst Cinema? Is adding tiers to the Boltwood Walk garage structurally impossible? And will the Jones Library’s renovation and expansion project, combined with the Drake music and entertainment venue at the former High Horse site, dramatically increase the demand for parking?
Some opponents of the zoning article want to close off consideration of a parking garage at the CVS site before the debate over siting has begun. Some of them maintain that the decision should be delayed until the new Town Council is seated. Councilor Darcy Dumont invoked her right to delay a vote without saying why a delay was needed.
Some garage opponents have used overheated rhetoric, comparing the Town Council to “Mayor Daley’s Chicago” and referring to a parking garage as an “invasive species.” Dorothy Pam has acted more like a community organizer than a Town Councilor by whipping up the neighborhood and calling votes on zoning articles that have been around for months a “coup” and an “emergency.”
Among the opponents addressing the Town Council, only Meg Gage made the more reasoned argument that a “yes” vote on the CVS zoning article might create “momentum” toward siting a garage there.
The average Amherst homeowner has seen a $400 increase in property taxes this year. A major reason is that commercial property has not increased in value as much as residential property has. If we don’t want tax increases of this magnitude to continue, we should pay attention to the well-being of business owners. Chamber of Commerce Director Claudia Pazmany said that every day she gets complaints about inability to find parking spaces in downtown Amherst.
This zoning change the Council is about to vote on is just the start of the process. A developer would have to make a concrete proposal for a parking garage and be willing to finance it and abide by the conditions of the zoning bylaw. The developer would have to address the concerns of the North Prospect residents, as well as those of CVS’s landlord, St. Brigid’s and the Jones Library.
I remember the fierce debates over the Boltwood Walk garage in the 1990s, including multiple Town Meeting votes, referendums and court challenges. The debate over a second garage could be just as contentious. Let’s let it begin.
Track the progress of the elementary school building project, milestones, opportunities for public involvement, read agendas and important documents, and learn about the project team at the new website.
We will add this site to the project information under the Town Government 101 page.
If we want to keep the planet life-sustaining for the species that live on it, including ourselves, we have to stop using fossil fuels and absorb at least some of the CO2 that has already been put into the atmosphere.
Most of the regions of the world that are currently most affected by the climate crisis have contributed almost nothing to creating the problem.
Fossil fuel industries have fought every proposal to reduce fossil fuel use and have contributed to world-wide delays in taking action.
There is no energy source that is impact-free, but we prefer to use methods that create the fewest impacts on the ecosystem and vulnerable humans.
A recent meeting of the Energy and Climate Action Committee considered the issues confronting Amherst and heard information that may guide us as we wrestle with proposed ground-mounted solar projects.
Steve Roof, a member of the committee and a professor of Earth and Environmental Science at Hampshire College, gave a presentation focusing on electricity generation. State planning documents and Amherst’s own plans lay out the following goals:
Phase out 90% or more of all fossil fuel use by 2050.
Greatly improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings and set high energy efficiency standards for new buildings.
By 2030 reduce gross emissions by 45% below the 1990 level.
Electrify everything possible, because electricity can be generated by non-fossil means.
We will also need to dramatically increase intra- and inter-state transfer – high-tension wires and power corridors.
To accommodate current and future electrical demand, we will need to massively expand wind and solar generation.
To meet these goals, Massachusetts will need to build about 1,000 large offshore wind turbines like Vineyard Wind and import large amounts of hydro power from Quebec, which now seems unlikely, given the vote against the siting of the transmission lines in Maine last month.
Statewide, we will need to expand solar by factor of 10: we need 20 to 23 GW of solar capacity; we now have 3.4 GW. The state reports found that even with maximum rooftop installation, we will need 60,000 acres of land-mounted solar arrays in 30 years. However, ground-mounted solar development will be excluded from or discouraged on:
Wetland resource areas
Historic places on the Massachusetts Registry
Protected open space
Areas listed as Core Habitat by Mass Wildlife
Areas listed as Priority Habitat by Mass Wildlife
Critical Natural Landscapes that connect habitats or buffer wetlands, etc.
Roof then looked at what might be considered Amherst’s “share” of the burden for growth in electrical generation, using population size as the determinant. Since Amherst’s population is about 0.56% of the state’s population, that percentage of the total 60,000 acres suggests the town might use` 335 acres. Amherst’s total acreage is 17,765, of which 30% is permanently protected from development. That 335 acres is 1.9% of our total acreage – less than 2%.
Roof did not suggest where on Amherst land the solar facilities could go. He did point out that one acre of ground-mounted solar reduces C02 emission by about 133 metric tons per year by displacing fossil fuel generated electricity – which is about 100 times greater than the carbon sequestered by an acre of forest.
His suggested a possible “road map” for the town:
Greatly improve energy efficiency of existing buildings, including rental properties.
Assist with electrification of transportation (electrify vehicle fleets and help increase availability of EV charging stations).
Continue to protect natural and working lands in Amherst.
Accept expansion of solar power development on about 2% of the land in Amherst.
Tolerate increased intra- and interstate electric power transmission corridors in the region.
The committee discussed the need for a solar study to identify where solar projects are technically possible in Amherst. Laura Draucker said it’s important to have such a study before bylaws are passed. Dwayne Berger described what a consultant might accomplish in such a study. The committee agreed they want time on the Town Council’s agenda for a presentation by Roof. Roof suggested that he and Berger do the presentation and ask for a solar study. “We need to shock people into an awareness of what we need to do to reach carbon neutrality,” he said.
While we can all agree that we prefer solar arrays on roofs or above parking lots to ground-mounted arrays, they will not create enough solar generation capacity. And there are complications and costs associated with those projects; that will require another article.
Residents who have questions about the plan to deploy unarmed responders in some situations that are currently handled by police officers can attend a public forum Thursday.
The virtual meeting will start at 5:30 p.m. Here’s the link: https://amherstma.zoom.us/j/86008936538. The public comment period is scheduled to start at 6:15 p.m., and will be followed by a meeting of the Town Council’s Town Services and Outreach subcommittee, which will make a recommendation to the full Council. The town manager, finance director, police chief and fire chief are expected to attend and be able to answer questions.
Another topic of the meeting will be the plan to create a new Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
The community responders would be called on in situations that don’t involve violence or serious crime, such as mental health issues, homelessness, substance abuse, trespassing, truancy and wellness checks, according to the recommendation by the Community Safety Working Group. They would have expertise as mental health clinicians, social workers, medics or conflict de-escalators.
The eight community responders would be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and would be supported by a director and an administrative assistant. The responders, who would be fully benefited Town employees, would operate independently of the Police Department and be housed in a separate facility, according to the working group’s recommendation.
“The mission will include contributing to dismantling systemic racism through racially aware safety and social services to persons of all races with a conscious anti-racism focus,” according a summary of the working group’s recommendations by Town Manager Paul Bockelman.
The program is known as CRESS, or Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service. Its projected annual operating budget is $936,000, with $122,500 in non-operating costs. The Town has received a state grant of $450,000 for the program, and $250,000 in federal money has been earmarked.
“The Town may opt to use reserves to supplement the municipal operating budget over two or three years to minimize the impact on other departments,” Bockelman has proposed.
Residents’ questions could include: What kind of relationship will CRESS have with the Police Department? How will 911 operators determine whether to dispatch a police officer or a community responder? How will police staffing be affected? When will the program be operational? How will it be funded in future years?
The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion “will develop, recommend, and implement a strategic plan that will advance a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture for the Town that provide opportunities to build diversity and inclusive practices into the Town’s operations,” according to Bockelman. “The Office will review Town policies, procedures, bylaws, values, goals and missions through an equity lens to foster an unbiased, anti-racist and inclusive environment.”
The goals are to “improve the Town’s decision-making so that it better represents all communities and includes less bias; increase community trust in local government; ensure an equitable allocation of public resources; and improve employee satisfaction and engagement,” according to Bockelman.
The annual operating costs are estimated at $240,500, including a director and assistant director. The director position is to be funded with money previously budgeted for an economic development director, a position now to be paid for with federal money. The assistant director position is to be paid by combining half of an existing position with federal money.
Even the darkest clouds of the pandemic have yielded some silver linings, including one for Craig’s Doors (CD) and the unhoused of our area last year. Traditionally, Craig’s Doors provides shelter from November through April, opening in the evening and closing in the morning. Because of COVID, the Federal government released more money to provide shelter and temporary housing. Last year, Craig’s Doors applied for and received enough funding to allow us operate three different sites, one of which, the University Motor Lodge, still houses 20 people. We also rented the Econo Lodge in Hadley for the winter of 2020-2021 as well as space at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Society downtown, enabling about 66 people to be sheltered. All three sites were operated around the clock, seven days a week, something CD had never been able to do before. However, with the UU congregation returning to their home downtown on May 1, we had to find yet another site for our 2021-2022 emergency winter shelter. The congregation at the Immanuel Lutheran Church (ILC) gladly opened their doors to us and we are now sheltering 23 men and women from 5:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. seven days/week.
That’s the good news. Craig’s Doors has been fortunate to find houses of worship willing to shelter our guests for the past 13 years, 10 of them at the Amherst Baptist Church near UMass, last year at the UU, and this year at the ILC. However, we fear our luck could run out in the future as we go hat in hand to the houses of worship hoping for a “yes,” especially should COVID cease to be an impediment to church operations. It is also expensive to make (repeatedly) the physical changes required to operate as a shelter, and we have to hire new staff every fall and then let them go every May. It is of course also time consuming to do all the leg work required to close down and set up a shelter anew. And this year, because the ILC kitchen is not certified by the Health Department, we have to rent the kitchen at the UU to make dinners and transport them to the ILC every night. Add to these problems the fact that except for the one year at the UU, our guests have to wait until evening to get out of the cold and must leave in the early morning hours, a far from ideal situation.
The solution would be a permanent shelter in Amherst. It would allow us to operate 24/7, maintain staff, not have to worry where we’ll be each year, have our own kitchen, and move our offices to it, so we’d be in one place. The good news is that we have found a site for sale that looks nearly perfect. The trick of course is money. There is a possibility that the Town would either buy the building or fund us to buy the building with the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds allocated to the Town of Amherst. ($11,933,556).
Our Town Manager Paul Bockelman has set aside approximately $1 million of those funds to pay for “transitional housing and homeless solutions.” The asking price of the site we’ve found is less than $1 million. However, the final decision on how that $1 million will be spent is up to Town Hall and so far, they have not seemed enthusiastic about our proposal. The Department of Housing and Community Development, which funnels to us most of the funds Craig’s Doors uses to operate each year, is very excited by this proposal and has offered their expertise and additional funding if we should be able to purchase the site. We have our fingers crossed that Town Hall will see this opportunity as the solution we’ve been looking for, for so many years. I should add here that Paul Bockelman, at the urging of the Town Council, formed a Homelessness and Rehousing Working Group several months ago. The group finished their work and have submitted an interim report that included recommendations for a permanent shelter and increased housing solutions for the unhoused. Obtaining both would be the ideal outcome.
A town-wide vote on raising taxes to help pay for a new elementary school is unlikely to occur next November during the state and federal election. The vote may come in a special election in the spring of 2023, and the new school could open in the spring of 2026, according to a draft timeline for the construction project.
Donna DiNisco of DiNisco Design, the architect for the project, explained the process during the Elementary School Building Project Committee’s meeting on December 2. The Massachusetts School Building Authority, which will provide significant funding, must vote to approve the schematic design before the Town can hold a vote, she said. And so the schedule must include adequate time for careful planning, community engagement, feedback, and involvement of several committees so that a solid cost estimate can be provided to MSBA. The current schedule shows a submission to MSBA in January 2023, and a vote by the MSBA in March.
The process will kick off next month with development of the Educational Plan and a program of community outreach. The Educational Plan, which itself must be approved by MSBA, is the foundation of the entire project, identifying all the programs offered in Amherst schools and their space needs. The design of the ultimate building, including layout, room sizes, etc., must support this Educational Plan.
At the moment, no decisions have been made on whether one of the current sites of Wildwood and Fort River Schools will be the site of the new school, and whether new construction is preferable to renovation and addition. Anser Advisory Management, the project manager, stated that it will develop descriptions of the options, drawing on past studies as well as new work, so that the community and decision-makers can weigh the tradeoffs and arrive at a preferred option. Future uses of whichever site is not chosen for the new school will also be open to community discussion.
DiNisco Design and Anser Advisory will speak at the December 14 meeting of the Amherst School Committee. We will post information about the meeting, as well as a link to the new project website, on our “On our radar ” page when they are available.
A new Town Council will be sworn in less than five weeks from now, meaning that the current Council has little time in which to conclude any business it does not wish to refer, or pass on, to its successor. And given the holidays, time is even shorter. Council is thus squeezing in extra meetings in an effort to bring some projects, particularly revisions to several zoning bylaws, to a conclusion. Some Councilors and members of the public are very unhappy with this schedule and/or with the proposals, as was made clear at the Town Council meeting this past Monday.
This blog has avoided zoning issues in part because of the daunting complexity and jargon that make coverage a challenge, but we feel compelled to write about them now because of the huge investment that town staff, elected officials, volunteers, and residents have made this year on debating, critiquing, researching, refining, and discussing the arcane rules that determine so much of the look and feel of our town, as well as the political impacts of the zoning efforts.
First, a quick overview. Revisions to four zoning bylaws are on the table, three of which are causing heartburn: the definition of a “mixed-use” building, an “overlay” that would permit a parking garage to be built on the Town-owned lot next to the CVS lot between North Pleasant and North Prospect Streets, and parking requirements for new constructions outside the Central Business District. All proposed zoning bylaws must be “read” twice during Town Council meetings, at which point they can be voted on. This past Monday, the first readings of these proposed bylaws occurred; the second will occur on Monday, Dec. 6.
Second, some highlights of public comment. Many residents have been closely following the development of these bylaws, which has occurred over this past year in numerous public meetings of the Town Council, the Council’s Community Resources Committee, and the Planning Board. Residents of District 3, in particular, feel threatened by the potential for a parking garage on the east side of North Prospect St., opposite a local historic district. In fact, District 3 residents were asked by one of their Councilors, Dorothy Pam, to lodge comments in opposition to what she termed a “Thanksgiving coup.” I listened to much of the public comment and heard accusations of “shenanigans to make sure that you can avoid having representative government,” a “rush to judgment,” a “lack of process,” and “disenfranchising voters.” Some commenters opined that the current Council, as a lame duck, is wrong to undertake any action that is not an emergency and should let the incoming Council make the decisions. (This last comment reminds me strongly of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s excuse for refusing to give Supreme Court-nominee Merrick Garland a hearing in advance of the 2016 presidential election.) Others claimed that the process short-cut provisions of state law or our town charter.
Presumably, similar comments had already been received by email, because Council President Lynn Griesemer opened the readings of discussions of the proposed zoning bylaws with what seemed a prepared statement. My transcript of her remarks follows:
There is no bylaw that we are voting on to approve tonight. All bylaws require two readings. This is the first reading for all four that appear on the agenda, even the one we’ve seen twice before, and all we’re doing is extending the date again.
However, before moving on, I’d like to share a few observations that are reflective and supportive of our town government today, tomorrow, and long into the future. They in no way reflect how I, as one of 13 Councilors, will vote on any bylaw.
We’ve heard several comments prior to this evening and tonight regarding a desire to delay any further action on zoning amendments, in fact, all actions, until the next Council is seated. These comments include various stated reasons:
This is a lame duck Council and we should not do anything for the remainder of our term.
The public has spoken through the election, thus creating a mandate.
There has been insufficient time, research, and consideration given to these zoning articles.
And, finally, that we have not honored various state laws, charter requirements, and rules of procedure.
Regarding point one, does that mean that all Councilors only serve for one year and 10 months and that no legislative action should take place between an election and the seating of the next Council? This is not what the voters wanted when they voted for the Charter – they wanted a year-round government. If we are not going to take action now then we should have stopped taking at least certain actions last winter when we started lining all of these zoning articles up. The first ones we discussed were way back in December of 2020; the Planning staff came to us on February 22, 2021. In addition to that, since November 2, we have taken or are scheduled to take many important votes – on the budget guidelines, on establishing the CRESS and DEI Departments, on evaluating the Town Manager, and setting Town Manager goals for the coming year – most of which the next Council can change. We have a job to do, and refusing to take timely action is not in the best interests of the community.
Regarding point two, the creation of a mandate. Occasionally, we see a true sea change that might prompt us to take the extraordinary step of delaying action. However, the argument that “the people have spoken” seems to me requires some close examination. We have elected six outstanding new Councilors – that vote was confirmed just this past week. And, while it is true that two of the Councilors who have advocated to rezone the CVS parking lot were not reelected, they were defeated by a total of 50 votes and lost in one in each of their two precincts. Other incumbents, though not all, who were reelected or unopposed, to the best of my knowledge did not campaign for or against zoning changes. And the chair of the CRC committee, who argued and voted for the zoning changes in CRC, received the second highest number of votes in her town-wide election.
It is quite possible that residents in different neighborhoods hold different views on this issue. For example, the residents who do not live downtown are the ones most likely to need and use a garage. That’s OK. Our job is to take the community-wide view.
Regarding the concern of insufficient time, research, and consideration, I refer you to the second attachment to the Future Agenda Items [page 8 in this document] that is in your packet. It is the step-by-step process for each bylaw under consideration and includes the date of each step starting with the initial referral. Two of the bylaws – Mixed-use and Parking and Access (related loosely in this case as Apartment Definitions) – [were] presented in a list in February of 2021. They were referred by this Council for hearings by the Planning Board and CRC on June 28, 2021; the rezoning of the CVS parking lot was introduced to the Town Council on May 24 [and] was referred to the Planning Board and CRC for hearings. Each has been developed, vetted, and legally reviewed – including the involvement of our professional and well-qualified planning staff, Planning Board hearings, in three instances heard and reheard by CRC, and reviewed by the Town’s attorney. We do not lack information and turning back the clock at this point would be a disservice to the many residents and staff who’ve brought us to this point. We need to do our work and vote YES or NO, and move on.
Finally, in the process of bringing these bylaws forward all state laws, the Charter, Council Rules of Procedure, and practices of the relevant bodies have been followed. Having said that I encourage the Town Planning staff to seek comments on the Planning Board reports and repost them in time for our next meeting. My request to all of us and to the residents is let’s agree to disagree; but we do not want to compromise democracy in the City known as the Town of Amherst based upon which side of the issues we fall on.
In my view, the current workload for Town Council and staff, while heavy and unwelcome, is not surprising at the end of a legislative session. (And as some have suggested, the charter could be amended so that a new Council is seated promptly after election results are certified, shortening the lame-duck session and moving it away from the holiday season.) Public hearings, readings, and votes must occur within windows of time set by law. Referring the current zoning proposals to late January or beyond would require the clocks to be re-set, launching new hearings, readings, reports, etc. and demanding yet more time from staff, Council, and residents.
To be sure, Councilors are not happy to have five-hour meetings on a routine basis, let alone extra meetings during the holiday season, as some complaints and sharp exchanges suggested. At the end of Monday’s meeting, Councilor Cathy Schoen, for instance, protested against the length of meetings, only to be challenged by Councilors Griesemer and De Angelis to assist by making her own comments briefer. Councilor De Angelis asked councilors in general to limit their comments to what is most important and not to say the same thing six times for emphasis. Councilor Pam noted that the lengthy meetings and interference with the holidays discourage potential candidates for Council.
Councilor De Angelis then deplored the “attitude” held by some councilors against other councilors as well as things said and done against Councilors Ryan and Ross. She said that, while she did not always agree with their views, neither George Ryan or Evan Ross deserved the treatment they were getting from some councilors and members of the public.
Low voter turn-out; low civic engagement; limited participation in town affairs by historically marginalized groups; barriers to participation: these are some of the issues that the new town charter hopes to address through various public participation mechanisms. One mechanism is the required semiannual meetings of district councilors with constituents, for example.
Another effort driven by the charter was the creation of a new town position, Community Participation Officer (CPO). In its first three years of implementation, this responsibility (for which no new money was budgeted) has been shared by three Town employees who bring different skills to the task: Brianna Sunryd, Jennifer Moyston, and Angela Mills. I spoke with all of them earlier this fall to learn how their work has unfolded.
Brianna Sunryd, the Communications Manager for Town Hall, said that the team spent its initial months assessing the community’s needs and building its work plan. She described her pieces of the work as developing strategies for community outreach, involvement, and communications, and using information technologies in innovative ways. To support participation in the decennial census by all parts of the community – some of which were very hesitant – the CPOs developed plans for outreach, in-person meetings, and activities. During the summer of 2019, the team created and distributed census-related kits for children. Then, just as efforts ramped up in early 2020, the pandemic hit and changed the direction of all CPO efforts.
During the pandemic, Brianna focused on implementation of the Zoom meeting platform throughout Town government, to enable both the internal work of Town Hall and the many public meetings. As others have noted, the convenience of Zoom (for those with Internet access) led to a marked increase in attendance at public meetings, in views of recorded meetings (most meetings were not recorded to video before the pandemic), and participation in committees, now possible from one’s home. Now that at least some in-person meetings are likely to be permitted in the coming months, a pressing question is how to integrate livestreaming and remote participation with in-person meetings in a way that is not awkward for participants. Another means by which residents can follow and engage in local issues is the Engage Amherst platform, launched in February of 2021. With this platform, residents can post questions on subjects such as the North Amherst Library expansion, the Hickory Ridge Golf Course acquisition, and the financing plan for the major capital projects, and receive quick responses, all of which stay publicly available on the site. (In fact, just as this post was being written, the Town announced two additional civic participate tools – click here for the press release – for trial use in the next 10 days.)
One limitation to participation in town affairs by some residents is a language barrier. The town does not have the capability (that is, funding) to provide real-time translation services or to translate documents, announcements, or webpages in Spanish or other languages. Fortunately, Angela Mills (Executive Assistant to the Town Manager) is fluent in Spanish and can provide translation to an extent. Unfortunately, automated translation services for town resources or meetings are not yet satisfactory. (At the urging of the Community Safety Working Group, the Town is hoping to identify funds for stipends for committee volunteers who must pay for child care, transportation, or other expenses enabling them to serve – an additional set of barriers to participation.)
Jennifer Moyston, Administrative Assistant to the Town Manager, grew up in Amherst. The focus of her CPO work has been to address diversity and inclusion gaps through trust-building with minority communities and the development and promotion of cultural events. Before the pandemic, Jennifer regularly accompanied LSSE (now the Recreation Department) staff to apartment complexes to engage with parents and children, and visited the Amherst Survival Center to be a resource for visitors with concerns or needs that the Town could address. The pandemic shuttered these in-person gatherings, but more recently she has been able to accompany the Mobile Market on its rounds, to set up a table at a bit of a remove and be available to chat. Jennifer’s regular appearance at the Mobile Market sites helped make contacts with Town staff less threatening, at least during these visits.
Another important pandemic response was to begin a Mask for All initiative in conjunction with Anika Lopes Millinery (the business of the incoming D4 councilor). Jennifer said that 17 sewers created more than 500 masks using materials donated by 19 individuals in the months before cloth masks became readily available for purchase. Another 100 masks were donated by a business. Altogether, almost 100 people received masks through this effort.
Cultural events that were developed, highlighted, or promoted over the past three years included the Town’s first-ever Chinese Lunar New Year program, the Town’s program in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. (separate from the annual breakfast), Black History Month programming, and, most recently, the enormously successful Juneteenth, co-sponsored by the Civil War Tablets Committee and the Mill District. Jennifer hopes to further develop the town’s observances of cultural holidays and milestones.
Pre-pandemic, the main areas of Angela Mills’ CPO work were (1) planning the inaugural ceremony for the first Council; (2) assisting councilors with planning and conduct of the required meetings mentioned above; and (3) attending district meetings to assist constituents with questions or complaints about town services, completion of Community Activity Forms by which residents indicate interest in committee service. During the pandemic, Angela was the staff person in contact with residents required to quarantine at home, connecting them with food, rental support, and grant applications. Once vaccination drives began, Angela attended the clinics to provide Spanish-language translation and outreach. She also worked with the new Covid Ambassadors on their public outreach and responses to inquiries or complaints made to the Covid Concerns hotline.
By Kent W. Faerber, Co-Chair, Campaign Committee, Campaign for a 21st Century Library
The Town has received from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners the first installment of its $13.8 million grant for the Jones Library Building Project. This vote of confidence represents the MBLC’s judgment that the 65% “YES” vote on November 2, affirming the Town Council’s 10-2 authorization of Town borrowing for the project, is overwhelming evidence of the Town’s commitment. The Friends’ Campaign for a 21st Century Jones Library now intends to resume its fundraising for the portion of the financing for the project guaranteed by the Library Trustees.
I was sitting on my patio listening to the sweet sound of trees swaying in the breeze and children playing outside Wildwood School, when suddenly my ears were assaulted by a piercing noise. It sounded almost as loud as a helicopter landing nearby, or maybe a pneumatic drill digging up the street in front of my house.
But I knew what it really was. In November, it had to be a leaf-blower, disturbing the peace of yet another neighborhood. An employee of a landscaping company was using this gas-powered noise-maker to herd leaves into a pile at a neighbor’s house.
The new Town Council could combat climate change and support quiet neighborhoods by banning or restricting the use of these “monsters,” as New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl calls them. She also calls gas-powered leaf-blowers “mechanical locusts,” but adds that this may be unfair to locusts. (To see a petition to the Town Council on leaf-blowers and other loud gadgets, click on Comments below.)
Amherst would join 100 other towns that have taken action. Gas-powered leaf-blowers will become illegal in Washington, D.C. in January and in all of California in 2024. They are already banned in Santa Monica.
Landscaping companies would complain, and their workers would be inconvenienced, but it is the operators of these machines who are most affected by their noise and gas fumes. And there are now products, available locally, that can blow leaves into piles without generating pollution and with significantly less racket.
The pandemic forced many people to stay home during the day, and they became more aware of these ultra-loud gadgets. Most backpack gas-powered leaf-blowers make noise at between 95 and 115 decibels for the operator, dispersing to 64 to 78 decibels fifty feet away. Anything over 55 decibels is harmful, according to the World Health Organization, and can cause hearing loss and high blood pressure.
Because decibel calculation is logarithmic, 70 decibels is twice as loud as 60. And gas-powered leaf blowers emit low-frequency noise that can penetrate through walls and hearing protection. Some new electric leaf-blowers can be just as powerful and come in at 59 to 65 decibels. (Rakes produce neither noise nor pollution, are significantly cheaper, and provide a mild workout.)
Gas-powered leaf-blowers are terrible for the environment. Using one for an hour creates as much pollution as driving a Camry 1,100 miles, according to the California Air Resources Board. Running one for a half-hour is the equivalent of driving a 6,200-pound Ford F-150 truck for 3,900 miles, according to the Edmunds car-rating company. (Cars themselves are becoming increasingly electric.)
Gas-powered leaf-blowers use a technology called “two-stroke engines” that is outmoded and has been phased out in other industries. A third of the fuel used is spewed into the air, Renkl writes. All gas-powered lawn care products used an estimated 3 billion gallons of fossil fuel in 2018, according to the Department of Transportation.
In addition to noise and gas fumes, leaf-blowers kick up dust that can contain pollen, animal feces, heavy metals and chemicals from pesticides, Renkl writes. This can be hazardous to people with asthma or other respiratory problems. Some landscapers even use blowers not to move leaves but to clear away dust from pavement.
Sales of electric leaf-blowers increased by 75 percent from 2015 to 2020, and the Makita company has announced it will stop making ones powered by gasoline. The number of landscaping companies using electric blowers is increasing.
Electric leaf-blowers weigh less than gas-powered ones. They don’t require as much maintenance, with no need for replacing filters, changing spark plugs or storing gasoline. Electric blowers, both corded and cordless, are available at Boyden & Perron in Amherst and Home Depot in Hadley. Cordless leaf-blowers can be as powerful as gas-powered ones, though they need to be frequently recharged, according to Consumer Reports. Corded leaf-blowers have limited range.
Home maintenance expert Bob Vila recommends a cordless model made by Makita that costs $199 and generates 166 miles per hour of blowing. He also recommends a Greenworks backpack model costing $349.
Amherst DPW’s division of trees and grounds uses 11 gas-powered leaf-blowers on the 80 acres of parks and facilities it maintains, says director Alan Snow. “I’ve been watching electric equipment and it has come a long way the last couple years,” he says. “Until they come down in price or funding becomes available, for now we are stuck with gas.” He’s all-electric at his home and says, “I believe it is the way to go when one can afford it.”
Cambridge (the only place in Massachusetts that gave a smaller percentage of its 2016 vote to Trump than Amherst) has banned leaf-blowers generating more than 65 decibels of noise. They cannot deposit dust or leaves on adjacent property, and cannot be used on Sundays or in the evening. Only one can be used at a time, and they can only operate between March 15 and June 15 and between Sept. 15 and Dec. 31.
Newton, Arlington and Brookline have similar regulations. In Newton, commercial operators using leaf-blowers have to register with the city, and in Arlington they can’t be used for more than 30 minutes and can’t send leaves or dust outside property lines.
Burlington, Vt., which like Amherst is host to a state university, has enacted similar restrictions. Cities and towns in Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and New York have acted to restrict use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Twenty cities in California have taken action in advance of the statewide ban.
So, how about it, Amherst Town Council? What’s the point of requiring zero-energy public buildings and fining nuisance houses while tolerating the pollution and noise of gas-powered leaf-blowers?
With the announcement of a designer for the elementary school building project on November 18, DiNisco Design, the project will move forward more rapidly now and with plans for robust public engagement. The winning firm was chosen by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) Designer Selection Board with input from the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC).
The next step, hopefully to be taken before Thanksgiving if the parties come to an agreement regarding DiNisco’s fee, is to launch a website for the project, designed and managed by Anser Advisory Management, the owner’s project manager (OPM). Residents will be able to
watch videos of presentations and meetings,
ask questions and provide comments,
see a detailed timeline of the process,
learn which decisions are the responsibility of which parties (e.g., the building committee, Amherst School Committee, Town Council, or the MSBA),
be alerted to the opportunities for public input, and more.
We will update the links on the Elementary School Building Project page, found under Town Government 101 in this site’s menu, when they are made public.
The Town hopes to be able to put a debt exclusion on the November ballot, since turnout for federal and state races should be relatively high, but if necessary the Town can call a special election at any time.
Members of the ESBC expressed enthusiasm for DiNisco’s proposal, presentation, and previous work, noting their net-zero experience and student-centered approach. Committee Chair and District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen and District 4 Councilor Stephen Schreiber described their visit to one of the two completed schools in Springfield designed by DiNisco (the firm is now designing a third school for that city). They noted that the school was lovely and that facilities staff spoke highly not only of working with DiNisco to design the school but of the school building’s actual performance.
A joint meeting of the ESBC with the Amherst School Committee, with attendance by Anser and DiNisco, was tentatively scheduled for December 14. A goal of the joint meeting will be to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the parties for steps such as developing the education plan (that drives the design) and site selection (Wildwood or Fort River).
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:
Respect the majority opinion;
Build support for the minority point of view and try again;
Revise the desired policy to attract more support;
Work harder to engage like-minded residents in the political process;
Run for office or volunteer for committee work.
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.
We sometimes divide Amherst residents into two camps: “pro-development” and “anti-development.” I believe that these labels are not helpful in charting a course for our downtown, and for ensuring that we have enough money to pay for public services.
Most people who are labeled “pro-development” acknowledge that we need to regulate how and where development takes place. No one wants Amherst to become like Houston, where there are no zoning laws and just about anything can be built anywhere. To take one example, most people who see the benefits of the apartment building at 1 East Pleasant St. would agree that it has an insufficient setback from the street.
And most people who are “anti-development” or are labeled as “NIMBYs” recognize that we need growth in our tax base to support our schools, public safety and other services. And it’s clear that we need more housing, too. It is so tight this fall that many UMass students have to live far away from campus because they can’t find a room in Amherst, or have to drop out of school altogether, and rents have been pushed up.
So the real difference between these two supposed camps boils down to how strict the regulation of development should be, and what types are appropriate in each part of town. We need to thread the needle, keeping our town the way we want it to be while still creating opportunities for developers to provide housing that will produce revenue and ease the tax burden on long-term residents.
And, of course, the way we want our town to be isn’t the same for everyone. It also changes over time. Fifteen years ago, the 1,000 people participating in the master plan process supported denser development downtown and in village centers while preserving open space elsewhere. Town Meeting then paved the way for two new five-story apartment buildings on the northern edge of downtown. They have been widely criticized, and this year, two of these critics were elected to the Town Council (though one race is subject to a recount).
Amherst faces a budgeting challenge: We just don’t have enough revenue to pay for all our needs and wants. The reasons this is so are related to some things we love about our town.
More than half of Amherst’s land is exempt from local property taxes, mainly because it is on a college campus or is part of a conservation area or protected farmland. We also have a very small commercial/industrial sector (just 3.6 percent of the land) to help pay for our expenses. Plus, we have high expectations for municipal services; for example, our low teacher-student ratio in the public schools. We also believe in paying our employees competitive wages, and the sharp uptick in house prices and rents this year may cause their unions to press for higher salaries, which would cause our expenditures to increase.
The inevitable result of all these factors is very high taxes, and also difficulty funding our infrastructure and budget needs. The average annual tax bill for single-family houses in Amherst this year is estimated at $8,608, a $400 or 5 percent increase over last year. (This unusually high increase is partly attributable to higher values of residential property relative to commercial property.) The estimated average annual tax bill for this year in Northampton is $6,303, and in Hadley, it’s $4,611. Think about that for a moment: Our taxes are almost double those of our neighbor to the west!
Meanwhile, state law limits any increase in the amount a town can raise in taxes to 2.5 percent, plus the amount in taxes that have come in from “new growth.” Those two five-story buildings that so many people love to hate bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue every year and have saved us from painful budget cuts.
So we need that “new growth” if we’re going to keep pace with growing municipal expenses. In addition to the debt payments from the Jones Library project, voters will likely be asked to approve an override of the state’s tax-limit law to finance the construction of a new elementary school, as soon as next year. Millions of dollars will have to be borrowed if we are going to build a new fire station and DPW headquarters. New pressures on our spending limits are also coming from the Public Safety Working Group, African Heritage Reparations Assembly and other citizen groups.
It will be challenging to fund all these new initiatives. Meanwhile, the ability of heavily taxed residents to absorb more tax increases is limited.
But we also want to retain the things that made us want to live here in the first place. No one is proposing selling off conservation areas to developers or building student housing on the town common.
It will be harder to achieve these goals if we use simplistic labels to describe our differences over development. With several proposals for zoning changes on the table, let’s debate them with both neighborhoods and the tax base in mind, and keep our focus on what’s best for the town as a whole.
I’ve lived in Amherst a bit over 50 years, and all that time I have loved the views of “mountains” and fields and woods, and the fact I could go into many of those places to walk, and look, and photograph, and feel peace.
When I moved here, I discovered the Amherst College campus and woods. I was renting a room in a house in the center of town, and as soon as I had settled in, I walked into and through town – and discovered the view from the Amherst College campus of the Mount Holyoke Range (I had no idea then what it was called) and fell in love. I had just spent two years in Illinois, and was hungry for land that went up and down, with trees and rocks.
Over the next 10 years, I moved to various apartments and found other beautiful places I could walk to. When I lived in Puffton Village I enjoyed the Mill River area, and frequently walked across North Pleasant Street and up the farm road of what is now Simple Gifts Farm. These days, when I buy food there, I am pleased to see familiar buildings and the information inside the store about the history of the farm – and certainly no one who works there knows that long before they were born, maybe before their parents were born, I was walking the property and enjoying the sweeping views.
I came to Amherst to be a graduate student in the English Department at UMass; I did that, and enjoyed it. But my interest in graduate studies gradually was swamped by my love for the wild and wonderful world around us, and I devoted a lot of time and energy to environmental work. I finished my degree but I was not devoted to pursuing professional jobs wherever they might be. I used to joke that my search area for jobs extended from South Hadley to Hanover, NH. As it turned out, I got a job at UMass and stayed in Amherst – and I’m glad. I could so easily have ended up somewhere else, somewhere far less wonderful.
I now live in a condo off Old Farm Road. It was the only place I could possibly afford, with help for the down payment from my mother, when the real estate flurry of the 1980s forced me to move. Thank goodness.
I’ve always been glad that Amherst has invested in purchasing conservation areas and making trails to connect them. The state also invested in protecting land, especially on the Mount Holyoke Range and at nearby Quabbin Reservoir. About 30 years ago the state invested in a Rail Trail that crosses Amherst. I knew that, on what we then called Columbus Day weekend, I did not have to join the traffic on Route 2; I could enjoy foliage by walking the trails in Lawrence Swamp or take in the views from Rattlesnake Knob on the Range.
I learned to cross-country ski across the athletic fields of our high school, middle school, and Wildwood, then in the Amherst College woods. When I moved to my condo I skied on ties of the old railroad tracks that have now become the Rail Trail, or on other relatively flat areas in town (I never got good enough to ski on the Range, but other people certainly did). I could enjoy the sparkling water of the Mill River or Fort River. More than once during the spring runoff, I kayaked with friends on the Fort River from Stanley Street to just into Hadley beyond the Hickory Ridge golf course. I felt lucky to live here.
Now, during the pandemic and (we hope) its decline, I feel even luckier. When we were seriously socially isolating, I could walk out my door and head in one of three different directions to walk to conservation areas or access points for the Rail Trail. I paid more attention to the natural places right around me. Even little Gull Pond has turtles, ducks, muskrats, beavers; once even an osprey! Neighbors have seen an otter. The sky above Wentworth Farm Conservation Area is always beautiful and the pond reflects it in fascinating ways. If I was willing to drive, within 10 or 20 minutes I could be at other wonderful natural places, including the eastern parts of the Mount Holyoke Range, Amethyst Brook in Amherst, Buffam Brook in Pelham, or Mount Warner in Hadley. I found profound peace in being in these places, learning more about the plants that grow there, marveling at the light in the woods or reflecting on the surface of ponds or open swamps. I fell in love with the Eastern Painted Turtles near the Rail Trail, took photos of them every time I could, and worked on watercolor paintings from those photos
I’m not alone in this luck; almost everyone who lives in Amherst is within a reasonable walk of a conservation area, a short drive to one, or a bus ride to some (such as the Mount Holyoke Range headquarters on Route 116). The addition of the former Hickory Ridge golf course, although not yet formalized, is wonderful. I encourage everyone to explore; don’t just run or bike for exercise but check out the wildlife. Pay attention to the plants, and begin to learn “who is who” among them, how they change during the seasons. Notice the birds eating berries, and figure out which birds each which berries and when. Let’s rejoice in the abundance of life around us and the benefits of gratitude.
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.
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.
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:
$449,949 from the state’s Equitable Approaches to Public Safety (EAPS) program to assist in planning and implementing the new CRESS program;
$1.5 million from the state’s MassWorks program to improve traffic, cyclist, and pedestrian safety through a redesign of the intersection of Pomeroy St., West Pomeroy St., and West St. (Rt. 116) in the Pomeroy Village Center;
$184,728 under its MassDOT Shared Streets and Spaces Program. The Town’s Safe Streets and Paths project will make mobility improvements along Triangle, Pray, and East Pleasant Streets;
$250,000 from the Stanton Foundation to assist in the design and construction of Amherst’s first dog park;
$400,000 from the state’s PARC (Parklands Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities) program toward design and construction of the Kendrick Park playground.
Hats off to town staff for bringing these extra funds here.
“1) I remember a fellow Charter Commission member claiming that the council form of government was inherently biased against women. Yet somehow we have 12 of 13 seats in the incoming Council held by women! 2) When both “sides” endorse a candidate, that candidate romps to victory. Ellisha Walker and Anika Lopes far outran their counterparts. 3) I’m sorry to see George Ryan and Evan Ross (if the 3-vote margin holds up) not return. Both have been incredibly hard-working and served the town with thoughtfulness and integrity. Amherst owes them a debt of gratitude for serving as models of public service.”
— Andrew Churchill, former chair of Charter Commission and School Committee
“More BIPOC candidates both ran and got elected than before the charter change. Money raised by Amherst municipal candidates is still not an indicator of who will win. Unprecedented personalized attacks on people, not issues, defeated incumbents in small-turnout districts, but did not impact results for incumbents at-large. The majority of voters are not angry with their municipal government. The angry obstructionists have been fully heard, and it’s still very clear the majority of residents do not agree with those angry obstructionists. Voters very much want things to be better, but they do not want things to stop.”
— Alisa Brewer, former Select Board chair and School Committee member, retiring At-Large Councilor
“This resounding YES for the library has given me hope where the school vote years ago left me distraught. Yes, Amherst, we can come together and buck the trend of disinvestment in public spaces and services that are critical to countering social inequities and to improving the quality of life in our community for everyone. With a town council that has to be accountable to voters, what can we accomplish next, Amherst?”
— Melissa Giraud, co-founder, EmbraceRace
“The coalition of voters that the Amherst Forward folks put together to pass the new charter and elect a progressive town council three years ago continues to be the dominant political force in town. Successful challengers were the ones who did not rely on negative campaigning and personal attacks. The top vote getters were endorsed by both PACs. Potential problems: Will the council be able to construct 2/3 votes for zoning and borrowing? Will Carol Gray et.al. persist in trying to obstruct the library project and delegitimize the election?”
— Bob Rakoff, retired Hampshire College professor and former Planning Board chair
“Last night’s overwhelming vote in support of the Jones Library renovation and expansion project was a welcome affirmation of a vision for progressive change in Amherst. The voters were persuaded by a carefully developed and carefully vetted proposal. They endorsed prudent investment in Amherst’s future. This result is really good news as the town contemplates needed investments in other capital projects. I look forward to working with other Trustees and town officials, incumbents and new office holders in the next stages of the library project. At the same time, the defeat of a couple of strong, effective incumbents running for reelection to the Town Council suggests a public appetite to bring new perspectives and new voices to bear in town leadership.”
— Austin Sarat, Jones Library Board of Trustees chair and Amherst College professor
“The success of Ellisha Walker speaks to the inclusion and leadership of young, progressive, talented people of color in Amherst politics. We see in Ellisha the triumph of intersectionality – a woman, someone who is a part of the global majority, a renter. She in her person represents the intersection of race, class, and gender. She is very thoughtful and a good listener. Her identity along with and her demonstrated leadership on the CSWG made an impact on a wide range of Amherst voters, as did her reasoned style and bridge-building approach.”
— Patricia Romney, author of “We Were There: The Third World Women’s Alliance and the Second Wave.”
“I am so gratified by the results of the election for the Jones. With over 65% of the vote coming out in favor of Town support, it feels like a resounding and positive statement by our Town that we can move forward to build a more just and equitable local community. This was a vote for rationality and common sense prevailed. The Jones represents a significant investment in our future and now the work can continue and we can bring Amherst the 21st Century Library facility that the vast majority wants, needs, and, most importantly will use for decades to come. Hard work pays off!!”
— MatthewBlumenfeld, Principal, Financial Development Agency
“I was thrilled to see the library project win by such a large margin. The Amherst community needs this improvement to our physical and social infrastructure. I was concerned during the campaign that misinformation and negative campaigning would prevail, but that didn’t happen, and in fact the candidate who hitched her wagon to the ‘No’ on library was staunchly defeated. This is only the second election for Town Council and there were a variety of voices represented. I’m encouraged to see new faces entering the field and I give credit to all candidates, given the challenges of running for office.”
— Connie Kruger, former Select Board member
“I’m hopeful that the new councilors will lead us into a time of greater collaboration and innovative thinking, where social justice will be a vital ingredient; where public input will create better ideas and solutions; where our town finds its right balance of families, students, professionals, and retirees. I look forward to more planning, before zoning bylaw changes are enacted. I look forward to preserving our history while entering the future. I think the new people on the scene are aware and talented. I look forward to being a part of the conversation, with more of us at the table.”
— Ira Bryck, former executive director, Family Business Center of the Pioneer Valley
“Amherst voters’ overwhelming support for the Jones Library building project could serve as a harbinger of capital projects to come, notably the elementary school building project. Like the library, that project leverages local funds to unlock state funds. It is our best chance to finally get Amherst kids into buildings conducive to learning. Capital projects aside, talking with voters this fall showed me that there’s still work to be done to establish clearer lines of communication, accountability and feedback between our elected officials and their constituents. Our democracy functions best when citizens feel connected to the process.”
— Johanna Neumann, Field director for Amherst Forward and Planning Board member
“The resounding affirmation of the Jones Library Building Project tells me that voters do want to invest in Amherst, and is hopefully a blow to those who say no to virtually everything, such as the previous school building plan of 2016. The re-election of Andy Steinberg to Town Council, and election of Irv Rhodes to School Committee, tells me that voters care about experience and voices of reason. The election of Jennifer Page to School Committee says voters also want to hear from new voices bringing new perspectives. I think that’s a nice mix of results.”
— Rick Hood, former chair, Regional School Committee
“The most significant action by inaugural Town Council was the vote in favor of the Jones Library renovation and expansion. The subsequent voter veto process and referendum affirmed that the charter works. The voters affirmed the Town Council vote by a 2-1 margin, but then apparently voted out two incumbent councilors who were the most vocal library supporters. That shows that the voters support the actions of the councilors, if not the councilors themselves. I’m very excited by the composition of the new Town Council. Ages will range from twenty something to eighty something. Similarly, the Jones Library trustees will include a person of color, and School Committee will include three people of color.”
— Stephen Schreiber, departing Town Council member for District 4
“I do believe that the election results send a strong message to future candidates about how not to win elections. One does not win elections by persistently personally attacking other candidates and non-candidates. One does not win elections by being consistently negative about the state of affairs in Amherst and that nowhere in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion does the word exclusion appear. Civility matters.”
— Irv Rhodes, Former (and new) School Committee member
“I think the election demonstrates that Amherst voters are dedicated to having constructive BIPOC voices in all aspects of town government and in providing current and future citizens with an energy-efficient and modern library that meets a variety of town needs. It also demonstrates that false advertising and negative campaigning don’t work with the majority Amherst voters. Now the hard work of governing and changing institutions begins.”
— Susan Tracy, former professor of history and American Studies, Hampshire College
“It was deeply affirming to see the overwhelming vote for the Jones Library. After so much negativity and, frankly, stalling out on major needs in this town, it feels good to be moving forward with such an essential community building. I am very glad that there are a diverse – by age, lived-experience, gender, ethnicity – group of talented public servants elected across town boards. Let’s work collaboratively, with a spirit of openness and generosity to solve real problems together.”
— Eric Nakajima, former chair, Regional School Committee
“This election brought out the best and the worst in our community. We heard residents push for a more equitable and sustainable Amherst. And we also saw misinformation used to increase divisiveness. Tuesday’s vote increased BIPOC representation to 23% in the Town Council and 60% in the School Committee. What residents also want is thoughtful leaders who can truly listen to diverse perspectives to make investments in our town that are fiscally responsible and benefit all residents, and not just the vocal residents. The overwhelming support of the library expansion (and other projects in downtown like Drake and performance shell) shows residents’ support for investment in our social infrastructures, local arts, culture, and businesses in a way that benefits all residents, especially those who are underrepresented.”
— Shalini Bahl-Milne, Town Councilor for District 5
“It was great to see that Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg, two hard-working, dedicated, and intelligent people, get reelected to the council. I was a bit disappointed that Evan Ross did not win. Nonetheless, the other candidates in District 4 seemed to run better campaigns and will do a good job for us. Will the new council tackle the following: pervasive speeding on town streets (including school zones); runaway school budget; and climate change (count the number of SUVs in the high school parking lot). I wish them godspeed. It was great to see Vince, Vira, and Greeney defeated. Overall, a good night.”
—Michael Hanke, Gray Street resident
“The election indicates that Amherst voters strongly support the current path of the Town Council, with its pragmatic efforts to boost downtown development and address other challenging issues. Despite concerns that the town is divided, it is a healthy sign that party-like slates formed to endorse candidates, which helped voters make informed decisions. While Amherst residents can take pride in having a second successful election under its new charter, we should consider additional ways to boost turnout, including stronger efforts to mobilize students who want to vote in Amherst. If half the seats remain uncontested in future elections, we might consider shrinking the size of the Town Council. The dearth of job candidates should not be surprising. Being an elected official is challenging, time-consuming, and takes a lot of resiliency in the face of much criticism.”
— Ray La Raja, UMass professor of political science
“SO excited to know that we will have a 21st Century learning center in Amherst! On another note, I’ve been parsing voter turnout and am struck that while the painful battles over schools, town government and the library have created angry divisions in our community, they have also hugely increased voter participation. Town elections between 2011 and 2016 drew a low of 1,348 registered voters (2013) and a high of 2,668 (2014). In 2018 (the vote for the new charter) 6,043 voters showed up. Yesterday that number was 4,962, slightly more than turned out to vote on the school referendum (4,853).”
— Nina Mankin, dramaturg, business owner and grant writer
“The strong vote for the Library shows that voters affirmed the planning process and the role the Council played in how it made the decision to endorse the project. It offers a blueprint for presenting the other capital projects to the public to build assurance that the council has sufficient information to make its decision. Land use will be a critical issue for the council and it remains to be seen what impact the new members will have in terms of downtown development, business support, and new revenue.”
— Bernie Kubiak, former municipal administrator and Finance Committee member
“The Amherst BID is very pleased to see the democratic process at work in Amherst. We are excited to continue the forward movement for building arts & culture in our community, small business support & economic development, as well as creative ways to bring Amherst back into a post-pandemic world. We look forward to working with all 13 members of the incoming Town Council, the Town Manager, and all the collaborating partners who have brought us to where we are today. We remain saddened by the divisiveness of some candidates but we move on to build on our joint vision.”
— Gabrielle Gould, executive director, Amherst Business Improvement District
(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.)
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
Click on the Category, Candidate panels, to see our summaries of the many candidate forums.
Go to the “Candidate Information and Events” page to find links to candidate statements, survey responses, videos, websites, etc., or follow this link.
Click on the Category, Jones Library, to see all posts pertaining to the ballot question.
Go to the page, “Councilors’ statements on the Jones Library project,” to see the full text of their reasons for voting as they did in April, or follow this link.
Read, watch, or listen to some of the resources we list regarding the financing plan for the four major capital projects.
Read watch, or listen to some of the resources we list regarding the Jones Library expansion and renovation project.
The Jones Library, a highly regarded and much loved institution, is in desperate need of repair and renovation.
Only 45 percent of the cost of the library renovation/expansion project will be paid from local taxes, and a tax increase won’t be necessary.
If we turn down the $13.8 million state grant after rejecting the $34 million grant for a new school, our credibility with state funding sources will be further damaged.
If we vote “No,” taxpayers will probably have to pay for about $15 million in building improvements, with no help from the state.
If we vote “Yes,” the amount of state income tax and sales tax payments we pay will be channeled back into the infrastructure of our Town, and not sent off to some other community.
A “Yes” vote affirms the 10-2-1 vote of our democratically elected Town Councilors, who worked diligently for years, in numerous public meetings, to fully understand the proposed project, with the Town’s best interests and bottom line at heart.
The expansion and renovation project will dramatically reduce fossil fuel use in the building.
It will protect the valuable, historic, and at-risk Special Collections, which many people come to Amherst to see, and allow them to be housed securely and accessibly.
It will make all the library’s services accessible to people with physical limitations.
The Town’s debt payments have declined to near zero, meaning we have ample capacity to borrow funds as needed for this project.
Historic elements of the original building will be protected, restored, and some opened to the public for the first time in decades.
There will finally be ample bright, comfortable, and quiet areas in which patrons can sit and read.
The project will create more space for adult collections, including Blu-ray films, and eliminate bookshelves that are six feet from the floor or at foot level.
It will provide a safe, bright and supervised place where teenagers can hang out.
Visitors will be able to find meeting rooms and bathrooms on the first floor.
It will enable the children’s room to better serve the diverse ages of the hundreds of kids who come in every day.
It will help revitalize local businesses by bringing more people downtown.
It will show support for library employees, who shouldn’t have to work in a substandard building.
It will provide more space for English as a Second Language, where tutors now have to compete for space.
There will be spaces for public meetings for community groups to access directly from outside of the Library EVEN WHEN THE LIBRARY IS CLOSED.
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
Ending balance from previous report: $0
Total receipts: $8,186
# of donors: 69
# of donations $50 or less: 37
# of donations more than $50-$100: 17
# donations more than $100-$500: 14
# donations more than $500-$1,000 (legal maximum): 1
# of $1,000 donations: 1
In-kind contributions: $0
No receipts, expenses, liabilities, or cash on hand reported.
Mandi Jo HANNEKE
Ending balance from previous report: $157.38
Total receipts: $1,580
# of donors: unknown. 7 are itemized but there must be at least 15 more
# of donations $50 or less: at least 15
# of donations more than $50-$100: 6
# of donations more than $100-$500: 1
# of donations more than $500-$1,000 (legal maximum): 0
# of $1,000 donations: 0
In-kind contributions: $338.80
No receipts, expenses, liabilities, or cash on hand reported.
Ending balance from previous report: $253.78
Total receipts: $1,985.11
# of donors: unknown. 7 are itemized but there must be at least 9 more
# of donations $50 or less: at least 9
# of donations more than $50-$100: 4
# of donations more than $100-$500: 2
# of donations more than $500-$1,000 (legal maximum): 1 (candidate loan)
In-kind contributions: $0
Ending balance from previous report: $0
Total receipts: $4,030
# of donors: unknown. 20 are itemized but there must be at least 19 more
# of donations $50 or less: at least 19
# of donations more than $50-$100: 15
# of donations more than $100-$500: 5
# of donations more than $500-$1,000 (legal maximum): 0
In-kind contributions: $178
Ending balance from previous report: $46.79
Total receipts: $2,281
# of donors: unknown. 7 are itemized but there must be at least 2 more
# of donations $50 or less: at least 2
# of donations more than $50-$100: 3
# of donations more than $100-$500: 3
# of donations more than $500-$1,000 (legal maximum): 1 (candidate loan)
In-kind contributions: $0
Ending balance from previous report: $0
Total receipts: $1,615
# of donors: 19
# of donations $50 or less: 11
# of donations more than $50-$100: 3
# of donations more than $100-$500: 5
# of donations more than $500-$1,000 (legal maximum): 0
In-kind contributions: $0
Ending balance from previous report: $0
Total receipts: $1,907
# of donors: 23
# of donations $50 or less: 13
# of donations more than $50-$100: 7
# of donations more than $100-$500: 3
# of donations more than $500-$1,000 (legal maximum): 0
In-kind contributions: $0
Ending balance from previous report: $0
Total receipts: $830
# of donors: 10
# of donations $50 or less: 7
# of donations more than $50-$100: 3
# of donations more than $100-$500: 0
# of donations more than $500-$1,000 (legal maximum): 0
In-kind contributions: $810.86
Ending balance from previous report: $0
Total receipts: $3,274.20
# of donors: at least 34
# of donations $50 or less: at least 8
# of donations more than $50-$100: 19
# of donations more than $100-$500: 7
# of donations more than $500-$1,000 (legal maximum): 0
In-kind contributions: $0
Ending balance from previous report: $585.85
Total receipts: $1,408.95
# of donors: unknown. 8 are itemized but there must be at least 16 more
# of donations $50 or less: at least 16
# of donations more than $50-$100: 8
# of donations more than $100-$500: 0
# of donations more than $500-$1,000 (legal maximum): 0
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
Money on hand as of January 1: $0
Total receipts through October 15: $4,740
# of donors: at least 35
# of donations $50 or less: at least 16
# of donations more than $50-$100: 9
# of donations more than $100-$500: 10
# of donations more than $500: 0
# of $500 donations: 3
In-kind donations received: $0
Vote Yes for Our Library
Money on hand as of January 1: $0
Total receipts through October 15: $12,385
# of donors: at least 103
# of donations $50 or less: at least 42
# of donations more than $50-$100: 27
# of donations more than $100-$500: 34
# of donations more than $500: 0
# of $500 donations: 1
In-kind donations received: $9.36
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.
As Chair of the Amherst Town Energy and Climate Action Committee since its formation in May of 2019, I feel l need to address Councilor Darcy Dumont’s statement in a letter in the Daily Hampshire Gazette earlier this week that Councilors Steinberg, Hanneke, and Ross worked to prevent a strong climate action committee or have somehow worked to weaken climate action.
First, we have been a very strong committee, developing robust climate goals and leading an inclusive planning process to develop the Climate Action Adaption and Resilience Plan (Plan de Acción Climática). We did this in a little over two years despite Covid disruptions and membership changes. I attended the council meeting where the charge was debated and then voted on, and I would not characterize any of that discussion as an attempt to weaken our committee’s charge. Councilor Ross was an active member of our committee for many months and was integral in helping us move forward with strong goals that everyone on the Council – including Councilors Hanneke and Steinberg – voted in favor of. I recall no situation where Hanneke attempted to slow or block the adoption of our goals. Further, many climate activists – myself included – were against the initial zero-energy building bylaw because it was written in a way that could have completely limited future town capital projects.
Amherst has much work to do to meet our climate goals. Most of this needs to be done outside the Council – town staff, the schools, community groups, residents, business owners, and the higher education institutions need to come together to implement our climate action plan. My biggest hope for the new Council is that they set a clear expectation that their role is to do what it takes to facilitate and help the implementers do their work, and avoid being a gatekeeper for action. I think this is true of many things that come before the Council, particularly from committees. I have faith that if reelected, Hanneke, Steinberg, and Ross will be open to that approach.
As for the candidates Darcy Dumont mentioned in her letter, I have no basis to make a determination as to how well these candidates will address our climate goals. I welcome them to reach out and join ECAC at a future meeting and learn from our committee and in particular, our fearless sustainability coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello.
However, I would urge strong caution in voting for someone who claims to have climate action at the heart of his/her campaign but who is also actively campaigning against the library project. The most important climate action we can take is getting off fossil fuels – and this project allows us to do that at no extra cost to the town thanks to the work of the library sustainability committee and Trustees. The library currently uses as much natural gas as 30 average homes. Climate justice is accepting these funds and supporting this project so we can fully dedicate other grants and funds to converting affordable housing and housing complexes away from fossil fuel heat and to healthier, safer, and less polluting heat pumps. Any talk about the waste this project creates is distracting from the actual value this project has – while differing opinions on the library project are welcome, stating that it is somehow a bad climate decision is unequivocally false.
[Laura speaks for herself in this post, not for the committee. Her letter was slightly edited.]
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.
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:
Jones Library Renovation and Expansion: The Amherst BID recognizes that the Jones Library is an economic driver for Amherst and supports its renovation and expansion to meet the needs of the community. It is important to note that while we support the Jones Library question on the ballot, we do not endorse any candidates running for office. Our staff, board members and business owners, as private citizens, do have the right to express their own opinions.
More and Better Parking: The BID has been public about Amherst’s need for more parking and would like to find a way to see that built without taxpayer dollars.
More Cultural Opportunities to Downtown: [Through the non-profit Downtown Amherst Foundation,] we are currently attempting to bring several cultural venues to Amherst – The Drake (at the former location of the High Horse) and a Performance Shell on the Common – to build a more inclusive and sustainable destination for residents and visitors alike. Creating free and low-cost places for members of the community and other artists to perform is vital to becoming a more culturally inclusive community. We believe that free arts and cultural offerings that are accessible for all is an extremely important part of community building as well as economic sustainability.
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.
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:
Money on hand as of January 1: $0
Total receipts through October 15: $3,808
# of donors: at least 18
# donations $50 or less: at least 2
# donations more than $50-$100: 8
# donations more than $100-$500 (the legal maximum): 8
# $500 donations: 4
In-kind donations received: $216.76
Expenses: reported as $0 but since they ended with only $423.23 this seems odd.
Money on hand as of January 1: $1,363.90
Total receipts through October 15: $5,352
# of donors: 105
# donations $50 or less: 28
#donations more than $50-$100: 74
# donations more than $100-$500 (the legal maximum): 3
# $500 donations: 0
In-kind donations received: $39.97
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.
I confess that I used to be skeptical about the $35.3 million project to expand and renovate the Jones Library.
I have been a regular visitor to our beautiful library for 37 years, and have always thought that it met my needs very well. I rarely had a problem finding my way around its many rooms, and the children’s room seemed adequate to me.
After the pandemic made me unable to go inside the library for 15 months, I felt sad that the project would make the building inaccessible during construction. Since I know Carol Pope, the designer of the lovely garden behind the library, I sympathized with her desire not to have the expansion infringe on it.
But I will be voting “Yes” next Tuesday on the referendum to affirm the Town Council’s 10-2 vote in support of the project. As Councilor Alisa Brewer related one resident’s succinct message to her, “To refuse state funds in favor of a patchwork, piecemeal, and partial renovation makes no sense from a financial, environmental, educational, or social justice perspective.”
I’ll summarize these four perspectives, but truthfully, I have two other reasons why I’ll be voting “Yes” that pertain to the kind of town we want Amherst to be.
Finances. The library project is a great deal for taxpayers. The Town’s $15.8 million share of the cost (only 39 percent) is being borrowed and will not cause a tax increase. A “No” vote would mean spending about the same amount on the repairs that are needed because of 30 years of deferred maintenance – with no state money! After a minority at Amherst Town Meeting rejected $34 million in state money to help finance a new elementary school, which will now be much more expensive, it makes no sense to now reject $13.8 million in state money for an improved library. Re-establishing credibility with state funding sources is critical. A campaign to support the project has pledged to raise $6.6 million. And if a “no” vote wins, approximately the same amount of taxpayer money will have to be spent on repairs to the building — without any state aid and without all the benefits. The library project is not an unnecessary expense; it’s an opportunity to buy something we need at a bargain price.
Climate. The library project will represent a major step toward meeting the Town’s climate goals by moving away from the use of natural gas. It will result in a significant reduction in energy use even though the amount of floor space will increase. I don’t understand the reasoning of some climate activists who maintain that the project will result in a net increase in energy use because of the new materials to be used and the old ones to be discarded. Several local energy experts have said unambiguously that this project as a whole represents a big win for climate action.
Education. The Jones Library has a responsibility to the many visitors who come to Amherst to see the archival materials related to Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and others in Special Collections. There have been at least four water leaks that resulted in damage to rare books in the past five years, due to a malfunctioning heating and cooling system. In addition, the Jones Library provides 16,000 hours a year of English as a Second Language instruction, and the space provided for this important service is inadequate.
Social justice. As I transitioned from skeptic to supporter, I realized that my own needs for the library could not be my most important consideration. I had to think about the physically disabled people who can’t fully use the building, the residents who rely on the library for computer use, and the newcomers who can’t find the bathrooms or meeting rooms. Most of all, I had to consider the needs of the hundreds of thousands of people who will be using the Jones Library in the coming decades.
All of these are important factors. But for me, there are also two overriding issues. The first one relates to the reason why we’re having this referendum in the first place. It’s all about democracy.
The library Trustees who were elected to their posts worked out the details of this project. Voters favored Trustee candidates who supported the project over those who didn’t. Many Town Councilors backed the library project in their campaigns three years ago and were then elected in a high-turnout, competitive election. Opponents of the project have had ample opportunity to state their case. Council President Lynn Griesemer was, like me, skeptical before she fully considered all the reasons to proceed with the project. The vote on the Council to support the project was overwhelming.
But that was not enough for the determined opponents. They circulated a petition calling for a referendum on the library project, and were not deterred when they failed to collect enough certified signatures. Even though some who signed the petition said they misunderstood its purpose and asked for their signatures to be removed, the opponents went to court. They forced taxpayers to pay for much legal consultation, and then the Town Council scheduled Tuesday’s referendum, which is what opponents were seeking. I hope a “Yes” vote will put an end to the debate.
I was a member of the Charter Commission, and I remember saying that the “voter veto” provision that’s been invoked by library opponents should make overturning a Council action “difficult but not impossible.” I now regret that the commission did not restrict this “voter veto” to Council votes that were closer.
When you lose a political battle, as the library opponents did, instead of continuing the fight, it’s better to accept defeat. The “voter veto” provision of the charter should be used only when the Council vote was close and there’s good reason to believe it does not reflect public sentiment, or when there’s been new information or some change of circumstances.
One of the key principles of democracy is that sometimes you have to live with results you don’t like.
The other overriding issue for me is the willingness of library opponents to use deception in their campaign. Many of us received a postcard last weekend with a manipulated image of a wrecking ball about to strike the Jones Library building. The facade of the library will not be demolished during the renovation project, but the opponents apparently believe that some voters will be influenced by this false image. (This postcard shows why referendums are risky; residents who haven’t paid attention to an issue are more vulnerable to this kind of deception than a town council.) I don’t want to see this brand of smash-mouth politics become standard practice in Amherst’s political campaigns.
Library opponents have also been spreading false rumors. No, the project will not cause a tax increase, and no, it will not mean the closure of the branch libraries. We have debunked all of those rumors here and here. I don’t mind disagreement about important local issues — that’s inherent in a democracy — but I support the old-fashioned notion that facts matter.
It’s OK to be skeptical of proposals made by Town officials, but it’s important to look at the facts. By voting “Yes” on Tuesday, we’ll be doing more than just voting for an expanded, energy-efficient, accessible library. We’ll be casting a vote of confidence that Amherst can move forward in updating our public infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner.
After reading comments that were misrepresentations and outright lies about my Town Council colleagues, I feel compelled to set the record straight and share my experience of working with those who have been targeted and maligned.
As a certified mindfulness coach, teacher and practicing Buddhist, I am known on Town Council for being balanced, truth-seeking and inclusive. I hope that after reading my observations, you will reach out and get to know all Town Council candidates before deciding who you’re voting for.
Thirteen of us elected to the first Town Council in 2018 came with different passions, skills, and endorsements from different groups of people in town — people who supported the new charter and those who preferred Town Meeting. Since then, we as a Town Council have been through difficult times together. And yet we have achieved so much to be proud of! Implementing a new form of government in the middle of a health, economic, racial injustice, and climate crisis, we:
Oversaw a large town as a pandemic shut down our schools, businesses, and life as we know it;
Resolved to be an anti-racist town and correct the harm done to Black residents;
Brought a social justice lens to issues;
Formed the Energy and Climate Action Committee to address climate action goals and bring a climate action lens to discussions;
Dealt with inadequate social infrastructure of schools/library and high housing and property taxes that make it hard for families to live in town.
After having worked and struggled together, supported and respected each other, it’s disheartening to see attacks against majority decisions and individual councilors come from one of our own councilors.
I worked closely with Andy, Mandi Jo, George, and Evan. The Amherst Current is not endorsing candidates in the Nov. 2 election, and I am not trying to tell people how to vote. I am only relating my impressions of these four incumbent Councilors from working with them for the past three years.
As the Vice Chair of the Community Resources Committee (CRC), I got to work closely with Mandi Jo Hanneke, who is the chair of the committee. As the chair she has the power, one may say, but she also has the responsibility for coordinating all the meeting dates, agendas, minutes, and writing hundreds of reports that go to the Town Council summarizing our work in CRC. She is the chair because no one else wants to take on that responsibility!
I admire Mandi’s work ethic and sense of fairness and justice. She wrote bylaws protecting workers from wage theft and is working with me to create an inclusive engagement process with the team at UMass to ensure that we hear the underrepresented voices. There’s a reason she has cosponsored bylaws with ten councilors—she is approachable, reliable, and has great legal knowledge!
As Vice Chair of the Council, Evan Ross is also on CRC. He played a lead role in crafting a Comprehensive Housing Policy, focusing on affordable housing and home ownership. As a renter, he has been a strong advocate for renters and for making changes in our zoning bylaws to make housing affordable for young professionals and families. Zoning is a complex and nuanced issue. In my experience, no one understands zoning as well as he does. I’ve learned a lot from him. We may not always agree but that’s OK, and in fact it ensures that we’re looking at issues from diverse lenses. We need more young, thoughtful and hard-working Town Councilors.
Andy Steinberg is the chair of the Finance Committee and one of the most informed and kindest people I know. His entire career has been dedicated to public service. After graduating from law school, he worked in the field of civil legal aid, providing aid to poor people, the elderly, and the disabled.
Andy’s been in local government since 1996 and is the most knowledgeable Councilor about town finances and budgets. Moving forward, we’re looking to invest in our new community responders’ program, address systemic harm to Black residents, our four capital projects, and climate action goals. We need the unique strengths that Andy brings that combine financial expertise and empathy.
I’ve worked with George Ryan in his capacity as the chair of the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL). He’s always supporting his colleagues’ work through resolutions and bylaws. I respect most his commitment to affordable housing, which is a Town Council priority. George’s commitment was tested when we voted on the Valley CDC’s proposal for 28 affordable units in his district. Many of his neighbors were against it and his fellow district Councilor abstained from that controversial vote. George voted in favor of affordable housing despite the high probability of losing neighborhood votes because he believed in this project and Valley CDC, which he knows from his work on the board of Habitat for Humanity. George had the courage and integrity to stand up for what he believes is right for the underrepresented in our town.
Reading this post may not change your mind about these councilors. If you already appreciate Mandi Jo’s, Evan’s, Andy’s and George’s hard work on Town Council, you’ll continue to like them, even though you may disagree with them at times. If you don’t like them, then you’ll continue to feel that way, regardless of their support of issues that you also care about. But don’t believe me. Get to know them for yourself!
Beyond correcting the record about my colleagues, I want to invite us all to do a better job of getting to know each other as human beings and not just through the lens that divides us and filters all we see and hear based on what we already believe about people.
Zoom and social media have made it easier for us to dehumanize and say what we want without realizing the impact of our words on others and the stress and trauma that others might be experiencing. We need to stop doing that. If we’re going to solve the big problems that lie before us — systemic racism, climate change, unaffordable housing, high property taxes, homelessness and our dysfunctional schools and library buildings — then people with different viewpoints and experiences need to feel safe and know that their questions, ideas, and perspectives will not be attacked or quoted out of context.
The only way that I know to disrupt our assumptions about others is by getting to know them.
I’ll end with an invitation for all to reach out to at least one person who we disagree with and go for a walk or coffee/tea and get to know them as a human being.