With a series of public listening sessions scheduled on December 3 and December 9 to discuss four looming major capital projects (DPW building, South Amherst fire station, elementary school, and library) that have been proposed, it is worthwhile to consider how our town government solicits public opinion and how it uses such information. The recent outreach efforts by the town’s Energy and Climate Action Committee (ECAC) offer us a model for effective public engagement that stands in contrast to many of the town’s historical practices.
The stated goal of the upcoming listening sessions, according to the official announcement from Council President Lynn Greismer (District 2), is to collect comments from the public on the need for four major capital investments facing Amherst and to provide guidance to the Town Council in setting priorities. Members of the School Committee and the Jones Library Trustees assisted in developing the information to be presented at these sessions and will be present at each session.
But the full Council does not appear to be in agreement on the aims of these sessions. Councilor Evan Ross (District 4) has argued in Council meetings that the Council has already committed to the One Town, One Plan approach, which assumes that all four projects will be undertaken and just seeks the best way to implement them. He has argued that the Council has already committed to these projects and that the goal of the sessions is to promote the plan to town residents and to encourage their support. Councilors Darcy Dumont (District 5) and Cathy Schoen (District 1), on the other hand, have argued that undertaking all four projects in their currently proposed form is far from a done deal and that the public sessions ought to be an opportunity to take the pulse of the community, rather than to shape public opinion.
The town has a long history of generally seeking public input only after major decisions have been made and of using public forums as a means to shape public opinion more than to gather information to produce public policy. To be fair, I note that a) some members of the Council seem intent on using these listening sessions to gauge how much support exists within the town for each capital project and how much tolerance there is for raising taxes to pay for them and b) the town has announced that it has backed away from its plans to build the new DPW building on Amherst College land in the Misty Meadows neighborhood. This decision follows a couple of listening sessions in which widespread opposition on the part of the neighbors was expressed. The town has not indicated why the plans for the proposed DPW site have been abandoned, whether the listening sessions contributed to that decision and what alternatives are under consideration.
As we head into these listening sessions, it is worth considering the exemplary model offered by ongoing public outreach efforts by the ECAC. Over the last three months, ECAC has undertaken an ambitious outreach effort to engage a broad swath of the Amherst public in order to gauge the public’s understanding of the current climate emergency and to better understand the kinds of interventions the public would like to see the town undertake to address the emergency. Its stated aim in undertaking these outreach projects was to:
1. Introduce a diverse group of residents, businesses and town staff to the Energy and Climate Action Committee
2. Find out how knowledgeable the community is about the need for climate action generally
3. Understand the opportunities for transformative action that most excite the Amherst community members and the barriers facing them in making a just transition to a carbon neutral Amherst
4. Gauge public support for the adoption of science-driven targets like reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2025, 50 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050
5. Identify willing partners, who have helpful expertise and diverse perspectives, with whom to collaborate
The outreach included two public forums, tabling at four community events, and conducting individual and group interviews. Over 250 Amherst residents and other stakeholders (including town employees, business owners, and members of government) contributed input to the preliminary report on the first phase of outreach which can be found here. A more formal report based on earlier work can be found here.
The public forums were noteworthy in that they were well attended (roughly 50 residents over two evenings) and by the eagerness of the ECAC members to listen closely and to hear what attendees had on their minds without attempting to steer them towards a particular position. A number of people shared concerns about the necessity of changing town culture to infuse an awareness of climate emergency into every aspect of governance and to accept that substantial changes would be needed in the ways that things got done. This perspective found its way into ECAC’s report and is something that now comes up in regular discussions within the committee.
I came away from the meeting not only feeling like we had been heard but also that we had learned a lot from listening to our neighbors. In addition, it seemed to me that ECAC members were surprised at the forcefulness with which attendees believed that it was necessary to take substantial action in the next few years and not postpone difficult decisions toward the 2030 and 2050 “deadlines.” And this emphasis seems to me to have supported and perhaps influenced the committee to adopt ambitious energy goals, and that urgency has found its way into their reports and into their meetings.
The outreach effort showed consistent support for setting ambitious science-based goals and for climate action in general. The outreach studies encouraged ECAC to propose ambitious energy goals for the town as follows:
50% reduction in Town-wide greenhouse gas emissions below FY2016 levels by 2030, with an interim goal to meet 25% reductions by 2025.
• Be carbon neutral no later than 2050.
• Be prepared to achieve carbon neutrality as early as 2030 by planning and advocating for state and federal action and taking advantage of technological advances
ECAC cited broad public support as justification for swift approval by the Town Council and as a mandate to move forward deliberately and expeditiously. And indeed, the Town Council adopted ECAC’s goals unanimously and with minimal debate (suspending the rules that required a second reading to do so) and the committee is moving forward purposefully and expeditiously to frame a climate action plan that will spell out how the town can implement these goals.
Members of ECAC were, of course, well aware that they were sampling the community and that their sample was relatively small and that there are constituencies out there that still need to be heard, and they continue to engage in expanded outreach efforts. Nonetheless, their awareness and their intentionality offer an admirable model for accountable government. The takeaways are clear: consult the public early and often in the process of project conceptualization and development. Be inclusive and sample widely. Listen carefully and be open to new perspectives. Don’t be constrained by presuppositions. Find common ground to build broad support.