COUNCIL APPROVES COMMUNITY CHOICE AGGREGATION

Amherst Town Council Meeting, Town Room, Town Hall, Amherst. Photo: Maura Keene

Report on the TOWN COUNCIL MEETING (1/6/20) PART I:

Present: Alisa Brewer (At large), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Darcy DuMont (District 5), Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Mandi-Jo Hanneke (At large), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Evan Ross (District 4), George Ryan (District 3), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Steve Schreiber (District 4), Andy Steinberg (At large), Sarah Swartz (District 1). Absent: Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5). Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keefe (Clerk of the Council).

Highlights: The Council:

  • passed unanimously a proposal for Community Choice Aggregation to purchase electricity and empowered the Town Manager to negotiate a collaboration with Pelham and Northampton.
  • discussed plans to move forward with the elementary school building project.
  • received a report on the Northampton Road affordable housing project which is behind schedule.
  • discussed plans to reorganize the committees of the Council.
  • discussed the roles of the President and Vice president of the Council
  • re-elected Lynn Griesemer President and Mandy Jo Hanneke, Vice President by unanimous vote.

Swearing-in Ceremony
The meeting began with the swearing-in of newly elected town officials for the School Committee, Jones Library Board of Trustees and the Housing Authority. Carol Gray, Oliver Smith Will Elector had previously been sworn in. Town Clerk Shavina Martin administered the oaths in the presence of Town Council President Lynn Griesemer and State Representative Mindy Domb. The officials who were sworn-in are listed here.

Martin Luther King Day Proclamation
Griesemer then announced that the Human Rights Commission’s proclamation commemorating Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, is scheduled for a public reading at 4 p.m., Wednesday, January 15, on the steps of Town Hall. This proclamation was passed unanimously.

School Building Project
Town Manager Paul Bockelman and School Superintendent Mike Morris presented a timeline for the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) process for replacing the Fort River School with a new elementary school. The entire process, outlined here, takes five to seven years, beginning with the eligibility phase of up to 270 days, which starts May 1, 2020. This phase includes documenting funding capacity and existing maintenance practices, design enrollment certification, and formation of a building committee. If the  Commonwealth approves the eligibility materials, the town can begin the feasibility process. This must be financed by the town because the  Commonwealth already paid for a study here in 2017, and would have to be included in next year’s budget.

Morris stressed that Amherst is fortunate to be one of eleven projects approved for possible funding (out of sixty-three applicants) and emphasized the importance of making sure that the needs of all elementary students in Amherst are met in the most timely manner, and that already-existing school buildings must be safe and functional. The requirements of the town’s net zero energy bylaw, he said, should be clarified as early as possible  in the planning process.

The state requires the school building committee to include a Procurement Officer, School Committee member, School Principal, and Finance Committee member, the Town Manager, School Superintendent, and Building Commissioner, and local residents with expertise in architecture, engineering, etc. The committee members will be appointed by the Town Manager with input from the Residents Advisory Committee and School Superintendent. Councilor Steve Schreiber suggested that a Town Councilor also be included. Nominees will be presented to the Council’s Outreach, Communication and Appointment Committee (OCA). Councilor Darcy DuMont expressed the hope that those involved in making the appontments would strive for diversity, both in demographics and outlooks. Councilor Alisa Brewer suggested that members of the school building committee be in agreement that one new school should be built rather than the Fort River and/or Wildwood school being repaired and updated, and said that this question has already been decided. 

Councilor Dorothy Pam recalled that the Council already approved a 600-student elementary school, but Morris explained that this is not the only option, but was preferred at listening sessions conducted last spring. Councilor Pat DeAngelis asked whether the sixth grade will be moved to the middle school, and Morris said it was being studied. 

Councilor Cathy Schoen asked whether the MSBA might fund renovations to Crocker Farm Elementary School or the middle school to accommodate the sixth grade or additional students from Wildwood. Bockelman and Morris responded that it is unlikely.

Northampton Road Affordable Housing Project
Laura Baker and Joanne Campbell of Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC) presented an update on the planned studio apartment project on Northampton Road. The project is several months behind schedule due to the retirement of the CDC’s usual architect and its desire to incorporate some concerns of the neighboring residents into its application to the  Commonwealth for funding.. In addition, Valley CDC received four requests to delay the submission of the application so it does not conflict with the academic calendar, especially when the colleges and university are on break for June, July, August, November, December, and January. The new architectural firm is Austin Design, based in Greenfield, Massachusetts and Brattleboro, Vermont (https://www.austin.design).

Valley CDC has also developed an extensive support services plan to include with the application. In the meantime, the existing house has been updated and will be available for short-term rental this summer. Once the proposal is reviewed by the state, there will be a 30-day public comment period followed by review by the Town Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals.

Several neighborhood residents reiterated concerns about the project. Kate Trost of Dana Street complained about inadequate communications for the last six months. She asked to see the supportive services plan and Baker explained that it is part of the application, which also includes supporting and opposing letters, and will be available on the  Commonwealth website after it is submitted. Hilary Wilbur Ferro asked where and when in the process is it possible to raise concerns about zoning compliance. A third resident, who declined to identify herself, wanted neighborhood residents to be present when the state does its site visit. Brewer responded that the site visit is for state and municipal representatives, not the public at large. Griesemer stated that the project will not come before Town Council again.

Community Choice Aggregation (CCA)
Community Choice Aggregation, a joint agreement between Pelham, Northampton, and Amherst to purchase electricity to the towns with an emphasis on clean energy and to invest any realized profits to support renewables, was again discussed. The measure was first raised at the December 16 Council meeting,  but the councilors had insufficient information to act then. The inter-municipal CCA Task Force has supplied more information, summarized here.. Task Force member Sam Titelman and Amherst Sustainability Coordinator, Stephanie Ciccarelli were available to answer questions. None of the councilors objected to Amherst’s participation in the plan, and a lengthy discussion ensued about whether its negotiation and execution should be delegated to the Town Manager or should be subject to final approval by the Council. 

Titelman pointed out that the planning will be difficult if the other towns think Amherst’s participation will be subject to Council approval. Councilor Mandy Jo Hanneke said that although she had previously thought the council should take responsibility for the agreement, she now sees its negotiation as the responsibility of the executive branch of the town’s government. The Town Manager is the executive branch under the new charter. She argued that the council should move forward on the formation of the CCA, and then let the Town Manager formulate the details with the Mayor of Northampton and Town Manager of Pelham. 

Two amendments were made to the original motion. The first authorizes the Town Manager to execute an intergovernmental agreement or joint powers act so that council approval is not necessary. The vote was 8-3-1 with Brewer, Sarah Swartz, and Evan Ross voting no and Schoen abstaining. The second ammendment allows the Town Manager to negotiate the agreement and to move ahead with the CCA plan without coming back to the Town Council. That amendment passed 12-0. 

The video of  Part I of the meeting can be viewed here. 

Editor’s note:  The Indy did not have a reporter present at this meeting and covered it by viewing the video of the proceedings.  The video of Part II of the meeting has been lost at Amherst Media and will not be available to the public. Part II of the meeting included a discussion of possible reorganization of committees of the Town Council,  the roles of Council officers and election of President and Vice President of the Council. The Indy will endeavor to report on these issues in the coming week. Council President Lynn Greisemer and Vice President Mandy Jo Hanneke were re-elected unanimously after a considerable discussion on the roles of Council Officers.

Read Bill Kaizen’s commentary on the power of Council officers can be here.

Draft minutes from the meeting, including Part II,  can be found here.

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