REPORT ON THE MEETING OF THE TOWN SERVICES AND OUTREACH COMMITTEE (6/15/20)

Amherst Town Hall. Photo: Art Keene.

The meeting was called to order at 9:33 a.m. and was held via Zoom webcast.  The meeting was recorded.

Participants
Members of the Town Services and Outreach Committee (TSO):  Darcy DuMont (Chair,  District 5), Alisa Brewer (At-large),  Dorothy Pam (District 3), Evan Ross (District 4), and George Ryan (District 3)

Also: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Lynn Griesemer (President, Town Council; District 2), and Mandi Jo Hanneke, (Town Councilor, At-large)

Highlights

  • Two Amherst residents offered comments on appointments to the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC), voicing concern that there had been little outreach and that the process had been opaque.
  • TSO recommended to the Town Council the Town Manager’s nominations for reappointment of seven individuals to four town boards, commissions and committees.
  • TSO recommended unanimously to the Town Council the Town Manager’s nominations of seven individuals to the Elementary School Building Committee.  These nominations are due to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) no later than June 30.  Additional nominations to the ESBC, including that of three members of the public will be made after the June 30 deadline.
  • TSO discussed the remnants of a proposal for a community advisory panel that would help the Council research issues coming before it in a non-partisan manner.  Originally proposed by the Town Meeting Advisory Committee, the idea has now been mostly abandoned.  Instead, TSO began deliberations on their internal process that will determine, for matters that come before them, what kinds of information it needs and who will provide that information.
  • TSO decided to postpone until autumn further deliberations on a proposed surveillance technology bylaw.

Public Comment
Maria Kopicki , a resident of Amherst, offered the following comment on appointments to the school building committee:

“The Elementary School Building Committee is one of the most important groups the Town will form. It must navigate the largest capital building project in a town that was ripped apart by the previous one. The process and composition of the committee must be beyond reproach. The people who serve will need to dig deeply into the material, demand answers to hard questions, challenge assumptions and opinions (both their own and others), and pivot to reflect new information and emerging concerns. The best chance for a successful conclusion to this project is to make sure that everyone has faith in the ability of the committee that guides it to have the difficult discussions ahead with fair representation of diverging viewpoints participating fully. 

“When the Amherst School Committee formed the Fort River Feasibility Study Committee, it took several months to consider the best way forward, understanding the importance of having community support and participation. They reflected the Town’s commitment to climate action by requiring the membership of someone with expertise in green building and net zero design. They understood that individuals who have experienced Amherst’s elementary schools as parents have perspectives that are valuable to creating a building that will serve not just the children who will first enter it, but generations of children to come.  They took pains to include not only parents but also general community members who also have a stake in not only the education of the Town’s children, but also the overall health of the Town and its resources.

“The Town Manager’s memo notes, ‘I will be doing additional outreach for the three other members of the committee in an effort to ensure the committee broadly represents the community.’ However, the proposed categories of resident committee members are not sufficient to meet this goal and the outreach so far to identify interested persons has been inadequate. We need to be honest and open about our (hopefully) past divisions and make sure that those who hold differing viewpoints serve together on this committee to create something that can achieve far broader support. If we do NOT start out (and continue) together as valued and respected partners in this endeavor, we risk continuing division and ending in failure.”

Toni Cunningham, a resident of Amherst made the following comment regarding the appointment of members of the school building committee:

“The Town Manager’s memo indicated there will be just two to three spots on the committee for community members. I believe that this is too few to include representation of a wide range of stakeholders.

“It is June 15th and this is the first look at initial appointments. It’s been known since last December that this committee had to be formed by June 30th. With all that time to get this right, it now feels rushed and opaque, and that concerns me. 

“Ideally, this work would have happened in January and February, and a list of names ready for May 1st when our eligibility period officially kicked off.

“The formation of this committee has not been widely advertised. There was no mention made in the Superintendent’s weekly newsletter that goes to all families in the districts, there was nothing sent through the PGOs, and there was no stand-alone announcement made through the Town’s usual channels.

“In fact, it would be interesting to know how applicants for the resident positions heard about it at all, and knew to apply. If they were contacted directly by any town or school employee, that might lend a perception of bias to the selection process.

“In filling the resident spots, it’s vitally important that you consider the constituencies that those individuals can represent, and indeed those of the Councilors too, to ensure broad representation, community support and buy-in from the start. 

“Whoever is appointed to the school building committee will need to be committed to doing the substantial homework and be prepared to speak up in the meetings, asking questions about minute details, to get to a fiscally-responsible solution that can win broad support among residents.

“We don’t need a committee that is there to rubber stamp a predetermined plan. We need this process to succeed and for it to have credibility all the way through, and that means member selection needs to be fair to create a balanced committee, if the process is to instill trust among all residents.

“Transparency and communication is very important. Every meeting needs to be recorded and available for viewing shortly afterward, as well as comprehensive minutes.  Perhaps this committee can advocate that a requirement of videotaping be included in the charge for the ESBC. I hope the Town will ensure that happens in this process without needing resident volunteers to cover it, as happened for the Fort River Feasibility Study.”

Action Items

Town Manager Appointments
The Committee voted unanimously to endorse the reappointment of seven individuals to four committees, boards, committees, and commissions.  A brief profile of each of the reappointments was provided in the Town Manager’s Appointment memo which can be read here

The Reappointments are:
to the Cultural Council, Robin Thompson and Rachel Wang (terms ending 6/30/23);

to the Board of Health,  Nancy Gilbert (ending 6/30/23) and Joan Tobiason (ending 6/30/21);

to the Conservation Commission, Fletcher Clark and Jenn Fair (ending 6/30/23);

to the Public Shade Tree Committee, Sarah Lawler (ending 6/30/23).

Brewer voiced concern that Gilbert had served since 2012 but this was not accurately reflected in Bockelman’s appointment memo.  Bockelman responded that even though she had apparently served more than six years (considered an unofficial term limit)  her experience is needed at this critical time. Brewer responded although she doesn’t dispute the candidate’s qualifications, the information forwarded needs to be correct.

Bockelman said he could go back and clarify all start dates for reappointments if the TSO is willing to wait until he has done so; Brewer said this wasn’t necessary at this time, restating that the qualifications of the current nominees are not in question. She asked, however, that the record be updated before it comes before the full Council. 

TSO voted unanimously to recommend the reappointments to the full Council.  The recommendation will be passed on to Town Council and the Town Manager will submit an addendum with corrections.

Appointments to the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC)
The Town’s final list of nominations to the ESBC must be received by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) by June 30, and Bockelman reviewed his nominations.  The Town is required to set up this committee according to the MSBA’s process, which identifies certain roles that must be filled and certain positions that can be designated by the town. 

Bockelman recommended that the following people be appointed to fill the required positions on the ESBC.  Brief profiles of each nominee are provided in the nominating memo, which can be read here

Appointments are for terms that last the length of the MSBA process, estimated to be 5 to 7 years. 

Town Manager – Paul Bockelman
Superintendent of Schools – Michael Morris
Fort River School Principal or Vice Principal – Diane Chamberlain
Wildwood School Principal or Vice Principal – Allison Estes
Building Maintenance official – Rupert Roy Clark
Finance Director- Sean Mangano
Massachusetts Certified Public Purchasing Official (MCPPO) –Anthony Delaney

The following appointments are forthcoming: 

  • Town Councilor who is a Finance Committee member 
  • Town Councilor 
  • School Committee member

    (Editor’s note:  Cathy Schoen (District 1) and Steve Schreiber (District 4) were voted by the Council at its meeting of 6/15 to fill the above-mentioned Councilor slots and Ben Herrington was selected as the  School Committee member at their meeting on 6/16.)

    The following resident appointments will be forthcoming after additional outreach. Preference will be given to parents/guardians of young children who might be in the elementary schools in five years.
  • Resident with experience in energy efficient public architecture, engineering, or construction 
  • Teacher or resident with knowledge of current educational mission and function of current facilities 
  • Resident with experience in effective community outreach 

Bockelman informed the TSO that the nominations in his memo are for the positions that must be filled by June 30, and he said he recognizes that outreach for committee positions has not been as robust as it could have been. The Town will do additional outreach to fill the three positions designated for members of the public. The  MSBA has agreed to receive those names later, given the difficult conditions that have resulted from COVID-19.

Pam questioned Bockelman’s intention to give preference to parents who will have children in the elementary schools in five years, describing that as a “strange and startling” criteria.  She spoke about the importance of drawing from the experience and expertise of parents who have kids in the schools now.   A community member who has not had that experience would be at a disadvantage and unable to speak from experience, she said. She requested that this preferential treatment be changed. 

Bockelman responded that it is  important to involve people who will be using the school when it opens in decisions about the creation of the school.  He said he wants to send a message to parents who will have “skin in the game”  that they are welcome to be part of the process.  

Pam suggested expanding the parent pool and said that excluding experienced parents removes important voices from the conversation.

Brewer, speaking as a former School Committee member and a member of parent organizations, voiced her own concerns about recruiting people who haven’t had  the experience of having children in school.  “I don’t see how people without school-age children, and having never gone through the experience of having kids in school, can bring anything helpful to the committee…. It just wastes a seat at the table,” she said.

DuMont agreed, saying that seeking parents of children under age five at the expense of parents who have or have had children in the school system “just doesn’t make sense.”  She also voiced concern that there is no provision for a committee member experienced in Zero Energy buildings, which she termed “odd” given the Town bylaw requiring that the new building be a Net Zero Energy building.  She asked Bockelman to add a Net Zero Energy position to the committee.

Bockelman replied that this seemed “redundant” and that since the net zero bylaw requires a net zero building,  having someone with that kind of expertise on the building committee seemed redundant to him.   He said  reserving a position for someone with expertise in Net Zero Energy would limit the pool too much. When DuMont pressed him for an explanation, he said that it isn’t clear that they would be able to find someone in Amherst with that expertise.

Bockelman replied that it is not clear that we could find someone within the town with that expertise and said that “the criteria of the bylaw need[s] to be fulfilled in any case.”

When Ross wanted to curtail the discussion, saying there was more pressing business before the committee, Pam asked, “If not now, then when?  When will there be another time to consider these questions?”

The committee voted 4-1 (Pam dissenting) that it should recommend that the Town Council accept Bockelman’s nominees.

Stakeholder Outreach/Council Advisory Panel
The Community Resources Committee (CRC) and TSO had been working on an early proposal from the former Town Meeting Advisory Committee (see here and  here) to create a citizen review panel that could independently research an issue coming before the Council and provide a non-partisan report on its pros and cons, in recognition that the Council does not have time to undertake independent research. The CRC rejected the concept and instead adopted a series of questions to help in the process of assessing a proposal. It can be viewed here

TSO engaged in a discussion of what their review process ought to look like.  Their proposed draft process can be read  here.  (How it might be applied to a proposed surveillance bylaw can be viewed  here.)  The draft process attempts to offer guidance about questions they should ask and what kinds of information should  be collected and by whom.  Among the questions it proposes  are what kind of action is being requested,  what kind of information is needed to assess the proposal, who are the staffers and stakeholders who need to be contacted in the process of outreach?

Brewer and Pam argued that the Council has neither the time nor the staff to seek out all of the pros and cons of a proposal and argued that it ought to be the responsibility of the people presenting the proposal to have done the necessary background research and to identify key stakeholders.

Dumont suggested that sponsors should not be responsible for researching the cons or weaknesses of their own proposals and that this is why TMAC was a good idea.  A citizen panel would be a neutral party researching all sides of an issue without taking sides, giving Councilors more information to inform their decisions.

Pam said that in the past, citizen reports have not been taken seriously by elected officials.  She suggested that Councilors need to be able to ask town staff to research the thing that needs to be researched. But she cautioned, “Our priority ought to be the stuff that comes from within the town government…stuff that comes to us from the outside, like wage theft — [It’s the responsibility of] the proposers to get us everything that we need.”

Ryan said that committees need a preliminary presentation of proposals where certain basic questions  are answered but it is not yet clear who makes this presentation or what precisely are the questions they want/need answered.

DuMont offered to revise the framework and bring it back for further discussion at the next meeting.

TSO will meet again on June 29 and August 6.

DuMont expressed her desire to hear the next step of the surveillance bylaw proposal but Brewer pointed out that there is no room in the calendar for that before September at the earliest.  Pam said that there are lots of loose threads for TSO to tie up and that they need to nail down their process before moving forward with any proposal that isn’t urgent. Dumont hopes to bring the matter back to TSO at their August 6 meeting.

Ryan asked everyone to please give a lot of thought to DuMont’s revision before the next meeting.

TSO’s report to the Council of 6/15/20 can be viewed here.

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