TOWN COUNCIL DEBATES APPOINTMENTS, HISTORICAL COMMISSION, AND SUPPORTIVE HOUSING PROJECT IN MARATHON SESSION

REPORT ON THE TOWN COUNCIL MEETING OF 6/15/20

The meeting was held via Zoom webcast and was simulcast on Amherst Media Channel 17. The recording of that meeting can be viewed here

All Town Councilors participated, as did Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Finance Director Sean Mangano, and Comptroller Sonia Aldrich.

Highlights

  • a report on capital improvements, indicating that only roads and sidewalks will be included in next year’s capital improvements budget
  • a report on increasing Town water rates
  • approved CPA funding of $1,256,096 (this does not include $1 million that had been provisionally approved for the Jones Library before Covid-19 and is now the subject of a Minority Report questioning its legality)
  • passed Article 14 Zoning Bylaw amendment that fast-tracks certain requests pertaining to parking and outdoor seating
  • approved a letter of support for the supportive living project at 132 Northampton Road
  • appointed Councilors Cathy Schoen and Steve Schreiber to positions on the Elementary School Building Committee
  • approved reappointments to four town committees
  • debated the legitimacy of the Town Historical Commission
  • began discussion of a process for evaluating the Town Manager

The 5 hour 52 minute June 15 meeting started off uneventfully. Sean Mangano, Sonia Aldrich, and Paul Bockelman presented the Capital Improvement Plan for FY 2021

Capital Improvements Budget
Essentially, the only capital improvements next year will be roads and sidewalks. The presentation was followed by a public hearing in which several residents asked questions. Resident Toni Cunningham thanked the Finance Committee and Joint Capital Planning Committee for detailing unspent capital from previous years that may be applied to upcoming expenses. Evan O’Neill of Smith Street was happy that money was being allocated to streets and sidewalks, but thought more attention should be paid to the streets between the high school and downtown, which are narrow and have lots of foot and bicycle traffic. Ludmilla Pavlova-Gillham wanted to know the borrowing capacity of the Town; Aldrich stated that Amherst could borrow about $113 million. 

Announcements
Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) announced the upcoming Juneteenth celebration, which will be held virtually on June 19 and congratulated Jack Jemsek of the Planning Board on being appointed to the Executive Committee of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

Water Rates
Superintendent of Public Works Guilford Mooring and Assistant Superintendent Amy Rusiecki presented proposed rate hikes for water and sewer rates beginning July 1. Even before the pandemic, water use in town has been dropping by about two percent per year, meaning that income to the water enterprise fund has decreased. But costs have remained relatively fixed. Although there have been some savings from one well being off-line, several big water-related capital projects loom in the near future, including replacement of the Centennial Water Treatment Plant in FY 2022 costing $11million and a gravity belt thickener and reuse water filter for the sewer costing $7.3 million. In order for the division to continue to function, Mooring recommended raising the water rate from $3.90 to $4.20 per 100 cubic feet (7.7 percent) and the sewer rate from $4.00 to $4.60 per 100 cubic feet (15.5 percent). The average homeowner’s water and sewer bills would still be at about the median for the region at $1,054 per year. 

Councilor Alisa Brewer (At-large) wondered why there was no allocation for stormwater management. Mooring said that Amherst has joined the Storm Water Management Group and would appropriate money for a program to look at water quality in the future. Darcy DuMont (District 5) asked about the availability of grants under the Municipal Preparedness Act. Mooring said that there are several grants the Town can apply for. He responded to a question by Cathy Schoen (District 1) affirming that the future costs of the new water treatment plant and sewer upgrades were figured into the current increases. Further discussion of the water and sewer rates was referred to the Finance Committee, as were the Capital Improvement Program and the one-month budget for July 2020, which was discussed at last week’s meeting.

Community Preservation Act Funding
The Council voted unanimously to accept the recommendations for allocation of Community Preservation Act Funds. Depending on the budget and upcoming needs, more funds may be awarded in the fall. Of note, $1 million for the new construction of a room to store historical documents at the Jones Library as part of the proposed library expansion was not part of this allocation, as there is a dispute as to whether this is a legitimate use of CPA funds, and, in any case, the funds would not be used in FY2021. 

Article 14 Zoning Bylaw Amendment
There was a lively discussion regarding the proposed Article 14 of the Zoning Bylaw, which would expedite approval of changes to dining, retail, and personal care businesses to allow them to comply with social distancing policy in reopening. Currently, such changes are approved by the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals with appropriate public hearings and notice to abutters. Under the amended bylaw, approval would be reviewed by Building Commissioner Rob Morra and Town Planning Director Christine Brestrup to expedite approval. Approved changes would be in effect for 180 days. The Bylaw passed 11-1-1 with DuMont dissenting and Pam abstaining. This matter is discussed in more detail here.

Supportive Housing At 132 Northampton Road
Griesemer drafted a letter on behalf of the Council to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) in support of the supportive studio apartment project proposed by Valley Community Development Corporation at 132 Northampton Road. This sparked an objection from Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (At-large) who felt that when the Council approved borrowing CPA funds for the project, neighbors opposing the project were told that the Council had no more role in the decision-making and that the ZBA would be the body granting the Comprehensive Permit if the project were approved by the State. Hanneke thought sending the letter to the ZBA contradicted this message. Steve Schreiber (District 4) said the Council should not try to influence a judicial board that it appoints. Brewer disagreed with this line of reasoning, arguing that the Council appoints these bodies but does not micro-manage them. They are independent bodies and the Council has every right to share its thinking with them on this issue. George Ryan (District 3) felt that the Council should reaffirm its support for the project with a letter to the ZBA.

There was also discussion about whether the Council should urge the ZBA to give preference for those who live or work in Amherst in the selection of residents for the project. This matter had not previously been discussed by the Council, and several councilors objected to including it, on that basis. Councilors Pat DeAngelis (District 2) and Evan Ross (District 4) felt that including this provision was racist and classist, and that there are many people who cannot afford to live in Amherst now, but who could afford the units in the planned studio housing. In the end, the sentence was removed from the letter. The amended letter passed 9-3-1 with DuMont, Schreiber, and Hanneke voting no and Schoen abstaining.

Town Manager Evaluation
The Council then discussed the calendar for the annual evaluation of the Town Manager. There were several suggestions, including using last year’s format, establishing a task force, and having the Council President formulate an evaluation tool. Dorothy Pam (District 3) wanted a simplified tool; Sarah Swartz (District 1) wanted the form to be detailed and specific. In the end, the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee (GOL) will develop a questionnaire for the Council to use in its evaluation and will distribute it to the Council members by early August so that the evaluation can be discussed at the August 17 Council meeting. Feedback from Town staff, committees, and the public will be solicited in July. The Town Manager goals developed last year will also be reviewed and updated.

Racial Equity Webinar
The Council wanted to follow up on a webinar on Racial Equity and Public Safety in the Town of Amherst that was organized by Human Rights Commission member Gazit Chaya Nkosi and UMass professors Dee and Amilcar Shabazz, with support from Councilors Pat DeAngelis (District 2) and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5). After discussion, it was agreed that the Council will look into having a listening session in early July and will contact the organizers of the earlier webinar.

Appointments
What is usually a pro forma vote by the Council, approval of nominations from the Town Manager for committee appointments, turned into a nearly one-hour discussion. The Town Services and Outreach Committee had voted unanimously to approve reappointments to the Agricultural Commission, Affordable Housing Trust, Board of Assessors, Council on Aging, Design Review Board, Historical Commission, Munson Memorial Building Trustees, Public Art Commission, Residents’ Advisory Committee, and Water Supply Protection Committee. Before the vote, Hanneke had stated that she was going to abstain because she objected to the work of the Historical Commission in interfering with development because of demolition delay. When asked to clarify her objections, she referred to the “broad scope” and “possible overreach” of the Commission. Steve Schreiber (District 4). who is an architect, said that in his long experience with the Historical Commission, the commissioners have been conscientious in doing their job, even though he and others didn’t always agree with them. He did not see any egregious misuse of power. George Ryan (District 3) said that Hanneke seemed to be objecting to the Bylaw itself, not to the individuals nominated for reappointment. The vote to approve the reappointments was 11-0-2 with Griesemer and Hanneke abstaining. This issue is also discussed in an opinion piece in The Indy.

Two Councilors, one of whom must be a member of the Finance Committee, are to be part of the Elementary School Building Committee, which must be formed by the end of June in accordance with state regulations. The Town Manager is in charge of appointing the committee. Eight Councilors expressed interest in being on the committee: Brewer, DeAngelis, Dumont, Griesemer, Hanneke, Schoen, Schreiber, and Steinberg. Griesemer and DeAngelis withdrew their names prior to the vote. Each of the other candidates gave a statement about their qualifications. Brewer stressed her experience as a Select Board member and involvement with the previous building committee. She was also a School Committee member for five years. She emphasized that it is important to communicate with the public all the time, not just when a final design is developed. DuMont stated she moved to Amherst for the schools here, and taught elementary school in Holyoke for 20 years after substitute teaching in all of the Amherst schools. Hanneke said that, although her daughter goes to the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School, she is well acquainted with space issues in elementary schools and promises to research all aspects of a plan thoroughly and to ask questions and keep an eye on the costs of the project. Schoen cited her experience in finance at the national level and work on the Finance Committee and Joint Capital Planning Committee. Schreiber said he thought there should be an architect on the committee, and that he has worked on the Fort River Building Committee. Steinberg stated that he has long experience with the schools, as a parent, Select Board member, and chair of the Finance Committee.

Schoen was selected as the Finance Committee member by a vote of 6-4-3 (Swartz, Brewer, Ross, and Ryan voted for Steinberg; Steinberg, Griesemer, and Schoen abstained). After that vote, Steinberg and Dumont withdrew, and Schreiber was chosen (Steinberg, Bahl-Milne, DuMont, Pam, Ross, Ryan, Schreiber, and Schoen voted for him; Brewer, Swartz, and DeAngelis voted for Brewer; Hanneke voted for herself; Griesemer abstained). Bockelman’s nominations to certain positions on the Committee that are required by the MSBA had been approved by the TSO earlier in the day. Six additional appointments to the Committee will be made by Bockelman.

The Outreach, Communications and Appointment committee wrapped up its final meeting by recommending that the three members of the Planning Board up for reappointment, Michael Birtwistle, Christine Gray-Mullen, and David Levenstein, be reappointed until August 30, 2020 because the pool of applicants was deemed insufficient. The Council voted unanimously to extend their terms. The appointment duties of OCA have now been divided between the CRC, TSO and GOL. (GOL is doing appointments of resident members of the Finance Committee).

Town Manager Report
Town Manager Bockelman referred only to his written report in the packet. However, Hanneke asked him when the library is going to open, since other towns have already been doing curbside circulation of materials. She was hoping the library building opening would be a priority because its bathrooms and internet are used by the Town’s neediest residents and the building serves as a cooling site in hot weather. She also wanted to know when parking meters will start being enforced, whether school playgrounds will open, and what arrangements are being made for the September election. Bockelman stated that all of these issues are being worked on. The schools are not planning to open their playgrounds, but Groff Park should be completed in late July. Town buildings might not open until fall because many things need to be in place. The Town Clerk is considering tents or a central location for the fall election rather than using the traditional locations in the schools. 

The meeting adjourned at 11:27 p.m. after starting at 5:30.

The next Council meeting will be June 29 at 6:30.

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