OPINION: JONES TRUSTEES RECORD AND POST A MEETING FOR THE FIRST TIME BUT MUCH WORK REMAINS FOR RESPECTFUL ENGAGEMENT WITH THE COMMUNITY

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Directions to the Woodbury Room, Jones Library. Photo: Art Keene

Terry S. Johnson

The Jones Trustees recently recorded and posted their Trustee meeting for the first time.  A new column entitled “Media” has been created on the Jones Library Agenda Center webpage.  

This is a noteworthy step because the Jones Library has never been included in the Town’s contract with Amherst Media for recording and posting meetings, as are Town Council and School Committee meetings. The handful of Trustee meetings which have been recorded were initiated by volunteers, trained by Amherst Media, with Amherst Media then posting those videos as a routine follow-up to volunteers using their equipment.

Hopefully, videos of library meetings will lead to more stable and polite discourse and decorum during library meetings. Public meeting attendees have witnessed harsh exchanges over the years which have resulted in some folks feeling not welcome. These have included lashing out at audience members as well as disrespectful comments by some Trustees and the Director towards each other as well as special Trustee guests. I could site chapter and verse, dates and times, but let’s just hope that this is behind all of us now that meetings will be taped and posted. 

The Town of Amherst’s motto on their website is “Open Government to the Max,” and it is wonderful to see that the Town has established of a Clerk of the Council, and Town Hall office liaisons who increase government transparency in a timely manner with detailed agendas, pre-meeting published packets, prompt minutes, document storage and videos. 

The library may have joined other major departments in posting videos of their meetings, but much work remains. I was initially alarmed at the lack of library transparency when I began going to Trustee meetings in late 2016 in preparation for a run for Library Trustee.  I wrote a memo to the Trustees in January, 2017 entitled “How the Jones Library Board of Trustees Could Foster More Citizen Participation.” Some of my concerns were addressed for a while yet many still exist today (see here).

There are problems with the physical meeting set-up in the Goodwin Room. I have been told by  Director Sharon Sharry that this is because there is not a proper Trustee meeting room which she says will be included in the proposed library building project.  Let’s note that the current Woodbury Room has adequate space and supposedly state-of-the-art equipment.

There are no name tags for Trustees and rarely any introductions of Trustees and/or their meeting guests. After complaints, the Trustees have rearranged their meeting tables into a U shape, facing the audience.  However, Trustee President Austin Sarat still sits at one corner, his back to the audience.  If there are Trustee meeting guests, the U becomes a closed square and someone’s back is to the audience. This makes it impossible to hear the guest. Microphones are rarely, if ever, used during Jones’ meetings although many hearing-impaired residents have requested them. 

In addition to problems with auditory input, the public must unravel what the committee is discussing, usually without visual references. There is no large screen in the Goodwin Meeting Room to project the documents being discussed. When an occasional meeting takes place in the Woodbury Room and a screen is used, the audience chairs are arranged so far back from the screen as to render it useless.

Unlike the Town Council, for example, the Jones Library does not reliably provide printed agendas or printed handouts unless it is a meeting such as the Feasibility and Design subcommittee or the Sustainable subcommittee where there are many non-Trustee members. Agendas are posted on the website but packets are not posted with agendas, and packets are not posted afterwards either. This results in a challenge to members of the public much of the time about what is specifically being discussed.

In addition, when a written public comment statement is presented to the Trustees from an individual or a group, it is mentioned only briefly in subsequent minutes and is never posted with the minutes or anywhere else. This means that residents have no idea what concerns have been brought to the Trustees. 

Minutes are written, approved and posted on an irregular schedule. For example, as of 6/23/20, there are a significant number of minutes that have not been posted for months and in one case years. 

There are 6 out of 7 unposted Trustees Minutes for 2020.  Although I am sure that Robert Pam, Treasurer, is caught up writing Budget subcommittee minutes, there are 8 out of 8 unposted budget minutes for 2020 and 7 out of 12 missing budget minutes for 2019.  How can residents understand the challenges the library faces with its budget if the minutes are not made available? 

Let’s face it, Amherst residents need to have confidence in the Jones Library Trustees since they are  asking the Town to commit up to $22 million towards a $35.8 million demolition/expansion project.  Their procedures as stated above do not increase faith in their decision making. Recording and posting videos of meetings is “one step,” but we’re a long way from that “giant leap.” 

Terry S. Johnson  is a retired Amherst teacher, blossoming poet,  and a lifelong student of art, architecture, history, and languages.  

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