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

By Maura Keene

The Town Council meeting on April 1, 2019 was a nearly five-hour marathon.  The meeting started out expeditiously. The council unanimously approved the submission of a Statement of Interest (SOI) to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for replacement or renovation of the Wildwood and Fort River schools.  Jean Fay, president of the Amherst Pelham Educational Association, read a letter from retired Fort River art teacher Terri Magner regarding the shortcomings of the physical layout of both schools. Middle school student Julian Hines expressed reservations with traffic safety in the proposed 600-student design, suggesting that buses and parking would be positioned too close to the playground.  Councilors thanked him for his participation and reminded him that the town will decide on a final design only if the state money is awarded.

On April 4 at 6:30 in the Town Room, the Finance Committee will vote to recommend the Regional School budget.  

A public presentation on Smart Growth will take place at the same time at Crocker Farm School. Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) reminded all present that a public “forum” must include significant public participation, i.e. 50 percent or more, of the time must be devoted to soliciting public comments.  A public “hearing” must simply offer the opportunity for public comment.

Residents Jennifer Page and Becky Michaels presented a proclamation recognizing the 25th anniversary of the Amherst Educational Foundation, which awards about $30,000  to teachers and school groups a year. A celebration of AEF will be held May 25, from 5:30-7:30 at the UMass Marriott Center. Tickets are available for purchase here.

Requests for use of roads, parks, and parking spaces were made for the Taste of Amherst (June 13-15), the Sustainability Festival (April 27),the May Day Celebration, and Art Week/Arts Night (2 spaces for the BID trolley  on May 4). Councilors Hanneke, Sarah Swarz, and Alisa Brewer questioned whether too many parking spaces were being reserved for the Sustainability Festival. All requests passed 12-1 with councilor Hanneke dissenting .

Waste Reduction Enforcement Coordinator Mimi Kaplan presented a report on the state of recycling in Amherst, with special attention to the diminished market for the sale of recycled materials.  

A proposal to convert  the East Street school into affordable housing was widely supported. Town Planner Nate Malloy presented the policies covering transfer of the property and its assessment,  and taxation. The Council voted unanimously to proceed. The town manager will now solicit proposals from developers for the construction of affordable housing on the site under a 99-year lease.  

Meg Gage presented a proposal developed  last summer by the Town Meeting Advisory Committee (TMAC) to create a Council Advisory Board that would fulfill a function like that envisioned for TMAC, i.e. to research and report on the community impacts of various proposals as they arise. Gage proposed that the advisory board would not have decision-making power, nor would they make specific recommendations. Rather, they would carry out research on policy proposals in order to examine their potential impact on a range of community groups and interests.

At the heart of the proposal was a Community Impact Report Framework to help structure the review. The framework was designed after studying a number of community impact documents, including those used by Brookline and the European Union. Gage emphasized that many legislative bodies have standards for assessing community impact.  Some councilors raised questions about where the policy should be developed and if so,  whether it should be for one committee or for ad hoc groups with expertise in relevant areas .  Councilor Ross commented that the council already does sufficient evaluation of community impact and questioned whether the proposal was worthy of the Council’s further time.   There was considerable discussion about whether the proposal should be referred to a subcommittee of the Council or sent back to the proposer. At-large Councilor Hanneke and resident Meg Gage, both of whom were members of the Charter Commission, pointed out that any citizen can petition to have a matter brought up at a council meeting, and that if their petition is signed by 150 residents, the matter must be brought up at a meeting within 60 days.  Councilor Brewer commented that residents should not have to go through a “clunky process” in order to get their concerns and proposal before the Council. The council referred the matter to the Government, Organization and Legislation (GOL) committee to revise the proposal.

Hanneke, reporting for the GOL, proposed that every town committee in existence more than five years review its charge, using the template GOL developed for council committees. Brewer pointed out that the council has no jurisdiction over town committees. It was decided that this would be a suggestion for town committees and that they would communicate these charges to the body that they report to.

The rest of the meeting was largely devoted to how the council will make appointments to committees, especially to the Finance Committee. There were reports from the Rules Committee (Alisa Brewer), Finance Committee (Andy Steinberg), and Outreach, Communication and Appointments (OCA) Committee (Sarah Swartz).  OCA is working with the town attorney, Lauren Goldberg, to craft a policy that will maintain privacy of applicants. Currently under consideration is a proposal for one councilor to interview the applicants and present the results of the interview to the relevant committee, which would then present a slate of recommended candidates to the whole council. No names would  be made public until the final step. There was a disagreement as to whether residents who apply to be on the Finance Committee (only town councilors have voting rights on the committee) should be interviewed by the chair of the Finance Committee or by the chair of OCA. No decision was reached. Councilor Darcy Dumont, a member of OCA, suggested that the policy on appointments should be decided by the council, not by the committee.  Councilor Ross said that because OCA had spent twenty hours working on this topic, other councilors are not insufficiently informed to make this decision. . Dumont’s minority opinion was included in the OCA report for this meeting.

Griesemer announced appointments of councilors to several other council committees:

Energy and Climate Action Committee: Dumont and Ross

Audit Committee: Hanneke, Pam, Pat DeAngelis

Community Resource Committee: Steinberg, Swartz, DeAngelis, Pam, and Schreiber.

The meeting was adjourned at 11: 45 PM.

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