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

This sparsely attended meeting began with President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) stating that she hoped the meeting would end by 10 p.m. That turned out to be wishful thinking, as the actual adjournment was well after 11 p.m. There were no enthusiastic third graders or  motivated educators and parents, but there was a packed agenda.

The meeting began with announcements of upcoming meetings, of which there are many (see the above link). Especially noteworthy is the Finance Committee’s public hearing in the large activity room at the Bangs Center on May 21 at 6:30 p.m. and the public forum on the Capital Improvement Program in the Town Room of Town Hall on June 10 at 6:30 p.m.

Public Comment and Proclamations

During public comment, an Amherst resident who had fled unsafe housing and found shelter at Craig’s Doors spoke. She said she was offered an apartment through the Rapid Rehousing Program, which pays all expenses for a year, but she declined it because it smelled of cigarette smoke from a neighboring apartment and she has an allergy to cigarette smoke. When she declined it, she lost her bed at Craig’s Doors  as well as her eligibility to the Rapid Rehousing program. She reported that she reached out to officials but received no responses from town councilors, the town manager, the governor, or the attorney general. Her plea was for a proper grievance procedure for housing disputes.

Resident Rob Kusner praised the town and the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) for reinstating nighttime bus service during the summer months on routes 30 and 31.

Proclamations for Race Amity Day on June 9 and a memorial program for Ray Elliott on June 8 were unanimously passed, as was a proclamation for the 50th anniversary of Amherst’s A Better Chance Program, which will be celebrated at the UMASS Campus Center at 6 p.m. on June 15.  Barry and Judy Brooks will be honored.

Town Budget

Town Manager Paul Bockelman and  the interim finance director, Sonia Aldrich, presented the proposed FY20 budget, which is available for public view here. There is an increase in the operating budget of 3.2 percent and an increase in the capital budget of 9.5 percent. Reserves are 15.6 percent. No reserves or override are needed to balance the budget. There is a loss of about $600,000 from the ending of the Hadley emergency medical services (EMS) contract. (There is no reduction in Fire Department staff.) $1 million plus $841,000 from the state is devoted to upkeep of the roads, and $200,000 to sidewalk repair. $20,000 is allotted for lights and pedestrian safety. The total is  $83 million, up 3.3 percent from last year.

According to an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (May 8), the FY20 budget contains $100,000 for Town Council salaries and expenses, an increase from $8,000 for selectboard/town meeting in previous years, and eliminates $60,000 in children’s services that town meeting allocated in May 2018 for the current year.

Also included is borrowing $900,000 for schematic designs for the proposed public works and fire department buildings  ($250,000 each) and $400,000 for a feasibility study for the elementary schools if the MSBA grant comes through.

The proposed budget is 254 pages long and town councilors unanimously voted to refer it to the Finance Committee; they also voted to refer the Capital Inventory and Improvement Program to the Finance Committee. Again, there will be a public hearing on the proposed budget on May 21 at the Bangs Center.

Rules and Procedures

The Ad Hoc Rules Committee, consisting of councilors Shalini Bahl Milne (District 5), Alyssa Brewer (at large), Darcy Dumont (District 5), Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large), and Cathy Schoen (District 1), presented its proposed permanent Rules and Procedures, which must be adopted by June 3.   Most are straightforward, but provisions to post all  council votes the day after council meetings and draft minutes within four days, on the town website, were discussed at length. It was resolved to get feedback from the town council clerk, who was not present. Also, decorum for meetings was discussed, with seven councilors feeling that the public should not be allowed to audibly express approval or disapproval at meetings. The role of council committees was also discussed—whether committees can make policies or advise on policies which the whole council would have to approve. These proposed rules will be further discussed at the May 20 council meeting.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman stated that according to a new state law, the town can collect 3 percent in community impact fees, in addition to a 1 percent hotel tax, on certain short-term rentals, such as those often offered via AirBnB and VRBO. The proposal  states that 35 percent of this income goes to affordable housing. John Hornick of the Amherst Municipal Housing Trust suggested that since short-term rentals end up driving up housing costs, all of the income should go to affordable housing. This was unanimously referred to the Finance Committee and Community Resource Committee.

Councilor Pat DeAngelis (District 2), from the Audit Committee, reported on the recently completed FY 2018 audit. No problems were found, but she suggested that there be a decrease in the amount of time it takes to release minutes of meetings.

The council then devoted considerable time to the same discussion of transparency versus privacy, in regard to applicants for appointments to town committees and multi-member bodies, that had been taken up at previous meetings.

Newly appointed members of the Environmental and Climate Action Committee (ECAC) were announced by the town manager and approved 12-0, with Evan Ross (District 4) abstaining.  

Afterward, Sarah Swartz (District 1) reviewed the process of appointments that are made by the town manager and appointments that are made by the Outreach, Communications and Appointments Committee (OCA) of the town council. In the case of appointments made by the town manager, only the town manager and members of the interview committee (appointed by the town manager)  are permitted to see the applications. OCA and the full council approved the manager’s appointments to the ECAC, although theoretically they could have rejected some or all applicants. Councilors Dumont, Schoen, and Dorothy Pam (District 3) reiterated their discomfort with the concept that all names and even the total number of applicants be withheld from the council and the public, and not be made part of the public record. Applicants to town committees are public record in Northampton and elsewhere.    

There was even more disagreement on the issue of appointments to council committees. The proposal from OCA was that only OCA members would be permitted to know who applied for town positions and to see applications (community activity forms, CAFs) and that only the chairperson (currently, Swartz) would be entitled to conduct the interviews of all candidates. Under the OCA’s proposal, the OCA would decide on a slate of candidates that would be presented for confirmation to the rest of the town council. Several  councilors expressed discomfort with this process, arguing that they should be able to know who else applied for the positions and view the activity forms. In the end, the council voted 8-5 to ask the town clerk to forward applicants’ CAFs to the council, with councilors Brewer, DeAngelis, Ross, George Ryan (District 3), and Swartz. dissenting.

The council decided (9-4, with Bahl-Milne, Griesemer, Schoen, and At-large Councilor Andy Steinberg dissenting) that the Finance Committee should abide by the same rules as other committees for appointment of residents (non-voting), rather than make its own appointments.

Griesemer suggested that the council conduct a survey of applicants this summer in order to get information about their impressions of the process and whether they applications being in the public record would have dissuaded them from applying.

Other News in Brief  

The Government Organization and Legislation (GOL) committee’s plan to regulate use of public ways and parking proposed at the last meeting was approved unanimously.

Town Manager Bockelman reported on a successful Clean Up Amherst Day (May 4).  Although the event was not widely publicized, members of the Rotary Club, as well as the Amherst College and Amherst high school football teams, Amherst Garden Club, and other citizens collected 100 pounds of recycling and 340 pounds of trash. The town’s professional community participation officers coordinated the three sites with several councilors.  

The next Cuppa Joe will take place on Friday, May 17. Town Manager Bockelman will be joined by the interim finance director, Sonia Aldrich, at Kelly’s Restaurant.

An enterprise named Rise plans to begin recreational marijuana sales in North Amherst this weekend.

Councilor Steve Schreiber (District 4) reported that more than thirty people took part in the architectural tour of Amherst on May 4.

It was unanimously decided to eliminate the November 4, 2019 council meeting because of the town election the next day.  A meeting on October 28 will be added if necessary.

Minutes from April 22 and 23 meetings were approved.

The meeting was adjourned at 11:15 p.m.

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