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

This meeting centered mainly on appointments to the Planning Board (PB) and Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), and approval of Rules and Procedures for the council. Next up will be the discussion and approval of the FY 20 budget with public meetings on May 21 and May 28, and presentation to the full council on June 3.

The meeting was called to order at 6:30 with sparse public attendance. Announcements were made for upcoming Finance Committee meetings to discuss the budget and the public forum on the capital improvement program.

Amy Russicki, the assistant superintendent of public works, then presented a citation received from Governor Charles Baker proclaiming the prior week as Drinking Water Week. She also stated that this week is Public Works Week and that each day will highlight a different division of the Department of Public Works.

Appointments to Planning Board and ZBA

Next came the presentation of nominations from the Outreach, Communication and Appointments Committee (OCA) for open positions on the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. Councilor Evan Ross (District 4) reviewed the process that has been discussed at length during the previous four council meetings and that was followed for the OCA’s nominations for appointments to committees. In summary,  the chair of OCA, Sarah Swartz (District 1), reviewed all community activity forms (CAFs) submitted for the positions in question within the last two years. She then ascertained whether or not the applicants were still interested and, if so, sent them information about the committee charges, time obligations, and questions that candidates would be asked in the interview process. These questions were determined after consultation with a range of interested parties, including the current chairs of the Planning Board and ZBA. Swartz then interviewed each applicant. The OCA-designated interviewer may, at their discretion invite other interested parties who are not town councilors to attend the interviews, although they may not participate in the questioning. In this case, Swartz invited Town Manager  Paul Bockleman and Planning Director Christine Brestrup to attend the interviews. On May 13, Swartz presented her recommendations to the whole OCA committee, whose members voted 3 to 2 (Swartz, Darcy Dumont of District 5, Alisa Brewer (at-large) for; George Ryan of District 3 and Ross against) to send the list to the whole council for approval.

Swartz  presented a detailed report to the council on the rationales for the recommendations, including careful deliberations in order to establish well-rounded, inclusive boards, with diversity and a range of experiences, and to add new voices while maintaining depth of experience and institutional memory. That memo can be found here.

What followed was a long and spirited discussion about the nominations to the Planning Board, which were eventually passed. The slate for the ZBA was then approved  unanimously, 13-0, with little discussion. The YouTube broadcast of those proceedings can be found here and a summary in the Daily Hampshire Gazette can be found here.

What follows is a  summary of the main points raised during the lengthy debate about the nominations to the Planning Board, which essentially centered on whether the only new member nominated, a mediator and attorney and long-time Amherst resident, Janet McGowan, should be approved. McGowan was nominated to replace a board member who had exceeded the two-term limit specified in the Town Appointed Committees Handbook, Greg Stutsman. Stutsman served his last two terms as chair of the planning board. Stutsman was apparently a member of the applicant pool but confidentiality protocols prohibit making public whether his application was active at the time of nominations.   Several councilors claimed that the term limits in the handbook are suggestive rather than binding, which is likely to be revisited after this round of appointments are made.

At-large Councilor Andy Steinberg emphasized the importance of experience and institutional memory. District 4 Councilor Steve Schreiber suggested that, with the transition to a new town government, no new members should be appointed at this time. District 4 Councilor Evan Ross said that although he supported adding new voices, he thought that the pool of applicants was “too thin”. He said he appreciated that the only  new appointee to the ZBA is a recent UMass graduate who is twenty-four years old, but added that in his opinion McGowan did not offer a “new voice”. District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne suggested the possibility of creating associate memberships for the Planning Board, which would allow the reappointment of Stutsman and at the same time create an opportunity for McGowan to ease themselves into the work of the Planning Board. At-large Councilor Alisa Brewer noted that although the ZBA has associate memberships, adding  associate memberships to the Planning Board would require revisions to the bylaws, and this should not be done “on the fly from the floor of a council meeting”. District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam thought the council should develop a policy on term limits and should revisit current policy on public access to the Community Appointment Forms (CAFs), adding that she and Brewer had attended a recent presentation on public records law (at the Jones Library) by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office and that in her opinion, keeping CAFs confidential is inconsistent with the AG office’s interpretation of public records laws.

Public comments on the lack of transparency of the council’s appointment process were made by Amherst residents Bob Greeney, Maura Keene, and Art Keene. Art  Keene also spoke to McGowan’s well-established qualifications to be a member of the planning board. Two current planning board members, Jim Jemsek and Christine Gray-Mullen, spoke to Greg Stutsman’s six years of experience on the board, saying that the next longest-serving member has been on the Board for only four years.

Several motions were offered. Steinberg moved and Hanneke seconded a motion  to send the entire slate of nominations back to OCA for further deliberation. The motion failed 5-7-1. Voting for the motion were Lynn Griesemer (District 1), Steinberg, Ross, Ryan and Bahl-Milne; Schreiber abstained. Schreiber then moved to accept all of  the nominations except for that of McGowan. No one seconded the motion. At-large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke then stated that political considerations were actually the issue and that some councilors had been elected because of their political commitment to a particular vision for the town’s future, including planning and zoning, and that they might feel an obligation to only appoint people who share their outlook. After an impassioned summary by Swartz of the OCA’s recommendations—and a plea to diversify these boards—the vote was called by Greisemer, the president of the council. The OCA nominations passed 8-2-3 (voting in favor were Bahl-Milne, Brewer, Pat DeAngelis of District 2, DuMont, Hanneke, Pam, Cathy Schoen of District 1, and Swartz; opposed were Ross and Ryan; Griesemer, Schreiber, and Steinberg abstained). Griesemer then proposed that the council’s Government, Organization and Legislation (GOL) commmittee  look into the concept of creating associate memberships of the Planning Board. DeAngelis seconded. In the ensuing discussion, several councilors pointed out that the idea had essentially been put forward in order to preserve the voice of one individual currently on the Planning Board. The motion failed (1-11-1, with Schoen in favor and Bahl-Milne abstaining).

Appointments to the Participatory Budgeting and Rank Choice Voting committees will be discussed at the next OCA meeting and brought to a vote at the council meeting of June 3.

Community Impact Fee

Bockelman then introduced three measures addressing  the town’s option to impose a local community impact fee of 3 percent on short-term rentals in town.  According to state law, this cannot apply to people renting their home or a room in their home through AirBnB or similar entities, but only to multi-unit dwellings. The first two  passed unanimously (13-0) with little discussion. The new law, (An Act Regulating Short Term Rentals) specifies that at least 35 percent of the fee collected must be dedicated to affordable housing or local infrastructure. Councilor DeAngelis suggested that 50 percent be devoted to affordable housing, but the other councilors wanted to remain “flexible”. This measure passed 11-1-1, with DeAngelis voting no and Dumont abstaining). The fees will go into effect on July 1, 2019.  

Town Council Rules and Procedures

Brewer then presented proposed Town Council Rules and Procedures (revised), incorporating the councilor comments submitted anonymously to the council clerk and the input of the clerk and the town manager. The proposed document is presented here. Revisions since the May 6 council meeting include: rules may be amended with one vote (not two); council votes will be posted on the town website within 24 hours of taking place, but draft minutes will not be posted until three days prior to the next council meeting; public dialogue sessions will be at the discretion of the council president. In a reversal of a previous vote, Ross proposed that there be no audible expressions of approval or disapproval during the meeting. The council voted to adopt the audible expression policy  10-2 (DuMont and Pam dissenting and Swartz absent) . The rules were adopted unanimously (Swartz absent), and will be sent to the GOL. The ad hoc committee on rules and procedures was disbanded.

Hanneke made a presentation  on the charge of the GOL committee, whether it is a non-policy-making committee that evaluates the policies (active and proposed)  of other committees for consistency. She also raised the option of creating a sixth council committee to evaluate policies. The council will consider this matter at a future meeting.

Ross and Hanneke  presented a proposal for a new bylaw for Limitation on Campaign Contributions. This is based on Northampton’s bylaw regarding campaign contributions. Individual contributions to a candidate would be limited to 25 percent of the state’s allowed maximum, which is now $1,000; municipal PACs would be limited to 25 percent of the allowed maximum, which is now $125 per candidate. There was a question of whether this includes goods and services (yes). Brewer mentioned that it takes some time for a candidate to develop a large number of supporters, so a large contribution can jumpstart a newcomer’s campaign. There would be no limitation on what a candidate can donate to their own campaign. This discussion will be continued.

Sarah Swartz resigned from the Community Resources Committee (CRC), so there is an opening. Griesemer stated that two councilors  are interested in joining and that she will appoint someone soon.

Committee Reports

Bylaw Review Committee (DeAngelis): the committee discussed  zoning, wetlands, and refuse matters. Robert Ritchie, chair, will present proposed bylaws on May 29.

Council Goals Committee (Griesemer): more input  is needed from councilors and committees.

Community Resources Committee (Schreiber): the first meeting was held; workshops on the Master Plan, planning, and zoning are planned.

Bockelman stated that the Mill street bridge is open. There is a one-way traffic lane and a ten-foot pedestrian/bike path. There will be a ribbon cutting next week. The temporary Station Road bridge should be delivered in two weeks. Amherst was recognized nationwide for its “healthy street” plans. Other communities recognized were Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Des Moines.

A calendar for the town manager evaluation process will be presented at the June 3 council meeting. The manager will be evaluated by the councilors, staff, and committees.

Brewer reported on her work on the State Cannabis Commission. She said there is a long road to finalizing policies on social consumption lounges, but she is keeping Amherst engaged in the formulation of these policies.

DuMont announced the first meeting of the Energy Conservation Action Committee on May 21. The Transportation Advisory Committee will discuss the North Amherst intersection at its Wednesday meeting at 5 p.m. in the police station’s Community Room.

The meeting was adjourned at 10:50 PM.

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