RECAP: TOWN COUNCIL MEETING (7/1/19)

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

All councilors present except District 5 Councilor, Shalini Bahl-Milne.

Highlights

  • Eleven citizens commented on the Northampton Road Studio Apartment project and one citizen commented about creating a town committee on refugees.
  • The council approved a $500,000 bond to support the Northampton Road Project (11-0-1-1).
  • Appointments to many commissions and committees were approved unanimously.
  • The town manager summarized the highlights of his report. 

Announcements

Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2)  announced that the public hearing to consider the proposed amendments to the Zoning Bylaw will be delayed until the July 22 meeting, as will discussion of the dog park.

General Public Comment

Vince O’Connor of District 1 proposed that the town create a committee for refugees and asylum seekers. The committee could ascertain through interviews and outreach how many town residents could provide shelter for these people, to counteract the government’s claim that they have nowhere to put them. O’Connor believes that Amherst could host 50 to 100 asylum seekers while they await their hearings. He said he will propose the same plan to the Northampton City Council.

Northampton Road Affordable Housing Project

The proposed Valley CDC studio apartment project at 132 Northampton Road was then discussed. District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam felt the vote should be postponed because the council had not investigated all ramifications of the project. All of the other councilors felt the project had been discussed more than enough to take a vote. It was recommended unanimously by the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC), and also was discussed and unanimously recommended by the Community Resources Committee (CRC), the Joint Capital Planning Committee (JCPC), and the Finance Committee. Residents who reside near the project were heard at several meetings. In addition to the four-hour-plus open discussion on June 24, concerned residents were present at the Finance Committee and Budget Review Meetings. All materials and letters have been posted on the town’s web page.

Councilor Andy Steinberg (at-large), Chair of the Finance Committee stated that the committee thought the project was an appropriate use of CPA funds, the budget for the project was prudent, and the proposed bond would not negatively affect the ability of the town to borrow money in the future. Cathy Schoen (District 1), vice chair of the Finance Committee, felt that adequate money has been budgeted for maintenance of the building after it is constructed. She and Councilor Pat DeAngelis (District 2) have visited several Valley CDC apartment projects in Northampton and found them to be well maintained with friendly staff, residents, and neighbors. All felt these other projects were very successful. Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at-large), who lived in the neighborhood for seven years, was also supportive of the project. She had some reservations that the scale might be too large for the neighborhood, but added that the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) will evaluate the actual plans.

During the public comment period, 11 citizens  voiced their opinions. Most were reiterations of previously-aired views. To the concerns that there would be inadequate supervision of residents, , Nate Buddington, chair of the CPAC, and Peter Jessop, former CPAC chair, stated that this was not a halfway house or rehabilitation unit. It was for people who could live independently and would be a nice complement to the neighborhood. Jessop said that just because people are poor does not make them violent. Vince O’Connor encouraged the town to listen to the concerns of the neighbors, unlike the recent construction of buildings downtown as well as North Square in North Amherst, when the ZBA did not address many of the concerns of neighbors. Meg Gage (District 1) reminded others about the former Drake building, an SRO downtown that was converted to apartments. 

After lengthy discussion, the council voted 11 for, none against, 1 abstention (Pam, District 3) and 1 absent (Bahl-Milne, District 5), to authorize the required  $500,000 bond.

After a room-clearing break, the council returned to discuss a process for candidates for elected office to publish, on the town “bulletin board,” statements regarding their candidacy, as mandated in Section 7.6 of the charter. It was unclear where these statements should be published and what guidelines should be set. The Government, Organization and Legislation Committee (GOL) will establish a policy. Councilor Alisa Brewer (at-large) suggested that the matter be evaluated by the town attorney and that there should be an ethics review. 

Papers for the fall election are due by September 17.

The GOL committee revised the charges of the Budget Coordinating Group and the JCPC, mainly by adding a purpose statement to each. These passed unanimously. However, consideration of the revised charges was tabled due to uncertainty about whether proclamations and citations need to be reviewed in advance by GOL or submitted directly to the council president.

A discussion took place regarding the charter’s stipulation that a study be conducted about the feasibility of establishing a position for a town-wide ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) coordinator. It was decided that the council president and town manager will investigate how the town’s various organizations provide services to disabled persons and whether or not  a coordinator is needed.

The charter also mandates a study of the feasibility of permitting non-citizens and residents under age 18 to vote and hold town offices, and the council decided to create a committee to study the matter. However, Councilors Steinberg and Brewer stated that although many towns and cities, including Amherst’s former Town Meeting, have passed similar resolutions, they could not be enacted because they are illegal in Massachusetts.

OCA announced its evaluation and recommendation to appoint the town manager’s choices for positions on the Historical Commission, Local Historical District Commission, Human Rights Commission, Public Art Commission, Affordable Housing Trust Board of Trustees, and Public Shade Tree Committee. All nominees, were passed without discussion or dissention. DeAngelis recused herself for the vote on appointments to the Affordable Housing Trust Board of Trustees. (Note: there are still vacancies on the Public Art and Shade Tree committees.) Current appointees can be viewed on the town website.

There were no other committee reports, but Steinberg noted that at its next meeting the Finance Committee will discuss the proposed “percent for art” bylaw, which would allocate  a fixed percentage of the budget for new public construction over a certain dollar amount (e.g., 0.5%) for public art, and that at the next council meeting, OCA will present its recommendations for resident non-voting members to the Finance Committee.

Minutes for June 17 and 24 meetings were passed, with Brewer abstaining. Athena O’Keeffe was voted as the new clerk of the council and was sworn in by Griesemer. 

Town Manager’s Report

Town Manager Paul Bockelman reported on the meetings scheduled for the Rank Choice Voting Commission and the Kendrick Park Committee (composed of residents who want a playground at Kendrick Park). The temporary bridge on Station Road will be installed after the poured concrete is sufficiently set, probably next week. State funding needs to be obtained for the permanent bridge. Puffers Pond is closed because of high e.coli counts. Bockelman met with the board of Amherst Media to review its contract with the town, given the town’s new form of government. Currently, Amherst Media only covers the Finance Committee and Town Council meetings live. They try to post other committee meetings in a timely fashion, but they are short on staff. The contract will be revised and updated.

Three new firefighters were hired and are starting orientation. A job offer has been made for the position of Council on Aging coordinator. A search has started for a new town clerk, and retired assessor David Burgess has agreed to work part-time.

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