REPORT: TOWN COUNCIL MEETING (7/22/19)

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

Act Affirming Aborton Rights Wins Unanimous Support, Councilors Debate Presence of Non-Voting Members on Finance Committee

All councilors were present except for Cathy Schoen (District 1) and Mandi Jo Hanneke (At-large). Evan Ross (District 4) arrived late.

Highlights

  • FINANCE COMMITTEE APPOINTMENTS: The council engaged in a spirited discussion on the appointment of resident non-voting members to the Finance Committee. Objections were raised to the appointment of Mary Lou Theilman, who was nonetheless confirmed (see below). The council adopted a proposal by Finance Committee (FC) Chair Andy Steinberg (At-large) to evaluate non-voting members and whether they are necessary to the FC, and to consider elimination of the role.  Non-voting members are allowed by the Home Rule Charter, but are not required. 
  • NEW ZONING BYLAW ADOPTED: New zoning bylaws were adopted to make them consistent with the town’s new charter. (See below.)

  • COUNCIL SUPPORTS WOMEN’S RIGHT TO ABORTION: A proclamation of the Town Council supporting the Roe Act and women’s right to abortion was passed unanimously.

  • APPOINTMENTS OF DIRECTOR OF SENIOR SERVICES AND MEMBERS OF THE BOARD OF HEALTH: The council confirmed appointments of Mary Beth Ogulewicz as the new director of senior services and five members of the Board of Health.

  • REPORTS: The council heard several reports including a comprehensive report from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and an update on the dog park. (See below.) 

Finance Committee Appointments

The meeting was relatively sedate until after 10 p.m. when the discussion on the recommended appointments of non-voting resident members to the Finance Committee. The Outreach, Communications and Appointment Committee (OCA) presented its three nominees: MaryLou Theilman for one year, and Sharon Povenelli and Robert Hegner for two-year terms. The vote in OCA had been 3-2 in favor of these candidates. Information on the candidates and the demographics of other applicants are presented in the 23 page OCA report, authored by Darcy DuMont, who was the designated interviewer.

There was a brief discussion regarding the candidacy of Theilman, who served on the committee from 2008 to 2018. Ross and Sarah Swartz (District 1) objected to her appointment because of previous discussions about term limits, which had resulted presumably in the denied reappointment of Greg Stutsman to the Planning Board. Stutsman had already served on the board for six years. However, Mark Parent, chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), was reappointed despite having served for more than six years; his experience had been deemed necessary to the functioning of the ZBA. Term limits for committee service are specified in the Town Appointed Committee Handbook but councilors do not agree on whether these limits are mandatory or are contingent on specific circumstances. Members of OCA will take up the issue at their future meetings. 

However, the discussion rapidly shifted from Theilman to whether it is necessary or advisable to have resident non-voting members on the Finance Committee at all, when Steinberg, chair of the committee, offered an amendment to the nominating motion, asking that the council re-evaluate the charge of the Finance Committee prior to July 1, 2020, to assess how the presence of nonvoting members has affected its work. It should be noted that Steinberg had previously convinced the council not to appoint resident members until fiscal year 2020 because the budget cycle had already begun. He then tried unsuccessfully to have the Finance Committee appoint its own members, instead of OCA, which handles all other committee appointments of the Council. At the July 22 meeting, however, he said he was concerned that adding three new members, even non-voting members, to the five-member committee would interfere with the committee’s work. 

Several council members objected to the Steinberg amendment. George Ryan (District 3) said it would be like putting non-voting members on probation, which could be stifling. Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) said it is awkward to appoint someone to a two-year term but then tell them they might be let go after one year. DuMont suggested separating the amendment into two motions, one would be a vote on the appointments, the other on assessing the value of non-voting members. She also pointed out that the Council was free to re-evaluate the inclusion of resident non-voting members at any time without the amendment. However, the vote was 7 to 4 to accept the amendment, with Steinberg, Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Ross, Dorothy Pam (District xxx), Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Schreiber, and Alisa Brewer (At-large) voting for, and DuMont, Ryan, Swartz, and Bahl-Milne against). The OCA slate then passed 9 to 2, with Ross and Swartz voting no.

Public Hearing on Zoning Bylaw Revision

The main part of the meeting involved a second hearing on the revised Zoning Bylaw presented by Bob Ritchie and Christine Brestrup, Town Planner. There were few substantive changes to the previous bylaw. The wording was changed to conform to the new form of government, and the bylaws were organized by topic. There were no comments from members of the council or the public, and no questions were asked. The revised bylaw passed 11-0 with 2 absent. The full bylaw is posted on the town website. The Bylaws Committee is now working on revising the General Bylaws.

Proclamation in Support of the Roe Act

A number of members of Planned Parenthood and other women’s health advocates were present to advocate for a resolution in support of the Roe Act that is before the state legislature. Mt. Holyoke Medical Anthropologist Lynn Morgan and family physician Miranda Balkin spoke in favor of the resolution, which can be found here. 

Morgan’s remarks were as follows:

Why, you might ask, do we need this resolution?

1. Alarming new abortion restrictions have been enacted in several states and the administration is working hard to restrict access to abortion, contraception, and other reproductive health services.

2. Some Massachusetts abortion laws are outdated and need to be strengthened, for example, to protect the rights of pregnant minors and those diagnosed with fatal fetal anomalies.

3. We want to support pending legislation to ensure that Amherst residents—no matter their age, income, or insurance—will always be able to access safe, legal abortion.

Why, you might ask, should the Amherst Town Council consider this resolution, since abortion law is made at the state or federal level?

1. This affirmation helps destigmatize abortion and supports the Amherst residents who will in our lifetimes avail ourselves of abortion services.

2. This resolution supports the elected officials who represent us at the State House and the Capitol. Our backing helps them and urges them to act.

3. You won’t be alone: many city and town councils across the U.S. have passed similar resolutions just this year, including Northampton and Somerville, Massachusetts.

What does this resolution ask of you, members of the Amherst Town Council?

· To commit to protect our rights to make our own reproductive decisions.

· To support passage of state and federal legislation as outlined in the resolution.

· To share this resolution with elected officials.

There were also supporting remarks from council members. The resolution passed 10-0 (3 absent). 

Pioneer Valley Planning Commission

Jack Jemsek and Christine Gray-Mullen, Amherst’s representative and alternate to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), reported on the activities of the commission. PVPC has an active website, listing the studies it is undertaking. PVPC advocates for the region and coordinates programs such as a transportation plan, Valley Bike Share, marijuana regulations, community choice (energy) aggregation, domestic violence programs, and health and food programs. PVPC acts as a data collection and consultant entity for the region. Look here for PVPC data on the town of Amherst. 

Town Councilors wanted to know how they could be better informed on the activities of the PVPC, especially when matters that concern Amherst are being studied. Amherst Planning Director Christine Brestrup receives a monthly report. Jemsek and Gray-Mullen agreed to keep the Council updated on a regular basis. Much of the work of the PVPC gets done in its executive committee, but Amherst representatives to PVPC have never served on that committee. Steinberg complained that executive members of PVPC  have more than ten years in planning experience, but Amherst just denied a senior member of the Planning Board (Greg Stutsman) reappointment because of term limits. (note: he also opposed the appointment of Mary Lou Theilman to the Finance Committee because she had already served for 10 years).

Brewer pointed out that even when Amherst’s PVPC representatives had many years of planning experience, they still weren’t appointed to the executive committee. Amherst pays about $6,500 a year in dues to the commission.

For the first time in many years, PVPC elected a new director, Kimberly Robinson of Nevada. Negotiations on her contract are ongoing.

Dog Park

Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek reported on plans for a dog park at the capped landfill off Old Belchertown Road. The town received $250,000 in funding from the Stanton Foundation and $90,000 from Community Preservation Act open space funds. The proposed 1.5-acre site is simple with pea stone and grass, and some shade structures. Jim Pistrang is chair of the task force. The plan proposes 22 parking places on Old Belchertown Road. The proposed plan can be found here. 

Town Manager Evaluation

Town Manager Paul Bockelman gave a self-evaluation summary in preparation for his performance review by the council, scheduled for August 19. His report outlined his view on the health of the town and his role in helping make the transition to a new form of government smooth. His report can be found here.

Site for New DPW Building

Progress has been made in finding sites for a new DPW and fire station. Amherst College offered land off of South East Street and Stanley Street for a new DPW, which would allow the fire station to move to the DPW site on South Pleasant Street. Nine sites had been previously studied for the DPW, and all were found to be inadequate. The current DPW is in a 1915 trolley barn, and the downtown fire station was built in 1929 and is too small for today’s engines. The North Amherst fire station was built in 1975. Amherst has not had a major building project since the police station was built in 1990. Councilors and town officials have been knocking on doors in the Stanley Street area to inform neighbors of the proposed DPW siting. There were also discussions at District 2 meetings on July 8 and July 23. Once sites are chosen, design work can be done. $75,000 was allocated for a feasibility study by Town Meeting in 2018. 

Rules and Procedures for the Council

The revised Rules and Procedures for the council, as reviewed by the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee, were presented by Ross, and details such as table of contents and hyperlinks were added by chair Hanneke. This document can be found here.  A second reading followed by a vote will take place on August 19. 

Of interest is that it takes nine votes of the council to pass a zoning change, but ten votes to pass a “properly protested” bylaw. According to Massachusetts General Law, “properly protested” means that the protester owns at least 20 percent of the land proposed for the change. 

Appointments

The council unanimously approved the appointment of Mary Beth Ogulewitz to Director of Senior Services and Maureen Millea and Tim Randhir to the Board of Health. Steven George was reappointed to the  BOH. Their qualifications are summarized in the Town Manager’s appointment memo.

Other Reports

Schreiber reported on the Community Resource Committee’s discussion of committee goals and the master plan. Also, CRC supported moving forward on the “percent for art,” which was to be taken up by the Finance Committee the next day.

Bockelman reported on how the town dealt with the excessive heat of the previous weekend. There was a failure of the air conditioning at the police station, which was a designated cooling station. There were parking difficulties around the high school because of a large lacrosse tournament being held there (and at UMass). The pools were open until 8 p.m. and were free to town residents.

The staff of the Craig’s Doors shelter resigned, as of August 1. It is hoped the shelter will open on November 1. Local and regional homeless advocates are committed to retaining the shelter, but it might require substantial organizational changes..

The town is also working on establishing a “bulletin board” on the town website to post notices and possibly statements of candidates for elected offices

The resolution to support the Renewable Energy Bill, mandating that the state use entirely renewable sources of energy by 2035, passed unanimously..

The meeting adjourned at 11:03 p.m.

The next council meeting will be August 19 at 5 p.m. First on the agenda will be reading the evaluations of the town manager. Business will be conducted from 6:30 to 7:30, then the council will go into executive session for the finalization of the town manager performance review. The council will meet again on August 26 and September 9.

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