A Few Questions For…” is an occasional feature of The Indy, aimed at helping our readers get to know the folks who are making things happen in our town. We’ll be featuring members of our town government, key town employees, people who lead civic organizations, activists, local educators, prominent volunteers, and residents who are not necessarily well known. This week we feature a conversation with two of Amherst’s three Community Participation Officers, Angela Mills and Jennifer Moyston.
The position of Community Participation Officer (CPO), required under the new charter, is shared cooperatively by three people who work in Town Hall. Here, we interview two of them, Angela Mills and Jennifer Moyston.
Angela has lived in Amherst since 1991. After graduating from Amherst College in 2005, she worked as a teacher and coach locally, including seven years at Crocker Farm Elementary School. She volunteers for several organizations that involve local education, basketball, baseball, and other team sports. She has two sons in high school here. She is Executive Assistant to the Town Manager.
Since 2013, Jennifer Moyston, an Amherst native, has been Administrative Assistant for the Town of Amherst. She has worked at the Amherst Survival Center as the Food Pantry Coordinator. Jennifer has more than thirty years of experience assisting low income individuals, and those who are mentally or physically challenged.
Brianna Sunryd, who was unable to participate in this interview, is Communications Manager for the town. Brianna has lived in Amherst since 2003 and is a 2008 graduate of UMass/Amherst. She has worked in municipal government communications and technology for over ten years, previously for Worcester. Besides her work for the town, she is a graduate student at the UMass School of Public Policy, is helping promote diversity on UMass/Amherst boards, and provides support for students interested in local government as a career. And she is a Fort River School parent. All three can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (413) 259-3002
This interview has been edited for clarity and in keeping with their cooperative spirit, Jennifer and Angela’s statements are commingled.
INDY: What do you see as your job?
A & J: It’s like a three-ring bracelet. We have overlapping areas of common knowledge and networks, and we have our own areas of knowledge and networks. So part of our job is to reach out to those folks who wouldn’t necessarily know about town politics, wouldn’t necessarily know that Town Hall is here for them. We open the door, let them know there are resources for them. We also work with the Town Councilors in various ways so that they have what they need, such as helping them hold district meetings and office hours. We want all residents to feel included, welcomed, and valued.
We’ve only been doing this since March, so we’re figuring it out as we go, and it’s almost embarrassing to talk about it. Talking about it has been less of a focus than doing it.
INDY: What are some of your specific goals?
A & J: We’re launching an entirely new website in fall 2020 that we hope will be much easier for people to use, including being accessible in terms of ADA [American Disabilities Act] compliance. For example, people who are visually impaired will be able to use it. It will be easier for people whose main language isn’t English (but our current website already has an option for Spanish speakers). Another thing that’s exciting about it that it’s going to be built starting with mobile phones in mind, not desktop computers. There’s so much more about it! It could be a separate interview with Briana Sunryd, who is responsible for it.
We’re trying to make our presence known in the community, so we go to community-wide events like Sustainability Day, the Block Party, First Day, with some type of literature or some food, and talk to people. We partner with LSSE, and when they do outreach events, at the Family Center or schools, we try to join them and connect with people there. We’re attending a series of gatherings at apartment complexes like Butternut, the Boulders, and Olympia Village and at senior programs and the Senior Center.
In addition to an information push, we’re doing a geographic push to involve every segment of town and lots of diverse dwellings. There are people who don’t know that there’s a Human Rights Commission here or that there are various other services that can be helpful or that they can go to meetings, like Town Council meetings, and express their concerns.
Next autumn we want to launch a Youth Commission with a strong curricular structure to help the next generation develop a vocabulary of civic engagement and get experience with local governance, and be introduced to capital investment planning, budget planning, and Master Plans.
We’d also like to create a Civic Academy, a primer for people who are new to town or don’t have experience on boards and committees here, to explain how our town functions, how our government is structured, how our tax dollars are spent. That will help people be knowledgeable and build confidence about getting involved here.
And all three of us Community Participation Officers are parents, so we completely understand the need for time and resources for transportation and childcare.
INDY: Is there enough money in the budget for your work?
A & J: There is no line for any of this in the budget, so every time we start brainstorming a major initiative, there’s that funding piece that we have to take into consideration.
INDY: How will you track what you do, how will you measure success? Will you count numbers—how many residents go to district meetings, how many want to volunteer on committees?
A & J: Well, we don’t scan people at the door and make sure they live here, and lots of people who don’t live in Amherst show up at district meetings…
INDY: Why is that?
A & J: Because they’re interested in our town. Many of them use our services, like the Senior Center.
Really, we’re trying to let people know we’re here, and we’re hoping to get a little bit of trust going on—like recognizing each other in person—but we don’t have any data, we don’t know who we’re missing necessarily. We can only speculate, which makes it hard to take a measure of what we’re accomplishing.
INDY: It is all related to marketing? Have you studied marketing? Or theories of why people volunteer and get involved in general and specifically?
A & J: Not formally, but we talk about it a lot and we read everything we can about it, articles in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, anything we can get our hands on. We’re going to workshops on diversity and leadership, including one about “how to influence without authority,” which is classic when you’re an administrative assistant in an office! I feel as if the Human Resources Director and the Town Manager are in support of whatever training we can find and would like to take.
Much of what we have to do is to make our boards, committees, and commissions accessible to people who don’t necessarily operate in the target language and don’t necessarily come with a deep knowledge of things like Robert’s Rules of Order.
INDY: It seems as though parents with young children tend to volunteer in ways that will help their children, students get involved in whatever their peers are involved in, and issues not related to children attract mostly older volunteers. Is that what you see?
A & J: Yes, we agree with that. But we’ve had quite a few college students getting involved recently. And also, keep in mind that joining committees and boards isn’t the only way to participate. It’s also doing things like going to district meetings, taking the time out of your day to go and voice your opinions, and to be informed about what’s going on local government. You could be planting trees with the Public Shade Tree committee. We did a town-wide cleanup day and a lot of families came to that.
We’re trying to come up with ways to be involved that aren’t as structured as being on boards and committees…to find other ways to share and volunteer so that we’re connected. And there are different modalities for what “voice” or participation means. Many people who come to meetings don’t feel comfortable speaking, so some district meetings are structured so that people can write their thoughts down anonymously and someone else will read it for them. And for other people, the act of cleaning, picking up garbage in a public space, that’s their voice, the way they want to express what’s important to them. And you don’t necessarily have to leave anyone home or find a babysitter to plant trees or go clean up a neighborhood. It can include your entire family.
INDY: What is there about public participation that’s good? We’re making that assumption.
A & J: “Imagine you’ve volunteered as an election worker. You’re seeing people vote for the first time, diverse people taking part in building a government. Maybe at the end of your shift you feel a little exhausted, but you also feel energized by having served, by being a productive part of the team, by giving back to the community.
INDY: But more involvement can mean more disagreement, including in Amherst where “only the ‘h’ is silent.”
A & J: It wouldn’t be Amherst if people didn’t have something to say, right? To know what’s the best thing for a town you feel like you need other sides, opinions, and to know what’s right or wrong from the perspective of someone else, people who aren’t just like you.
INDY: I’ve observed that Amherst boards and committees tend to vote unanimously with little dissent. Is dissent discouraged? Is participation discouraged in some ways?
I don’t know if we can buy into that one. We only say that because we’ve spent an enormous chunk of time catching up on all the minutes from the select board meetings before we were hired, and there was a lot of discussion and disagreement, but it’s just that by the time it comes to a vote, they’ve gotten a lot of information and reached agreement, so it’s unanimous. I think committees are better when members have different points of view and express them, and there’s dialogue.
Now is the chance to start everything off fresh, the time to come in and make sure your voice is heard. That’s what we’re here trying to encourage. Now is the time for independent individuals to come in and communicate what they want! Some people don’t know that is a possibility for them, and connecting with them, letting them know, is part of our job.
INDY: How do you feel about those situations where there is fierce disagreement?
A & J: We actually find it fascinating when someone joins a committee and wants to blow up the framework. There are people who want to work towards consensus and within the existing framework, and then you have rogue operators—we love watching that—and we think it makes for better committee meetings.
You have to be able to see all of the perspectives and that whatever decisions are made will affect all of the people, and that needs to be taken into consideration. If everyone is in agreement, that doesn’t always happen.
We appreciate the people who come in and don’t necessarily want to work within the prescribed confines. And it feels like we are finding a lot more of those folks because we’re at this fresh start. It’s exciting to be involved in local politics when your government changes. Doing things in new ways is very exciting and should be part of the interview for prospective committee members. But there’s a balance. We’re hoping that community members are informed when they’re coming up with their ideas or making their decisions.
INDY: Could there be some training to help newcomers get up to speed on governance basics?
A & J: Yes, in fact there’s one here tonight at the Bangs Center. The Inspector General’s office is coming out from Boston to talk about fiduciary responsibility. And what it means to be a board or committee or commission members, and lots of Mass. General law, basic knowledge and all.
INDY: Do you get in touch with all candidates about these workshops?
A & J: Yes! We’re giving them the tools to participate in a meaningful way, and we do this throughout the year. Earlier, the Attorney General’s office came here and talked about procedure, consensus, what it means to have a fractured vote, to have a quorum. And we’re building the vocabulary for people who haven’t sat on committees before. It’s important, too, for people who want to join a committee to attend its meetings. (And even just attending a meeting, your voice could make a difference. Maybe the committee won’t respond at that moment but they can put it on the agenda for the next meeting.)
INDY: Some people who haven’t already served on a committee get discouraged by the broad use of acronyms here, JCPC, CPA, etc. Could there be a glossary?
A & J: That’s a good idea. You’re right. And before we started working here, we noticed that every department…clerk’s office, town manager’s office, account department, payroll department… used the word “warrant” in a different way. It can be intimidating when you’re walking into a world where people have been doing what they’re doing for twenty years. We’re hoping to build a bridge for that.
INDY: How are you thinking about technology in terms of public participation?
If you can’t operate technology, that’s a major barrier because it’s all moving lightning fast. You need to be able to access things digitally to stay abreast of what the committees are doing. Access is also a challenge, with individuals who know how to use technology but don’t know about the resources that the town website provides, how to use it. Or don’t have access to computers—we have kiosks downstairs here in Town Hall next to the Information Technology (IT) department, although they aren’t very comfortable to use—we don’t think there are chairs, we should look—and computers for public use at the Jones library. It’s a work in progress.
INDY: There have been problems with getting committee information packets to the public in a timely manner so that they can participate meaningfully. Is that still a problem?
A & J: We think the public gets the same information at the same time as the Town Council through Civic Plus. And people can get an alert notice whenever a meeting or packet of information has been uploaded. We encourage people to use “Notify Me.”
There’s been a gap in publishing packets for Town Council subcommittees and Town Council-appointed committees because we didn’t have a mechanism in place and there’s been a huge gap in terms of which committees are efficient with their data collections and posting of minutes and agendas. There are three committees that are months behind on their minutes, and we have note-takers who are feverishly working on that right now. They’re having to go back to handwritten minutes and, if they’re lucky, videos of meetings.
Of course if you change your government, there are major things that are anticipated and then there are things you don’t necessarily anticipate. At the inauguration ceremony last December we never could have guessed that there would be so many council subcommittees and ad hoc committees.
INDY: Can you help communities or perhaps town councilors start neighborhood associations, like District One has done?
A & J: We’re going to look into this more. One interesting piece is that councilors at a certain point switch into election mode, right? And the more connections they can make one-on-one the better shot they have of getting re-elected, so as CPOs we try to find the fine line in terms of supporting the mechanisms they want to put in place but not supporting their next campaigns. We have to be really careful about that.
We help with councilors’ district meetings though, and they have been operating beautifully. One had four presenters, including the police outreach person and two representatives from UMass, and break-out groups. District 5 meets every other month, usually with an agenda that includes a guest speaker. District 4 had a very tight time frame, beginning with a PowerPoint-like presentation of what the councilors had accomplished so far, and then it opened up, asked, “What do you want to talk about?” and people fired questions at them. Overall, in each of the districts there has been opportunity for individuals to express their concerns, or values, or what they are excited about. This is crucial! Councilors have to let the public know what they’ve done but it’s even more important to get information from the individuals there.
INDY: We’re going to run out of time soon. Is there anything else you want to say?
It’s important for people to remember that they elected these town councilors. And if they want to effect a change, it’s a great thing to have a conversation with your town councilors. They’re the conduit to the mechanism that turns the buttons. The election isn’t enough, the conversation continues. You can meet with a Town Councilor who lives in your neighborhood more easily than with the Town Manager. You can send them an email or a handwritten letter—We love the handwritten letters!
Our town is small enough for people to feel they can take a chance and come to a meeting or run for something. #GetInvolved.
INDY: Thank you, Jennifer and Angela!
We encourage readers to check the town events calendar, and to sign up for the “Notify Me” feature. We also like going to the Town Bulletin Board, also on the website, for a comprehensive listing of meetings and other events. Go to the “How Do I…,” then select “Stay Connected.” Bulletin Board is on the drop-down menu.