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

Report on the Council Meeting of 12/16/19. All councilors were present.

Highlights of the Meeting on December 16, 2019.
The Council 

  • discussed the degree to which the election of council officers should be a public process and postponed election of officers until January 6.
  • received substantial public comment from Lincoln Avenue residents requesting a parking ban for that street.
  • approved borrowing $629,000 for construction of a playground at Kendrick park.
  • heard an update on the proposed purchase of Hickory Ridge Golf Course
  • held a substantial discussion of Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) and postponed a decision on moving forwqrd with CCA until the January 6 meeting.

Election of Council Officers
The regular meeting was called to order at 6:51 PM.  The first order of business was election of the council president and vice president.  Because the charter requires annual elections, and the current officers were elected last December, it was decided to extend the terms of  President Lynn Griesemer and Vice President Mandi-Jo Hanneke until the January 6 meeting, and then have the elections correspond to the calendar year.  Griesemer and Hanneke were quickly nominated and elected to the three week term 11-0-2, with Councilor Alisa Brewer (at large) and Councilor Sarah Swartz (District 1) abstaining.

Then, Councilor, Cathy Schoen (District 1) recommended that the council discuss the roles of each position, especially in regard to the council committees and appointments.  She felt that the president and vice president are also heads and members of influential committees, concentrating power. Councilor Darcy DuMont (District 5) and Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) agreed.  DuMont said she watched the video of last year’s election, and that many of the issues raised at that meeting have not been addressed. Brewer agreed that nominating and electing officers without a discussion presents  “bad optics”, though she said that the public should have no input on these council positions. Councilor Pat DeAngelis (District 2) felt the discussion and election should not be delayed.

Schoen moved to delay the vote for president and vice president to the January 6 meeting.  Pam seconded it and the measure passed 8-3-2 with DeAngelis, Steve Schreiber (District 4), and George Ryan (District 3) voting against. Hanneke and Griesemer abstained.

Public Comment
Several residents of Lincoln Avenue were present during Public Comment to point out the problematic parking of non-residents on that street, so that it is difficult for two cars to pass and often impossible for delivery trucks to navigate the street.  It is also hard for cars to back out of their driveways. The residents, represented by Nancy Ratner and David Sloviter, recommended not allowing on-street parking on weekdays between 8 am and 5 pm. They expressed frustration at not knowing the process to effect this change.  Many residents had signed a petition in support and the Fire Chief had supported the plan, although the Police Chief did not agree. Aaron Hayden, from the Transportation Advisory Committee, said his committee will collect data and offer a recommendation.

Kendrick Park
A public forum on the appropriation of funds to construct  a playground planned for Kendrick Park was held at 6:30 prior to the start of the council meeting and was then brought up for discussion and a vote during the council meeting.  Amherst received a $400,000 grant from the State, but must appropriate an estimated $259,000 to complete the project. Because the grant must be accepted by the end of the year, the process cannot wait for completion of the annual budget process.  Assistant Town Manager, David Ziomek, and Leisure Services and Supplemental Education Commission Chair, Rebecca Demling presented the project. The design must be completed by June 1, 2020 and the playground finished by June 2021. The Finance Committee had recommended the allocation by a 4 to 0 vote with one absent.

Laura McLeod, the only member of the public to speak at the forum,  asked about the environmental impact of the project. Ziomek stated that the construction would avoid the Tan Brook which passes under Kendrick Park, and the tree warden will give advice on saving most of the trees. 

When the issue was taken up during the regular council meeting, a motion was made to appropriate Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to pay for the project.  Nate Budington, CPA chair, requested the borrowing of the full $629,000 with the understanding that $400,000 would be received from the state when the project was finished.  According to Comptroller Sonia Aldrich, this would add about $30,000/year to the debt service for 10 years, which is approximately the level of debt soon to be retired. Borrowing the full amount is required to receive the grant.  Brewer thought this was a lot of money for a playground, but Ziomek said regulations require various safety and accessibility features which are expensive. Swartz cautioned that, with the capital projects the town is considering, the town ought to be careful about what it spends money on.  Budington pointed out that CPA funds cannot be used for the proposed capital projects. They must be used for recreation, historic preservation, housing , and open space. The motion to approve the borrowing passed 11 to 2, with Swartz and Brewer dissenting.

Hickory Ridge Purchase
Purchase of the Hickory Ridge golf course was also discussed.  The seller is now on the waiting list for the SMART program which will provide incentives for the proposed solar farm.  The town needs to approve borrowing of funds for the purchase to be in a position to close the deal. Ana Devlin Gauthier spoke for the Conservation Committee on the importance of this property to the health of the Fort River and surrounding plants and animals.  Aldrich pointed out that selling some of the developable land could raise money for some of the proposed capital projects. It will not be clear how much of the land will be developable until the town completes a survey of the land after the purchase. The motion to take the approximately $300,00 from the town’s stabilization fund. passed 12 to 1 with Swartz voting no.

Community Choice Aggregation
There was a long discussion about a proposal for the town to obtain energy through Community Choice Aggregation.  The discussion was led by Amherst Sustainability Coordinator, Stephanie Ciccarello and task force member Stan Schwartz.  Amherst proposes to contract for providing electricity to consumers by partnering with Northampton and Pelham through a CCA arrangement.   The CCA would prioritize clean energy and profits would go to projects which further reduce the town’s carbon footprint. CCA is an opt-out program, meaning that all residents would subscribe, unless they opt out. There are several CCAs in the state.  Most have rates similar to commercial companies. The proposal has secured $50,000 in state funds. Representatives from the three towns have been meeting for the past 18 months. Northampton and Pelham have already approved going ahead with a plan to present to the Department of Public Utilities.  The plan has the approval of Amherst’s Energy and Climate Action Committee. The presentation of the plan can be read here.  After several questions for clarification from the councilors, and with  Brewer questioning how the motion was worded. the council decided to revisit the topic and vote at the next meeting. 

Bylaw Revision
Bob Ritchie and Bernie Kubiak presented the revised general bylaws that their committee has been working on for the past two years. Brewer, DeAngelis and Councilor Evan Ross (District 4) represented the council on the committee. This was the first reading of the proposed bylaws . Schoen questioned the elimination of the section on condominium conversion.  DuMont wanted reinstatement of a bylaw that required use of re-useable or recyclable bags at stores. Hanneke objected to inclusion of lawnmowers, leaf blowers and snow blowers into the noise bylaw.  Griesemer requested that concerns regarding the proposed bylaws be sent by email to her by the Wednesday prior to the next meeting. Everyone thanked the Bylaws Committee for their hard work in improving and updating the bylaws.  Kubiak stated that this is not a perfect document but a starting point, and that good bylaws must be operational and enforceable.

Proposed Town Manager Goals
There was also a first reading of the proposed Town Manager goals .  Town Manager Paul Bockelman participated in the formulation of the goals, but he pointed out that there are over 50 stated goals, and it would be difficult for him to achieve all these by next July. These goals will be discussed, and probably voted on,in January 2020.

OCA’s New Appointment Practices and Procedures
The Outreach, Communications and Appointments committee presented a 23 page report detailing a new practice for appointments to council committees .  This process will involve a group interview of all applicants with the members of OCA.  The interviews would be open to the public and video taped, but no public comment would be allowed (see also here), in order to prevent public campaigning for a candidate or disparaging comments about a candidate.  There was some discussion about how to prohibit public comment which is mandated by Council rules, but no decision was reached.  Also, Schoen objected to the group interview, stating that some people may be intimidated. DuMont felt that the whole process, including the Community Activity Forms should be made public, as it is in Northampton. She also felt that the whole council should vote on the process, not just the OCA members.  OCA chair, Ross, strenuously objected to this, stating that this was an internal OCA process and should not be subject to a full council vote. Brewer pointed out that for many important committees appointed by the Town Manager, even the council has almost no information. No consensus was reached.

Council Budget Guidelines
Steinberg summarized the Draft Council budget guidelines recommended by the Finance Committee.  The budget process has already begun.  Sharon Sharry of the Jones Library and School Superintendant  Mike Morris have also received copies. Despite the late hour (~11:30 p.m.), Rule 8-4 that prohibits voting on an issue at the same meeting it is raised, was waived for the third time in the last two meetings and the budget guidelines were passed 12-0-1 with DuMont abstaining.

Additional Late Night Matters
The Government, Organization and Legislation Committee presented a revised article 10.8 of the Rules of Procedure regarding council liaisons to other town committees.  This was approved unanimously.

The meeting was adjourned at midnight—before the snow began to fall. 

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  1. Thank you for the solid coverage of the Jan 16 meeting. I do want to make a correction: I did not say that CPA money could not be used for capital projects–in fact it can. When council member Swartz noted that she would vote no on the playground because she felt the town could not afford it, I simply wanted to clarify that CPA money is devoted to four tightly defined purposes and is not disbursed in the same way other town funds might be. Had the proposal been defeated, the $260,000 would have just been spent elsewhere by CPA, it would not have remained in the town’s coffers for some other future purpose. . The process whereby Town Council evaluates and gives approval to (or rejects) CPA-endorsed proposals is an important part of the town’ stewardship of taxpayer monies and those of us on the CPA committee appreciate the thought that the council puts into their vetting of our proposals. And as an individual taxpayer I appreciate Ms Swartz’s and others’ wise stewardship of my taxes. But there is some confusion about CPA. Monies raised by the CPA surtax are matched by the state (lately at a rate of between 11-14%) and often CPA grants can be used to leverage outside grants (and the reverse is true as well). The soon-to-be-built dog park was partially funded by CPA because of a seed grant from the Stanton Foundation, and the playground at Kendrick is 75% funded by a state PARC grant, matched by a much smaller CPA grant. As councilors Swartz and Brewer correctly pointed out, the state CPA match and PARC monies are still taxpayer funded, but CPA projects are often a great deal for Amherst’s taxpayers financially, as well as important to the health and happiness of our community.

  2. Thanks for clarification on this Nate. It’s very helpful, especially to remember that the state matches our tax dollars for these projects.

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