Opinion: The Council at One Year – PROFESSED GOAL OF OPEN GOVERNMENT REMAINS ELUSIVE

Photo: Kitty Axleson-Berry

Art Keene

Supporters of the new Town Charter professed that a change in government would produce more democracy, and a more open government with more transparency and better access to elected representatives.   The record after one year has been mixed and while the Council is to be commended for making progress on keeping the public informed and creating opportunities for them to share their concerns and their ideas, the work of the Council is pervaded by a sensibility antithetical to those goals – one that is mistrustful of the public and which leads many in government resistamt to sharing information or taking public input to heart.  

Notable Progress Toward Open Government
After a very shaky start back in December of 2018 in which the Council tried to severely limit public comment, the council has now embraced a liberal policy of allowing public comment at the start of every regular meeting and during the discussion of major issues. Any resident may speak, and, while speakers are officially limited to three minutes each, that time limit is often not enforced. The practice of creating time for public comment has also been extended to all the town committees and boards that I have covered. 

It’s easy to contact Councilors. The town web site provides a link that will send an email simultaneously to all councilors as well as individual links for each of the Councilors as well as links for key town personnel. Responses, in my experience, are varied and so we might think of this as a work in progress. 

Town Councilors representing districts (not the three at large councilors) are required by the Charter (section 2.7) to hold a minimum of two public forums per year.  Most Councilors have substantially exceeded this requirement through a combination of forums and office hours, and some have used the forums not simply to answer questions and receive feedback but to also educate their constituents on issues facing the town.  

The town’s committee appointment process has always been fairly opaque and the Council has pulled back the curtain a bit, creating a public interview process for three multi-member bodies: Planning Board,  Zoning Board of Appeals, and non-voting members of the Finance Committee.  Previously, names and numbers of applicants and contents of interviews were confidential. While the process of public interviews has raised some controversy (mostly because public comment will not be allowed at the scheduled meetings where the interviews will take place – see here and here – this is a positive move away from the opacity that still governs all other appointments in town.

Back in 2011, the town created a project called Open Government to the Max (OGM) under the direction of the town’s then IT director Kristopher Pacunas.   The project had grand aspirations but to date is only partially operational and has made little progress under the new government.  OGM promised full and nearly instant access to pretty much all aspects of governance and explicitly recognized the importance of access to information in a healthy democracy. The OGM web site notes that following a meeting, committees and boards would post minutes and all documents distributed at the meeting to the web site.  This is an admirable aspiration and indeed a necessary step in creating an open government but access to public documents is far from easy or timely.

Even Better If…
The obstacle to more open government it seems to me,  is not simply that the Council is new to this and trying to figure out how to govern, or that the Clerk’s office, until recently has been understaffed, making it difficult to do the necessary work to make government more open.  Certainly there is some truth to these excuses but they offer neither sufficient explanation for the weak embrace of open government, nor a sufficient excuse for current practices. 

The real problem is that several members of the Council and the Town Manager appear to be  ambivalent about the idea of open government. Several of the Councilors’ actions seem to be governed by a mistrust of the public, seeing them either as adversaries or unnecessary impediments to getting work done. These councilors choose opacity when transparency would seem to be a reasonable and less burdensome alternative.  Councilor Alisa Brewer and Andy Steinberg have been the most outspoken advocates of opacity, frequently objecting to allotting time for public input and to providing easy access to Council documents. Last year, The Indy, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Attorney Janet McGowan and resident Peter Tripp  filed successful public records requests with the town.  The question remains why was this necessary? Why make the extra work and create struggles over access to uncontroversial public information? Why turn a resident’s desire to know into an adversarial process?  Such contentiousness engenders mistrust and polarization and undermines the potential for creating broad-based and substantial support for Council projects.

Over this year, the Council has seemed surprisingly incurious about community sentiment, rarely expressing much interest at truly taking the pulse of the community and indeed, sometimes expending considerable effort to avoid knowing, as was the case in the recent capital projects listening sessions (look here and here). 

How is This Aversion to Open Government Manifest?
One way this is manifest is in the general reluctance of the Council and of Town Hall to share information with the public. This is evident in many ways. Failing to post minutes in a timely way or at all (see Table 1 below), failing to make meeting packets or agendas available to the public prior to meetings, failing to post videos of recorded meetings in a timely manner (or at all), failing to make internal processes transparent (e.g. how the Town Manager’s decisions to appoint people to boards are made, or why some people are chosen over others, or why some people are never appointed, or even how many people apply to a given position).  

The problem of gaining easy and timely access to documents remains a serious obstacle to open government. In the table below, I list the most recent posting of minutes, packets, and videos for a sample of 18 town committees, boards and commissions plus the town Council.  I note that:

  1. the picture for most of the year was bleaker as many of these committees only updated their records in the last week and even so,  some records remain egregiously out of date
  2. Under Mass General Law,  the government is required to post minutes in a timely manner and this is understood to be by the third meeting after the meeting where the minutes were taken.   This gap makes the minutes mostly useless for those trying to track town business in anything close to real time or those wishing to weigh in on issues before decisions are made.  Some committees will provide draft/preliminary minutes on request (the Energy and Climate Action Committee has been notably helpful) and draft minutes can usually be acquired through a public records request to the Town Clerk. 
  3. Almost all committees have posted their most recent agenda.  Most agendas are available in advance of meetings.

TABLE 1: Most Recent Postings of Public Documents as of January 1, 2020
All Dates Are for 2019 Unless Otherwise Noted.

COMMITTEEMINPACKETSVIDEONOTE
Town Council11/1812/1612/16
Planning Board10/30      x12/181, 2
ZBAnonenone2/6/173
Finance Committee11/1912/1712/172
Amherst School Committee11/25none12/235
Jones Library Trustees11/16nonenone4,5
OCA5/3/1912/20/1912/20/192
CRC11/20/1912/18/1912/4/196
GOL11/20/1912/18/1912/18/196
ECAC12/4/1912/18/19none4
TAC10/23/19nonenone4
JCPC4/254/256/6
CPA4/11None since 2016none
LHDC1/4/12nonenone4
HRC12/1811/10none4
RAC10/135/21none4
RCVC12/4nonenone4,5
AGCOM4/3/18nonenone4
BOH11/14nonenone4

Notes:

  1. Packet not available on line but hard copy can be requested in advance and picked up 24 hours before meeting.
  2. No working link to videos but they can be found on the Amherst Media Web site.
  3. Last posted summary of ZBA decisions dates to 6/13/19
  4. Meetings held in a room without video recording equipment.
  5. Web site contains select documents but not a complete record of those discussed/distributed at meetings.
  6. No working link on Committee site but searchable on You Tube.

Abbreviation Guide:
ZBA = Zoning Board of Appeals
OCA = Outreach, Communications and Appointments Committee
GOL = Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee
CRC = Community Resources Committee
ECAC= Energy and Climate Action Committee
TAC= Transportation Advisory Committee
JCPC=Joint Capital Planning Committee
CPA=  Community Preservation Act Committee
LHDC= Local Historic District Committee
HRC= Human Rights Commission
RAC = Residents Advisory Committee
RCVC= Ranked Choice Voting Commission
AGCOM= Agricultural Commission
BOH – Board of Health

I note that none of the committees listed are prompt in posting minutes.  Commendable efforts toward open government have come from the Town Council which always posts a comprehensive packet at least 24 hours before their scheduled meetings and whose meetings are broadcast live with video posted promptly to the archives. The Planning Board has also been helpful, providing hard copies of packets the day before scheduled meetings to all who request them and by posting video of meetings, usually within 24 hours of the meeting.  ECAC has been posting packets in advance of meetings and minutes promptly afterwards.  

Transparency in Appointments
OCA spent the better part of its first year, debating procedures for making appointments and the degree to which information about candidates would remain confidential.   Several of the contentious discussions revolved around the status of Community Activity Forms (CAFs) which serve as the core of the application that residents submit to serve on a town committee, board or commission. OCA plans to continue to treat CAF’s as confidential personnel records and will continue its practice of not releasing to the public the names or number of applicants for any position save for those three exceptions subject to the new public interview procedure noted above. 

Public records requests earlier in the year required the Town to turn over CAFs but allowed the town to redact personal information. The information that was eventually turned over was so heavily redacted as to be useless. Some OCA members and the Town Manager have argued that making the information in CAFs available to the public will discourage people from applying. OCA Chair Evan Ross (District 4) has pledged to continue his efforts to keep this information confidential. Dumont, in contrast, noted that the City of Northampton makes the same applicant information public and posts it on the town website and has advocated for more transparency. 

Taking the Pulse of the Public
The Council has frequently shown incuriosity about public opinion and input or resistance to soliciting it. This is hardly a unique characteristic of our new government.   In my 20+ years on Town Meeting I endured frequent lectures form members of the Select Board scolding Town Meeting members for asking too many questions, for challenging the decisions of the board, or for proposing projects that had not originated with the Board.  It is perhaps to be expected that folks who put in extraordinary hours working on important issues would be frustrated with people who were not in the room where the bulk of the work happened and whose questions pose challenges or alternatives to that work. The solution is not to ask the public to stand down, get out of the way and let the Council do its work (as a long-time participant in town government suggested at a recent district meeting), but rather to open up the process early,  and to make a practice of sincerely soliciting, listening to and considering public input, and in so doing make governance a collaborative process in which all are invested. 

This aversion was evident in the recent four listening sessions on the capital projects organized by the Council.  The events were well attended but micro-managed to such an extent  that there was little opportunity to give and receive input on how town residents prioritized the four projects or on what kinds of compromise residents found palatable.  And the Council offered no indication of how the input from the sessions would be used or how it might influence decisions on capital spending. In contrast, the ECAC recently offered a useful alternative for how to take the pulse of the community and effectively build that into policy formation.  

Access to Representatives
Access to representatives is a work in progress. The table below notes the frequency of formal office hours and district forums.   District One councilors Swartz and Schoen were exemplary in holding office hours nearly every week of the year in addition to two scheduled district forums.  District One also has its own neighborhood Association (DONA –the District One Neighborhood Association) which promotes participation of residents in civic action and invites further engagement with Councilors and District Five is in the process of creating such an association.   District 4 had the least public engagement with Councilor Ross holding office hours once and with Ross and Steve Schreiber holding the required minimum of two district forums. Two Councilors, George Ryan (District 3) and Schreiber held no formal office hours in the course of the first year. 

Table 2: Scheduled Events By District 

DISTRICTOFFICE HOURSDISTRICT MEETINGS
NOTES
14021,2
2 451,2
3 351
4 121
51262
  1. These data were compiled from the Town Calendar at amherstma.gov.  They do not include any events that were not listed in the official town calendar. 
  2. Councilors Schoen and Swartz in District 1 held office hours on separate days, usually a few days apart.  Councilors Griesemer and DeAngelis (District 2) usually held office hours jointly as did Councilors Bahl-Milne and Dumont (District 5).

Looking Forward
How can our government move toward a more open government in the coming year? A few suggestions follow.

  1. Make general processes including appointments more transparent.
  2. Reflect on and critically interrogate the perceived need to make information confidential or hard to get.
  3. Proactively provide the public with information that they need to make informed decisions.
  4. Make the Open Government to the Max site fully operational and in line with its original promises.
  5. Post draft minutes of meetings expeditiously, ideally within a day of when they were taken.
  6. Post links to meeting videos on committee web sites and verify that they are working and up to date.
  7. Invite public comment, listen and consider it seriously.
  8. Seek ways to build consensus.  (this will be the focus of a future column).

All of this should have special resonance as we contend with ongoing crises of democracy nationally and globally.  Under the current conditions we ought to error on the side of more democracy and not less (which was, if memory serves,  a campaign slogan for both supporters and opponents of the charter and so ought to offer some common ground). . Clearly, the provisions of the charter provided neither sufficient safeguards nor incentives to create a surfeit of democracy.   We can do better. 

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