CRC Rejects Veteran Planning Board Member

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Report on Meeting of the Town Council’s Community Resources Committee (CRC) (8/26/20)

The meeting was held via Zoom webcast and was recorded. That recording can be viewed here

Participating 
Community Resource Committee (CRC) members: Chairperson Mandi Jo Hanneke (At-large), Evan Ross (District 4), , Steve Schreiber (District 4) , Sarah Swartz (District 1). Absent: Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)

The CRC, at its meeting on 8/26/20, conducted interviews with five candidates for three open seats for three year terms on the Planning Board and then deliberated for about an hour and 45 minutes before rejecting the reappointment of veteran member Michael Birtwistle (for a second term) in favor of three new members, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, and Johanna Neumann. 

With Birtwistle’s term expiring, and Christine Gray-Mullen (Chair) and David Levenstein resigning, three of seven board positions will become vacant on August 31, 2020. That night, the Town Council will meet to ratify the Community Resources Committee’s recommendations. 

Under the new Charter, the size of the Planning Board was reduced from nine members to seven, making it important to fill all positions expeditiously so that the Board can assemble a quorum (four members) at its meetings.

The report to the Town Council on CRC’s deliberations, interview questions and Statements of Interest (SOI) from the selected candidates can be found here.

Six people submitted Statements of Interest to the CRC, and five applicants were interviewed: Michael Birtwistle, Robert Greeney, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, Johanna Neumann. (Adrian Fabos withdrew from consideration.) On July 21, the CRC voted to declare the applicant pool sufficient to proceed to interviews, while recognizing that the pool was less diverse than they had hoped for; they noted that “the entire Council must continue to work to recruit candidates that represent [diversity] goals.”

With the resignations, the Planning Board will consist of only four members: Jim Jemsek and Maria Chao, serving since 2016 (terms expiring in 2022); Janet McGowan, appointed in 2019, and Douglas Marshall, appointed in 2020 (terms expiring in 2021). In their deliberations, CRC members rapidly agreed on two candidates, Neumann and Long, saying that Neumann’s experience and training in coalition building and outreach, clean energy, and sustainable communities would be an asset to the Board in its regulatory role as well as in its advisory role on Zoning Bylaw and Master Plan revisions. They felt that Long would bring needed experience and expertise as an architect and educator, and were impressed by his statement that “the areas of climate action, racial equity, housing affordability, and economic vitality are an ecosystem that exist within one community and affect each other in ways that can leverage one area to better address another area.”

Although they discussed the limited length of service of the current Planning Board members and said that “a healthy mix of a strong base of seasoned members and newer members who bring new energy, outlooks, and ideas” is beneficial, they did not act on that principle. 

Birtwistle, who has served for four years, is the second longest serving Planning Board member, and has been a productive and strong contributing member, would have been reappointed by the Town Manager under the previous government structure because of his experience, knowledge, and service on the Board. (Short of egregious behavior, most eligible Board members were reappointed because it takes about three years to learn the laws under which it operates and the laws it enforces.) He is also the only candidate who understands the Town’s Zoning Bylaw and its shortcomings. He has also served on advisory boards of national theater programs, as a consultant for various college theater programs, as Amherst College’s Stanley King 1903 Professor of Dramatic Arts, as a theater critic, editor, and guest director.

Long is an Associate Professor of Architecture and Design at Hampshire College, holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Roger Williams University, and is the owner and creative director of IdeaCo., “a creative studio specializing in brand, environment, and ideation.” 

MacDougall has “been fascinated with how people use space since my undergrad days at UMass-Amherst, where I obtained a degree in Landscape Architecture and later studied part-time towards a Masters in Regional Planning. After graduation, I spent several years in the Geography Department of the U.S. Bureau of the Census before shifting to the private sector where I have spent the last 20 years helping retailers (specifically banks) determine the optimal geographic distribution of their physical network by identifying the locations that best manifests their corporate vision.” His familiarity with landscape architecture and regional planning, and his career in corporate real estate impressed the CRC. 

Neumann, a Tufts College graduate, has lived in Amherst for eight years and is known for her stewardship of Amherst Forward’s successful campaign to replace Amherst’s system of governance with a new Charter and for her guest column about ecology in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. She has lived in Munich for the past year.

The CRC  liked that Greeney, Professor of Physics at Holyoke Community College, lives downtown “in a compact and sustainable lifestyle” and probably knows much more about zoning and planning than the three people recommended by the CRC. However, he was summarily rejected by the CRC. Geeney is currently an Associate Member of the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

A letter to the CRC from Councilor Alisa Brewer (At-large) pointed out that there will be a Town Council election in November 2021, and that a new Council might want a strong role in shaping the Planning Board. She suggested that the terms of newly appointed candidates should be staggered.

A commentary on the CRC recommendations can be viewed here.

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