by Maura Keene and Art Keene
In what is becoming a troubling trend, members of the Town Council once again exhibited poor judgment and bad faith in making a decision . The poor judgment was the decision of the Community Resources Committee (CRC) at their meeting of 8/26, to decline to reappoint Michael Birtwistle for a second term on the Planning Board. The bad faith was that they subjected us to a unconvincing session of performative deliberation when they had in fact changed the rules of selection weeks before, tossing out nearly a year of passionate arguments in support of reappointments in order to facilitate Birtwistle’s removal.
Both the interviews and the CRC deliberations can be viewed here. A news story about the CRC meeting can be found here.
After interviewing five candidates in less than one hour, CRC members chose by a vote of 3-1 (Sarah Swartz, District 1 dissenting and Shalini Bahl-Milne, District 5, absent) to not recommend the only candidate for reappointment in favor of three new appointees. The recommendation now goes to the full Council for approval. That vote will be taken at the Council meeting on August 31.
After first reviewing the recommendations of outgoing Planning Board Chair, Christine Gray-Mullen, of the urgent need to have experienced members and those with a diversity of relevant experience, the CRC quickly recommended that appointment of environmental activist and community organizer Johanna Neumann who has no Planning Board experience, and Hampshire College’s Thom Long who will join Doug Marshall and Maria Chao as the third architect on the board.
The discussion then turned to an evaluation of two other candidates, Andrew MacDougall, who has an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture and currently works for Capital One and current Planning Board member, Michael Birtwistle, a retired Amherst College Professor of Theater Arts and a four-year member of the Board.
Swartz pointed out that Birtwistle is the second most experienced member of the Board and that two of the current members have been serving for one year or less (Janet McGowan and Marshall). MacDougall stated that he has worked with planning boards across the country in his work for Capital One.
Swartz spoke passionately of Birtwistle’s past service and willingness to continue. She pointed out that when she chaired the Planning Board appointment process a year ago, there were vociferous pleas from Planning Board members in support of reappointing the chair who had already served for six years, stressing the importance of experience and continuity in such a technical committee. She reminded her colleagues of the harsh criticism she had received from the Council, especially from Councilors Steve Schreiber and Evan Ross (both of District 4 and both currently members of the CRC), for recommending McGowan over an experienced chair. She stated that now the CRC was recommending three new members to a fairly inexperienced Board. She emphasized the need for a board “that is not green” and the need for preserving institutional knowledge (an argument that these very councilors have made on multiple occasions the preceding year). She also pointed out how well Birtwistle works with the remaining members of the Board.
Though candidate Bob Greeney received little attention, unlike the three people who were appointed, he has frequently attended Planning Board meetings and has previously applied to sit on the Board. We are not aware that any of the three recommended candidates have attended Planning Board Meetings in the past year and half that we have covered the Board.
A Troubling Process
This was a very troubling meeting. The Planning Board does not need another architect, especially not another university-based one. Yet, for all the lip service professed by the Councilors about the need for diverse experience on this board, they quickly agreed to appoint another one. Then, they had a protracted discussion comparing the merits of Birtwistle and MacDougall, always pointing out Birtwistle’s strong points, and then finishing with a but. All of a sudden, the Council members who could not abide a single new member on the Planning Board a year ago were eager to jettison the one returning member for three new ones.
Note that, in addition to serving on the Planning Board for four years, Birtwistle was also the Planning Board member on the Community Preservation Act Committee and the Design Review Committee. He was the most knowledgeable of the Planning Board members on the Master Plan, having claimed to have read it over twice in its entirety recently. He also worked with the Zoning Subcommittee in starting to develop plans for more affordable housing in Amherst. In our observations of the Board over the past 18 months, we have seen him always well prepared and with perfect attendance and insightful comments. He is clearly one of the hardest working members of the Planning Board.
CRC recently rewrote their guidelines for Planning Board appointments to require those members up for reappointment to interview for the position with other applicants, instead of receiving a (nearly) automatic second term which is common practice for all other reappointments in town. And they tossed out the decision criteria that they inherited from the Outreach Communications and Appointments Committee (OCA) which had been developed over a year of concerted work. While OCA’s lengthy deliberations had resulted in nearly unanimous cheerleading for reappointing experienced people for at least a second term and a general mistrust of term limits, these new rule changes, which emphasized the need for new faces in support of greater diversity, seemed tailored to enable the CRC to remove Birtwistle.
Why Not Birtwistle?
In their deliberations, CRC voiced no objections to Birtwistle’s performance or his votes. They praised his service and commended his experience but came to the conclusion that the new candidates were simply more qualified to support the Planning Board in its work. They did not note that Birwistle had objected to CRC Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke’s (At Large) plan for the CRC to control the rewriting of the Zoning Bylaw, (a responsibility that had previously rested with the Planning Board) nor his opposition to the Council’s recent decision to change the requirement to approve a Site Plan Review from 2/3 to a simple majority. Birtwistle apparently annoyed some members of the CRC in his minority stances.
CRC’s enthusiasm for people who would bring experience from outside of Amherst as a means for increasing diversity of perspective on the Board felt totally contrived, given the hysterics of these people over the last year in arguing that experience must be prioritized. If diverse or minority voices are a good thing, then why is this Council so intentional in trying to silence them?
Aversion To Diversity
The troubling trend here is the low threshold of tolerance that some members of the Council majority appear to have for a diversity of opinion. We have seen this in the impatience that some members express with public input. We saw it in the Council’s rejection of a Community Advisory Panel that would have aided the Council in conducting research on complex issues. We’ve seen it in GOL Chair George Ryan’s (District 3) comment in response to concerns raised by citizens of color that he doesn’t “have the slightest desire to respond to them.” We’ve seen it in Ross’ argument while he was chair of OCA that the sign of a committee that is working well together is a unanimous vote. We have seen it in the general dismissal of input from organizations representing Amherst residents of Color. We have seen it in the Council’s prohibition of minority reports. And we have seen it in CRC Chair Hanneke’s recent call to replace members of the Town Historical Commission because she believed they were abusing the Town’s demolition bylaw to delay developments that she claimed, without offering evidence, that they personally opposed.
And it strikes us that this trend is more about intolerance than power. In this case, it appears to be about a desire to shape the Planning Board to reflect the agenda of the CRC. Birtwistle’s votes and arguments never threatened any position supported by the majority on the Council, except perhaps the Site Plan Review decision which only passed by one vote. The majority’s majority is and always has been secure. In its year and a half of existence, there have been few close votes on the Council and on its committees. But Councilors have nonetheless behaved assertively to protect their echo chamber. Time and again they appear to have little patience to hear, much less actually consider, alternate viewpoints. So in their public deliberations, the CRC never criticized Birtwistle’s votes nor his performance. They simply asserted that there were better candidates, even though none of the recommended candidates had even attended Amherst Planning Board meetings and even though Birtwistle’s experience and expertise were sorely needed on a Planning Board that had few veteran members. This charade was, from the time they changed their selection criteria, always about booting Birtwistle off the Board, even though he posed no threat whatsoever to the majority’s agenda or to the smooth functioning of the Board. ,
This bad decision is just another in a string of bad decisions that Councilors have made over the last couple of months; decisions that reflect sloppy preparation, parochial interests and contempt for the public and for democracy. These include the decision to consolidate polling places to a single site , the decision to not offer a concrete proposal in response to public demands concerning the police budget, the ill advised decision to change the required number of votes to pass a Site Plan Review , and the GOL’s initial decision to exclude racial equity language from Town Manager Goals.
In two instances, (polling consolidation and racial equity language), the Council chose to overturn their initial position in response to public outcry, though in the case of polling consolidation, the reversal was grudging and two councilors felt it necessary to chastise the public for failure to read, or to understand the reasoning set out by the Council in choosing to concentrate voters at a single polling site.
The full Council can still remedy this irresponsible recommendation from the CRC and prevent a harmful slowdown in the Planning Board’s work, by voting to reject CRC’s recommendation.
As a nation, we are now going through a period of historic turmoil, in which it appears that, in the words of one pundit, ”Republicans will never hear the voices of minorities, the poor, the marginalized… the disenfranchised”. As democracy struggles to breathe, we think our local government should try harder to hear and to fully consider perspectives and ideas beyond those they hold themselves.
Maura Keene is an obstetrician-gynecologist at Baystate Health Systems. Her four children are graduates of the Amherst schools. She has lived in Amherst since 1982.
Art Keene is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UMass. He coached girls cross country at Amherst High School for 17 years and was a member of Town Meeting for 20+ years. He has lived in Amherst since 1982. He is also Managing Editor of The Amherst Indy.