Opinion: CRC’s Shameful Recommendation To Not Reappoint Michael Birtwistle To Planning Board Should Be Rejected By Full Council

Photo: needpix.com

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.

The Meeting
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.

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19 thoughts on “Opinion: CRC’s Shameful Recommendation To Not Reappoint Michael Birtwistle To Planning Board Should Be Rejected By Full Council

  1. a very few thoughts:
    1) The link to the video of this meeting is incorrect, and then you end up in the muddle that is the town’s “transparency to the max” website.
    2) How does it make sense to reduce the size of the planning board from 9 to 7, and then not have room to re-appoint a person with experience and popular support?
    3) How does it serve the public good to have a smaller planning board? to me, that is LESS brainpower, less experience, less diversity of opinion, fewer members who are taking the pulse of community opinion. Would you reduce the Supreme Court from 9 to 7? If not, why not!?
    4) It’s “not a good thing” that the planning board doesn’t include enough (any?) members who have a “bias to no” – who say “show me!” why allowing construction of more private dorms, 5+ stories, leaving less opportunity for development of what we say we want – young professionals and families, in a mixed use, downtown
    5) Our town government should have the look and feel and functionality of a place where special interests cannot get a foothold, where the structure of government enhances sunlight and fair process; and prevents group think. To many intelligent observers, it’s moving in the wrong direction.
    6) We are a small town (though officially, are we not “The City Known as the Town of Amherst”?) and it’s important to act neighborly, keeping epithets and characterizing to a minimum. I try hard to keep that in mind, and keep my opinions civilly expressed. But many of the moves being taken by the town council seem to be discounting popular opinion.

    I call on the Town Council to step up, and build a planning board that can have the robust debate we deserve and demand. You are making seriously flawed changes to government, imho!

  2. How can they reject the member with the most experience? What the hell are they thinking to reject Bob Greeny out of hand?

  3. I agree with Maura Keene and Ira Bryck; my first reaction to the news on these personnel decisions: more discouraging for democracy news

  4. Wow!! The swamp has spread to Amherst. And the result is yet more heat than light on issues with serious intended and unintended consequences. (puns intended) This is what happens when we voted for a Charter with NO checks and balances.

  5. It is perhaps important to remind readers that not so long ago we had a Planning Board that was independent of the Select Board and also independent of Town Meeting. It was also independent of the Zoning Board which heard appeals in cases where a proposed project did not meet the zoning by-law criteria for building “by right.” This separation of powers – always a sign of good democratic government – was accompanied by the requirement for a supermajority vote of approval by Town Meeting. It was tough to get a non-conforming building project or a change to the Zoning Bylaw approved.

    Of course builders and developers hated this situation. They have long had designs on a built-up Amherst, turning downtown into an “urban corridor” and supporting “infill” as a principle of town planning. Town committees, going back to the 70s, have consistently produced reports and master plans supporting in general terms such principles.

    So the decision of the Community Resources Committee of Town Council to recommend not re-appointmentIng Michael Birtwistle must be seen as indicative of two simultaneous and long-standing streams – one to build up Amherst and the other to consolidate power in the Town Council. Additionally, there is the not-recent development of a group of Amherst residents forming a Political Action Committee which aims to control the Town Council by extracting pledges from candidates to support its platform in return for receiving its endorsement.

    Amherst voters have been watching these streams develop over the years and have done nothing to prevent them from gaining strength. Possibly voters support them. Possibly voters haven’t been paying attention. Possibly voters don’t care. The Town Council is banking on the latter two possibilities as confirmation of the first. And Amherst Forward has been paying attention and does care.

    So the re-appointment of Michael Birtwistle has nothing to do with his excellence, which is acknowledged by everyone. Instead, he is bearing the heavy burden of demonstrating whether Town Council can act independently of its patrons or if it can tolerate informed opinions with which its majority does not agree. And, sadly, whether Amherst will have the character of a town or a city and whether its government will be democratic or an oligarchy.

  6. I agree that this was a bad decision by the CRC and hope that the full Council will reject it. I served with Michael Birtwistle for two years on the Planning Board and can report that he takes the position seriously, contributes productively to the board’s work, and treats fellow members and the public with courtesy and respect. His tenure has not been too long and his experience would be more valuable to the board than whatever nuance of perspective any of the other candidates offers. It seems clear that not reappointing him is about punishing — or at least silencing — dissent. That is not something I would have been comfortable with as a sitting member of the board, and it is disturbing to me that my councillors have perpetrated this situation. They will hear from me.

  7. What a sad state we are in. is there anything we can do to keep Mike on the Planning Board?

  8. I served with Michael for two years on the CPA Committee and can state with confidence that he was a model member of that committee. He was always fully prepared and alert, was an exceptional listener and he was opinionated–in a good way. You always knew where Michael stood, but he was no gadfly. I found him amenable to changing his mind and persuaded by good argument. Most often he was in the majority when we voted but he was not averse to being the only ‘no’ vote on some issues. As chair, I found him to be mildly irascible and blunt but always respectful to others, never dogmatic, often funny and always engaging. His style was refreshing. He added enormously to our work and I believe his demeanor encouraged other committee members to be more open in sharing their concerns about a proposal even if they thought their concerns were swerving way from a perceived consensus. I don’t know the politics of the Planning Committee, but I do think there are other factors beyond pure expertise that should factor in when citizens are appointed to committees. The CRC must have seen a different Michael Birtwistle than the one I worked with.

  9. cc of my letter to Town Council:

    I find deeply troubling the moves of the Community Resource Committee (CRC) in an apparent ploy to deny Planning Board member Michael Birtwistle a second term on that Board.
    You are well aware that Town matters in general are complex. These obviously include Planning Board matters. It takes experience to get on top of them, and to become effective.
    By all accounts Mr. Birtwistle’s service, on the Planning Board and elsewhere in Town government, has been exemplary.
    So what’s the CRC majority’s real agenda in rejecting his proven expertise, and in recommending the appointment of three people who would be completely new to that Board?
    I strongly urge that the Town Council NOT ratify this slate of appointments to the Planning Board, and that it ask the CRC to go back to the drawing board.
    It would make sense also to ask the CRC to re-adopt its recently-jettisoned rules that apparently gave some priority to experience.
    In addition to the need for expertise on the Planning Board, maneuvers such as this are no inducement for qualified Town residents to seek to serve on its boards and committees.

  10. Please watch the discussion of the CRC, from 1h55m onward, at https://tinyurl.com/y2ogl7oz concerning not renewing Michael Birtwistle to the Planning Board. I am discouraged by the vote, but also (imho) the many flaws in thinking and process. So much is resting on discussions like this, and we deserve much better.

  11. The Town Council’s discussion and vote on the recommended appointments to the Planning Board was predictable but disturbing. The vote fell along party lines, with the exception of Alisa Brewer voting in opposition.

    Schreiber, Bahl-Milne, Ryan, Steinberg, Hanneke, and Ross went out of their way to justify their total hypocrisy and clear political bias in not re-appointing Birtwistle. Griesemer’s lecture at the end, (wrongly) chastising the Councilors, was embarrassing. Schreiber’s outright dismissal of the views of 25 individuals who had written to the Council to protest the recommendations was disgraceful. His accusation that Birtwistle “solicited letters of reference” was shameful. Of course he didn’t solicit references! We wrote because we thought what you were doing is wrong. Clearly Schreiber didn’t care.

    This pattern of silencing anyone with a different view to that held by the Councilors, and the deep disdain shown toward having to hear from the public, and the push to deregulate Amherst, is more than troubling. I hope this behavior (and that around the APD budget and Site Plan Review approval threshold, and other recent decisions) motivates others to run for Council next year and to get out the vote in sufficient numbers to overwhelm what will be undoubtedly an organized slate pushed by a PAC. Balance needs to be restored to Amherst town government.

  12. If you can stomach it, watch the Council meeting from Monday 31st August beginning at 3hrs41mins45secs into the meeting. Here is the link:
    https://youtu.be/Iu00U2Xl1E8?t=13303
    The discussion and votes go on for 2 hours, lasting until well after midnight. Seven Councilors try very hard to justify their blatantly political actions to oust high-performing Planning Board member, Michael Birtwistle.
    Residents take note: This is how you will be treated by these Councilors if you dare to express views that they don’t share. It was a disgraceful performance.
    It would be interesting to know who recruited the three candidates that were appointed and why exactly they were approached to run for Planning Board. I know of connections of two of the three to Amherst Forward. Are their views toward further deregulation and support of downtown development known to those seven Councilors? Will these new members support handing over the powers over Zoning from the Planning Board to the Community Resources Committee? Is that where this is going?

  13. I’d like to know how every candidate for planning board (and current members) (and current town council) would describe (in detail) their vision of how downtown Amherst looks in 2030. How many more private dorms? What structure and function of new buildings, replacing aging buildings? Who lives and works there? What efforts have been made to listen to the electorate? Are there the young professionals and families living above stores and restaurants, that we say we want to attract? How many developments have been built and then sold off? How wide and welcoming are the sidewalks and public spaces? Is there affordable housing Is parking baked in to projects? What customers and visitors are we attracting, as a result? How will that future Amherst be a healthy mix of college and town.

  14. This comment was forwarded to The Indy from Mary Wentworth.

    Under our Town Meeting form of government, meeting members had the power to vote up or down on the Planning Board proposals put before them on the Warrant. But Town Meeting was an independent body and members did not have the power to also determine who would serve on the Planning Board. However, under this new Charter, the 13-member Town Council does both. It can make sure that the Planning Board has at least a majority of members who will shape its zoning proposals so that they are in keeping with what the Town Council wants placed before it.

    This is more than a cozy relationship. It is incestuous because it prevents the proper functioning of our town government. This arrangement must be changed.

    Comment from Mary Wentworth
    mlwentworth@comcast.net

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