Opinion: Town Council To Amherst Residents: Complain All You Want. We Have the Votes and We Are Not Listening

by Art and Maura Keene

We will not recap most of the arguments we have offered about the threat to democracy that is posed when a government majority becomes indifferent to the views and interests of all of its constituents. We set those out previously here

We’ll just add that there is considerable danger of bad decision making in the echo chamber and group think that is emerging within our Town Council — evident last Monday night (8/31)  when the Council not only chose to ratify its comically justified plan to boot veteran Michael Birtwistle off the Planning Board, but in doing so showed unapologetic contempt for the public who opposed that decision.

We argued last week that this trend is not about ensuring that the Council majority can pass its agenda. This Council’s majority has never been in jeopardy in the 18 months that it has been in business, and Birtwistle, who sometimes takes contrarian positions and Is known to ask challenging questions, poses no threat to the majority’s plans or its vision to revise the Town’s approach to zoning. This purge is not about protecting an agenda, but rather is about controlling the conversation. As we pointed out last week, the Council has shown little tolerance for ideas that do not originate with the Council majority and it has shown little interest in hearing from the public.

CRC — Not Ready for Public Input
If there was any doubt about this, we saw the same, unapologetic contempt for the public at the Community Resources Committee (CRC) meeting held the day after the contentious Council debate about the Planning Board.

That meeting involved CRC members reviewing their priorities for housing policy in Amherst and tying those priorities to the kinds of zoning changes that might be required to enact those priorities.  

During the public comment period that followed the discussion, John Hornik, Chair of the Amherst Affordable Housing Trust, said that he had sent the Committee a three-page memo outlining his own concerns about housing priorities and those of the Racial Equity Task Force.  He noted that none of the issues that he had raised were mentioned in the preceding priority-setting discussion by the Councilors.  He said he was concerned (maybe he said offended) and he expressed his worry that the Council was becoming increasingly insular and increasingly turning a deaf ear to the interests and concerns of the public.  He described this as a troubling trend.

Councilors Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) and Evan Ross (District 4) responded (defensively, it seemed to us) that of course the Council intended to take feedback from the public at some point, but that they were not ready to hear from the public yet.  They first had to set their own priorities and determine what was important and who they needed to hear from, and afterwards they would float these ideas in a public forum. 

It seemed to us that they missed Hornik’s point and perhaps they were not really listening. It sure looks as the only public input that they consider helpful is that which is offered in response to ideas that originate within the Council.  It seems as if they didn’t think they had much to learn, from either the Housing Trust or the Racial Equality Task Force, that might shape their discussion, and that it never occurred to them to take the pulse of the greater community BEFORE defining their priorities.  There was a terse thanks to Hornik for his comment but no effort to assure him that his input and expertise are welcome, much less valued.  

Back to the Council Meeting
It appears that Councilors will no longer even try to conceal their contempt for the public and for diverse perspectives. This is evident in both words and deeds (see here for a recent example from the Government, Legislation and Organization Committee). Twenty-five residents wrote to the Council to protest the CRC’s  process for nominations for three seats on the Planning Board, and the outcome of its contrived deliberations.

In response to this outpouring of public concern, Councilor Steve Schreiber (District 4) said:

“Honestly, I dismiss all of the letters that have been written to us. I find such letter writing to be exceptionally unfair to all of the other candidates. They had no idea that they were supposed to be soliciting testimonials. I believe that none of us should give weight to any of those letters because we did not ask for letters of recommendation.”

Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) responded, chastising Schreiber:

“Those letters weren’t testimonials. They were protest letters. They were submitted in response to a decision that they saw as egregiously wrong. They thought that this decision was one that would stifle people from applying to serve on committees, if they thought that they might be thrown out like an old shoe.”

And as the two sides fenced back and forth — one praising Birtwistle’s skills and detailing his service, the other diminishing the same while praising the integrity and hard work of the CRC,  it appeared as if the two sides in this 7-6 vote occupied two different and irreconcilable realities. Watch it here beginning at about 3:44 and judge for yourself.

The entire evening was aptly and cogently summed up by Councilor Alisa Brewer (At Large), who criticized the CRC because the majority of its members didn’t think it was important to ascertain “whether any of the new appointees have any familiarity whatsoever with the actual work of the Amherst Planning Board, by having watched or analyzed or attended any of its meetings”.

She concluded:

“I watched the [CRC] meeting and I feel like it went off the rails early on… The message that it sends when you say, ‘We have the votes’ and that it doesn’t matter what message you send to people who do not have the votes… We have to think about the message we are sending to future applicants and to people who are currently serving, whether we think we can muscle a vote through or not. I understand that there are people here who feel that they are not muscling a vote through — and I am telling you that there are people in the community, not just the people who wrote to us, who feel that is exactly what is happening. So good luck in explaining that — because that’s the perception that’s out there and it doesn’t matter that you don’t share that perception.”

Apathy or Resistance?
The insular Council majority are the same folks who were endorsed by a PAC that promised Amherst a more accountable government than the Town had known under Town Meeting. Apparently they meant accountable to only certain constituencies.  Since the folks in power are making it increasingly clear that they have no interest in hearing from or seriously considering ideas that originate from outside of their echo chamber, it may be that the only way to hold people who imperiously assert that they can muscle a vote, is to vote them out of office when the opportunity arises next year. The hegemonic, PAC-dominated Council (that denies that their decisions are political) are counting on a citizenry that will be too weary or too apathetic to contest the status quo and field candidates with a more inclusive vision of Town politics. 

We urge Amherst residents who care about their Town where only the “h” is silent, to keep a close and critical eye on the workings of this Council, to speak up loudly and often, to make themselves seen and heard, to continue to apply for positions on Town committees and boards, and to run for Town Council.

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: Town Council To Amherst Residents: Complain All You Want. We Have the Votes and We Are Not Listening

  1. The Council should drop its complicated appointment process. Although the defunct Outreach, Communications and Appointments committee carefully considered appointments for the Planning Board (twice) and Zoning Board of Appeals, the recent School Committee and Planning Board Appointments were a charade. Everyone knew the Amherst Forward candidates, Heather Lord and the three recent candidates appointed to the Planning Board would be chosen before the interviews. Why waste people’s time and embarrass themselves by pretending to take all candidates seriously?

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