Town Council Approves Controversial Appointments To Planning Board


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Report On The Town Council Meeting of 8/31/20

The meeting was held via Zoom webcast and was broadcast simultaneously on Amherst Media Channel 15. The recording of the meeting can be found here.

Participants: All Councilors participated as did Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

Planning Board Appointments
The latter portion of this 5-hour and 40-minute meeting (excluding executive session) was concerned with ratifying the slate presented by the Community Resources Committee (CRC) for appointments to the Planning Board.

When Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) attempted to put the Council into Executive Session at 10:20 p.m. to discuss the Town Manager’s contract and compensation, her fellow District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis objected, saying that many residents had waited for almost four hours for the agenda item about the slate recommended by the CRC to fill three seats on the Planning Board and that it was unfair to delay that discussion. Griesemer relented and an almost two-hour discussion ensued.

The controversy was over whether four-year incumbent Michael Birtwistle should be denied his bid for reappointment, in favor of three new applicants. On August 26, the CRC (Community Resources Committee) had voted 3-1-0 in favor of the three new applicants, instead of Birtwistle and two other new applicants.

In the four days following the vote, the Council received 25 letters in support of Birtwistle and/or opposed to the appointment process that was used, many  from people who have followed the Planning Board throughout his tenure. Former Planning Board member Rob Crowner, who served with Birtwistle, and Community Preservation Act Committee Chair Nate Budington wrote strong letters of support. Janet Keller, Bob Greeney, and Hwei-Ling Greeney spoke at the meeting. An opinion piece about the appointments can be found here

Cathy Schoen (District 1) introduced a motion to create an Associate Member position on the Planning Board for one of the three new appointments, which would have allowed Birtwistle to keep his seat. This idea gained little traction among Council members  because it was raised from the floor without a prior proposal. Then Schoen proposed that Birtwistle replace architect Thom Long on the appointment slate because Long would be the third architect on the board, at the same time that a rationale offered for replacing Birtwistle was to increase “diversity of experience” on the board. 

At that point the arguments became contentious. CRC member Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), who had not attended the interviews with candidates, all of which took place on the same day as the deliberations  August 26,  gave a lengthy argument for all three members of the slate. Dorothy Pam (District 3), who attended most of the Planning Board’s meetings over the past year, noted Birtwistle’s “exemplary service” and his original, independent thinking, saying that he adds an important voice to the board. It was repeatedly pointed out by some of the Councilors as well as members of the public that Birtwistle has consistently been well-prepared, thoughtful, conscientious, and knowledgeable about the issues that have come before the Planning Board, although one Councilor suggested that he was merely “warming up” a seat and that the newcomers would somehow be more knowledgeable than he about the intricacies of the Town’s zoning bylaws, master plan, and history. It was also pointed out that three architects on the Board would be redundant and that diversity of opinion is crucial for a high quality Planning Board.

When Steve Schreiber (District 4) stated that he didn’t give any weight to the 25 letters that support Birtwistle or express deep concern about the process being used because the other candidates did not know that they should solicit “testimonials,” Pam replied that the letters are not “testimonials” and had not been solicited by Birtwistle. Indeed, she said, they are “protest letters” for what is widely perceived as an unfair slate and a dubious process. If the process was actually fair, she said, why is it that she knew well beforehand that Birtwistle would not be one of the nominees? Meanwhile, the CRC recently made a significant turnabout in its own guidelines, eliminating preference for reappointing people who had already served one term. 

DeAngelis pointed out that Johanna Neumann, one of the appointees (and a key spokesperson for the Amherst For All group that is now the Amherst Forward PAC) has done fine work in environmental activism, but she has no experience in planning, zoning, and related matters.  Alisa Brewer (At Large), mentioning that she has been in Town government here for almost 20 years, noted that the CRC’s deliberations about Planning Board nominees went “off the rails” when Neumann and Long were quickly awarded two out of the three positions, with almost no discussion, leaving only one position to be filled by one of the remaining candidates. 

When Darcy DuMont (District 5) proposed delaying the vote to another meeting, Schreiber made the claim that it would be “irresponsible” because it would delay the Survival Center’s request for a temporary shelter and the high school’s request to set up tents, due to lack of a quorum. That argument, however, was specious because the four remaining members of the Planning Board constitute a quorum and could vote on those and any other issues. After it was established that it would be difficult or impossible for several of the Councilors to attend a meeting Thursday of the same week, she withdrew her motion. 

After several more proposals were considered, the CRC’s slate was passed 7-6-0 (Brewer, DeAngelis, DuMont, Pam, Schoen, and Sarah Swartz, District 1, voted no). Griesemer had initially abstained, but had to break a tie and voted for the slate. She then chastised the Council for what she called an “ugly discussion” and “the most terrible discussion the Council has had…we have besmirched people’s reputations.”.

Community Safety
The other major issue discussed at the meeting were proposals of the Racial Equity Task Force to incorporate the input of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) residents into all aspects of the Town Manager’s goals. Several members of the public spoke in favor of these proposals. Bockelman said that he had discussed these goals with Task Force Chair Dee Shabazz and had met with several members of Defund 413. The Defund 413 members are interested in learning about the budgeting process and how to get involved in time to have an effect. Bockelman said that these conversations are just getting started and that he would continue to work on these issues.

Local Preference For 132 Northampton Road Supportive Housing Project
The Council decided in a 9-4-0 vote to recommend that there be a preference for local people in the selection of residents for the proposed Valley CDC supportive housing project at 132 Northampton Road (Swartz, Hanneke, Evan Ross (District 4), and Bahl-Milne voted no). The local preference mandate means that 70 percent of the first residents would live or work in Amherst or have one or more children in an Amherst public school. The final decision rests with the Zoning Board of Appeals, which will discuss the project on September 10. 

Town Manager Evaluation and Goals
Griesemer presented a revised document on the evaluation of the Town Manager’s performance based on comments she received from other Councilors on the preliminary document. Some other minor suggestions will be incorporated into the final evaluation. The Councilors thanked Bockelman for his excellent service. 

Revised Town Manager Goals were presented by the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee (GOL) Chair, George Ryan (District 3). They include six main goals: Climate Action, Community Health and Safety, Economic Vitality, Four Major Capital Projects, Housing Affordability, and Racial Equity and Social Justice. The latter had been excluded from the previous draft. The entire document can be found here. The Town Manager Goals will be voted on at the September 14 Council meeting. 

COVID-19 Updates
Bockelman announced the creation of a COVID hotline for calls (413-259-2425) as well as an email address ( regarding large gatherings or other risky behaviors. In its first week, the hotline received 40 calls. Community Participation Officers are monitoring the communications, which will be answered on the next business day.  Bockelman is also assembling a group of “ambassadors,” mostly college students, to educate residents about ways to limit the spread of the coronavirus. With the retirement of Health Director Julie Federman, Bockelman has appointed Public Health Nurse Jennifer Brown as Interim Health Director. He also said that UMass is testing off-campus students at least twice; staff, faculty, and on-campus students are being tested twice weekly. UMass, Amherst and Hampshire Colleges have each established a COVID dashboard displaying information on testing and positive cases. As of this writing, UMass has had nine cases, Amherst College three, and Hampshire none. There are now 16 active cases in Amherst. 

The Jones library is hoping to put up a tent in order to provide internet access to the public. The Town is considering the creation of a daytime shelter for those without homes. Craig’s Doors shelter is due to open on November 1. Bockelman said that in the interest of safety no Town buildings are slated to open at this time, and meetings will be on-line for the foreseeable future. Several Councilors decried the lack of testing sites in Amherst. Bockelman said he is working with Cooley Dickinson Hospital to establish mobile testing here. 

Master Plan Update Delayed
In July, in response to the desire for the Council to prioritize  revising the Zoning Bylaw over revising the Master Plan, the Planning Board voted unanimously to accept the Master Plan as is. The Council rescinded its vote of February 10, which instructed the Planning Board to prioritize the Master Plan, and voted to postpone updating it. There will be a Public Forum on the Master Plan, as required by the Charter, but the date has not been set.

The Council approved the Town Manager’s recommendations of Cedric Gonnet, Elizabeth Haygood, and Erica Loper for the Human Rights Commission with Sid Ferreira being  reappointed, and  Dwayne Chamble, Phoebe Merriam, and Jonathan Salvon appointed to the Elementary School Building Committee. DuMont, Schoen, and Pam abstained on these appointments because they feel that someone with expertise in Net Zero buildings should be a member of the School Building Committee.

The Council entered Executive Session after 5 hours 45 minutes in order to discuss the Town Manager’s contract and compensation.  Bockelman was given a positive review and a raise.  (Look here for an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette about Bockelman’s evaluation and raise.) The next Council meeting is scheduled for September 14.

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