Report on The Meeting of the Amherst Town Council (9/14/20)
The meeting was held via Zoom webcast and was simulcast on Amherst Media Channel 15. The recording of the meeting can be viewed here.
Participating: All Town Councilors.
Staff: Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Clerk of the Council Athena OKeeffe
Council president, Lynn Griesemer (District 2) began the meeting announcing upcoming meetings and again calling attention to the Town’s COVID-19 Concern Line (413) 259-2425 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Several residents urged the Council to sign the letter to the University of Massachusetts proposed by Pat DeAngelis (District 2) to decry the university laying off or furloughing several hundred employees (see discussion below).
Several other residents commented on the Town Manager’s memo on Community Safety, which was placed in the meeting packet on the day of the meeting. He proposes creating a nine-member Citizen’s Community Safety Working Group to spend a year exploring possible changes in the Town’s public safety policy. Speakers commended the proposal as a start, but did not want the police to participate in any Citizen’s Commission dealing with policing practices. Amilcar Shabazz, from the Racial Equity Task Force felt the proposed working group’s work, as described, was so extensive, that it should be divided into two committees (see discussion below).
Council Supports UMASS Union Members
At the urging of several residents and UMASS unions, DeAngelis drafted a letter to be sent to UMASS in support of the hundreds of union members threatened with layoffs and furloughs. Steve Schreiber and Evan Ross (both District 4) recused themselves for these discussions, since they are employees of the University. Several other Councilors have spouses or relatives who work at UMASS, but remained in the discussion.
The Town attorney, when consulted, stated that this is a nonbinding resolution, so there would be no legal impediments to the Council publicly issuing a letter in support of the unions. Because of the time sensitivity of the matter, eleven members of Council spent over an hour trying to rewrite DeAngelis’ strong letter supporting workers and emphasizing the harm that would result to them and the Town as a whole from the proposed layoffs. Alisa Brewer (At Large) insisted that the Council had no authority to insert itself in negotiations between the University and the unions. George Ryan (District 3) objected to other language which said that UMASS was not negotiating in good faith. Dorothy Pam (District 3) said that deleting these passages took the teeth out of the original letter. She abstained from the vote on the proposed amendments, but voted for the final letter, which passed 10-0-1 (Griesemer abstaining).
Note: The next day, the University and the Unions came to an agreement which avoided the layoffs for the present time.
North Amherst Library
With little discussion, the Council voted unanimously to accept the $200,000 gift from an anonymous donor to proceed with the design and engineering plans for the renovation of the North Amherst Library. Bockelman will go forward with the plans, based on the preliminary design by Kuhn, Riddle Architects presented at the August 3, 2020 Council Meeting.
Bockelman introduced Jennifer Brown RN, acting Health Director. Brown has a Masters Degree in Preventative Health and has worked for Town for the past 8 years. Brown offered a presentation on the current state of the pandemic in Amherst. The full presentation can be found here.
Brown reported that testing has been going well a UMASS. Over 33,000 tests have been conducted on over 9000 individuals. Free testing was recently opened up for enrolled students living off campus. The University will provide on campus isolation facilities for students who test positive, even if they live off campus. There will be another public joint forum on COVID-19 with the Town and the University in October.
The COVID-19 Concern Line, which began August 30, received 95 calls as of this weekend. Most were noise complaints, but some were for gatherings. There were also questions about testing. With public buildings still closed, the Town is working on indoor space for those without homes to use during the day and gearing up for administering flu vaccines to vulnerable populations.
COVID ambassadors, mostly college students, have started working in pairs, primarily in the downtown area, including the Farmers’ Market. As of now, they have made contact with 154 individuals, supplying facemasks and information. The Coordinator of the Ambassador program works in a similar capacity for UMASS, so the Town and University programs complement each other.
The Council discussed the Town Manager’s proposed creation of a Community Safety Working Group, composed of nine residents, at least six of which will be people from the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community. According to the Town Charter, committees can only be appointed by the Town Manager or the Council, but Bockelman assured the Council that the interviewing group would be expanded to include members of the Racial Equity Task Force and Defund 413, groups advocating for reforms in policing.
Mandi Jo Hanneke (At Large) stated that, after listening to the public comments, she felt that the Police Chief should not be a member of the Group, because his presence might inhibit honest discussion. Shalini Bahl Milne (District 5) felt that the police should be included in the discussions, but not as voting members. Most Councilors felt that the Police Chief should be called in if needed, but not participate regularly in the Group. The Working Group would not be under the aegis of the Council, but rather the Town Manager. A report of the recommendations would be presented to the Council by January 31, 2021. Bockelman said he plans to form the group and begin meeting by mid-October.
Percent for Art Bylaw
The long delayed Percent for Art Bylaw was presented as a first reading by Public Art Commission Chair, Bill Kaizen. The current proposed Bylaw would allocate 0.5 percent of construction costs for all capital projects costing over $1 million to permanent art installations at the site of the new construction. Kaizen gave a brief history of the Bylaw which was originally passed by Town Meeting in 2017, but was disputed by the State Senate. The original proposal included performing arts, but this was determined to be not allowed by State law.
An ad hoc committee was formed in 2019 to revise the Bylaw passed by Town Meeting. The new proposal increased the minimum project size which would trigger the Bylaw from $100,000 to $1 million, and established a clause allowing the Council to suspend that bylaw under special circumstances (such as budget constraints), which would be defined by the Council. Only projects financed by the general fund would trigger the Bylaw.
A second reading and likely vote will occur at a future meeting, probably October 5, 2020.
Town Manager Salary and Goals
At the Executive session in the August 31 meeting, the Council voted to increase the Town Manager’s salary by a two percent cost of living raise. Although they noted Bockelman’s exceptional service to the Town, current budget conditions do not permit a greater raise. His new salary will be $183,021 for the year.
The document presenting goals for the Town Manager which had been discussed at the last two Council meetings was presented for a final vote. DeAngelis recommended adding appendices to include the goals that the Racial Equity Task Force submitted to the Council for the August 31 meeting and the goals put forth by the Energy and Climate Action Committee. Brewer objected, saying these were not Council goals and were too specific. Darcy DuMont (District 5) countered that the Climate goals were included in last year’s Town Manager goals. Schoen stated that she was not comfortable attaching these documents without being able to read them more carefully. The motion to add the appendices was defeated 2-11-0 (DeAngelis and DuMont voting yes), and the full Goals document was accepted with a vote of 11-1-1 (Brewer voting no, Schoen abstaining).
Single Use Plastic Bag Bylaw
The Council also heard a first reading of the revised Single Use Plastic Bag which has been in effect since 2016. This document incorporates changes made by the Bylaw Review Committee and was approved by the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee. The bylaw proposes a $100 fine for a second offense for any business using single-use plastic bags after a warning for the first. Ross objected to the process of developing the Bylaw and thought it should have gone to the Community Resources Committee before going to GOL, but Ryan pointed out that it was the Council who sent it to GOL. Andy Steinberg (At Large) wanted to know which businesses currently have deferments, and Brewer wanted to make sure businesses were aware of the provisions of the Bylaw. She felt the changes should have been discussed with businesses prior to drafting the document. The Bylaw will receive a second reading on October 5. DuMont and Ryan stated they would deal with the questions raised before that meeting.
Town Manager Report
Bockelman presented two documents for this meeting. One was a report on the Primary election held September 1. A total of 7180 ballots were cast (almost 43 percent of registered voters). Nearly 5400 votes were cast in absentee, mail-in, and early voting. Polling generally went well, but there was some confusion in newly configured sites as to which entrance to use. A more complete report is pending and will be presented at the next Council meeting. The Clerk’s office is preparing for a heavier turnout for the November 3 election.
In the general Town Manager report, Bockelman pointed out increased communication and a positive attitude between the Town and University. This past weekend was the first weekend he can remember when there was no transport to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. The full Manager’s report can be read here.
An edited version is included in this issue of The Indy (add link).
Council Committee News
Schoen announced that the Community Preservation Act Committee is accepting proposals for funding for the next month.
The Town Services and Outreach Committee will be discussing parking on Lincoln Avenue and other downtown residential streets at its September 24 meeting and the role of facial recognition surveillance on October 8.
GOL discussed the Wage Theft Bylaw on September 16.
DuMont suggested that the Council consider raising the salary for Councilors to encourage middle income residents to run for office.
The meeting adjourned at 11:27 PM
The next Council meeting will be September 21 at 6:30 PM.