Opinion: Town Council’s Contempt For Public Input Is Undisguised

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Art Keene

Well it happened again.  The Town Council at a special meeting on Monday night  (1/4) pushed through a controversial motion establishing new zoning priorities for the Town  while ignoring appeals from both within the Council and from the public to take a bit more time to think about what was being proposed and to study and consider the potential impacts of the decision.   Council President Lynn Greisemer decided not to allow public comment which is her right as specified by the Town Charter for special meetings.  But 80 Amherst residents wrote to the Council expressing a range of concerns and Councilors (with only a few exceptions) pretty much ignored that input except when they took the time to disparage it.  Those letters can be read here

Councilor Alissa Brewer (at large) dismissed the large outpouring of public input. She said that most of the letters that the Council received were “cut and paste” letters from white homeowners who fear change in their neighborhoods. If Brewer had taken the time to read the letters she would have known that they were diverse and thoughtful and expressed a range of concerns and represented a significant cross section of Amherst residents albeit almost exclusively home owners (not renters).  Brewer now joins Councilors Steve Schreiber (District 4) and George Ryan (District 3)  as Councilors who have said explicitly in public meetings that they do not feel obligated to read letters sent to them or to consider concerns raised by certain constituencies.

I, and others have been pointing out the Council’s disdain for the public for over a year now (see here, here, here, and here).

Sadly, this Council’s aversion to public input is ubiquitous. For example, at the Community Resource Committee (CRC)  meeting of 10/2/20,  Chair Mandy Jo Hanneke (at large) presented her 27 page draft for new town zoning priorities.  John Hornik, Chair of the Amherst Affordable Housing Trust complained that he had submitted a three page memo on behalf of the Trust and The Amherst Racial Equity Task Force, spelling out Amherst’s housing needs. He observed that the CRC had completely ignored his memo and did not seem interested in receiving feedback from the public.  He was told that the CRC intended to seek feedback from the public at a future date but not until the committee was clear about its own priorities. It seems to me that a process of inclusive government would want to consider input from the public as part of the process of setting priorities.  Elements of Hornik’s memo were ultimately included in the final draft of the zoning priorities document but as far as I can tell there was never any outreach to the general public to request their input.  So it is not surprising that knowledgeable folks who are concerned about setting zoning priorities and who can point to shortcomings and contradictions in the proposal took the time to write.  And who knows?  If the Council had been willing to slow down the process just a bit, and take a couple of extra weeks to study impacts, as was proposed in a substitute motion by Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1) which went down to defeat by a vote of 5-7-1 – if they had considered multiple points of view – they might have come up with a better proposal and avoided almost certain conflict down the line.  But seeking consensus is simply alien to the majority on this Council.

Zoning As Social Justice
Both Brewer and Evan Ross (District 4) have implied that those who oppose the new zoning priorities are self-interested (White) people who do not care about creating affordable housing in Amherst and who do not care about social justice.  They imply perhaps that the actions of those who are not on their side may even be racist.   

But as far as I can see the new zoning priorities do nothing explicit to promote affordable housing in Amherst and indeed, they eliminate the one concrete means of creating it, that is, inclusionary zoning.  As Planning Board member Janet McGowan has argued the best way to create affordable housing is to require developers to build it.  Instead, the adopted zoning priorities suggest that by removing as many obstacles as possible for developers, by making the process less onerous and less expensive, developers will be more likely to build more housing and that will include all kinds of housing including affordable.  CRC members have declared that we  need much more housing in town and if we get a lot of expensive housing it stands to reason that eventually we’ll get affordable units as well.  This sounds to me like trickle down and we know how well that has worked for the needy over the decades.  And so, if the Council can’t come up with an explicit plan for creating affordable housing, and they should (and McGowan has one), they ought to stop posturing as social justice warriors and  stop impugning the commitment to social justice of those who care about the issue and are demanding that the Council take it seriously.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with setting zoning priorities.  But as Councilors Schoen and Dumont pointed out – the Town Master Plan requires that proposed changes in zoning be subject to a study of potential impacts. But the Council as they often do,  determined that there was no time for such a study – not even another month or two.  I discern a pattern of “just in time production” here with Councilors frequently arguing that the need to make a given decision is urgent and that discussion and debate needs to be curtailed so the Council can meet a deadline. This has become so common that it appears to be an intentional feature of Council process, designed to keep debate to a minimum and opacity to a maximum.   While Councilors Ross and Hanneke claimed that great harm would come to the Town if the Council took another month or two to study the impacts of the proposed change in zoning priorities, to take public input and to clean up the Master Plan that guides zoning decisions, their argument was neither substantive nor compelling and it was hard to imagine why embracing some of Schoen’s suggestions wouldn’t produce better informed decisions that might end up being far less complicating or polarizing.

What Is To Be Done?
So what is to be done?  The majority on the Council have made it clear that they do not want to hear from the public, nor will they even make an effort to disguise their irritation when residents take the trouble to share their ideas and concerns.   What are we to do – we residents who also care about our town and who also have ideas and experience and expertise to share that might actually contribute to a better discussion and a better outcome?  

We can try to vote contemptuous Councilors out of office.  Certainly incumbents are hard to unseat but the contempt that some Councilors show toward some of their constituents may motivate those constituents to mobilize and organize to elect new Councilors who have the disposition and patience to actively listen to all of their constituents.  It is not too early for folks to consider running for office and I encourage them to explore their potential candidacies in the pages of The Indy.  Another option is the citizen’s veto.   Section 8.4 of the charter offers citizens the opportunity to overturn a vote of the Council – but with conditions that are nearly (but not absolutely) impossible to fulfill.  We won’t really know if this is a viable option until someone tries it and we might as well give it a shot on one of these awful decisions to see if it works.   It remains to be seen whether the creeping disenfranchisement in Amherst will motivate Amherst voters to undertake such  formidable projects.

Polarization And The Fate Of Democracy
As I write this, our nation’s Capitol building is being occupied by Trump-supporting terrorists who have threatened to lynch the Vice President and execute members of Congress who have barricaded themselves into the House chamber.  It seems with each passing day that we are becoming more polarized as a nation.   It pains me that our own local government is moving toward a politics of polarization and seems to be more and more comfortable with locking out of the process of governance anyone who does not subscribe to the agenda of the majority.  There are of course alternatives to the politics of polarization though it seems to me that the folks who are growing increasingly comfortable with one party rule have little interest in exploring them.  I suggest that they could still get much of what they want -though of course not everything that they want – that’s the way it is in a democracy – by genuinely embracing open government,  by listening and actually hearing what different constituencies in this town want and need, by embracing the idea that it is possible to learn something from everyone,  and by endeavoring  to build consensus rather than being satisfied with a slim but unchallengeable majority.  There are actually municipalities that approach decisions this way – through consensus building – and I will write about them in a future column.

Art Keene is managing editor of The Amherst Indy.  He is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at UMass and former Coach of Girls Cross Country at Amherst Regional High School. He has lived in Amherst since 1981. 

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1 thought on “Opinion: Town Council’s Contempt For Public Input Is Undisguised

  1. I sent an e-mail to my former councilor Evan Ross, expressing concern about how two large downtown “mixed-use” buildings that are essentially student dorms are now under the control, and possibly the ownership, of a Chicago real assets management firm. Within a minute I received a canned response telling me that he heartily supported the zoning priorities established by the CRC, and why. That is well and good, but it is not how one should respond to a constituent’s concerns. In fact, it is not even a response; it is a brush-off. Within a minute of receiving Councilor Ross’s e-mail, I responded, saying that what he should have done was to pause and read my e-mail, or at least give the impression that he had done so, and then give a response indicating that he would take it into consideration. I got no response to that.

    Councilor Ross claims to represent the underclass of renters in town. As a former long-term renter, I don’t feel one little bit of representation from him. The majority of this council ran for office on the premise that THEY would listen to US, and that unlike old, white, rich Town Meeting, they didn’t have an agenda. It looks like Kool-Aid can still deliver.

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