Council Hears CSWG Interim Report, Extends Deadline For Final Report
The Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) , whose charge is to make recommendations on alternative means for providing public safety by the end of the month, reported on the first part of their charge at the Town Council meeting on January 25. Although the group has met eight times since the end of November, it is still gathering data from the Amherst community and from other municipalities, such as Eugene, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Chair Paul Wiley and Vice Chair Brianna Owen presented a summary of the group’s work so far. The group held two public forums in mid January and is now collecting data from a public survey.
Councilor Criticized For Remarks At Public Forum
After the presentation, Wiley and Owen read a letter from the group criticizing Councilor Alisa Brewer (at large) for speaking at the beginning of the January 16 Public Forum, when she pointed out that they started the meeting before all attendees had been admitted to the Zoom session, and hence the meeting was not in compliance with the open meeting law. The two-page letter emphasized that the forum was meant for members of the BIPOC community to share their private experiences in dealing with the Amherst Police Department and hearing a White Town Councilor criticize the organizers at the outset of the meeting “disregarded, disrespected, and harmed members of our community” and undermined the organizers’ aim to provide a “safe space for BIPOC residents” to share their experiences.
The organizers noted the lack of diversity in the Town’s governing bodies, the undermining of authority of leaders from the BIPOC community by some town officials, and the prevalence of micro and macro aggressions against community members who share their personal experiences of injustice here. They requested that Councilors acknowledge the power differential between them and the community that the CSWG seeks to represent, and that Councilors refrain from commenting at public forums.
In addition, they wrote that the “Community Safety Working Group would welcome an apology from Ms. Brewer acknowledging the egregious nature of the comments and its impact on our work and a commitment to refrain from repeating that behavior in the future. In addition, we would welcome a commitment from the Town Council to monitor and continually educate its members on how difficult it often is for community members to speak in public and raise their level of awareness to this fact.”
In her two part response (here and here), which was crafted shortly before the Council meeting, Brewer praised the work of the group and said that she hopes it continues beyond the time of the group’s existence. She said that her comment, which she gave when called on, about the need to observe process was not meant to disrupt the meeting. She wrote that not letting public attendees into the Zoom meeting, even though they had arrived on time and were waiting to be let in, until after the meeting was under way is akin to not letting them into a physical meeting room, and violates Open Meeting Law. (Note: the letter from the CSWG was only placed in the Councilors’ packet at 4:45 p.m. before the 6:30 meeting).
Deadline for First CSWG Report Extended
Later in the Council meeting, councilors unanimously approved extension of the deadline for the CSWG to report on recommendations for alternative means of providing safety services outside of the police department until March 31. A freeze on hiring to fill the two vacant police positions was also extended to that date. The CSWG expressed a need to hire a consultant to help with data collection and analysis. Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) hoped they will reach out to the BIPOC communities at the colleges and university, and will perhaps deal with issues involving the UMass police.
Anti Racism Training for Councilors
Councilors Pat DeAngelis (District 2) and Bahl-Milne, noting the limited racial and class diversity on the Town Council, recommended that all councilors participate in a weekend workshop, Undoing Racism, coordinated through the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in Ohio. They pointed out that bias is sometimes unconscious and that this would be an opportunity for the Council and possibly a few relevant Town officials to come together in an environment where “we can trust each other.” Bahl-Milne said, “unless we take deliberate steps to eliminate racism, we are perpetuating the system. We can only flourish if all of us are safe.”
The workshop would be only for the Councilors and two or three Town officials. It would cost $350 per person. The Council is allowed to spend up to $10,000 without posting for competitive bids. Bahl-Milne said that DeAngelis did the training and found it extremely worthwhile. Some Councilors raised mild reservations. Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) noted that she was one of the only Councilors with a school aged child at home on the weekend. Steve Schreiber (District 4) said that he had a full-time job and hoped he could make it work. Griesemer wondered if there was a shorter program or one that had shorter sessions. She pointed out the difficulty of finding a weekend when all Councilors were available. Evan Ross (District 4) worried about setting a precedent that, in addition to bimonthly Council meetings as well as district meetings and committee meetings, some full weekends would also be taken up by Council work. He tends to not do Council work on weekends. DeAngelis stated that, in an ordinary year, all Councilors would have traveled to Boston for a weekend to attend the Massachusetts Municipal Association meeting, so this should not be considered a greater expense of time.
DeAngelis and Bahl-Milne agreed to come back to a future Council meeting with some prospective dates for the workshop