Council Debates Creation Of African Heritage Reparations Coalition, Opposes Closure Of The Gorse Children’s Center In South Hadley, And Opts Out Of Aerial Mosquito Spraying

Juneteenth rally to demand reparations from the US government. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, May 17, 2021

The meeting was held via Zoom and can be viewed here.

Present
Councilors: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Alisa Brewer, Mandi Jo Hanneke, and Andy Steinberg (At large), Cathy Schoen and Sarah Swartz (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), George Ryan and Dorothy Pam (District 3), Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5). Absent Darcy DuMont (District 5)

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Reparations for Citizens of African Heritage
There was a joint presentation from the Black Stakeholders Group (BSG) and the founders of Reparations For Amherst (R4A). The draft proposal can be read here.  Dr. Barbara Love, a resident of Amherst for more than 50 years, began the presentation. Speaking for the BSG, she said that a group of colleagues who currently or formerly held elected office in Amherst have formed a group to establish a framework for reparations in the Town. In addition to Love, this group includes Kathleen Anderson, Amilcar Shabazz, Irv Rhodes, Ben Herrington, and Hala Lord. She urged the Council to endorse HR 40, federal legislation supporting reparations for African Americans. She then proposed a coalition to act on the Council‘s December 2020 Resolution to End Structural Racism by establishing a fund for reparative justice for harm done to the Black population of Amherst from the founding of the Town to the present. The Coalition would direct allotted revenues to areas of importance to the African-American residents of Amherst.

Amilcar Shabazz said the Stakeholders Group has been conducting a census of Amherst residents who consider themselves Black. About 100 residents have answered the census so far, and the group is adding more everyday. (Register for the census by sending an email to blackamherst@gmail.com.) The group plans to create a reparative justice fund and will decide by consensus how to use the funds.

R4A co-founder Michele Miller (District 1) said that R4A has engaged in considerable research to develop a report on the history of the Town’s Black residents.  Though it is still a work in progress, it does detail stark disparities between Amherst’s Black and White residents. R4A has received $5,000 from the Town to support this work. They have spent a considerable amount of time hearing the stories of the town’s Black population. R4A is supporting the BSG in asking the Town Council to create a coalition to study the needs of residents of African Heritage  and find a path for alleviating documented disparities, directed by the population itself. 

Matthew Andrews, a resident of District 2 and  co-founder of R4A, said that the Wall Street Journal reported that it would take 228 years for an average Black family to amass the wealth of an average white family. He asked, “What does it mean to live in that statistic?” Urging the councilors to materially support the group’s efforts, he said that we have a chance to start repairing the harms done to the Black population of Amherst. 

What followed was a confused discussion about process among the Councilors. There was a motion to task the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL) with creating the charge for the proposed coalition, but it was unclear to several Councilors whether money referred to was to support the work of the coalition or to finance reparations themselves. The Finance Committee was tasked with figuring out the funding stream.

Bahl-Milne felt that the Amherst community cannot heal without this restorative justice and that this is important for White people as well as for Black people. She hoped the proposed coalition would coordinate with the Community Safety Working Group to meet their shared goals. Brewer said that reparations will require a revenue stream and suggested using the $190,000 in marijuana tax receipts. The Council, she noted, has never discussed what that money should be used for, and the Town staff has just added it to the general funds.

Ryan, Chair of GOL, felt that the committee charge should be clarified before the financing stream is explored, but several Councilors pointed out that the whole point of the Coalition is to distribute funds to the Black Community,which it cannot do without funds. Ross agreed but Steinberg, Chair of the Finance Committee, said that finding a revenue stream “might be difficult” at this stage of the budgeting process.

Swartz said that we have acknowledged the harm done to African-Americans in Amherst. It isn’t  up to the new committee to find their own revenue stream, she said. Rather, it is part of our job to fund the reparations. 

Love made it clear that her group wants the Town to provide a revenue stream to address the needs of the African-American community, not to fund the work of the committee. She noted that this type of reparations has never been done before, and although it might feel odd or uncomfortable,  it is the right thing to do. She said she will submit a resolution to the Council in support of HR 40 at a later meeting.

In the end, the Council voted 12-0 (DuMont absent) to refer the creation of the charge for the African Heritage Reparations Coalition to GOL and 10-1-1 (Ryan voted no and Steinberg abstained) to instruct the Finance Committee to find a possible revenue stream to support the work of the committee, with reports due back to the Council by June 21.

Closure of Mount Holyoke College Children’s Center
Bahl-Milne and residents Corey Kurtz and Rabia Ahmed sponsored a resolution opposing the announced closure of MHC’s Gorse Children’s Center after June 2022. The motion was originally on the consent agenda to be voted on without discussion, but Brewer asked that it be removed from the consent agenda because she did not feel the matter was in the Council’s jurisdiction.

Bahl-Milne explained why she felt it is important for the Council to support this resolution. She said that there are many residents of Amherst who will be impacted by the closure. Childcare centers are one of the few services that nonprofit colleges provide to communities, she said. It is ultimately MHC ‘s decision whether to continue to operate the center, but she felt that the Council should support Town residents. She and several residents noted that the Gorse Center has been one of the few providers of infant care in the region.

Pam felt the Council should make a statement to MHC, and noted that it has weighed in on similar matters concerning the colleges or university. She said that the residents of North Village came to the Council with their worries about being displaced and the Council helped them resolve their problem.

Steinberg said he is not dismissing the importance of infant daycare, but the Council needs to first define what are appropriate issues to take up, not just “feel-good issues.” 

But DeAngelis disagreed. The Council interferes with private businesses all the time, she pointed out. “We tell businesses what kind of bags they can use,” for example. “This is an issue that disproportionately affects women,” she said. “It is not ‘just a feel-good issue.’”

And Schoen said, “We are talking about a non-profit institution that does not pay taxes .They provide an essential service to families and children, and they should continue to do so.” She said that she would feel the same way about Amherst or Hampshire Colleges.

In public comment, several parents of current and former users of the center spoke in favor of the resolution. Kurtz said that Gorse is one of the few centers in the area that provides year-round childcare from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from infancy through pre-K and that its closure next year would affect 80 families. The Hadley selectboard has already sent a letter to MHC. Even looking a year ahead of time, Kurtz said, she has been unable to find childcare for her daughter for next year.

Robert Samet, a former resident of Amherst, also opposes the closing. He said the Center has been in South Hadley for generations, and dozens if not hundreds of children in Amherst have gone there. There is a difference between for-profit and non-profit childcare centers, he said, and this center is one the primary benefits that MHC provides to the community; he can see very little financial basis for the decision to close it.

The Council voted 9-3 in support of the resolution. All three of the At-large Councilors (Brewer, Hanneke and Steinberg) voted against it.

Governor Relaxes Covid-19 Restrictions
Governor Baker has announced that he is lifting all mask mandates for vaccinated individuals as of May 29 and he planned to end the State of Emergency on June 15. Amherst Health Director Emma Dragon lifted the mask mandate in Amherst as of noon on Monday, May 17. She did not elaborate whether this was for only vaccinated individuals, but did say that over 50 percent of the population has been vaccinated. The recording for the May 14 Board of Health meeting is here.  Bockelman said that the lifting of the State of Emergency has implications related to whether the Town can continue to conduct meetings over Zoom and allow businesses to serve take-out alcohol, among other things. He has not heard any specific plans.

State Aerial Spraying for Mosquito Control
The Board of Health recommended 5-0 that Amherst join a growing collaborative of communities who have opted out of the State’s mosquito spraying program. The Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District, founded in 2017, offers. testing for Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile Virus (WNV) and an ecological means of mosquito control. Member communities pay for services they use. Amherst would request twice weekly testing for EEE and WNV at a total cost of $5,000. This testing (and an education program on the use of insect repellent) would meet the minimal requirements to allow the Town to avoid aerial spraying if the State deems it necessary.

EEE is fatal in 66 percent of cases and causes lasting neurological effects in many survivors. Ten percent of those who contract WNV are critically ill. Both diseases are rare in this part of Massachusetts. In supporting the unanimous vote to not allow aerial spraying, the Board of Health noted that very little of the pesticide used in such spraying targets the mosquito population and that there is little documentation of its efficacy in reducing the spread of disease. However, there is considerable documentation of its harm to other aspects of the ecosystem, which could make the situation worse in the long run.

In public comment, Lenore Bryck cited the research of Dr. Stephen Frantz about better ways to control mosquito-borne diseases. She noted that the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District is a “work in progress” on how to best test and control the mosquito population.

The Council voted 12-0-0 to opt out of the State Aerial Spraying program.

The meeting adjourned at 11:23 p.m. The Council will meet Monday, May 24 at 6:30 p.m.

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