Letter: Amherst Doesn’t Really Care About Transparency

Photo: Pixabay.com. Creative Commons

The first time I attended an in-person Amherst School Committee meeting, I was 15 minutes late because it took me that long to find the meeting location. I knew that the meeting took place in the library of the Amherst Regional High School. I had been in the high school once before, to attend a performance in the auditorium, so I figured I knew where to go. When I arrived at the high school, the main entrance to the building was locked and there were no signs of life. I got out my phone to confirm I had the right date (I did). Then I got back in my car and drove around to a loading dock area, but didn’t see an entrance that looked right. Finally I called a friend to ask where the *bleep* I was supposed to go. She directed me to drive around to the other side from where I was, enter through the side entrance, then walk down to the library. 

In order to find the meeting, I had to already know someone who already knew where it was. What if I were new to town? What if my friend hadn’t answered the phone? I would have given up and gone home. I recently told a few friends about this experience, and they had their own stories of woe about trying to attend a school committee meeting the first time. Some of them called a friend like I had. One did give up and went home.

Multiply this frustration and confusion times 10 when it comes to virtual meetings during the pandemic. At the May 24 Town Council meeting, which I attended via Zoom, I heard mention of a meeting on Thursday when the work of the Community Safety Working Group would be further discussed. I knew I wanted to attend that meeting, so I tried to find information about it. I went to the online town calendar, the Town Council website, and the Finance Committee website, but found no mention of it. Then I recalled, from having seen Town Council agendas in the past, that they post information about future meetings in their agenda. That is where I found a mention of a “Special Meeting of the Town Council, Finance Committee, and Community Safety Working Group” on May 27 at 5:30. This “Special Meeting” is not listed on the Town Council website, the Finance Committee website, nor the town calendar of events. The only way to know about this meeting, which takes place in three days, is to have attended the May 24 Town Council meeting, or to have glanced at the meeting agenda.

A generous soul might point out that there is a 48-hour requirement for posting public meetings, and it wasn’t yet 48 hours before the May 27 meeting. But, the meeting had clearly already been scheduled — the Town Council talked about it, included it on their May 24 agenda, and in fact I learned later that it was mentioned at the May 17 meeting of the Finance Committee a week prior. Yet the meeting was not posted anywhere. 

A local government that is truly committed to transparency, one that wants an informed citizenry and values public input, would anticipate the basic ways in which people seek information. Such a government would proactively put up a sandwich board at the main entrance of a school building when the entrance to the public meeting is around to the side. Such a government would make sure meeting info is posted as soon as it is scheduled, and as soon as (or before) its representatives start talking about it in public. 

And don’t even get me started on public meetings that last until 11 p.m. or later. If a meeting goes past 10 p.m. (9 p.m. even!), is it really accessible to the public?

If Amherst truly cared about transparency, they wouldn’t make it so hard to participate.

Jennifer Page

Jennifer Page is a resident of Amherst

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4 thoughts on “Letter: Amherst Doesn’t Really Care About Transparency

  1. Posted on the Town website announcing a Planning Board meeting:
    Wednesday, May 5, 2021
    RECEIVED: 4/30/21 at 9:28 am. LIST OF TOPICS: Min; Pub Com; Jnt PH SPR/SPP – 6:35 pm SPR2021-07/SPP2021-02–Arch Invest LLC–11 E Pleasant St to req SPR app for con of a mix-use bldg cont dwell units in com w gnd flr ret/com inc app 1300 sqft of ret sp, lob, leas, fit, trash, mech, elev, prkg &55 apart und S 3.325 of the Zon By & to req an SPP to mod dimfor hgt, side&rear setbk un Ft “a” of Tab 3, S 6 of the Zon By (Map 11C-276, 277, 309 and 310, B-G z dis); PH SPR 6:40 pm SPR 2021-09–Arch Invest LLC 15 E Pleasant St Req SPR app, under S 5.00 of the Z By for an acc and inc use to a Per Prin use on an adj lot for con stag and mngmnt of the 11 E Pleasant St proj-post con site stab with asph sur/fen(M 11C-275, B-G Z Dis) Old Bus SPR2 announcing a Planning Board meeting020-07 Ken Park Plgrnd pres of sign reg Con 4 & 6 of the SPR dec (M 11C-244, R-G Z Dis), Top not rea ant 48 hrs pr to mtg; New Bus Top not rea ant 48 hrs pr to mtg; ANR; ZBA; SPP/SPR/SUB; PB/Lia Rep; Chr Rep; Sf Rep; Adj-For full description see the Agenda Link

    Transparency to the MAX! I’m sure there is a good reason for this strange jibberish and they fulfilled all the “legal requirements.” Like Harry Belafonte sang, “It was clear as mud, but it covered the ground.”
    As an old Town Meeting member, I can decipher most of its acronyms and abbreviations, but what about an average citizen with a vested interest for whom it should be intended? Good luck!

  2. Alan: When I first glanced at your comment, I thought that first paragraph was coding language that had somehow gotten appended to your words. The second time I looked at it, I thought the same thing. It was not until this third reading that I realized these are actual words that someone intended the public to read and understand. It’s rather outrageous, isn’t it?!

  3. Once again praise for the Amazing Indy. A place where all views are published. Correct me if I am wrong but I do believe all submissions are published. Without the Indy I would feel like I have almost no public voice. This is a place where I know I can express my thoughts and they will be available for anyone to read for free. Here is a forum where we all can participate and we are all equally included. Nevertheless I hope you sent this to the School Committee, but so often it feels like the powers that be are dismissive of views that do not align with their thinking. It is important that we continue to advocate for broad inclusion and participation in all public deliberations.

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