Council Approves Funds For Reparations, Debates Funding For Community Responder Program

Photo: Gerry Popplestone, Flckr.com. Creative Commons

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, June 21, 2021 (Part 1)

Parts 2 and 3 of the report on the meeting can be read here and here.

The meeting was called to order at 6:38 p.m. and adjourned at 12:52 a.m.

This was the first hybrid meeting of the Town Council since the expiration of Governor Charlie Baker’s special orders on remote meetings

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

Nine councilors were present in the Town Room of Town Hall, as were Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Clerk of the Council Athena O’Keeffe. Councilors Alisa Brewer (at large), Sarah Swartz (District 1), Darcy DuMont, and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) participated remotely. Masks were required for all who attended in person.   There were an estimated 25 people in the room which has a capacity of 40. The full meeting can be viewed here.

Public Comment
There was only one opportunity for public comment during this meeting. Twenty residents, equally divided between those present at Town Hall and those calling in on Zoom, offered comments. Almost all comments involved the work of the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) and their proposals for creation of a Community Response For Equity, Safety, and Service program  (CRESS), a Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, a youth center, and a multicultural center. Almost all residents spoke in favor of the CSWG recommendations. Excerpted remarks are given below.

CSWG co-chairs Ellisha Walker and Brianna Owen referred to preliminary data from the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) that indicated that CRESS can play a significant role in community safety in Amherst. The report estimated that in 2019, CRESS responders would have been able to handle more than 2,000 calls, or 27 percent of calls to the police here. These were calls that did not involve guns, violence, or a crime that required collection of evidence. Walker and Owen stressed that the funding allocated in the FY22 budget was not sufficient to support the CRESS program. They urged the Council to reject the proposed budget and extend the work of the CSWG so that the working group can oversee the implementation of its proposed programs and continue to study Amherst Police Department policies and practices.

Almost all of the other speakers echoed this call for fully funding the initiatives proposed by the CSWG. Several urged the Council to reject the proposed FY22 budget. Nancy Sardeson said she was “shocked and embarrassed” by the initial budget proposed on May 3, which only allocated $130,000 of the more than  $2 million requested for the CRESS program. Robert Eastman, who works in Amherst but lives in Northampton, read comments from Emily Morgan of the Cahoots (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Street) program in Eugene, Oregon. Morgan  emphasized that it is important to fund crisis teams adequately so that responders don’t quit for better jobs. Eastman said, “Doing it on the cheap does a disservice to the crisis responders and the town.”

Zoe Crabtree spoke of the need for CRESS to be available 24/7. She said the reason police respond to certain calls is that they are the only ones available at certain times. CRESS needs to be available as an alternative service. 

Lydia Irons said she has never seen a committee treated with as much disrespect as the CSWG. 

Dee Shabazz noted the hard work of the CSWG over the past six months that would have cost thousands more if it had been done by an outside consulting group. She urged the Council to listen to the struggles of the BIPOC community and to reject the proposed  budget.

Caroline Murray said that her grown children of color do not want to come back to Amherst because of the racism they experienced, not only from the police but also in the schools. She said the proposals of the CSWG present an innovative way for the Town to deal with its structural racism and for the whole community to heal. She noted that she has never seen so many BIPOC citizens participate in Town government as with this discussion.

Irv Rhodes said he applauds the work of the CSWG, but doesn’t want a budget that is not sustainable over the coming years. He supports the current budget proposal. 

Others who spoke for funding the programs proposed by the CSWG were Michele Miller, Mattea Kramer, Marisol Pierce Bonifaz ,Julian Hynes, Birdy Newman, Jacqueline Smith Brooks, Allegra Clarke, Ashwin Ravikumar, Amilcar Shabazz, Georgia Malcolm, Daniel Josh Aaron, Joanna Mae Boody, and Margaret Sawyer. Also Amara Donovan, Deborah Ferreira, Nadine Lessard, Pat Ononaboku, Angelica Castro and Ana Devlin Gauthier.

Theresa Beaudry stated that she was a victim of a violent crime in Amherst, and is thankful for the police. She said she does not support reparations or the CRESS program. She supports the police and the training they receive within the department.

Public comment ended at 8:15, after which the councilors took a 10-minute break. When they reconvened, Brewer pointed out that Hanneke and Ross’s cameras were not on. Hanneke said that they could be seen on the view of the Town Room, but all the other Councilors were visible on their Zoom screens. (Note: In the room shot of the Councilors, it was nearly impossible to identify them and certainly not possible to view their expressions, given that all were wearing masks).

Council Discussion of CRESS Program Funding
There were three votes regarding funding the CRESS program. The first was a resolution supporting the formation of the CRESS program put forward by Hanneke and DeAngelis. It proposed funding a number of responders sufficient to handle a significant number of calls that would be appropriate for the program.

The resolution passed 11-1-1 with Swartz voting no and Pam abstaining. 

Because the resolution is nonbinding, DeAngelis proposed a motion to amend the FY22 budget to direct the Town Manager to fund a minimum of eight community responders beginning February 1, 2022 and to assure adequate funding of the program in FY23. The motion passed 7-5-1 with Hanneke, Ryan, Pam, Steinberg, and Schreiber voting no and Schoen abstaining. 

Those voting in favor stressed the importance of funding the program adequately so that it can succeed. Brewer said that she could not support the FY22 budget without this motion passing. Griesemer noted that funds from unfilled Town positions could be used to fund CRESS and that State Senator Jo Comerford has pointed out several state funding programs to support community safety programs, in addition to the $90,000 she has proposed for this program in the State budget. Steinberg worried that the Town would not be able to find enough human services workers to staff the program. Ryan said he supports the program, but hopes the community responders could work cooperatively with existing public safety personnel.

Hanneke voted no because she felt the Council should not mandate how many responders are needed, especially without any data. She said four is probably too few, but the LEAP data obtained so far indicated about 2,200 calls per year, or about seven per day, could be handled by the program. She said, “Maybe eight is too many. […] It is not the Council’s job to micromanage the program. […] The Council is overstepping its bounds.” But Griesemer said it would be impossible to make a 24/7 schedule work with only four responders and that even eight responders would be tight.

Schreiber said he feels that getting the program off the ground from scratch in seven months is “a big ask.” It would be different if the Town were to  subcontract the work to an existing agency, he said.

Brewer asked what the consequences would be if the Town Manager does not adequately fund the program in next year’s budget. Hanneke responded that, in that case,  the Council could reject the FY23 budget. The councilors felt the CRESS program should  be evaluated after  12 months of data had been collected, so it would need continued funding in FY23 at a minimum.

Bockelman felt that the costs of the CRESS program could be accommodated in this year’s budget, but that  subsequent years could “present a problem.”.

After the above discussion, the full FY22 budget as recommended by the Finance Committee on June 2, 2021 then passed 11-2. DuMont and Swartz voted no.

The Capital Improvement Budget passed 11-2-0. DuMont questioned the purchase of some of the fossil fuel-powered buses, trucks, and vans in the budget and consequently voted no. Swartz also voted no. 

Other budget measures passed either unanimously or by a wide margin.

Council Votes to Create a Fund for Reparations for Residents of African Heritage

The creation of a stabilization fund for reparations was removed from the consent agenda by Hanneke, who said the motion had been added to the agenda just a few hours earlier and should not be acted on at this meeting. Brewer said it had been posted correctly and that the matter had been discussed at various venues in the past few months. In the June 2 Finance Committee meeting, Town Comptroller Sonia Aldrich had recommended allotting about $210,000 of unspent funds in the current budget to seed a stabilization fund for reparations. That money will not be deposited in the fund until the accounting for FY21 is complete in the fall.

Hanneke objected to creating a stabilization fund before the African Heritage Reparation Assembly (AHRA) was even created, since that is the group charged with managing the funds. Creation of the AHRA was the next item on the agenda. Finance Manager Sean Mangano, said the motion is to create a place to put the funds to be used by the AHRA, without specifying the amount of money or the use of the funds. He said, “If it doesn’t work out, the money will come back to the Town.” Steinberg pointed out that this is the first step in the process. Hanneke voted against creating the stabilization fund. All other councilors voted yes. In so doing, Amherst became the second city in the U.S. to fund reparations. Evanston, Illinois was the first.

Next the Council approved the creation of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, consisting of six Black residents and one representative of Reparations For Amherst (R4A). The committee charge was approved by the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee. Ross objected to specifying that a member of Reparations for Amherst be a member of the committee and not another qualified community member. He said he is unclear whether R4A consists of more than the two co-chairs, who have often spoken to the Council or also included the contributors to their extensive report on the history of Blacks in Amherst.

Brewer said she thinks it is  important to have at least two members of the AHRA who have served in elected offices, because those are Black citizens of the Town who have “put themselves out there and run for office” and served the Town at large, which gives them a different perspective. 

The Council voted unanimously to create the AHRA.

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