GOL Committee Recommends Removing Councilors From Climate Action Committee

Photo pixabay.com. Creative Commons

Should Town Councilors be members of multi-member government bodies that are not subcommittees of the Council?  That question took up the bulk of the meeting of the Council’s Government, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL) on July 29. A recording of that meeting can be viewed here.

The question had originally been posed by Town Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) concerning the membership of Councilors Darcy DuMont (District 5) and Sarah Swartz (District 1) on the town’s Energy and Climate Action Committee (ECAC).  ECAC is a hybrid committee, the membership of which is composed of both residents (7) appointed by the town manager and members of the town council (2). The town’s Elementary School Building Committee, also appointed by the town manager, has two voting members who are members of the council.

Hanneke has long objected to the existence of hybrid committees, arguing that they give the councilors who sit on those committees an unfair influence in committee and council deliberations. She has asked, previously, why ECAC should be different from any other town committee.  Hanneke raised these issues at the council meeting of July 12 and the council then referred the matter to GOL (of which Hanneke is a member) for a recommendation. GOL subsequently received memos from Town Manager Paul Bockelman and from ECAC Chair Laura Draucker, supporting the removal for councilors from ECAC membership. Bockelman’s memo was not available at the time of this writing.  Drauker’s memo can be found here.  Draucker did not necessarily object to the membership of councilors on the committee in principle but argued that more precise guidelines were necessary for such service to continue.  And she raised several objections to the conduct of the two current representatives of the council.

After considerable discussion, GOL voted 4-1 with DuMont dissenting, to recommend that the council adopt the following changes to the charge of the ECAC.

  1. That town councilors no longer serve as members of the ECAC effective January 3, 2022, which is the scheduled date for the first meeting of the newly-elected council.
  2. That the number of resident member of the ECAC may be expanded from seven to nine members after January 3, 2022, but that expansion is not required.
  3. That Councilor Darcy DuMont continue to serve as the council’s representative on the ECAC until January 3, 2022.
  4. That Councilor Sarah Swartz’s efforts to resign from the ECAC dating back more than a year and a half be honored (see below) and that the question of whether her vacancy is to be filled be raised with the Council President.

The Discussion
Hanneke, in her opening statement, listed the following arguments for eliminating hybrid committees:

  • Council has made a commitment to diminishing the considerable workload of councilors.  Hybrids, which require substantially more work on the part of councilor members than of liaisons, increase that workload.
  • Councilor members on ECAC have unreasonable and unequal weight in ECAC deliberations and have the chance to vote on climate action goals before the issues ever come before the council.
  • Councilor members can have undue influence over resident members and may be intimidating because of their more powerful and influential positions in town government.
  • All town committees ought to have the same process and structure and making an exception for ECAC could be confusing and ineffective.

DuMont stated that she did not understand why this issue was being raised now and made the following points in response to Hanneke and in support of her remaining in her position on the committee:

  • The town council purposefully put forward and voted for a charge for ECAC, adopting a composition that includes both branches of government in order to give the committee a special status in deference to the seriousness of the current climate emergency. The thought was that if the two branches of town government were represented on the committee that it gave it more stature and enhanced its likelihood of success.
  • She said it is sad and perplexing that the council chose as its first act following the presentation of the comprehensive town Climate Action Plan, the expulsion of a founding member. Removing councilors seems odd, she said, when when there is so much urgent climate news, and when the council is making such a substantial commitment to taking on a comprehensive climate action plan
  • Two city councilors sit on the Northampton Climate Action Committee without controversy.
  • That she is well-networked among climate action organizations and brings considerable expertise and experience to the work and that her own continued service on the committee serves the committee and the town well.  She is a member of several other valley climate action organizations, has been working with the staff of three towns on the community choice energy joint powers agreement for over three years, and is part of a new group called Local Energy Advocates of Western Mass that has as its mission raising funds for energy projects related to the new joint powers entity.

DuMont also pointed out that Draucker’s objections to her conduct on the committee seemed to be about her criticisms of aspects of the library project and that other members of ECAC were not aware of Draucker’s memo to GOL or of the fact that DuMont’s votes on the library project had been made an issue. She said that Draucker had directed a lot of personal anger toward her saying the she is a “not a climate friendly councilor” because of DuMont’s library vote and “that seems to be saying that there’s no room on ECAC for someone who does not see the library expansion project as the most sustainable option.” DuMont wondered whether the discussion of removing council representation from ECAC had been triggered by Draucker’s objections to her stance on the library.

She concluded by asking that GOL and the council appoint her until January and let the next council either appoint councilors or change the charge.

Councilor Pat D’Angelis (District 2) objected to continuing the work of ECAC as a hybrid. “I appreciate all of the work that Darcy has put in but I don’t support councilors sitting on town (resident) committees,” she said. “They are a place for resident voices.” She said she also objected to the letters that GOL had received from some environmental organizations supporting continued councilor membership on ECAC saying that the makeup of committees is solely the purview of the council. She concluded by addressing DuMont saying ” Your expertise in environmental issues does not make you more valuable to this committee than anyone else and I do not support having a councilor sit on this or any other committee”.

Swartz wondered why councilor influence on the ECAC was a matter of concern  when the Community Resources Committee (CRC) on which she sat previously seems to be so actively intervening in the work of the Planning Board.

Hanneke responded that CRC is purposefully cautious about holding separate deliberations from the Planning Board, even in the instances of joint hearings, so that their influence will not be disproportionate or inappropriate.

Swartz then suggested that DuMont be allowed to complete her term and that the council not put any changes to the charge into effect until the current terms are over.  She also noted that she asked multiple times to not serve on the ECAC (for personal safety reasons that she was willing to review in executive session) and was told by Council President Lynn Griesemer that she had to remain as a member but she did not have to participate. Swartz’ failure to attend meetings was one of the major objections Draucker cited to the continued participation of town councilors as voting members of ECAC.

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5 thoughts on “GOL Committee Recommends Removing Councilors From Climate Action Committee

  1. I would like to offer up a few points of clarification here – as written this piece leaves open many opportunities for assumptions that are not helpful or correct. First, the article should add a note clarifying that the reason the Elementary School Building Committee has councilors on it is because it is required by the State – ECAC is the only residential committee with councilors unless otherwise required by a State agency or grant. As written, someone might assume that ECAC is not unique in this regard. Second, none of this is out of the blue or out of the ordinary. Darcy had a two-year term and was up for reappointment June 30th, 2021 – my understanding from the minimal communication I have gotten about this was that the charge was going to be reviewed before councilors were reappointed. Given that this is the first time a councilor on a residential committee has been up for reappointment, there is no precedent but also no reason to assume it is somehow “suspicious”. I became chair of ECAC in May of 2019 and nearly immediately recognized the need for guidance on how to chair a committee that included councilors. My calls for this guidance continue to this day. When Evan quit ECAC in early 2020, the future of councilors on the committee was first raised (and looking through my emails, discussed at GOL). At that time – long before the library vote – Darcy and I exchanged emails and had a meeting where I expressed many if not all of the same concerns I made in my email to George – specifically that I am not against councilors on the committee but that I needed guidance and was concerned about the ability of councilors to support ECAC and be a councilperson. So the assumption that somehow I, or anyone else, have willed this whole thing into being because of the library vote is beyond ludicrous. Beyond logistics and process, my main concern is that councilors are not able to do the work of ECAC in a void – they are councilors and therefore have other political decisions to consider. This is not a fault, but a fact. Darcy herself has expressed concern about councilors joining who don’t support the charge! I see the failure to let ECAC know about the upcoming library vote as an example of this – maybe others do not – but regardless my concern is still valid. Finally, I take some issue with my email to George being described as a memo. As you can see by reading it, I received an email from George mid-day on a Friday letting me know about a GOL meeting the following Wednesday at 10:30 am – the first I had heard that this was up for discussion at all. As someone who works full time, attending a 10:30 am meeting with 3 business days notice would have been difficult regardless, but I was already scheduled to leave for a week’s vacation Saturday morning. So I sent my thoughts as quickly as I could over email. This was not a thought out “memo” nor was it something I would have even had the time to run by ECAC – the most of could have done was let the rest of the committee know that they could also send emails to George with their individual thoughts, and perhaps I would have thought of that had I not been rushed. However, considering that Darcy is a member of GOL and ECAC, I would turn the question back to her and ask why she didn’t reach out to the committee and let us all know about the GOL discussion? That could have given us all more time. I request that the author please edit the sentence beginning with “GOL subsequently received memos from Town Manager Paul Bockelman and from ECAC Chair Laura Draucker…” – I did not send a memo and I did not say anywhere in my email that I supported the removal of councilors, only that without guidance it is too difficult. I appreciate the work that the Indy does to keep the public informed of these meetings, but I would like to suggest that some additional context and fact-checking be added.

  2. Laura makes some important points here.

    Without taking sides, let me draw a parallel to what I was told (perhaps by friends in the LWV?) nearly 3 decades ago when I was first appointed to a Town of Amherst committee:

    It’s helpful for some members – especially the chair or vice-chair – of the committee to also be members of Town Meeting (i.e. the local legislature at that time).

    As a result, it was customary to think of Town of Amherst committees as “legislative subcommittees” there to give advice to the legislative and often the executive (then the Select Board) bodies.

    It is also notable that all committee members – whether or not they were also members of the legislature (Town Meeting then, the Council now) – had an equal vote in all committee matters (something which might be a better way to run things now, so that the non-councillor committee members “also have a say” in what the Council takes up.

    What I’m getting at here is that, under the current system, it seems like the legislature (the Council) has lost meaningful touch with “the roots” – grassroots or tree roots or whatever – of our community, and is now governing in a “top-down” rather than “bottom-up” mode.

    This “top-down” problem might be fixed by creating a more robust system of “grass-roots” subcommittees of the Council with diversely appointed, mostly non-councillor votingmembers; and by requiring those committees review and recommend all legislation before advancing it to Council for consideration and action.

    This “grass-roots” subcommittee system was proposed by a candidate for Councillor at Large in 2018: perhaps Council candidates in 2021 will also consider advocating for and – if elected – implementing such a system…?

  3. My understanding differs from Rob’s. Under the previous government, the Town Moderator appointed the Finance Committee and Town Meeting members elected the Town Meeting Co-ordinating Committee. Those were the only committees of Town Meeting. (There was an effort, in which I was involved, to create a Town Meeting Adviosry Committee to advise Town Meeting on the pros and cons of pending articles. This committee was actually voted into being, but never met due to the acceptance of the new Charter and the abolition of Tpown Meeting.)

    The many other town committees were ordinarily appointed by the Town Manager or the Select Board and, to my knowledge, were never considered legislative subcommittees. That many members of these committees were also Town Meeting members was never considered inappropriate, due to the size and nature of Town Meeting.

    But this is not germane to the question of councillors serving on committees that may bring business to Town Council. As a general rule, and in accordance with the principle of separation of powers, I think they should not serve on such committees. By Charter, the Town Council is a hybrid executive/legislative body, and while I think this is a serious flaw in the Charter, it is currently the case and I think town committees should be independent of the Council if they bring proposals to it for action.

  4. Michael’s points are well taken. My main message is that Amherst’s current system has lost the input rooted in a large and diverse system of advisory committees – many of whose members were also members of the legislative body (then Town Meeting) – and whose advice was required (and usually taken seriously) in order for the legislative body to act.

    Another issue concerns which body created the committees and how they functioned in practice. Michael is correct that appointing authority rested with the SB, or with the TMgr, or (in the case of the FC) with the Moderator, however many Town committees were the creation of the legislative body (Town Meeting) and functioned to advise that body (and the FC) on particular matters at budget-deciding time, as well as advise the executive body (the SB – and of course the TMgr, who in principle served at the pleasure of the SB) and the FC at budget-making time. Members of these committees developed both expertise in and and a deep sense of responsibility toward Town matters.

    Echoing Michael, this led to a critical (in more than one sense of that word — and very time consuming!) dialectical process between “the separate powers” — a process that has (for better or worse!) been lost with the current charter; we’ve also lost the diversity of input from those many Town committees which had a meaningful “say” in that decision-making process.

    If the current legislative body (Council) and executive office (the unelected TMgr) were willing devolve their own authority by requiring the advice of independent committees before advancing legislation, great! But if “Council subcommittees with outside members” are the only ones doing the advising before the Council decision-making, then I’d like to see those outside subcommittee members having a vote —and of course, the problem of appointing truly independent voices as those outside subcommittee members remains problematic under the current charter….

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