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.
- 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.
- 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.
- That Councilor Darcy DuMont continue to serve as the council’s representative on the ECAC until January 3, 2022.
- 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.
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.