Council Places Library Project Placed On November Ballot And Approves New Polling Place


Photo: John Taylor/

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, August 2, 2021

Note: The Indy is on vacation this week. What follows is an abbreviated account of the August 2 meeting of the Town Council. The full meeting may be viewed here

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

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

Jones Library Expansion Borrowing 
The Council meeting began with a 90 minute Executive Session to discuss strategy regarding the pending litigation against the town for allegedly not correctly certifying resident signatures on a voter veto position to place the borrowing of money for the renovation and expansion of the Jones Library on the ballot.. The petition asked that the borrowing of funds be subject to a vote of the residents and fell 24 signatures short of the required 5% of registered voters needed to put the issue to a vote. Over 40 residents contend that their signatures were incorrectly disallowed, and a superior court judge is planning to rule on the complaint  in mid-August.

At the end of the Executive Session, the Council voted to place the borrowing on the agenda, noting that $5.7 million of the $36.3 million project has been pledged to be raised by the Friends of the Jones Library through private donations, and $1 million through Community Preservation Act Funds. $13.8 million would come from a grant from the Massachusetts State Library Commission. If all of those funds eventually become available the total that the town would need to borrow would be $15.8 million. The vote to put the matter on the ballot was 9-3 with Mandi Jo Hanneke, Stephen Schreiber, and Evan Ross voting no and Sarah Swartz absent. Because the discussion took place at the Executive Session, their arguments against the vote were not  public.

Public Comment
Public comment at this meeting was brief. Lissa Pierce Bonifaz spoke in favor of increasing funding to the Community Response for Equity, Safety and Service (CRESS) program. She pointed to a July 12 Boston Globe article that highlighted the city of Lynn allocating $500,000 to a similar program for unarmed mental health professionals to respond to many situations currently handled by police. She also said millions of dollars have been saved annually by the longstanding alternative policing Cahoots program in Eugene, Oregon.

Evan Naismith posed objections to the reparations program established at the June 21 meeting, saying that restricting the reparations to residents of African heritage violates the 14th amendment by excluding other marginalized groups, such as Puerto Ricans, also affected by longstanding discrimination

November 2 Town Election Plans
Town Clerk Sue Audette stated that shortly before this meeting, the Governor issued a ruling allowing early voting and no-excuse mail-in voting for elections held prior to December 15, 2021. Therefore, the town is moving to institute these changes for the November 2 town election. She proposed early in-person voting from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday October 25-29 at Town Hall.  Alisa Brewer and Hanneke expressed a desire to also have evening and weekend hours, but realized it may not be possible with current conditions under the pandemic. The vote to establish the early voting days will be held at the August 23 council meeting.

Audette also reiterated the reasons for changing the polling locations of precincts 2, 4, and 10 to the high school. She said precinct 2 in the North Amherst Fire Station was unsatisfactory because it first was located in the kitchen of the firehouse, which did not allow the on-duty firemen to access that area for meals. It was then moved to the garage bay which meant the vehicles had to be removed and a new access door built. The garage was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter and smelled of oil.

Precinct 10, in a small room in the basement of the Bangs Center presented access issues, since a malfunction of the elevator would make it inaccessible to those with mobility issues, and the small size of the room probably did not permit the minimum number of voting machines required by law. Precinct 4 was previously co-located with precinct 5 in the large activity room of Bangs. Audette felt the large space in the high school gym was more satisfactory to accommodate the three precincts.

The permanent change in location of precincts 2, 4, and 10 to the high school was approved 11-0 (Swartz and DeAngelis absent).

Marla Jamate, representing the League of Women Voters of Amherst said the LWV steering committee recommended evaluating all polling places after the currently ongoing redistricting is completed.

New Signage For Amherst College
Prior to this discussion, Hanneke stated that, although her husband is an Amherst College employee, she is able to act impartially on this matter. 

Tom Davies, representing Amherst College, said that the college has been working with Roll, Baressi and Associates for several years on making the campus more welcoming to new students and first time visitors with clearer signage .

The college plans to erect over 80 wayfinding signs for both vehicles and pedestrians. These will be black signs with white lettering pointing to frequently visited sites on campus, such as the Beneski Natural History Museum, and athletic and performance venues. 

Many of the signs will be in the Educational (ED) zone and so do not require council or Planning Board approval, but there are 15 signs that are not in the Educational zone and about 20 others are in the town right of way. Most of these latter signs will need evaluation by the Design Review Board, the Historical Commission, and the Planning Board. The signs in the public right of way need to be approved by the council. By an 11-0 vote, the council voted to refer the signs to the Town Services and Outreach Committee (TSO). TSO will review the recommendations of the other boards and commissions and make a recommendation to the full council, hopefully by September 27. 

In response to the above discussion of changes to the Amherst College campus, Brewer expressed the hope that the council would be informed of the College’s monetary contributions to the town over the past years. Hanneke wanted to know if the college parking lots were available to the general public after 5 p.m.  And Cathy Schoen asked if the college was considering building a parking garage in the Alumni House lot, as was listed in a plan several years ago. Town Manager Paul Bockelman said, as far as he knows, the parking garage is no longer a priority for the college, but he would raise the subject with officials again.

Flashing Beacons Planned For Crosswalks Near Kendrick Park
The Planning Department recently received a $184,000 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Shared Streets Program to improve pedestrian safety by putting solar powered flashing beacons at three crosswalks near Kendrick Park. This is the third grant that the Department has received in a little over a year. The first two were to reconfigure North Pleasant Street for outdoor dining and to build an accessible ramp from the Boltwood Parking lot to the Musante Health Center.

Planning Department staff Christine Brestrup and Ben Breger presented the plan to put the three pedestrian-activated flashing beacons at the intersection of Triangle, Cottage and Pray Streets, near the high school, at Pray and East Pleasant Street across from Kendrick Park, and at the side access to Triangle street at the roundabout.  The crosswalks will also have audible alerts. 

This plan was endorsed by the Disability Access Advisory Committee (DAAC), since residents with visual impairment tend to avoid the roundabout by using Pray Street. When asked why all of the crosswalks on the roundabout were not going to have the flashing beacons, Brestrup replied that the Planning Department thought more beacons would be distracting. Breger said that the side access to Triangle was more problematic than the ones in the roundabout itself, since cars in the roundabout are generally traveling slower, and will face the crosswalks head on rather than obliquely.

Brewer asked why the Transportation Advisory Committee was not consulted as well as the DAAC. There was a discussion about whether to refer the project to TSO or just to pass it at this meeting. Brestrup said the grant requires the project be completed by the end of December, which may be difficult since the beacons can take six months to receive. In any event, the Planning Department is anxious to get started. The project was approved 11-0.

Easement From South East Street To The Rail Trail Released
Tom Reidy,  Attorney at Bacon, Wilson, on behalf of RGC Associates requested release of an easement to the Bluebird Meadow conservation area across the Norwottock rail trail. The easement was created in 1974, but with Kestrel Trust taking over the conservation area and the creation of the rail trail, all neighboring easements, except for lot 6, were released. The town now owns the conservation area and, according to Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek, never intended to maintain the easement. The owner of the affected lot now wishes to sell it. The council voted 11-0 to release the lot from the easement.

Environment and Climate Action Committee Charge Revised to Exclude Councilor Members
The possible undue influence of town councilors on town resident committees was raised at the July 12 council meeting and referred to the Government, Organization and Leadership (GOL) committee. George Ryan, chair of the GOL presented the revised charge for the committee which includes nine community members and a liaison from the town council who would not be a voting member. The vote on GOL was 4-1, with Darcy DuMont, the councilor representative on ECAC dissenting . DuMont said that the Environmental Committee in Northampton works well with two councilors as members. ECAC chair Laura Drauker has asked for guidance on what role councilors are to play on the committee, and said that  it is hard to ignore the increased weight given to a councilor on a hybrid committee. 

The vote was 8-2-1 (DuMont and Pam voting no and Shoen abstaining) to accept the revised charge, but DuMont’s term on ECAC was extended until the end of the council term on January 3, 2022.

George Ryan Appointed to Jones Library Building Committee
Hanneke, Schoen, DeAngelis, Ryan, and Andy Steinberg expressed interest in serving as the councilor representative on the Jones Library Building Committee. DeAngelis was not present at the meeting, and Hanneke and Schoen withdrew from contention. Ryan garnered a majority of the votes and will serve on the committee.

Committee and Town Manager Reports 
Hanneke said that the Community Resources Committee (CRC) will meet by zoom at 2 p.m. on August 10 and possibly on August 17 to discuss the rezoning of the town parking lot behind CVS to permit future construction of a parking garage, as well as four other proposed zoning amendments for recommendations to the council. The CRC will present its revised Comprehensive Housing Policy to the council on August 23.

Bockelman said the Kendrick Park playground is nearing completion. He also had a meeting with residents of North Amherst regarding plans for the renovation and expansion of the North Amherst Library. The Annual Block party is scheduled for Friday, September 17.

DuMont asked Bockelman about Amherst Media’s request to use its promised funds from the agreement with Comcast to retire its mortgage on the site of its new headquarters on Main Street. Bockelman said he felt paying off a mortgage was not an appropriate use of the funds, which he felt were targeted for equipment. He wanted to secure the town’s financial outlay in the case that Amherst Media was insolvent.  Attorneys on both sides are now involved. Brewer asked that the town issue a statement in response to the press releases by Amherst Media. 

The meeting adjourned at 11:34 p. m. 

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