Opinion: Reflections By A Soon To Be Former Councilor On How This Town Council Fails To Meet The Promises Of The Charter, Democracy, Transparency, And Public Participation (#2)

Photo: Pixabay.com. Creative Commons

Darcy Dumont

This is the second in a series of columns on the failure of democracy, transparency and public participation in Amherst town government.

The Charter Commission made a lot of promises about what our new form of government would deliver for the Town, which was the reason why more than a majority of residents voted for it. I will be looking at what those promises were, and whether the Town Council even attempted to come through with a new, democratic, transparent government that represents the people of Amherst. I look at five selling points made by the Charter Commission and listed in its report to the town: Empowerment of the voters; Checks and Balances; Thoughtful deliberation and decision making; Resident participation; and better (not “rushed”) long-term planning. In this column, I will look at resident participation.

Resident participation is generally understood to be a cornerstone of democracy. But who gets to participate, when and how, is another thing. I argue that our first Council was a failure at democracy in that it worked to exclude voices of the public and participation from those not “with” the Amherst Forward PAC’s majority.

The biggest obstacle to voter participation is one party rule which obstructs participation by a broad range of Amherst residents and which dismisses and disparages their input.

Voters should know that the Amherst Forward PAC has worked to promote one party rule by helping to pack the Council, School Committee, Library Trustees and Planning Board with ONLY their endorsees and to oust and oppose anyone with other viewpoints. Eight members of the current Council are AF endorsed (Hanneke, Ross, Ryan, Steinberg, Brewer, Greisemer, Schreiber and Bahl-Milne). Every member of the current School Committee was endorsed by AF (though Ben Herrington rejected their endorsement in the last election). Every member of the current Board of Trustees of the Jones Library is endorsed by AF. Every member except Janet McGowan on the Planning Board is supported by AF (all of whom opposed the popular temporary moratorium on permitting downtown building pending finalizing zoning amendments). The AF PAC is very organized and powerful and represents forces whose primary, yet hidden, goal is to unfetter development, without resistance from the public.

But I digress.

What the Charter Commission promised:

 [The Charter] offers a variety of ways to participate. 

Talk to your representatives. 

Come to the new district meetings and public forums. 

Talk to the new Community Participation Officer

Serve on a board or committee. 

Run for office. 

Petition the Council or gather signatures for town-wide referendum. 

Vote

What we have seen with this Council and Town Manager?

Participation By Talking To Your Councilors at District Meetings
Most councilors meet with residents only twice a year, the minimum required by the Charter. That’s not enough to allow folks to feel connected. At large councilors aren’t required to participate in District meetings though they often do. 

Solution: Amend the Charter to require four to six District meetings a year.

Start implementing public dialogue sessions, as allowed under Council rules.

Talk to the Community Participation Officers
I don’t think anyone anticipated that the Manager would divide the Community Participation Officer (CPO) role into three parts and distribute them to three already full-time employees. Though the three employees are great, it is hard for anyone seeking “the CPO” to figure out who to contact and how. It is also hard to track and evaluate the program overall, since the Town Manager doesn’t share that information. 

Solution: Hire one Community Participation Officer to be responsible exclusively for resident outreach and communication. Track and evaluate the program.

Participation on Boards and Committees
In Amherst, there are two types of town committees. The council has authority under the Charter to appoint members of the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, the non-voting members of the Finance Committee and a few miscellaneous committees. The bulk of town committees, though, are appointed by the Town Manager. If you want to serve on a Town Manager committee, you submit a Community Activity Form (CAF). Because Amherst considers those forms personnel records, the names of those who have applied and how many have applied are not shared with the public or with the media. Thus, when the Town Manager comes forward with his recommendations for committee appointments, there is not much the Council can do but approve them because we (and the public) have nothing to compare them to. We do not know who applied or how many applied or how the candidates stack up against each other.  And we cannot know for certain, for example, whether the town manager’s appointments favor those who are affiliated with or who support AF. By comparison, Northampton considers applications public records and makes the names and applications of all applicants publicly available on request. 

It is much easier to appoint allies if you don’t have to explain who else applied or how many people were in the pool. The Town Manager was called to task for appointing a (white) man who had served on a committee for 12 years without even advertising that there was a vacancy for the position. If we are looking to diversify our committees, and we need to do so.

Solutions: Be transparent, like Northampton! Add a check box to the application forms for town boards and committees, allowing applicants to agree that the application will be a public record, as Northampton does. 

Ensure that committees are balanced with non-Amherst Forward endorsed voices.

Participation By Running For Office And Voting
Voting only ensures accountability if there are enough candidates to create competition. As I mentioned in my last column, the upcoming election offers little accountability of Councilors to the voters. Three of the five Districts have no contest, one more than last week – Districts 1,2 and 5. That means that if an incumbent is running, voters have no chance to “throw the bum out”. If a newcomer is running, she doesn’t even need to campaign in order to become your new Councilor. Those Councilors will not have a mandate to govern.

Solutions: Create a reconciliation commission to attempt to eliminate the hostility to people not supporting AF positions and to open deliberation that prevails and to heal some of the enmity and polarization that has burgeoned in town during the Council’s first term.

Pay Councilors an adequate salary.

Participation Via Bringing A Resident Petition
We saw a forceful discouragement of the voter veto petition process as it has been used to challenge the Council’s vote to borrow funds for the library expansion project. The town appeared to unlawfully disqualify signatures from the voter veto petition for trivial reasons and this is the subject of an unyet resolved voting rights lawsuit.

Solution: Assist, rather than discourage, residents in exercising rights to bring petitions provided under the Charter. 

Participation In Meetings
Interestingly, the Charter Commission didn’t even suggest that the public could participate in Council meetings by attending and providing public comment orally and in writing, which is one of the most effective ways to participate. 

Zoom Meeting Participation
One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that Zoom webinars of council, council subcommittees and town boards and committees were regularly recorded and available as compared with the availability of recordings in the past. However, it was unfortunate that we used the webinar format of Zoom, which makes it harder for the public to give comments, does not let attendees know who or how many are in the meeting, and doesn’t show the faces of those giving comments. This complaint was regularly expressed to no avail though we saw that Northampton had much more open and public friendly meetings.

Solution: Continue Zoom meetings regardless of whether we also return to in person meetings, including for the very important committees of the council and town boards and committees.  Either change to an open zoom format entirely, or regularly announce the numbers of people that are attending, show their names, show who has hands raised, and show faces during public comment.

Public Comment. 
This Council has actively discouraged public participation and public comment. Resistance to and disdain for public comment prevails.

The first and very telling instinct of this Council was to put public comment at the end of meeting agendas, despite much advice and examples elsewhere that it belongs at the beginning. In a now legendary viral video clip, Amherst resident Peter Tripp laid into the Council on January 28, 2019 for offering him a space to give public comment at midnight. As a result, public comment did move forward on the agenda. However, the Council then went through a period of time where we provided public comment multiple times throughout the meeting because Councilors objected to the public weighing in BEFORE Councilors had discussed an issue. Public comment then had to be inserted after the councilor discussion. In addition, several of the councilors expressed that there was no need to hear from the public in general because we were elected to speak on their behalf and if they don’t like what we are doing, they can vote us out (which we know now is not necessarily true).

The recent detailed and extensive public comment on zoning bylaw amendments shows that the council does NOT take public comment into account in shaping policy and legislation.

It appears that Councilors are just going through the motions during public comment at meetings and hearings. They give little consideration to any public input unless it is in support of their proposed projects. They routinely ignore and often disparage public input. For example, Councilor George Ryan dismissed all of the testimony about police harassment made to CSWG because he said he didn’t find the people making the complaints credible so he didn’t feel like he had to pay attention to what they had to say.  The real issue here is the contempt that the Council and its committees have for public input in general.

Solution: Keep public comment at the beginning of meetings for the convenience of the public. Comment should be up to three minutes regardless of the numbers of people giving it (as it is in Northampton.) 

Invite those who give oral comments to submit them in writing on the new form provided. Incorporate suggestions from the public into our actions.

Pay attention to our adopted Town Council Statement of Values. ROP, Appendix A.
Rules-of-Procedure-adopted-2019-05-20—last-amended-2021-09-27 (amherstma.gov)

Written Public Comment
This week, the Council instituted a form that can be used for sharing and archiving written public comment sent to the Council which will be accessible to the public. I requested this feature in my first month of office. Somehow it is now being instituted during campaign season, after the council has received hundreds of emails in particular in support of the alternative policing CRESS program and the temporary moratorium on building permitting.

Solution: Make written public comments easily accessible  on the town website by topic and date and post them promptly.

Save the hundreds of statements that have been made in writing to the Council and make them accessible to the public.

Public Hearings
Public hearings have been very weak  and there has been no effort to make them more robust. Our very first public hearing on the budget attracted no members of the public. Our public hearing on the Master Plan was scheduled for a half hour time block on 9/27/2021. It received four comments. Again, the Council is just going through the motions.

Solution: Better advertise to the public on the opportunity to weigh in on major issues. Hold “public dialogue sessions”, allowed under the Council rules.  Listen to the public, and incorporate their suggestions into Council actions.

Participation In The Budget Process
The Charter Commission didn’t suggest residents participate in the budget process through giving comments at the annual public forum on the budget. Nor did it remind folks of the possibility of Participatory Budgeting, Resident Capital requests or resident CPAC requests.

Participatory Budgeting
The Charter includes the possibility of creating a program of participatory budgeting – presumably as another bone it threw to non Charter supporters to get their votes, with no intention of actually implementing it. The promise of resident participatory budgeting will not be fulfilled, at least not for now. The Participatory Budgeting Commission this year ended up recommending that we simply use the processes that currently exists for public participation in the budget process.

Solution: Bring this promised “bone” back and adopt it.

Advertise and promote all of the ways in which residents can participate and make budget requests.

More Opportunities For Residents
There are other ways residents can use to take action that the Charter Commission didn’t suggest and the Council and Town Manager do not promote.

Residents can:

  • propose resolutions and proclamations;
  • put forward a general bylaw, with the sponsorship of one or more councilors, 
  • put forward a zoning bylaw with a petition signed by 10 residents,  
  • put forward resident petitions under Section 8 of the Charter, including for an open meeting of the residents, a free petition for a public hearing requiring action by the Council, an initiative procedure to request passage of a particular matter, and a voter veto procedure protesting a vote and requesting reconsideration.  

Solution: Advertise these additional opportunities for residents to take action.

Next week,I’ll take up the promises made by the Charter Commission regarding Checks and Balances.


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