By Maura and Art Keene
The October 25 Special Town Council meeting featured two well-researched and thoughtful presentations by town committees. The Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) met weekly for almost a year to produce two reports concerning the experiences of BIPOC residents of Amherst, and the Districting Advisory Board worked feverishly over the past two months to reconfigure the precinct and district maps in town to comply with detailed guidelines from the state.
The CSWG used their modest budget to provide the town with a prodigious bang for the buck. With the help of data collection and analysis from consultants 7-Generations Movement Collective and the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), they documented the challenges that people of color in Amherst face, especially in their interactions with the Amherst police department (APD). From this information, CSWG formulated a 75-page report recommending programs to redress injustices faced by BIPOC people in Amherst. These include an alternative responder program to replace the APD for many calls, a Resident Oversight Board (ROB) to evaluate complaints against the APD, a town Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), a BIPOC youth empowerment center, a multicultural center, and a standing successor committee to continue the work started by the CSWG. The rationale for each of these recommendations is laid out compellingly and in detail in the report.
At their meetings and presentations, CSWG members often faced resistance to their proposals from the town manager and members of the town council (see here, here and here). But the committee, impressively led by its two young co-chairs Brianna Owen and Ellisha Walker, did not back down in any of their recommendations, emphasizing that the BIPOC community does not feel safe in Amherst and that it has been shortchanged by the primarily White government and persistent attitudes of White supremacy. The meetings and presentations were eye-opening for those of us who do not experience disenfranchisement in town. The work, completed in an astonishingly short time, resulted in the immediate implementation of a major new program (CRESS) of community responders and concrete plans to implement two others in the near future (DEI and ROB). The professionalism of the report sets a standard for resident participation in town government and demonstrates that resident committees can produce work of considerable value in collaboration with, but without micromanagement by, the town council or town manager.
Districting Advisory Board
The DAB faced the challenge of creating town precincts and districts that fit the narrow specifications of the state of not having more than 4000 residents, but not less than 3740 residents in each precinct, being contiguous, and not diluting any identity group over several districts. They also aimed to keep the ten precincts for the five districts created by the Home Rule Charter, even though the current population of over 39,000 was precariously close to the 40,000 mark, which would require additional precincts.
The DAB also had to take into account that 41% of the population of Amherst is college students who often don’t vote in local elections and that the highest concentration of minority residents was in the same district as the area with the most likely-to-vote White residents (District 5).
With these challenges and the compressed time-frame due to census data not being available until August, the DAB fashioned a new voting map that meets state requirements and produced a detailed report that explained the process and rationale for its decisions. Like the CSWG the DAB met some resistance from the Town Council but persevered to provide a thoughtful solution to state mandates and within an extremely tight timeframe. Again, the amount of thought that went into the work and the clear answers committee members gave to concerns from councilors was impressive.
The Value Of Resident Participation
When the town council first started meeting in early 2019, Meg Gage and Michael Greenebaum, recognizing that town councilors had voluminous and wide ranging responsibilities that constrained their abilities to deeply research matters before them, proposed ad hoc advisory committees of residents who would research the implications of various proposals (see here and here). Their ideas were dismissed, with councilors arguing that resident input is often unreliable and that the councilors preferred to do their own research.
The work of the CSWG and DAB prove that resident’s committees are capable of producing balanced, well-researched, detailed, and impactful work that elected officials and town staff do not have the time or interest in doing and that such work can move the town forward expeditiously to attend to the needs of all of its residents. We applaud the work of these committees and hope to see more of the same in the future.