Report On The Special Amherst Town Council Meeting, January 3, 2022
For the first time since June 21, 2021, the Town Council held a meeting in the Town Room of Town Hall. All councilors except Dorothy Pam (District 3) were present in person, as were Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Town Clerk Sue Audette, and Clerk of the Council Athena O’Keeffe. Pam participated over Zoom. All participants were masked and had tested negative for COVID-19 by rapid test before entering Town Hall. Two of the town’s COVID ambassadors were present at the start of the meeting
Audette administered the oath of office for all 13 councilors and O’Keeffe conducted the election of the council president. Pam nominated previous Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) to continue as president. She was elected unanimously without opposition. Then incoming councilor Michele Miller (District 1) nominated newly elected councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) as vice president. She also ran unopposed and was elected unanimously.
Griesemer announced that the next council meeting, the first regular council meeting of this session, would be held on January 24.
The Community Resources Committee will be holding a public hearing over Zoom on the proposed temporary moratorium on large ground mounted solar installations (Zoning Bylaw Article 16) on Monday, January 10 at 6:45 p.m.
There was no public comment at this meeting, since it was a special council meeting and providing opportunity for public comment was not required. Public comment is required by state law for all regular council meetings.
Councilors Overwhelmingly Favor Meeting In Person
Griesemer laid out the alternatives for future meetings. The governor’s emergency order allowing for remote meetings is in effect until April 1, although Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) said that it may be extended for another year. Thus, the council could meet fully remotely, or fully in-person with remote participation allowed for any councilors who are unable or do not want to attend in-person. The presence of the public could be in person, on Zoom, or a combination.
Andy Steinberg (at large) spoke in favor of in-person meetings, saying it is harder to form relationships with other councilors if all meetings are on Zoom. Hanneke agreed with him. Pam said she would be uncomfortable if anyone other than councilors and necessary staff were allowed in the Town Room due to its size, which would prevent social distancing. Pam Rooney (District 4) requested that Amherst Media show the names of all those in the public who are attending virtually.
The council voted 9-3-1 to hold all meetings in-person until April 1. Rooney, Pat DeAngelis (District 2), and Ellisha Walker (at large) voted no. Pam abstained. Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) asked for the reasons that the three councilors voted no. Walker said that she has small children at home and is wary of them needing to quarantine due to a possible exposure from her in-person attendance. DeAngelis said she has several friends and neighbors who have recently tested positive for COVID-19, and had to quarantine herself after a possible exposure that turned out to be a false positive. She also said that she felt masks inhibit interaction.
The council decided by unanimous vote that the public will only be able to participate virtually. In addition to speaking at meetings, members of the public may submit comments to the council at https://www.amherstma.gov/FormCenter/Town-Council-33/General-Public-Comment-185b . The submitted comments will be posted on the town council website before every council meeting. A policy for presenters was less clear. O’Keeffe said she will work on a policy to bring before the council, although Bockelman said it is often much more convenient for town staff to make presentations remotely.
Bockelman added that all town committees, as opposed to council committees, will continue to meet remotely until April 1. He said conducting hybrid meetings would require two staff members, which the town cannot afford to provide.
As for the council’s standing committees, Griesemer noted that moderating a hybrid meeting is extremely difficult for the chair. She noted that when the Community Resources Committee (CRC) met in person without allowing remote participation in June 2021, there were a number of objections based on Massachusetts open meeting law. Hanneke felt that, to avoid confusion, all council committees should adopt the same format. Griesemer will assign councilors to the council committees based on their preferences. Aside from the CRC meeting on January 10, no council committee meetings have been scheduled.
Hanneke Recommends Changes To Council Rules And Procedures
Hanneke recommended that the following changes to Council Rules of Procedure be referred to the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL) for review, to be brought back to the full council with a recommendation by February 28.
1.2: that the Rules of Procedure should apply to all council committees, not just full council meetings;
3.3b: that councilors participating remotely should count toward a quorum;
8.4: that non-emergency issues not be required to be discussed first at a regular council meeting before the meeting in which a vote is taken (because, she said, the requirement is usually “not necessary” and has been often waived;
8.6: that requiring a two-thirds vote to waive referral of proposed bylaws to the CRC, borrowing to the Finance Committee, and town manager appointments to the Town Services and Outreach Committee (TSO) (because, she said, is “not necessary”.
The council unanimously voted for Hanneke’s proposed changes to be referred to the GOL.
Other Appointments Made With Little Controversy
Devlin-Gauthier nominated Walker to serve on the Elementary School Building Committee with Cathy Schoen (District 1), who is remaining as chair of the committee. Anika Lopes (District 4) nominated herself to serve on the Jones Library Building Committee. After Rooney declined to serve on the committee and Hanneke withdrew her name, Lopes was chosen unanimously.
For the Budget Coordinating Committee, Hanneke, Griesemer, and Steinberg each nominated themself, and Devlin-Gauthier nominated Miller. Miller withdrew, and the other three were approved unanimously. Schoen, Devlin-Gauthier, and Hanneke each nominated themself to the Joint Capital Planning Committee (JCPC) and were unanimously approved. Griesemer and Steinberg will serve as spokespeople for the council at the next Four Towns Meeting, which will take place on January 8 at 9 a.m.
Miller will continue to serve as the chair of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, which is a time-limited committee. Devlin-Gauthier has resigned from the Conservation Commission and Jennifer Taub (District 3) has resigned as chair of the Local Historic District Commission.
Bockelman Gives Update On COVID
Bockelman noted the sharp uptick in COVID cases in Amherst. The Board of Health decided not to institute a vaccine mandate for restaurants and gyms, but did recommend frequent testing and high-quality masks. UMass has resumed testing on campus and at various places in town. The Health Department is working on obtaining more rapid tests and high-quality masks for distribution. Town employees are required to wear multilayer masks. Bockelman was wearing two masks at this meeting.
Councilors new and old then made personal statements. Steinberg noted that he is the token male of this council. He noted that when Amherst was founded, women could not even vote.
The meeting adjourned at 9:37 p.m.