New Bylaw Proposed To Address Alleged False Advertising By Crisis Pregnancy Centers. Council Briefed On Open Meeting Law And Conflict Of Interest Rules

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Report On The Meeting Of the Amherst Town Council April 25, 2022

This is the second of two articles in the Indy on the Amherst Town Council meeting of April 25, 2022. Read the first article here. The meeting was conducted both in person and over Zoom and was recorded.

Present
All councilors were present. 

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

Highlights

  • Amherst Media appeals for assistance in finding temporary space to operate while their new headquarters is under construction
  • Town attorney answers councilors’ questions on Open Meeting Law and Conflict of Interest rules
  • Town proclaims April as Arbor month and May as Jewish American Heritage Month
  • Bylaw preventing deceptive advertising by Crisis Pregnancy centers is introduced
  • New higher water and sewer rates are proposed
  • Regional School Budget is presented
  • Amherst is chosen to participate in the state’s wastewater surveillance for Covid-19

Two Proclamations Pass On Consent Agenda
In a proposal sponsored by councilors Dorothy Pam, Jennifer Taub (District 3), Andy Steinberg (at large), and Cathy Schoen (District 1), as well as Hilda Greenbaum and Rabbi Benjamin Weiner, May is proclaimed as Jewish American Heritage Month

Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) sponsored a proclamation with the Public Shade Tree Committee designating April as Arbor month.

Town Counsel Clarifies Open Meeting Law And Conflict Of Interest Rules
Town Attorney Lauren Goldberg held a one-hour session before the regular council meeting to answer councilors’ questions submitted prior to the meeting on open meeting law and conflict of interest. Goldberg stressed that any communication that expresses beliefs or opinions cannot be shared among councilors until it is made public or presented at a public meeting to avoid violating the open meeting law (OML). A memo presenting purely factual information on a topic is allowed to be distributed among councilors.

OML prohibits any discussion of a topic with a quorum of the council, whether in a group or in sequence, but councilors are allowed to work with a resident or another councilor if a quorum of the council is not involved. Deliberation on a topic must occur only at a meeting that has been posted in advance. Goldberg also strongly cautioned against using email for discussing matters, as email records are part of the public record and can be requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Also, the council is not permitted to act on an issue that the chair should have known about 48 hours prior to the meeting, but was not posted on the agenda.

Subcommittees that convene to discuss matters need to publicly post announcements of their meetings in advance of the meeting, as well as minutes afterwards. Goldberg stressed that deliberation can only occur at a posted meeting. Councilors are encouraged to interact with constituents and to hold neighborhood meetings, but if a quorum of councilors attends such a meeting, the hosting councilor or councilors cannot involve the other councilors in giving their opinions. 

Goldberg stressed that violations of Conflict of Interest Law are serious offenses with possible criminal prosecution. Councilors and other committee members are required to recuse themselves from deliberation if there is even a hint of conflict.

Goldberg stressed that violations of Conflict of Interest Law are serious offenses with possible criminal prosecution. Councilors and other committee members are required to recuse themselves from deliberation if there is even a hint of conflict. Participating in deliberations is always prohibited if a family member or employer has a financial interest in a proposal, or if the committee member is an abutter who might be financially affected. If there is a perception of a conflict of interest, but no actual financial interest, the member must file a disclosure with the state attorney general specific to the issue being considered, not a “blanket” disclosure and should make a public disclosure at the meeting as well. 

Those public officials with actual conflicts of interest need to recuse themselves for the entire discussion, meaning they should physically leave the deliberation “table” and sit in the audience, as would any other member of the public. Sitting at the “table”, even if one does not speak at all, is considered deliberating under the law. Abstaining from voting is also considered participating in the deliberations. Goldberg said it is better to be safe than sorry, and if the relationship of a member is unclear, they can ask that the matter be tabled until it is clarified.

Bylaw Regarding Deceptive Advertising In Pregnancy Counseling Introduced

Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) introduced a bylaw which prohibits false promotion of limited-service pregnancy centers in Amherst, often referred to as Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPC). Devlin Gauthier noted that some of these centers market themselves as providing counseling to pregnant women, but actually aim to convince women in crisis not to have an abortion by providing false claims about abortion and even conducting non-indicated ultrasounds. She said these crisis pregnancy centers do not meet the standard of quality medical care and are exempt from licensure, regulation, and oversight that apply to medical centers.

 Devlin Gauthier noted that some of these centers market themselves as providing counseling to pregnant women, but actually aim to convince women in crisis not to have an abortion by providing false claims about abortion and even conducting non-indicated ultrasounds.

Although Devlin Gauthier said there are no crisis pregnancy centers in Amherst at present, there are 29 in the state, and Amherst is in the advertising area of several. The new bylaw would be proactive and would further the goals of the July, 2019 resolution passed by the council supporting the Roe Act. There would be a fine of $300 per incident for any violation of this bylaw. She noted that abortion rights are under attack daily, and that while these CPCs might seem to be local, many are part of large anti-abortion organizations. She proposed referring the bylaw to the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL) for vetting and a legal opinion before it is brought back to the council for its required two readings prior to a vote.

Pam Rooney and Anika Lopes (District 4) wondered how the bylaw could control electronic and regional advertising, but Devlin Gauthier said enforcement would be based on complaints. She proposed that Inspections Services would provide enforcement.

Steinberg thought that the matter should go to the Town Services and Outreach (TSO) committee, as well as to the GOL because the bylaw could cause extra work for town employees in Inspection Services, and also GOL is not usually tasked with reviewing the content of proposals. His amendment for the referral to TSO in addition to the GOL was defeated 1-10-1, with only Steinberg voting for the referral and Pam abstaining. Schoen had left the meeting by the time of the vote. 

By a unanimous vote, the bylaw was referred to GOL with a report due back to the council by June 13.

Water And Sewer Rates To Rise
Superintendent of Public Works Guilford Mooring presented plans to raise water rates by 15 cents per 100 cubic feet (3.3% or about $14 per household per year) and sewer rates by 30 cents per 100 cubic feet(6.1% or about $27 per year) for FY23. Mooring said the rate hikes were necessitated by several improvement projects: the upgraded Centennial Water Treatment Plant, the new gravity belt thickener, and the Reuse Water Program. In addition, the water and sewer fund experienced decreased revenue because of decreased consumption during the pandemic when many students were not in town, but most costs remain fixed. He said, “We want people to conserve; but if usage goes down, rates must increase.” Mooring said that the DPW will apply for grants to lessen the impact of these increased rates and is also looking at an alternative rate structure, possibly with higher base rates or higher rates for excessive use in future years. Even with the proposed rate increases, Amherst remains slightly below the state average.

The rate increase proposal was referred to the Finance Committee for a report back to the Council on May 16.

Public Hearing Regarding The Regional School Budget
Because the Regional School budget must be approved by all four towns involved, the council must approve it prior to the town meetings of the other three towns. In public comment, Vince O’Connor noted the decrease in property tax revenue that occurred when Amherst College purchased all of the fraternity buildings around campus in the 1980s, thereby removing them from the tax rolls. He suggested that Amherst College compensate the town by contributing $1 million annually. He also suggested possible increased income could be gained by charging a fee for  cars issued UMass parking permits that are not registered in Amherst and by decreasing the Amherst Police Department staff by one officer for every two CRESS responders hired.

Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) asked if the $1.5 million allotted to improving the track and playing fields at the high school could be modified to allow the possibility of providing the $4.7 million needed for a full improvement plan, but Superintendent Mike Morris said that all four towns must vote on the same budget, so there cannot be a contingency amount.

After a discussion at the April 26 Finance Committee meeting, the regional school budget will be brought back to the council on May 2.

Announcements And Comments
In public comment, O’Connor repeated his request from 2019 that Amherst establish a Refugee Resettlement Commission to identify housing that could be available to refugee families.

Amilcar Shabazz pointed out that the Town Charter Section 10.11 requires the town to create a Participatory Budget Committee. The terms of all members of that committee have expired, and Shabazz requested that new members be appointed.

Hanneke announced that there are now enough applicants for the two available Planning Board seats for the appointment process to move forward, although applications can still be submitted. The pool for the open seats on the Zoning Board of Appeals is still insufficient to move forward.

Hanneke also suggested that the required public forum on the budget occur at a Finance Committee meeting, rather than at a full council meeting. She said public hearings for zoning amendments have been held at Community Resources Committee meetings. However, Steinberg said that last year’s public forum on the budget was well attended and generated a tremendous outpouring of support for the CRESS program, and he felt the 9 a.m. Finance Committee meetings would not enable such robust participation. He also pointed out that the Finance Committee is meeting twice weekly during May, and it would be hard to lengthen a meeting or add another. Council President Lynn Griessemer suggested an additional meeting devoted solely to the public forum on the budget on May 9 or, as Hanneke then suggested, holding the forum prior to the regular council meeting on May 16. The Finance Committee will discuss possible times for holding the forum and decide on the best option to optimize participation of the public and allow all councilors to hear the input from the public.

In the Town Manager Report, Bockelman reported that Amherst is one of 16 communities in the state chosen for wastewater testing for Covid-19, which will continue until June 30. He is hopeful the surveillance will continue into the next fiscal year and be expanded to include other infectious diseases.

The meeting adjourned at 9:50. The next Town Council meeting is on May 2.

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