Resolutions Generate Hours Of Controversy At Council Meeting


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Report On The Meeting Of the Amherst Town Council, May 16, 2022

This is the third of three articles on the Town Council Meeting of May 16, 2022.


  • Resolutions to request President Joe Biden to immediately cancel student debt and to permit adult access to plant medicine sparked intense debates. Council voted to adopt the debt resolution and refer the plant medicine resolution to committee.
  • Amherst will join the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District, but will not opt out of aerial spraying,
  • Eversource to place a new utility pole on West Pomeroy Lane to service planned Hickory Ridge solar field
  • Community Preservation Act Committee to meet on June 2 to discuss repair of the high school track and playing fields

The meeting was a temporary return to meeting virtually. It was held over Zoom and was recorded. No in-person attendance was allowed. Other portions of the meeting are discussed  here and here

All councilors were in attendance.

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

32 members of the public were in the audience

Resolutions: Purpose And Process 
Usually, resolutions proposed by councilors and community sponsors are passed as part of the consent agenda after having been reviewed and put forth by the Governance, Organization, and Legislation (GOL) committee. However, that was not the case at the May 16 Town Council meeting. Mandi Jo Hanneke requested that two resolutions, one to cancel student debt and another to decriminalize plant-based medicines, be removed from the consent agenda. Resolutions are nonbinding and only serve to indicate the council’s support for certain issues.

Resolution Supporting Cancelation of Student Loan Debt
After proclamations for Memorial Day and June as LGBTQ+ month passed easily with the consent agenda, the council began an almost two-hour debate on the resolutions about student debt and plant medicine. The resolution “Calling on President Joe Biden to Immediately Cancel All Student Loan Debt” was sponsored by councilors Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), Andy Steinberg (at large), and Ellisha Walker (at large), with community sponsor Ian Rhodewalt.

Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said that forgiving all student debt “will not decrease the wealth gap,” and its $1.7 trillion cost would be better spent on targeted programs to reduce student debt in the future. She cited a New York Times editorial from May 15 to argue that canceling student debt would benefit wealthy borrowers more than low-income borrowers.

Hanneke said that forgiving all student debt “will not decrease the wealth gap,” and its $1.7 trillion cost would be better spent on targeted programs to reduce student debt in the future. She cited a New York Times editorial from May 15 to argue that canceling student debt would benefit wealthy borrowers more than low-income borrowers.  About 45 million Americans hold student loan debt.

Rhodewalt challenged that hypothesis, noting that student debt, affecting 55% of Massachusetts residents, disproportionately impacts women and people of color. He cited several misleading points in The New York Times editorial, blaming illegal predatory lending practices of for-profit colleges under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for increasing the problem. He noted that nearly 40% of people who are burdened with student debt do not have a degree, so have the increased burden of the debt without the advantage of a degree.  He added that young people were given inaccurate information about loan forgiveness programs, and 98% found that they did not qualify for them after working for lower paying jobs for 10, 15 or 20 years, which they had thought would qualify them.

Cathy Schoen (District 1) also expressed reservations about the resolution, but said she could support a more targeted loan forgiveness program  than one that forgives all debt. And Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) said she favors a program similar to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal, which ties loan forgiveness to income levels.

The councilor sponsors defended their resolution. Walker said  that total student debt forgiveness is a first step, not a long-term solution. However, she reminded fellow councilors, waiting to fix the problems for the long-term would miss everyone  burdened by current debt. Steinberg said that targeted approaches have not been successful in the past because many borrowers were disqualified from forgiveness programs over technicalities. He added that when he was the director of Western Mass. Legal Aid, most people of color graduating from law school could not afford to work for the agency because of  their student loan debts.

Devlin Gauthier said that this matter is “deeply personal” to her. She noted studies that show that relieving people of student debt relieves stress. She added that debt affects decisions of where to work, whether to have children, and where to live. It affects health and the ability to make career changes.

Dorothy Pam (District 3) said “the student loan program is a shambles…and we need to start over.” Jennifer Taub agreed that although this resolution is not a perfect solution, we need to start someplace, especially because of past predatory lending. 

In public comment, Courtney Cullen said that she is a first-generation college graduate who received her master’s degree at UMass and is now $115,000 in debt. She said she worked for over nine years in nonprofit preschools in order to have her debt forgiven, and only then found out that she was not eligible for the program.

The council voted 11-1-1 to support the resolution, with Hanneke voting no and Schoen abstaining. 

No Agreement Reached On Resolution To Decriminalize Adult Use Of Plant Medicine
Even more controversy surrounded the resolution “Protecting Adult Access to Plant Medicines and Prioritizing Public Health Responses to Controlled Substance Possession”—-as-voted-at-GOL—2022-05-11—clean sponsored by Councilors Devlin Gauthier, Anika Lopes (District 4), Michele Miller (District 1), and Pam Rooney (District 4) with community sponsors the Multidisciplinary Psychedelic Club of UMass and the Bay Staters for Natural Medicine represented by James Davis, Adam Finke, and Adam Klem.

Davis, Finke, and Klem spoke during public comment. Davis said that a single dose of psilocybin mushrooms reduces the chance of addiction to opioids by 40 to 50%. He also cited the racial inequalities of drug enforcement, with twice as many people of color than Whites being arrested on drug charges in Springfield, and noted that pharmaceutical companies are trying to patent these substances to be able to control the market and charge much more.

Finke and Klem stated that these medications have helped them treat their depression when conventional medications failed. Ella Landman, a neuroscience student at UMass, noted that some of these entheogenic (psychedelic) substances promote the formation of new neurons in the brain. The strict legal control inhibits study of how they work, but the resolution sponsors provided a document citing many scientific studies that exist currently.

Councilor Michele Miller urged her fellow councilors to “listen to voices of those who have been helped by these substances, and send a strong moral statement to the town” that possession should not be treated as criminal.

Miller said that it can be difficult for people who do not have anxiety, PTSD, or depression to understand how these conditions affect people. She urged her fellow councilors to “listen to voices of those who have been helped by these substances, and send a strong moral statement to the town” that possession should not be treated as criminal. Devlin Gauthier agreed that decriminalization of controlled substances is an important component of the proposed resolution, along with allowing access of adults and certified researchers to psychedelics.

Hanneke strongly disagreed. Although the “War on Drugs” has been abominable, she said, the text of the resolution  says that all controlled substances, including heroin and cocaine, should be decriminalized, even heroin and cocaine, and that no amounts of possession were specified.  She said that public safety professionals in town should have been consulted prior to putting forth the resolution. Devlin Gauthier explained  that decriminalization is not the same as legalization and Rooney said that public safety officials have put enforcement of possession of controlled substances as a low priority.

Steinberg said that he cannot support the policy as written because the public safety staff would have to uphold it. Miller  said she feels that this resolution is being treated differently than other resolutions because of the request that town departments be consulted. She noted that GOL spent several months crafting it, and reiterated that resolutions are nonbinding.

Bahl-Milne said she acknowledges the benefit of plant medicines for “spiritual” health, but feels that the resolution would send a message to young people that plant medicines are OK to use. She said she wants the resolution to emphasize “safe and responsible use”. 

Davis pointed out that the stigma surrounding drug use inhibits discussion of it and stressed the need for education and treatment, not criminalization for those using controlled substances. 

Pam said that the proposed resolution  has too many loopholes. She said she knew about many people who were harmed by misuse of psychedelics in the 1960s, and thinks the resolution “needs to go back to the drawing board”. Steinberg moved that the resolution be referred to the Town Services and Outreach (TSO) committee to arrive at a consensus, although this has not been done with previous resolutions. The vote to refer the proposed resolution to TSO failed 2-9-1, with Steinberg and Bahl-Milne voting yes and Schoen abstaining. 

A motion to refer it back to GOL also failed, by a 6-7 vote (Pam, Shoen, Steinberg, Taub, Bahl-Milne, and Griesemer voting yes), with Miller saying it had been discussed in GOL for months and was already declared “clear, consistent, and actionable”.

Griesemer, who was obviously frustrated by the lack of agreement despite extensive discussion of these resolutions,  moved to postpone further discussion about them until the June 13 meeting. This passed 7-6 with all of the above councilors plus Rooney voting yes. With that, the council took a five-minute break.

Town Will Join The Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District But Will Not Opt Out Of State Spraying Program
Health Director Jennifer Brown and Christopher Craig of the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District (PVMCD) spoke about the risk of mosquito-borne illnesses, especially Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile Virus (WNV) in Amherst. Amherst is at high risk for the potentially deadly EEE because of its wooded habitat, which is conducive to the mosquitoes that carry EEE. 

PVMCD can provide surveillance, mapping, and education, but not larvicide or spraying if EEE is detected. The Board of Health has voted to join the PVMCD this year, as it did last year, at a cost of $5,000, but not to opt out of the state’s mosquito spraying program. Brown noted that aerial spraying would only be done if there are levels of EEE reach a hazardous level. Amherst has not required spraying in the last 20 years, though there was spraying in Hampshire County in 2019. Organic farms are allowed to  opt out of spraying, as are individuals, although Rooney pointed out that it is hard to see how individual homes could be spared drift from aerial spraying. The state does not spray over bodies of water.

The council voted unanimously to join the PVMCD. No vote was required on the aerial spraying because the town is  not opting out of the state program.

Eversource Plans New Pole On West Pomeroy To Service Hickory Ridge Solar Farm
The council held a public hearing regarding the placement of a new utility pole on West Pomeroy Lane in order to connect the planned solar field at Hickory Ridge to the grid. Abutters were notified of the hearing, but there were no questions or comments from the public. Superintendent of Public Works Guilford Mooring stated that all utility poles have space that the town can use for lighting and other purposes. The fire alarm system is now served through fiber optic cable and no longer is on utility poles.

This measure passed as part of the consent agenda.

General Public Comment And Announcements
Jim Lescault, director of Amherst Media, thanked the council for putting Amherst Media’s urgent need for temporary space on the April 25 agenda. He said the town is now looking at the possibility of using the South Amherst school for temporary quarters, but he worries that the space will not be ready by the time the lease at the Eversource building expires on June 30. He said that Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek told him that the town’s plan was to demolish the school, but Lescault said that Amherst Media wants to put some money into the building so that it can be used, not only by Amherst Media, but also by other organizations. Demetria Shabazz emphasized the importance of Amherst Media as a “keeper of stories.” Even though it is not as crucial for access to government meetings with the advent of Zoom, it still provides a platform for students, seniors, and other members of the community. She said it serves all residents, especially those in marginalized communities.

Schoen announced that the Community Preservation Act Committee will meet on June 2 to discuss the renovation of the high school track and playing fields. This meeting is not yet posted on the town website.

The council adjourned to Executive Session at 11:15 p.m. The next meeting will be on June 6, with the regular meeting, preceded by a public hearing on the Capital Improvement Plan, at 6 p.m.



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