Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, Part 1, June 13, 2022
The meeting was held in person and on Zoom and was recorded.
- Still no consensus on resolution calling for the decriminalization of adult use of plant medicine and controlled substances
- New bylaw for Preservation of Historically Significant Structures passed.
- FY 23 budget passed without extra funding requested for art and technology teachers at the elementary schools.
- New borrowing authorized to rebuild the Centennial Water Treatment Plant after cost estimates rise substantially.
- Public sites suggested to post new voting maps and election warrants.
- Resolution supporting the Fair Share Amendment passes unanimously.
All councilors were present, but only Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Andy Steinberg (at large), Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large), Jennifer Taub (District 3), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) were in Town Hall. The rest participated via Zoom.
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
No Agreement Reached On Plant Medicine Resolution
The resolution to support decriminalization of adult use of plant medicine and other controlled substances, sponsored by councilors Pam Rooney (District 4), Anika Lopes (District 4), and Michele Miller (District 1) as well as several community sponsors, was last discussed at the May 16 Town Council meeting. It generated much controversy on its scope which included all controlled substances, such as heroin and cocaine in addition to psychedelic plants, and for its lack of specification of amounts of substances allowed, among other issues. No agreement was reached, so further discussion was tabled until this meeting.
In response to concerns raised during the previous discussion, the amount of controlled substances allowed was limited to 5 grams. Other councilor concerns were addressed by Jim Davis of Baystaters, a community sponsor. Also, the revised resolution makes reference to suggested safe use of plant medicine in conjunction with therapy and to HR1494 pending in the state legislature which aims to decriminalize drug use in favor of treatment. Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) withdrew as a sponsor, but still spoke out in favor of the resolution. Similar resolutions have been passed by Northampton, Easthampton, Cambridge, and Somerville.
Council President Lynn Griessemer (District 2) limited initial discussion to 15 minutes. When no agreement was reached, she moved further discussion to the end of the agenda. There was still no consensus reached on the content of the resolution. Andy Steinberg (at large) said the town does not have the power to pass a law on decriminalization of controlled substances, although he does not think any adult should be prosecuted for use of these drugs. He also objected that the town attorney had not been consulted.
Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) said the resolution seems like more of a policy than a resolution. She worried about the message it sends to youth, that drug use is acceptable. Cathy Schoen (District 1) said she also supports decriminalization, but feels this resolution goes far beyond that and almost seems to encourage use of controlled substances. Dorothy Pam (District 3) agreed, saying it was not the job of the council to weigh in on this topic. Pat DeAngelis (District 2) added that since drug enforcement arrests were of low priority for the Amherst Police Department, she does not see a need for this resolution.
Devlin Gauthier pointed out that a resolution is not binding and does not dictate policy. It expresses the opinion of the council. She said if the council needs to get legal opinion for every resolution, she is afraid of the effect on the town budget. Miller also stated that this resolution is a council statement supporting pending state legislation. It does not create policy. She emphasized that the resolution is about reducing harm resulting from law enforcement for drug use and denying use of plant substances that have helped those with mental health and addiction disorders. She acknowledged that the resolution as written did not have enough votes to pass and endeavored to find a way to rework it into a measure that would receive support of the majority or the council.
Ellisha Walker (at large) said that she heard many councilors voice support for decriminalization of adult use of controlled substances, even though they did not support this proposed resolution. Miller proposed sending it back to the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL) to obtain consultation from several town departments and bringing the resolution back at a later date. Bockelman voiced concern about town departments getting bogged down providing opinions on this topic and asked that all requests for feedback from town employees go through him.
Griesemer recommended that the sponsors withdraw the resolution and return with a much simpler one emphasizing decriminalization and urging the state to take action. The vote was 9-4 to send the measure back to GOL (Hanneke, Steinberg, Schoen, and Griesemer voted no).
In public comment, Adam Klem and Adam Finke spoke, as they had at previous meetings, in favor of the resolution, citing the benefits many have received from plant medicine treatment for addiction, depression, and PTSD when traditional medicine has failed. Finke pointed out that the resolution attempts to rectify the targeting of people of color in enforcement of controlled substance use.
Emile Jimenez also stated his support for the plant medicine resolution. He said that it is the only thing he has seen that works for addiction treatment, and that we shouldn’t spend money incarcerating people who should be getting help. Another resident said Amherst should set an example on how to change the War on Drugs and help those who need treatment by passing the resolution.
Concerns Raised Over Emails Sent To Councilors Without Consent Of Signatories
Schoen and Jennifer Taub (District 3) voiced concern that some of the many emails received by the council in support of the resolution to decriminalize adult use of psychedelic plant medicine were sent without the knowledge of the supposed sender. Schoen reached out to one of her constituents who allegedly sent a comment to the council. The resident admitted to signing a petition in support of the resolution, but not to sending an email. Taub received the same response from a constituent in her district. Similar emails were also sent to The Daily Hampshire Gazette.
Miller explained that a program called Action Network gives advocates authority to use a petition signer’s name on a form letter to officials or the media.. She said “It is a system maybe we’re not familiar with, but it’s a system that works pretty well, so long as it is ethically and morally sound.” She added that the email issue does not diminish the need for the resolution. Griesemer also said she did not want to deal with the topic of the emails during this discussion.
General Bylaw For Preservation Of Historically Significant Structures Passed With Reservations
The council voted unanimously to rescind Article 13 of the Zoning Bylaw, Demolition Delay, but its replacement in the General Bylaw, Preservation of Historically Significant Structures, generated some concerns.
Steinberg was concerned that neither applicants nor abutters have any recourse for appeal if they disagree with the determination of significance made by the designee from the Planning Department or the Historical Commission (HC). He cited two instances where developers withdrew their plans due to delays imposed by the HC, but Planning Director Chris Brestrup noted that there were complications in both cases unrelated to the Demolition Delay Bylaw.
Planner Ben Breger pointed out that any building deemed potentially significant would still have a public hearing with the HC, so the public could give input. (However, if the designee decided that a structure was not significant, a demolition permit could be issued without any public notification.) Both Brestrup and Breger said that an appeals process would involve posting a hearing and notifying abutters, entailing much more work, and would greatly delay a project. They felt that guidelines developed by the HC as to what types of structures could receive an expedited review by a single designee and which type would need a more extensive initial review, possibly by a subcommittee in a public meeting. Breger pointed out that the proposed bylaw had the unanimous support of the HC.
Steinberg was still uncomfortable that a single person would make a determination in some cases, and that the affected parties have no recourse. Although he wanted to delay the vote on the proposed bylaw for two weeks so that this issue could be dealt with, the delay would leave the town without a preservation bylaw in the interim. The vote to delay passage until June 27 failed 6–7. Steinberg, Walker, Pam, Bahl-Milne, Taub, and DeAngelis voted yes.
Hanneke said that it was important to act on the bylaw immediately, and staff and the HC could consider altering it later. She said adding an appeals process would make it “even worse” than the old bylaw, and that “there will always be someone who doesn’t like the decision of the HC or the designee.”
In the end, the new bylaw was passed 11-1-1 with Pam abstaining and DeAngelis voting no.
FY23 Budget Passed
The Finance Committee recommended the FY23 budget submitted by the Town Manager at its June 6 meeting. The two areas of controversy were the request for an additional $54,000 from the School Committee to fund elementary school arts and technology teachers at full time, instead of the 0.8 positions in the budget, and the Amherst Police Department budget.
In public comment, Marisol Bonifaz and Julian Hynes of Sunrise Amherst spoke in favor of reducing the police department budget in order to better fund education, the CRESS program, and climate resiliency. However, the discussion among the councilors centered around the request from the school committee for additional funds. The Finance Committee declined to grant the request, feeling that the School Department could find the extra money in its own budget.
Pam spoke in favor of the School Committee’s request. Walker agreed and read an email she received from her son’s art teacher, who had taken a job in another school system because she needed full-time employment. Walker said that she trusts that the schools looked elsewhere for the money before they submitted the request to the council.
However, Steinberg said that the school department admitted that there was money in the budget that could support the request. And Hanneke said that “budget decisions are tough on everyone.” She said that this is not a cut in services because there are fewer children in the schools so fewer teachers are needed. She gave the example of the Town Manager deciding not to fill the Economic Development position in order to create a position for the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as an example of a painful decision.
Griesemer pointed out that classes for students were not being cut, only the preparation time for the teachers. Miller and Bahl-Milne wanted the council to offer support for the arts and technology programs, but were not willing to support the additional funds. Bockelman said that there may be excess funds when the FY22 budget is closed out, and he could bring this request back to the council in the fall, but Pam noted that teachers are hired at the beginning of the school year, so this would not resolve the problem.
The budget passed 9-4, with Pam, Lopes, Devlin Gauthier, and Walker voting no.
The capital improvement budget passed unanimously with little discussion.
New Funding Recommended For Centennial Water Treatment Plant
The estimated cost for rebuilding the Centennial Water Treatment Plant has risen from $11 million to $18 million since 2019. The plant has been off-line since it was struck by lightning in 2018. To cover the increased cost, the town was accepted into a revolving loan fund program from the state that offers a 19.8% rebate and a 1.9% interest rate on the loan. There is also the possibility of the town receiving another $3.5 million as part of the governor’s Forward bill.
A public forum on the new borrowing amount did not elicit any input from the public. The council voted unanimously to rescind borrowing the $11 million amount and also to accept the $18 million debt for the project. Construction is expected to begin in the fall. The debt will be paid through the water and sewer enterprise fund.
Town Clerk Receives Input About Sites For Posting Election Warrants
With the town’s new redistricting plan, the town must choose appropriate sites for the constable to post the district maps and the warrant for elections in addition to publishing them on the town website. Town Clerk Sue Audette suggested placing them at the polling sites and post offices, as has been done in the past. Hanneke pointed out that postings at the Immanuel Lutheran Church polling site would not be seen by those who do not attend the church and that the schools are not accessible to the public.
Pam suggested posting the maps and warrant near the handicapped entrance to Town Hall. Devlin Gauthier suggested kiosks at the parks and dog park. Taub recommended the Jones Library. Audette said sites needed to be secure and protected from the elements. She will visit the suggested sites and come back to the council with her recommendations on June 27.
Resolution Supporting The Fair Share Amendment Passes Unanimously
As part of the Consent Agenda, the council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the Fair Share Amendment to the state constitution pending in the state legislature. The measure was sponsored by councilors Devlin Gauthier and Schoen and community sponsor Ian Rhodewalt. The Fair Share Amendment proposes a 4% tax on incomes over $1 million to be used to support public education, infrastructure, and transportation. It is expected to add $2 billion per year to the state’s coffers.
Rhodewalt stated that increased funding is especially needed for preschool teachers and paraprofessionals who often don’t earn a living wage.
The council will next meet on June 27 at which time there will be a public forum on the North Common. Funding for reparations will also be discussed and also the Community Preservation Act funding for the high school track and playing field.
Bahl-Milne requested that universal composting be added to that agenda as well. Hanneke announced that the Community Resources Committee (CRC) will be conducting interviews for the vacant positions on the Zoning Board of Appeals on June 23.
The CRC will hold a listening session on the proposed changes to rental registration at 7 p.m. on July 25. Finance Director Sean Mangano will bring an updated version of the program developed in 2019 to show the effects on the budget of the four planned major capital projects: the library, the elementary school, a new fire station, and a new Department of Public Works to the July 18 council meeting.
Bockelman reported that one of the eight CRESS responders offered appointment has declined, so interviews are continuing for the remaining position. He is planning a swearing-in ceremony when the training starts on July 5.
In her president’s report, Griesemer congratulated the Elementary School Building Committee for their hard work in choosing a site and schematic design for the new elementary school. She said she will help look for additional funding to lower the cost that taxpayers will be obligated to pay through a debt exclusion override.
The meeting adjourned at 11:02 p.m. The next meeting is June 27.