“Why Is It That When Our Committees Of Color Come Before The Town Council They Are Poorly Treated?”  Council Meeting Ends Prematurely With Frustration And Outrage

Photo: Pixabay.com. Public domain

Report On The Joint Meeting of the Amherst Town Council and the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee, October 17, 2022. Part 1

The meeting was held both in the Town Room of Town Hall and over Zoom.  The packet for the meeting here..  The recording can be found here,

Present  
In the Town Room:  Town Councilors Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2),  Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5)
Staff:  Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keefe (Clerk of Council)

On Zoom: Councilors  Pam Rooney (District 4), Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Ellisha Walker (at large), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), Jennifer Taub (District 3) , Pat DeAngelis (District 2) , Andy Steinberg (at large), Michele Miller (District 1), and Anika Lopes (District 4)

Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1) was absent

On Zoom: Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC) members Dee Shabazz (co-chair), Allegra Clark (co-chair), Debora Ferreira, Pat Ononibaku, Philip Avila, Freke Ete

Staff:  Scott Linvingstone (Chief of Police),  Pamela Young (Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion)

Long-time observers of Amherst town government as well as a first-time student observer from UMass were in agreement about Monday night’s meeting, describing the proceedings as shocking,  disrespectful, shameful, and racist.

There was every indication that this meeting would be contentious well before the meeting was called to order.  At last week’s Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC) meeting members expressed concern that only one hour was being set aside in the agenda to discuss a long list of matters raised by the lack of response, on the part of both the  Town Council and the Amherst Police Department to the July 5 incident in which Amherst police officers told a group of mostly BIPOC youth (now widely referred to as the Amherst Nine), who were waiting for a tow truck,  that they “have no rights”. Frustration was apparent at the October 14 meeting when, following recitation of a long list of concerns by the committee, Council President Lynn Griesemer informed the group that she could only allocate an hour for their discussion because there was simply no time to take up all of the issues they raised, due to other other business before the  council.  Griesemer suggested that the committee use the time to hear the long-awaited report on the incident from the Amherst Police Department (APD) and a revised report from the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and then ask questions about those reports.

The tension seemed to build throughout the October 17 meeting, as each member of CSSJC pointed out questions that they have been asking for months, to no avail, and reiterated interventions they have suggested, which have been ignored.  Among the many issues raised are the following:

  1. When will the harm done to the families of the Amherst Nine be addressed and repaired?
  2. Why has it taken so long to get a report from the police?
  3. Why hasn’t the council responded to the CSSJC despite multiple requests?
  4. After the police admitted to regrettable behavior, why hasn’t the department issued an apology? 
  5. Why do the town’s responses seem to blame the victims? 
  6. Why haven’t the officers involved been held accountable for their actions?
  7. Will protocols to prevent this from happening again be put into place?
  8. Will protocols for a more effective way of dealing with incidents like this be established?
  9. Does the council agree that an independent (resident) oversight board is needed to hear complaints?
  10. Does the council agree that a Victims’ Compensation Fund is needed to promote restorative justice

When the discussion ran past the one-hour time limit previously preset by Griesemer, and with tensions growing, Town Councilor Michele Miller commented on the need to turn the incident over to an oversight group for a solution that will repair the harm that was done.  She said,

“I’d like to offer a possible pathway forward with the primary objective of reconciliation. I truly believe we can get through this and be better for it. 

“What I’m hearing is there is a consensus that the officer spoke erroneously and that there was harm to the youth as a result. There is a need to restore the youth and their families and the social fabric of our town. This is a key tenet of transitional/restorative justice. Just like with many matters that come before the council, this matter needs to be unpacked further. Our process as a council is to refer matters to one or more committees to look more deeply at a matter, including consulting with town staff and committees and obtaining a legal opinion. 

“Section 8.2 (a) of our Town Council Rules of Procedure states that the council may refer any measure to council committees, the Town Manager, or town multiple-member bodies, which shall constitute a request for a report on such matters. The council shall specify a time period for a committee to report back. Therefore, I would like to make the following motion:

“I move to refer the matter of the incident occurring on July 5 involving two police officers and nine youths to the CSSJC, HRC [Human Rights Commission], and the AHRA [African Heritage Reparations Assembly]  to collaboratively review the incident with the input of the DEI department and other appropriate staff, and in consultation with the town attorney, for the purposes of making a recommendation to the Town Council to repair the harm and reconcile the incident by November 21, 2022.”

Discussion Derailed
While for a moment it appeared that this motion might bring the assembled together with a framework for resolving a community problem, and with a commitment to addressing the many concerns of the CSSJC,  Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke then invoked her right under the Town’s Home Rule Charter Section 2.10(c) to halt debate on the motion and postpone taking it up until the council’s next meeting, which would be at a joint meeting with the Finance Committee the following day, and if four councilors agree, the motion can be further postponed until the subsequent regular council meeting, which will be on November 7.  In spite of angry protests from the CSSJC members, Griesemer informed them that under the rules established in the charter, all discussion on this issue must stop and she directed the council to move on to the next item on the agenda.

(Editor’s note: Griesemer’s directive appears to be in error.  While the charter does require debate on the motion to halt, we could find nothing in Section 2.10(c) suggesting that further discussion of CSSJC business on the agenda was forbidden. However, no one challenged Griesemer’s interpretation.)

CSSJC members said that they had not completed their business and demanded a continuation of the discussion. Griesemer then threatened to have them removed from the meeting so that the business of the council could continue.

Councilor Michele Miller then moved to adjourn the meeting saying that she was unable to focus on the remainder of the agenda after such a disturbing turn of events. Motions to adjourn are not debatable, and the motion to adjourn passed 7-5 with one absent (Miller, DeAngelis, Walker, Pam, Taub, Lopes, and Rooney voting yes, and Griesemer, Hanneke, Steinberg, Bahl-Milne, and Devlin Gauthier voting no, and Schoen absent).  

CSSJC Co-chair Allegra Clark objected to adjourning before several members of the public had a chance to speak during public comment. Griesemer informed Clark that public comment had been held at the very outset of the council meeting and that there would not be another, and in any case the meeting was now adjourned so no additional comment was possible.

This is just another example of how you use your rules to mistreat us.  This will not bear good fruit for the town.”

Dee Shabazz,  Co-chair, CSSJC

After several councilors left the forum, members of the CSSJC remained and indicated that they had not adjourned their own meeting and wished to continue.  Council Clerk Athena O’Keeffe indicated that was permissible, and the meeting continued. For another 45 minutes, members of the public and the committee voiced their outrage over the way the meeting, and indeed the entire matter, has been handled and to decry the general atmosphere in Amherst that is hostile to people of color. Read about that extended CSSJC meeting here.

Details From The Joint Meeting
The joint meeting of the CCSJC and the Town Council was called to order at  7:40 p.m., about two hours into the town council meeting.

Chief Scott Livingstone and DEI Director Pamela Young were offered the opportunity to comment on their reports, which had been placed in the meeting packets in advance of the meeting.
Report of the APD 

Report of the DEI

The CSSJC included in the meeting packet  a record of comments from the Amherst Nine and their families regarding how they viewed the July 5 incident. 

Livingstone offered to read his report into the record but councilors and committee members indicated that was unnecessary.  Young asked to comment on four key points that she had made at the last town council meeting.

  • The police contract (governing protocols for complaints) predates the creation of the DEI department, so the DEI is not authorized to conduct an investigation into police conduct.
  • The addendum to Young’s report  is based on information received from members of the Amherst Nine and their parents.
  • Young offered to meet with the parent who wrote to CSSJC about the incident, and they declined.
  • This particular case put the DEI Director in a difficult position.  She asked that her concluding remarks be read into the record.
  • She noted that harm will sometimes occur in spite of our best efforts but reconciliation is possible.

It does seem that the APD is not owning this issue.  It would be a step in the right direction to do so and allow the community to move forward.  Right now, the process puts the onus on the children and their families.  It would do a lot for the cops to say we messed up, we’re sorry we messed up, and how can we move forward?”

Philip Avila, Chair, Amherst Human Rights Commission

Griesemer then invited members of the committee and councilors to comment. Several times during this part of the meeting, Griesemer exhorted speakers to limit their remarks to no more than three minutes, but most members of the CSSJC ran over the allotted time.

Discussion
Dee Shabazz thanked the police chief and DEI director for providing more information in their reports than was previously available. She said, however, that “the narratives looked like the same kind of statements that protect the police from accountability and are particularly not sensitive to the needs of the most vulnerable. This is why we need an independent body to oversee the police and an independent complaint process.” She pointed out that CSSJC has recommended establishing a victims’ compensation fund, and noted that although the police report talks about de-escalation training, that type of training has shown to be insufficient to prevent or remedy bad conduct. An independent review board, perhaps with subpoena power, she said, could further the goals of accountability. Shabazz concluded by reading remarks of some of the Amherst Nine and reiterated that there needs to be repair for those who were harmed.

Debora Ferreira said, “I find lots of holes in these reports, a lot left out.” To Chief Livingstone, she said, ”Your report does not address why these youths were detained. When they asked to contact their guardians and were refused, no reasons were given.  What were the questions asked of the youths?  What was the protocol? This should be included in the report. If the kids were there because of a flat tire, why didn’t the police officers offer aid and assistance? The report talks about regret on the part of an officer but does not offer an apology. There was a violation of rights. This could have been a five-minute situation if the police had come to help instead of harass and intimidate. The community needs to know whether these police are going to be held accountable. We need more information than you have given us. You could come to our next CSSJC meeting and fill in these gaps. We’ve been seeking answers for four months and you have not provided them.  Look at your protocol — the protocol needs to change,” she said.

Pat Ononibaku said, “I felt, as I was reading your report, that you did not have compassion for our youth. There was no accountability,  no apology. Why should taxpayers be paying your salary?  I think that perhaps you should consider resigning.”

Griesemer stopped Ononibaku saying that her suggestion was inappropriate.

Ononibaku was undeterred and continued, “I don’t see how we move forward toward healing when there are nothing but defensive remarks in this  report. And 2-3 minutes is not enough to express what we have to say.  This is not OK!”

Freke Ette said that this incident has been a learning experience for all involved and one of the things we could do is have a better sense of what actually happened.  He then questioned a number of details in the report that he believed required clarification including a disagreement between the two reports on how many of the youth identified as BIPOC.

Philip Avila concurred with his fellow committee members.  He said that the Human Rights Commission, which he chairs, was not really aware of how the investigation had proceeded and perhaps there is a better way to do that.  He reiterated that the DEI was not in place at the time that the investigation started, but that DEI ought to have a seat at the table. “Certainly what is needed is a lens from outside of the police department  that should help the police be vigilant about structural racism,” he said.  Following Ferreira, he said, “It does seem that the APD is not owning this issue.  It would be a step in the right direction to do so and allow the community to move forward.  Right now, the process puts the onus on the children and their families.  It would do a lot for the cops to say we messed up, we’re sorry we messed up, and how can we move forward?” he said.

Allegra Clark said in reading the report, “I was both disappointed and confused about what had happened. I was struck negatively by the statement in the DEI report that the officer did not perceive there to be a language barrier [Note: the primary language of one of the parents to arrive on the scene was Spanish but apparently neither of the officers were  Spanish speakers].  This is not for the officer to determine.  What are the protocols in the department for dealing with a person who is not English speaking,” she asked. Clark also asked what it meant that the report  both affirmed and disaffirmed conduct of the officers.

Councilor Dorothy Pam said that while she was glad to see the word “regret “ in the police report, and that she does appreciate our police department and counts on them to keep us safe, she has been troubled by this incident. She said, ”I suspect that in their hearts the police know that this was not their best day.  And I’m looking for a way to bring this to a close.  Young refers to reconciliation and grace and healing, but that takes two sides.”

The Chief Responds
Livingstone responded to some of the questions raised about the APD’s report.

Regarding “affirming and disaffirming behavior,” Livingstone clarified that the police reached out to the families of the Amherst Nine and of the two that responded, one was happy with the police response and one was not.

Regarding  languages spoken: APD officers speak several different languages and also rely on the UMass and Amherst College police departments to expand their ability to communicate with a wide range of residents.

Complaint protocols:  The chief said that any individual can file a complaint about the police through the Town Manager’s office, the Human Rights Commission, The POST Commission, or the APD itself.  He did not address CSSJC’s concern that there needs to be community oversight of the police because while complaints can be filed through multiple outlets, the police remain the body responsible for investigating those complaints. 

The chief noted that while stories circulate that there are videos of the incident in addition to the one that was shared widely, APD requested additional videos but no one turned any in so there was no additional video for them to review.

We’ve had a lot of stuff in front of us for over a year that would have helped us deal with a situation like this — we’ve talked about it, but we haven’t put any of that in place, especially victim support. Look at all the room we have to grow and look at all the harm that happens when we fail to act. There are things that we can do and we need to get on to that. The longer we wait to address that the more harm will result.”

Ellisha Walker, Amherst Town Councilor (at large)

More Questions
Ferreira again asked, ” Why weren’t the officers there to help?”

The chief said, “We were responding to a noise complaint. We have a noise bylaw in Amherst and officers have discretion on whether to give a verbal warning or a citation. Here, officers gave a verbal warning.  Protocols are in the town bylaw.  Because the subjects were minors and because no one had a valid license to operate at the time [Note: after midnight], we could not let them leave — they were our responsibility.  We did allow them to call their parents once everyone was identified.”

Ferreira asked, “Why no apology?”  

Livingstone responded, “We wanted to have a meeting with the parents on their terms that included the officers, to consider some more options. We even offered to get together over pizza but the families weren’t interested. The officer who told the kids that they have no rights, that’s not what he meant. The officer feels horrible to this day about the way this went down…. My door is open if anyone wants to speak to me personally.”

Councilor Michele Miller offered a possible pathway forward with the aim of reconciliation (see above).

Anika Lopes said, “These things are going to happen and we need plans in place to deal with them.  This is what is being asked for to move us forward.”

Ellisha Walker said, “The priority for the people who are going to take this up ought to be to come to the defense of the youth the same way that Lynn [Griesemer] came to the defense of the police chief tonight.  It feels like we’re missing the bigger point which is how to move forward as a town, become a more equitable town.  If we’re going to do that then we need to look at those who were impacted.   They have come to us and told us what they need, what restorative justice looks like to them and now we have to decide whether we are going to help them.  We’ve had a lot of stuff in front of us for over a year that would have helped us deal with a situation like this — we’ve talked about it but we haven’t put any of that in place, especially victim support. Look at all the room we have to grow and look at all the harm that happens when we fail to act. There are things that we can do and we need to get on to that. The longer we wait to address that  the more harm will result.”

Mandi Jo Hanneke then invoked her right under Section 2.10(c) of the Amherst Home Rule Charter to postpone the vote on the motion until the next council meeting.

Griesemer said, “We must now stop all discussion of this topic until tomorrow.”

Things grew openly hostile between the CSSJC and the president of the council after that.

Ononibaku said,  “This is what white supremacy looks like.”

Shabazz concurred saying, “This is just another example of how you use your rules to mistreat us.  This will not bear good fruit for the town.”

Clark said, “We have not had a chance to have public comment for our meeting.”

Griesemer responded,  “You don’t get public comment in your meeting.  The only public comment tonight was at the start of the council meeting.”

Ononibaku said, “Why is it that when our committees of color come before the council they are poorly treated? This was not the first time that we have been  poorly treated.”

Several minutes were spent disputing whether the CSSJC would adjourn.

Greisemer insisted that they leave, and if they refused they would be expelled.

The town council then adjourned following a 7-5 vote (see above) and the CSSJC continued to meet. For a report on the adjournment of the Town Council meeting and the subsequent public comment in the CSSJC meeting following that adjournment, look here.

Spread the love

6 thoughts on ““Why Is It That When Our Committees Of Color Come Before The Town Council They Are Poorly Treated?”  Council Meeting Ends Prematurely With Frustration And Outrage

  1. To the Amherst Mass Town Council and Town Manager,

    I want to register my angst, after watching what I consider very poor judgement and behavior by a Town Councilor, Mandi Jo Hanneke.

    For her to use (or misuse *) a charter mechanism to stop discussion without debate is undemocratic and manipulative.

    And it crudely disrespected the cause and the members of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee. Their shocked and brave response to the maneuver, compared to the maneuver itself, at least was of some repair to the reputation of our town, damaged by the shutting down of discussion with a rule from a charter that councilor was a co-author of.

    It would have been a nice surprise if the Town Council turned out to increase transparency and representation, as was promised, when we ended Town Meeting. I am at least encouraged by the minority of councilors who show up and speak up.

    Sincerely,

    Ira Bryck

    *It turns out the mechanism was not used properly: see in the charter: 7.2 Importance of Deliberation and Right to Postpone The Council believes adequate deliberation of measures to be of the utmost importance. The use of the Right to Postpone set forth in the Charter Sec. 2.10(c) should, therefore, be considered within normal Council procedures. Councilors requesting more time before a vote should indicate their reason for a request, for example to obtain more information from Town officials, the public, or simply because a Councilor needs more time to consider the matter before voting.

  2. I appreciate the comments I have read and heard challenging the interpretation of section 2.10(c) of the Charter. But I have a more fundamental question: what was the reason for including such a rule in the first place? In what circumstance would it be useful and positive? Surely there were other tools available to Councilor Hanneke, the least of which would have been stating her reasons before invoking the rule and allowing other Councilors to express their opinion as to its validity. How can a rule that aborts a discussion possibly be used for good, especially one that can be wielded by a single individual?

    The same meeting contained two other disturbing moments. First, the CSSJC member who was critical of Chief Livingstone was quickly and soundly criticized by the Chair. She did not deserve to be admonished; he did not require protection. Secondly, the Chair attempted to stop the CSSJC meeting from continuing, even threatening to expel their members from the zoom. How quick we are to cut off discussion that does not comport with what we deem acceptable.

    Rules are supposed to further process, to enhance and support discourse. They should permit diverse voices to be heard and meetings should be managed to use the rules properly. Yes, some control must be exercised to allow for balanced discussion. But when a topic so significant and so delayed is finally being discussed and important, passionate points are being made, what good can come from abruptly cutting it off without even an explanation?

    Let me be clear: while I and others can deplore what Counselor Hanneke did and her belated justification for it, while we can dispute the interpretation of the rule and the rule itself, the problem is much larger. I value greatly some of the Councilors who work to bring balance and equity to decision-making, but I also see some who have become too comfortable in their roles, displaying power and using agenda-setting and time management at the expense of good government.

    Full disclosure, I voted in favor of adopting the Charter. I believed that the Town Meeting format had lost its usefulness, was unwieldy, and was dominated by a handful of voices. I believed that people of good will would be elected to work to make the town better, to improve collective decision-making, to guarantee that the door stayed wide open to true community engagement. Instead, we are left with a system that incorporates rules with the potential to obstruct, managed by individuals, including an unelected mayor, who use those rules to protect status quo and resist meaningful change. Clearly, I was naïve and I deeply regret it.

    I recognize that those charged with the responsibility to govern must balance many competing needs and interests. But sadly, it appears that Amherst values dogs, trees, and a library project that is destined to be a white elephant more than it does its people. Elizabeth Warren reminds us, “show me your budget and I’ll tell you your values.” What does our way of spending and allocating money say about us?

    Dr. Demetria Shabazz said at a recent CSSJC meeting, “this is the moment.” This is the moment when we can change and bring equity to our town and all its services and make it a place where everyone benefits from the choices made. But that requires an effective town structure and leadership in the Town Manager’s office and town governance truly committed to the betterment of everyone in town and not merely maintaining the façade. Do we not have all the evidence we need to conclude that the moment requires rethinking and reforming how town governance is structured and administered and taking a long and hard look at those who are entrusted with its care?

  3. Hear, hear, Anita and Jeff: while Section 2.10(c) might postpone a vote (allowing for even more discussion at a future time), it should never be used to end or even postpone current discussion – that would be a “cloture vote” and in most deliberative bodies those votes normally require a supermajority, not the prerogative of a single member….

  4. Anita, I add my appreciation and agree with every point you made.
    
    Regarding Ms Henneke’s action Monday night: her conduct on the Council has often seemed akin to bullying, “my way or the highway”, even Al Haig (I’m in charge) like. It was only a matter of time before she stepped too far. Little did I expect such a big leap.

    The response (notice, it was not an apology) that Ms Henneke offered on Tuesday did her no favors. The last thing anyone needed from her was a schooling about respect, grace, teamwork, diversity, inclusion and tolerance. All were blatantly absent in the action she took Monday because “she” needed time.

    PS: Ms Warren is spot on. It is long past time that our town own up to its pretentiousness (“the Amherst brand” as one from AFA was quoted as saying years ago) and give the residents a solid return for their tax dollars (e.g., all roads and sidewalks in good repair, safe and adequate buildings for our public service employees and school children).

    James Murphy

  5. I hope people will click through the link in the article and read the comments by some of the “Amherst Nine” and their families. Reading these statements was really upsetting to me. This is not how I want any kid or parent to feel about Amherst and the police in our town– but especially not by kids and parents of color. How do we do better? By listening and talking –and apologizing when we do wrong. I hope that our police officers and leaders talk directly to the students involved, listen to their experiences and views, talk it through, apologize for what went wrong and work things out. A formal or informal reconciliation process can even lead to stronger relationships.

    Also, a citizens oversight board is needed as an independent place for police complaints that is not tied directly into town government — a town government where virtually all key leaders are white men. People need to feel comfortable to file complaints, especially people of color. Many other towns and cities have implemented them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.