Opinion: A Possible Double Whammy To Major Policy Goals In Amherst

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Darcy Dumont

Once a year, the Town Council formulates a list of goals they want the Town Manager to accomplish in the next calendar year. Then they evaluate him at the end of the year on how he has done. The list includes seven major policy goals to which the town is committed: Climate Action, Public Health and Safety (including at least the CRESS program and the Amherst Police Department), Economic Development, Racial Equity (Including at least the DEI Department), Investment in Capital Projects, and Partnering with Institutions of Higher Ed. In addition to these policy priorities, the town also has management goals.

At the same time, the council recommends guidance to the manager on what they want in the next FY budget via a letter to him of “Budget Guidance”. That letter starts off the new budget process.

On Monday, December 5, with proposals in both of these areas, the Council is poised to deal a blow to many of the important policy goals previously established by the town. 

Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke is recommending that the Council adopt only general policy goals and refrain from giving the Town Manager specific goals the Council wants fulfilled. This would in effect give one of the few powers reserved to the Council – to make the goals on which the Council will evaluate him – to the Manager and allow him to decide which initiatives are implemented and which are not. 

The Town Manager goals document in the Town Council packet for Monday doesn’t convey Councilor Hanneke’s recommendation, which may be in the form of a motion, and is confusing to the public in that it includes some specifics but not all that will be proposed by Councilors. There has been very little notice to the public about what is happening and what could be the potential effect. This red-lined document, edited by Hanneke and discussed at the council subcommittee gives a better idea of how specifics could be removed from the Town Manager goals.

It is notable that the Select Board had about 100 goals they evaluated the Town Manager on. The Town Council has changed the number of goals each year since 2019, with the Council leadership generally continuing to attempt to reduce the number of goals.

Also on Monday, is the second whammy. The draft FY24 budget guidance letter will be on the agenda for discussion. The following paragraph includes new language that would allow the manager to forgo funding major policy priority areas.

On page 6 of Draft 1 it states:

We also recognize that making progress on multiple fronts that require investments, including climate action, housing, and social justice, will require a multi-year and multi-revenue strategy and will not be achieved in a single year. The Town will likely need to forgo taking on some new efforts, unless revenue neutral, until we have the funds needed for the major building projects, required work on roads and sidewalks, determine the long-term public safety plan, and have the staff needed for the three public safety departments.

What this paragraph appears to state is that, of the seven policy priority areas, the council will first need to determine the funding needs of the 4 major building projects, roads and sidewalks, and the CRESS, APD and DEI Departments. 

What doesn’t appear in the letter is a statement of commitment to climate action, affordable housing or social justice. 

What the paragraph should state instead is that we should forgo taking on new efforts that do not fall within our major policy priority areas, since there has been no prioritization among those areas. The fact that the document states “strong support” for some of the policy areas but not others isn’t explained. Note: the FY23 budget guidance letter expressed commitment to climate action and mentioned climate action 19 times as compared to this year’s seven mentions.

And again, climate action is time sensitive. Climate change isn’t waiting for us. And we have set goal timelines that are quickly approaching. 

And what about the implementation of our Comprehensive Housing Plan (which started out as the Affordable Housing Plan and includes elements of promoting affordable housing, but morphed into a more general plan)? Isn’t promotion of affordable rental housing and moderately priced home ownership a huge goal of the new council?

The current council came on board in January 2022 with a leadership policy of discouraging new initiatives. The words spoken at the very first council meeting by the leadership were along the lines of “we can’t do anything more than what we have on our plate” and “we simply have no more capacity”.  How does that affect newly seated councilors who want to bring new legislation or initiatives forward? Are they saddled with simply implementing the initiatives adopted by a previous Council? 

Yes, something’s got to give. If we are indeed a progressive town, we need to be letting go of some of our business as usual plans, and leaning into a “new normal”.

It is not lost on residents that these types of procedural machinations to promote or demote substantive issue areas are partisan jockeying. And an incomprehensible process, taking place under the radar, during the holiday season, has a really bad look.

Please contact the council before Monday at towncouncil@amherstma.gov to request:

I congratulate you if you made it through this weedy article!

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