Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, December 19, 2022. Part 2
This meeting was conducted in a hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here. One member of the public was briefly in the audience at the Town Hall, although 16 were present on Zoom and others were watching on Amherst Media Live Stream.
Councilors in the Town Room: President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Anika Lopes and Pam Rooney (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5)
Participating on Zoom: Michele Miller (District 1), Ellisha Walker (at large), and Dorothy Pam (District 3). Absent: Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
The regular council meeting began following the swearing in ceremony for new public safety officers and the annual State of the Town presentation. The meeting commenced with the passage by unanimous vote, as part of the consent agenda, several zoning amendments regarding eating and drinking establishments and new floodplain maps and a floodplain bylaw (look here for a report on first reading of these bylaws). Twelve Town Manager appointments to various town boards, commissions, and committees were also approved on the consent agenda.
Miller Asks Council President To Elaborate On Meetings With The Police
President Lynn Griesemer included a report of her meetings with various officials over the past three months in the meeting packet. The report listed meetings with members of the police department on November 16 and 29 and December 1 and 2. Unlike some of the other meetings listed, the report did not identify who was present at the meetings and what was discussed.
At the December 12 special meeting of the Town Council it was revealed that most councilors met with members of the police department and conveyed that the police felt they were being treated unfairly and singled out in the town’s efforts to end structural racism. This feeling stemmed from the public outcry about the treatment of nine teens by two police officers in an incident on July 5, 2022. Many hours of discussion by the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee and the Town Council led to a council resolution passed on November 14 to “recommend that the Town Manager assist the APD [Amherst Police Department] in developing a proactive, anti-racist culture and that it be documented, and regular updates be provided to the Town Council.”
As clear as that statement is, dealing with the potential racism in the police department sparked contentious statements by councilors who also objected to singling out the police for anti-racist work. The discussion did not reveal how the meetings of councilors with the APD were scheduled nor the agendas for those meetings. They were not public meetings. The only member of the Community Safety Working Group who serves on the council, Ellisha Walker (at large) stated that she was not informed of the meetings until just before the last one and was not able to attend. Dorothy Pam (District 3) said she had to teach an early class the day after the one meeting she learned of and also was unable to attend.
Which councilors were in attendance at which meetings and what transpired at the meetings was not specified. Consequently, Councilor Michele Miller (District 1) requested that Griesemer include this information in her President’s Report, with “bullet points” about what was discussed. Griesemer replied reluctantly, “OK, but I’ll have to amend the report.”
Accessible Trail Planned For Hickory Ridge
Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek informed the council that Amherst has received a $280,00 PARC grant from the state which, combined with Community Preservation Act funds, will permit the construction of an accessible walking trail at the Hickory Ridge site. Acceptance of the grant requires that the town transfer management of the parcel designated for the path to the Recreation Committee, since it can only be used for passive recreation under the provisions of the grant.
Ziomek said that many of the trails will be on cart paths from the golf course previously on the site. These will be upgraded with bituminous asphalt and crushed gravel, and new paths will be added to make a loop of about a half mile. He said because the trail is in the floodplain and sometimes will be covered with water, it is not feasible or affordable to put down a boardwalk such as is present at the Conte Refuge in Hadley. He added that “putting down construction material in the floodplain is frowned upon”. The land transfer to the Recreation Committee was referred to the Finance Committee.
Financial Guidelines For FY 2024 Approved. Town Manager Goals Postponed
The Finance Committee recommended financial guidelines for the 2024 budget. Vice Chair Cathy Schoen (District 1) is revising the draft to incorporate suggestions from Town Councilors. Chair Andy Steinberg (at large) said it will be a difficult budget because the town is limited by Proposition 2- ½ to a property tax increase of 2.5 percent, but inflation is much higher than that. The town is prohibited from constructing a deficit budget.
Miller said she had received concerns from constituents about a phrase on page 6 of the draft that “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”. Miller said that people are concerned that the phrase may leave too much up to Town Manager discretion.
Steinberg clarified the statement using the proposed waste hauler bylaw as an example. He said that the proposed bylaw would be a major change, shifting waste hauling from individual contracts between residents and a private company to a town contract with a single hauler, with fees being paid into an enterprise fund. He said calculations have not yet been done, but a new system would likely be cost neutral to a homeowner and not be an added cost for the town. However, Greisemer expressed her concern that considerable staff time is often needed to bring any new initiative to fruition.
Other concerns voiced were Pam’s worry that the aforementioned statement would preclude working toward the establishment of a Youth Empowerment Center, even if it could not be established in the coming year.
Jennifer Taub (District 3) pointed to the omission of climate action investments in the document.
The council voted 10-1-1 to accept the document. Walker voted no and Pam abstained. Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) suggested that the council send a copy of the document to State Representative Mindy Domb and State Senator Jo Comerford.
The Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL) could not come to agreement on the Town Manager goals at its December 14 meeting, especially regarding climate initiatives and anti-racism work with town departments. As a result, the document will be discussed again on January 4 at 9 a.m. at a meeting where the entire council will be invited to attend. Hopefully, the document will then be approved at the January 9 council meeting. Those councilors who cannot attend the January 4 meeting should submit comments to Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) before December 23 to be incorporated into the discussion of the document.
TSO To Discuss Police Surveillance Technology Policy
The Town Services and Outreach (TSO) Committee will try to adapt the police department policy for surveillance videos to be taken by video cameras on cruisers at traffic stops to the general bylaws. Hanneke pointed to some aspects of the police department policy that are not clear. She said it is not specified whether the surveillance technology will be used only for motor vehicle stops or for all traffic stops. The policy also states that it is up to the judgment of the police officer to initiate surveillance, but does not give guidelines. In addition, Hanneke wanted the policy to delineate which records would be kept longer than the traditional seven days.
Town Manager Report To Be Issued Monthly
Town Manager Paul Bockelman announced that his reports will be monthly, instead of every two weeks, as they have been for the past four years. He said that much of the biweekly reports is repetitious, and a monthly report will be a better use of his time. Residents can subscribe through the town website to have the reports emailed directly to them.
Bockelman also pointed to the recent loss of two members of the Planning Department, Maureen Pollock and Ben Breger, to other planning jobs. This means that there are only two full-time planners for the town and that applications through the department may take longer to evaluate.
The meeting adjourned at 8:50 p.m. The next meeting of the council will be on January 9.