Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, January 9, 2023
This meeting was conducted in a hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here. Two people were briefly in the audience at the Town Hall, although 24 were present on Zoom and others were watching on Amherst Media Live Stream.
- Council resoundingly re-elects Griesemer as President
- Devlin Gauthier wins reelection as Council Vice President in divided vote
- Councilors decide Open Meeting Law was not violated when they held several meetings with the police.
- A bylaw change to ease permitting for duplexes, triplexes, and townhouses referred to CRC with public hearings to be scheduled by April 1
- 2023 Town Manager goals reviewed and finalized
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 and Dorothy Pam (District 3), Anika Lopes and Pam Rooney (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5)
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
Participating on Zoom: Michele Miller (District 1), Ellisha Walker (at large), and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)
Election of Council President And Vice President
Lynn Griesemer (District 2) and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) were re-elected as Council President and Vice President for another one-year term. Both were sworn in by Clerk of the Council Athena O’Keeffe. Griesemer was nominated by Dorothy Pam (District 3) and faced no challengers. Twelve councilors voted for her, and Ellisha Walker (District 5) abstained.
In accepting the position, Griesemer praised the council’s cooperative work over the past year and cited the challenges in 2023, including advancing initiatives and shortening the length of council meetings. She said her goal is to “focus on what unites us in strengthening our community. The council sets the tone and frames the agenda. There will always be differences, but if we can model how to move forward despite these differences, the community will respond.” At five hours and twenty minutes, this meeting was not shorter.
Pat DeAngelis nominated Devlin Gauthier for a second year as Vice President, and Walker nominated Michele Miller (District 1). Devlin Gauthier cited her efforts to improve transparency through more frequent President’s Reports and expanded participation in meetings with state legislators. Miller noted that Devlin Gauthier and Griesemer almost always vote in the same way and hold similar views. She said that she would provide “a healthy balance” and that she has “earned the trust of many members of the community that have otherwise felt unheard,” which is particularly important this year as the town moves forward with the debt exclusion override for the new elementary school, scheduled for May 2.
Devlin Gauthier prevailed by a vote of 8-5. Walker, Pam, Pam Rooney (District 4), Jennifer Taub (District 3), and Miller voted for Miller.
The January 23 Town Council meeting will begin at 5:30 with a presentation on the elementary school building project.
A celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King will be held in the Town Room at Town Hall from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, January 15. This is sponsored by the Human Rights Commission (HRC). The Council approved a proclamation to be read on the steps of Town Hall at 2 p.m. just prior to the event.
A National Day of Racial Healing will be celebrated at the Amherst Survival Center (in North Amherst) from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, January 17. This event is sponsored by the HRC and the Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Childcare will be available and snacks will be provided.
The Elementary School Building Committee is presenting two community forums on Zoom. These are January 25 at 8:30 a.m. and January 26 at 6:30 p.m.
Budget Coordinating Group: Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large) and Griesemer were appointed unanimously.
Joint Capital Planning Committee: Cathy Schoen (District 1), Devlin Gauthier, and Rooney were appointed by unanimous vote. Council committee members and liaisons to town committees will be announced at the next council meeting.
December Meetings Between Councilors And Police Generate Open Meeting Law Complaint
On December 20, Allegra Clark filed a complaint with the Attorney General that the state’s Open Meeting Law (OML) had been violated when the Amherst Council President arranged for four closed-door meetings between councilors and members of the Amherst Police Department (APD). These meetings were aimed at hearing the perspectives of police officers about their work in Amherst after several contentious council meetings when members of the BIPOC community expressed their frustration over what they see as discriminatory treatment by the Amherst Police Department, as evidenced by the July 5, 2022 incident between two officers and nine teenagers.
The meetings with the APD were not posted, were not announced to the public, and were not open to the public. The December Council President’s report merely documents “November 16, 29 and December 1, 2: Meet with various members of the police department”. There is no description of who was present or what transpired. At the December 19 council meeting, Miller requested that Griesemer add this information. Griesemer’s summary of the meetings can be read here.
Lauren Goldberg, attorney for KP Law wrote an opinion that the OML was most likely not violated. She stated that at none of the meetings were a majority of councilors present, and no business was conducted. Most councilors who attended agreed. The council has 14 business days to respond to the complaint, or until January 11.
Miller, who attended one of the sessions, said that she told Griesemer she was “brutally uncomfortable” at the session she attended. She had previously expressed concern to Griesemer about the meeting were arranged and was told that she did not have to attend. Miller added that she was told she had to post the January 11 listening session for the African Heritage Reparations Assembly on the town website and meet with O’Keeffe to make sure that it satisfied the OML, even though it was not a meeting where decisions would be made. She asked why different groups are treated differently.
Pam said that even if the councilors’ meetings with the police were not a violation of OML, ”something occurred which made some people very unhappy.” She explained that “at a later council meeting, one councilor [Bahl-Milne] started quoting things she’d been told at that meeting with the police and using them as reasons why she could not vote for the language in a resolution. I feel there is something still left hanging in the air. I’m perfectly willing to go talk with the police officers, but I would like to come with a few of the people who were upset about the July 5th incident for a person-to-person, human interaction. I am for healing.” Walker agreed, saying, “It doesn’t feel good because we weren’t transparent and honest with the community.” Walker, who was a member of the Community Safety Working Group, which studied relations between the police and the BIPOC community, was unable to participate in the sessions because all of the meetings were scheduled at times when she was unavailable.
Several councilors defended the meetings. Anika Lopes (District 4) stated, “I find it very unfortunate that this information was knowingly presented to the public as if it was suspicious, as if something wrong was done, as if this was something that excluded the public. There is trust that has been violated on both sides. We made decisions based on an edited video [from the July 5 incident]. I’m glad we offered our ear to our staff [the police officers].” DeAngelis seemed angry at the critics, saying, “I am getting real tired of distortion of facts and a real lack of transparency that has existed between members of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee [Clark is co-chair of the committee) and this council.” Griesemer agreed. She said that the council listened to the BIPOC community’s concerns about the police at four council meetings, and she wanted to hear from the police.
The council voted 9-0-4 that they do not believe that their meetings with the police violated OML. Walker wanted KP Law’s response to Clark’s complaint, which will be sent to the attorney general, to include mention of this discussion and the fact that three of the councilors who abstained (Walker, Pam, and Rooney) did so because they did not attend any of the meetings and could not comment on what occurred. Miller was the other abstention.
In a related matter, Vira Cage filed a public records request for all communication between Griesemer and the police or regarding the police from July 5 to December 31, 2022 . The town clerk is currently editing the 1,000-plus emails in order to erase personal information. According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette on January 10, the town issued a preliminary estimate of $612, which would be billed directly to Cage, to supply the requested information.
Bylaw Change To Ease Permitting For Duplexes And Triplexes Referred For Public Hearings
Under the current Zoning Bylaw, owner-occupied duplexes are approved by site plan review and non-owner-occupied duplexes, triplexes, and townhouses by a more rigorous special permit. Councilors DeAngelis and Hanneke propose that owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes be granted approval by the building commissioner, and that non-owner-occupied duplexes, triplexes, and townhouses go before the Planning Board for site plan review and approval. The changes apply in all zoning districts except fraternity zones. All other requirements for each zone, such as lot coverage, setbacks, and design features would still apply. The purpose of these changes is to “encourage density of housing, reduce racial and economic segregation, and combat climate change by reducing commutes”.
Councilors from the areas near the university expressed concern that the proposed changes will greatly increase the number of rental units in single-family neighborhoods. Taub said that the current permitting process is not onerous, but streamlining the permitting process in this way will not increase the number of units affordable to young families or retirees. Schoen questioned DeAngelis and Hanneke’s definitions of what constitutes a duplex, triplex, or townhouse.
The proposed zoning changes were referred to the Community Resources Committee (CRC) and Planning Board. Public hearings will take place no later than April 1.
2023 Town Manager Goals Finalized
Goals for the Town Manager have been discussed over the past four months. At the latest meeting of the Governance, Organization, and Leadership Committee (GOL), on January 4, councilors were invited to comment on the latest draft. O’Keeffe incorporated their suggestions into an eighth version, which was discussed at this meeting.
In public comment near the start of the meeting, several members of the public offered comments about the weak climate action and racial equity goals in the document.
Edith Allison, Lucy Robinson, John Root, Felicia Mednick, and Darcy DuMont spoke of the urgency of advancing climate action goals developed by the Energy and Climate Action Committee (ECAC), especially expanding fossil fuel saving methods to renters and low-income residents by retrofitting older structures. Root noted the recommendations for curbside composting and “pay as you throw” trash disposal advanced by the now defunct Solid Waste Committee in 2016 that have still not been implemented. He advocated for a full-time solid waste coordinator.
Allegra Clark and Demetria Shabazz urged councilors to incorporate the motion passed on November 14, 2022 that the racial equity and personnel management goals begin with the police department. Shabazz said that to combat the lower confidence and trust in the police among many local people of color, the town should create a program that continually helps officers behave impartially and without bias. Rani Parker agreed, saying the police should be eager to participate in such a program. Brianna Owen, co-chair of the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG), said, “It feels unsettling that our Chief of Police can stand under a Black Lives Matter sign, but his team can be so resistant to making sure all community members feel safe by participating in actionable steps to create an anti-racist culture. I want to share a quote: ‘When someone is accustomed to privilege, equality starts to feel like oppression.’”
The main points of the council’s discussion were:
Climate Action: Waste hauler reform was left in the goals because Town Manager Paul Bockelman has said he will not devote town resources to the project if it is not included in the goals, due to the large number of other initiatives that his staff is working on. Steinberg pointed out that the town received a grant for 80 hours of technical assistance for waste hauler reform so the work should proceed. The climate action goals also include furthering community sustainability by increasing heat pump availability and multifamily and business energy retrofits, as recommended by the Energy and Climate Action Committee.
Community Health and Safety: To explore options for a youth empowerment center and establish a timeline for creation of a Resident Oversight Board for the Police Department (CSWG recommendations).
Housing Affordability: Taub supports encouraging a stable year-round population and noted that most new housing in Amherst is for the student population. Hanneke complained that the phrase “non-student population” singles out students so “year-round population” was substituted.
Major Capital projects: The suggestion to create an alternative plan for the Jones Library improvements, in case the larger project was unaffordable, was removed because Bockelman has indicated he is already developing an alternative plan, according to Schoen, who had proposed the suggestion.
Racial Equity and Social Justice: Bockelman said the DEI director is developing a training program to create an anti-racist culture, and the police have offered to be first.
Management Goals: Under Personnel Management, the following phrase was added: “Foster a proactive anti-racist culture throughout all town departments, and work with the APD to develop a proactive anti-racist culture that is documented and informs models for town departments.” Walker said that changes to combat racism in the police department would be developed within and by the department in consultation with town staff.
Finance: dispense ARPA funds with a lens of equity and inclusion. Schoen suggested that ARPA funds be used to lower the amount of the debt exclusion override, but this was not included in the document.
Infrastructure and Land Stewardship: Developing a maintenance plan for fields and recreation areas was eliminated. Creating a list of future road and sidewalk repairs that includes the bicycle and pedestrian plan already developed by the Transportation Advisory Committee was added.
Community Engagement: Exploring ways to promote a more family- and child- friendly town was added.
The revised Town Manager goals were accepted by a unanimous vote. The meeting adjourned at 11:53 p.m. The next meeting of the Town Council will be on January 23.