Councilors And Residents Pan Proposal To Limit Public Comment
Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, March 6, 2023. Part I
This meeting was held in a hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
Councilors in the Town Room: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke, and Andy Steinberg (at large), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Anika Lopes and Pam Rooney (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5).
Participating on Zoom: Michele Miller (District 1), Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub (District 3), and Ellisha Walker (at large). Miller left the meeting at 7:30 p.m.
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
Four members of the public were present in the Town Room and 30 were on Zoom.
Proposed Council Rules Changes Draw Criticism From Councilors And Public
The Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL) of the council has been updating the Rules of Procedure of the Council. At the March 1 GOL meeting Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) recommended a change to rule 5.1. She proposed that public comment be limited to 30 minutes at the beginning of council meetings, and the remainder of comments be postponed until the end of the meeting. Her reasoning was that the council should be able to do its business before the hour was too late and councilors were too tired to concentrate. Also, members of the public who did not live in Amherst would not necessarily be allowed to make any comments. This suggestion had been approved unanimously (4-0 with Jennifer Taub absent) by GOL and placed on the consent agenda for this council meeting, along with an amendment to rule 3.2 aiming to end council meetings by 10 p.m.. and 5.2 allowing the council to hold public hearings at its discretion.
Placement on the consent means that the items would be approved by unanimous consent and without discussion. Because there is no discussion on items approved via the consent agenda, these changes could have passed under the radar, especially as the listing of the rule changes made no mention of curtailing public comment; it simply referred to the adoption of changes to rules 3.2, 5.1 and 5.2. However, a flurry of email comments over the weekend alerted President Lynn Griesemer to the fact that people knew about these items and that they were likely to be removed from the consent agenda at the request of town councilors, prompting her to schedule a special public comment period expressly on the Hanneke proposal to curtail public comment. As predicted, the rule changes were removed from the consent agenda.
Councilors Object To Limiting Public Comment
Pam Rooney (District 4) objected to the proposal, saying that listening to people is an important part of a councilor’s job, and that typically it is not public comment that prolongs council meetings. She also thought not allowing non-residents to speak until the end of public comment is “very odd [considering that] you don’t know who is a non-resident until they introduce themselves.”
Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) said she looked at limits on public comment in a few other towns and found that most did not have a time limit on total comment, but several had shorter times for each speaker. For instance, Holyoke allots 90 seconds for each comment. She said, “One of the reasons [for the proposal] is that our meetings are really long — that’s true for the public as well. And if they’re attending to speak on a specific matter that’s at the beginning of the meeting, and then we’re making them wait until the end if they happen to hit that [30-minute] mark. Is that fair?” She added that “…it feels a bit like a game of chicken. If you don’t get in, in the first 30 minutes, then we’ll wait you out. So, I have concerns about the 30-minute cap. I also recognize we don’t often hit it, which for me means that when we do, there’s a really hot issue that we should be listening to.”
Andy Steinberg (at large) agreed that “we are here to hear from our constituents and to make sure their views are expressed so we can consider them. I’m not comfortable at all with the idea of doing anything that curtails people from having the right to speak by an arbitrary time limit.” He added that he still has not heard back about a proposal he submitted to GOL on another topic, how bylaws are introduced and handled. He suggested that proposals to change the bylaws should be screened up front to determine whether it merits the amount of time it will take to bring it before the necessary committees and, ultimately, the council. GOL Chair DeAngelis replied that the committee has not yet considered that part of the rules.
Jennifer Taub (District 3) also disagreed with the proposal to limit public comment, and reiterated that it is not public comment that has made some meetings long — and that when public comment takes more time , it is because there is something really important to the community. She also felt that people wanting to comment should not have to declare themselves and register their names before the comment period [note: pre-registration is another part of the proposed requirements] because it would preclude people from refuting earlier comments. Dorothy Pam (District 3) disagreed that emailed comments could replace oral ones. She added that democracy has never been efficient, and it is important that people can participate. She said she has received an outpouring of comments from constituents who are very upset, asking, ”What did we do to deserve this — that we shouldn’t waste your time speaking or having thoughts or ideas?”
Hanneke said she proposed the limits to public comment “to start a conversation” and was surprised when it received a unanimous recommendation from GOL with little or no discussion. She said she did a survey of 20 to 30 town councils, and that several of them have time limits and a few do not any time designated for public comment on the agenda. Council Clerk Athena O’Keeffe noted that public comment is required by the town charter, but not by Open Meeting Law.
Anika Lopes (District 4) said she appreciated Hanneke starting this conversation, but urged her fellow councilors to be more succinct and less repetitious in their own comments to keep meetings shorter. Ellisha Walker (at large) said that public comment “is an equity issue. To have people wait through entire meetings [results in] whoever can stay is who can comment. Having people comment at the beginning works best in making sure it’s equally accessible to [most] people.”
Public Comments Universally Opposed To Proposed Limitations
Twelve people spoke against the GOL proposal. Several objected to having to wait until this meeting had gone on for three hours before they were allowed to express their views. Jeff Lee said that listening was the most important part of the councilors’ jobs. He hoped that remote participation for the public would be made permanent to encourage continued public participation.
Meg Gage said the proposal seems “callow”. As a member of the town’s charter commission, she noted that the new form of government was supposed to result in more public participation and input. She praised the Elementary School Building Committee for using a process that encouraged significant public participation and brought residents together.
Allegra Clark objected that the proposal means that non-residents can be ruled out of participating in public comment at meetings and reminded the councilors that many people who work in Amherst can’t afford to live here, but the decisions made by town government affect them.
Kaylee Brau, who works at Amherst College and lives in Hadley, said she was encouraged that many councilors are appalled at the proposed changes.
Like Gage, Hilda Greenbaum noted that the charter commissioners promised that the form of government they proposed would be more open and participatory than the previous Town Meeting form of government. She also objected to the Community Resources Committee taking on “big issues in zoning and rental registration, when no one on the committee has experience as a landlord or planner” and said that “this is a reason for robust input from outside the committee”.
Lenore Bryck pointed out the irony of this discussion following the appearance of State Senator Jo Comerford and State Representative Mindy Domb earlier in the evening. She said that both Comerford and Domb were “so inviting and congenial” and that the councilors “loved that”, and suggested that they look at other ways to make their job easier rather than limiting the public’s right to speak.
Janet Keller said, “We have strong feelings about the things you decide which will affect our lives, and we want reassurance that you’ve taken our lives into consideration.” She also expressed concern that many of the committee meetings where proposals are developed occur during the day, when people who work cannot attend.
Anita Sarro suggested that when this goes back to GOL, all ways that meetings can be made shorter should be looked at, not just public comments.
Julian Hynes said that pushing public comments to the end of the meeting would drive out the voices of youth, teachers, and others, such as DPW workers, who start work early the next day.
Philip Avila agreed with the previous speakers, but added, “I want to focus on why this conversation was brought up. What was the reason for it? And I [recollect that] the public comment period has gone over 30 minutes only for issues of race, education, environment, and policing. I think this conversation is a manipulation technique brought by the person that has put forward this type of discussion before. I think this person should reflect on her implicit bias and her promotion of structural racism, that she often walks back in the public eye yet still works in back channels to move that agenda forward. I hope the residents of this town are paying attention, and voice their opinion come November when it is time to vote out people who silence marginalized communities.”
Brianna Owen said she appreciates that council meetings are long and believes that councilors should receive a reasonable wage for the job. But she feels it is critical for the councilors to hear different perspectives. ”I also want to harp on the fact that this is a huge equity issue,” she said. “The council is a white space — and it gives me anxiety to speak [to it].” She reminded the council of their December 2020 resolution to end structural racism, and hoped they will listen to the recommendations of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee, which “has a skill set that the council does not.”
Former Councilor Darcy DuMont said, “This is not a good look for Amherst. First, it looks like the council aimed to slip these changes through by not adequately labeling them on the agenda — there’s no way a member of the public would know that this was going to be discussed simply by looking at the agenda.” She pointed out that putting rule changes on the consent agenda is not transparent. “My understanding is that items on the consent agenda are those that would reasonably be assumed to be unanimously agreed to. Does someone think that this rule change would not be controversial? Doing sneaky stuff like this erodes trust in the council. And in my opinion, one example of wasting the council’s time is reviewing the rules annually as required by the GOL charge that was written by Hanneke. After five years, an annual review is just an invitation to partisan tinkering.”
DeAngelis Defends Hanneke
In an emotional speech, DeAngelis said, “I’m having a lot of trouble with the attack [on Hanneke]. Mandi Jo is definitely not a perfect person. Nor is anyone else on this council — or anyone in our community! I’m tired of the community using where Mandi lives, what she thinks, what she does….. We have real problems in this town.” DeAngelis said she wanted to take responsibility “for making a mistake as chair of GOL” and that “ Mandi proposed a conversation with the committee, and somehow I allowed a motion to be created” and went on to say,, “I want each one of us to think about what they’re saying. And if you want somebody to change what you consider their racist attitude or their privileged attitude, or their rich attitude, then how can you engage with them so they can hear you?…Cathy [Schoen], I was happy when you were complimented by Mindy [Domb] and Jo [Comerford], for your work on the elementary school building plans. That was wonderful, and it made me look at myself because I get irritated by you frequently, and I can be dismissive.” She concluded by berating the councilors, saying, “Don’t dismiss opportunities to argue, to fight, to talk about what’s real, but don’t miss opportunities to collaborate. Stop attacking each other” and then briefly left the room to recover her composure.
The council voted 8-4 to refer the proposed rule changes back to GOL. The no votes (Schoen, Pam, Taub, and Walker) wanted to have a vote on the proposal at this meeting, so it didn’t have to be discussed at a subsequent meeting. However, Griesemer said that if GOL removes the proposed changes (to limit public comment) , they would not have to come back before the whole council.
GOL also proposed a requirement that council meetings end at 10 p.m. This was generally felt to be unworkable, but Devlin Gauthier and Schoen thought that putting an aspirational limit on the length of meetings might help the president set realistic agendas or show the need for added meetings. This matter will also go back to GOL.
Pandemic Allowance For Remote Meetings To Expire On March 31
If the governor and legislature do not extend the provisions for remote meetings enacted in March 2020 by April 1, Open Meeting Law will revert back to the requirement that the presiding officer and a quorum of councilors be present in person at meetings. Remote participation by councilors will be allowed with consent of the council president. O’Keeffe said the town is committed to maintaining remote public access.
State Representative Domb indicated that the Massachusetts House of Representatives had already voted to extend the emergency provisions until March 31, 2025, and said she expected the state Senate to do the same. However, there may be a gap in the timing, in which case the old rules would apply in the interim. Griesemer noted the uncertainty around the important council meeting scheduled on April 3, where the bond for the elementary school will be discussed.
If the emergency measure expires, the form of council and town committees will also have to change. Each council committee will discuss its preference at its next meeting. Town Manager Paul Bockelman indicated that several rooms in Town Hall are being equipped to permit hybrid meetings, but these would not be able to handle meetings of all committees.
Town Manager’s Grim Report On Pre-Spring Break College Parties
The annual alcohol-fueled UMass party in March, popularly known as Blarney Blowout, took place on Saturday, March 4. The party had been relatively tame over the past few years and was well handled with the help of police from neighboring towns. Bockelman said that town officials hoped that the snowstorm starting the night before this year’s party would limit crowd sizes. Unfortunately, the disruption this year was “the worst” in many years. There was a large contingent of young people from out of town, and the consumption of individually concocted gallon jugs of alcohol, electrolytes, and juice or water, popularized on TikTok and referred to as BORGS (blackout rage gallons), resulted in a large number of EMS calls and nearly 30 ambulance transports, mostly alcohol related, to the Cooley Dickinson emergency room. The number of calls overwhelmed local EMS services, so the town had to put out a call for mutual aid, and ambulances from Agawam and Chicopee responded, leaving their communities shorthanded. Bockelman said the parties put a strain on the whole region. The largest gatherings were at the Townehouse apartments and on South Whitney Street. Police handled the crowds well with only four arrests, two by Amherst police and two by UMass police.
Bockelman said the town held a debriefing, as did UMass and Cooley Dickinson. A joint debriefing session will be held in the near future. Bockelman said that the extension of the UMass spring semester to Memorial Day creates extra spring weekends for more revelry.
Town Readying For “The Big Night” Salamander Crossing
Amherst has been working with the Hitchcock Center to prepare for the annual salamander crossing underneath Henry Street. Usually, the salamanders cross on a cold, rainy night in March or April. The Amherst Police plan to create a detour around that section of Henry Street to protect people and salamanders that evening.
More News From The Town Manager
The full Town Manager’s report is included in this issue of the Indy.
Bockelman said that grease, especially from restaurants, is damaging Amherst’s wastewater system. The town is trying to educate users about proper grease disposal.
The next Cuppa Joe will be held on Friday, March 24 from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. in the Large Activity Room in the Bang’s Center. Special guests will be Chair of the Elementary School Building Committee Cathy Schoen and Finance Director Sean Mangano.
ROADS: The town is going out to bid for contractors to repair roads in town. Unfortunately, only three companies can do the work, and all area towns are vying for contracts with them.
The town wants to involve residents in the selection of a new police chief. Chief Scott Livingstone is retiring after 46 years on the force.
Devlin Gauthier asked what was holding up implementing Community Choice Aggregation to obtain electricity with Northampton and Pelham. Bockelman said he did not know, but would check with Sustainability Coordinator Stephanie Ciccarelli.
The Meeting adjourned at 10:49 p.m. The council will next meet on March 20.
1 thought on “Councilors And Residents Pan Proposal To Limit Public Comment”
I served on a town council for 10 years in a small Westchester County community. Every town council meeting opened with Floor Talks for any resident to opine on any topic. And every meeting ended with the same. And there was no ban on non-residents speaking.