Indy: How does the town get the word out about vacancies on committees? How much do we rely on hearsay?
Paul Bockelman: As required by the Town Charter, we list the vacancies on the website on the official Town Bulletin Board. But we do so much more than that. The Town does extensive outreach through numerous channels: we post on the Town’s website, both on the official Bulletin Board and as a news item, and we post multiple times via various social media channels. Our Community Participation Officers (CPOs) are proactively recruiting — tabling at community events [like] Juneteenth, town-wide clean-up days, the Mobile Food Markets, Farmer’s Markets, Block Party, Cup of Joe with Paul, playgrounds, and other community events.These CPOs — Angela Mills, Jennifer Moyston, and Brianna Sunryd — are connecting with people one-on-one, talking with them about being involved and how to be engaged with the Town. Members of the Residents Advisory Committee (Meg Gage, Jim Pistrang, Anastasia Ordonez) are also engaged and consult with Town staff on recruiting and diversifying membership.
[And] current members of committees are often the best recruiters. When people are stepping off of boards/committees/working groups, they may recommend a person they know from work, the community, or their neighborhood.
We also advertise via the “notify me email and text push service” that’s part of our website package, and we review openings with the Daily Hampshire Gazette, asking them to highlight boards and committees that have multiple vacancies. Often, people will write “General Interest” on their Community Activity Form [CAF] [application] — and in this situation, Angela phones them and tries to have a conversation with them about their passions/interests. This allows us to lead the person to view some recorded meetings on the Town of Amherst YouTube channel and/or to read through agendas and such on the specific Board or Committee webpage.
Does the town vet applicants to positions on committees?
For every vacancy, we recruit applicants. For those applicants who fill out a Community Activity Form, we schedule interviews. The interview committee consists of the Town Manager, Chair of the Committee/Board/Commission, Staff Liaison to the group, and a member of the Residents’ Advisory Committee (Jim Pistrang, Meg Gage, or Anastasia Ordoñez). The interviewers describe the committee’s work and time commitment, the candidate talks about their interests in serving, and there are questions and answers back-and-forth.
Short-term appointments provide opportunities for newcomers to get involved in town government without the town making a commitment to a longer period. Would that explain why you seem to fill short-term vacancies first?
We fill positions as needed.
Some multi-member bodies, such as the Board of Health, Agriculture Committee, Transportation Advisory Committee, and Amherst Redevelopment Authority, have had vacancies for long periods of time, due to “an insufficient candidate pool.” How do you determine what a sufficient candidate pool is?
We always try to have more than one candidate available to interview for each vacancy. We make phone calls, we dive into the pool of individuals who have interviewed for other vacancies but have not been appointed yet, and we sometimes call the chairs of the committees to see if they have suggestions.
[If] a committee can meet (and not have issues reaching a quorum), we tend to focus on other committees that are struggling to meet quorum, and we prioritize those vacancies for interviews and appointments.
Besides there being “an insufficient candidate pool,” what hinders appointments from being made?
Sometimes it is difficult to get the interview team — usually 4-5 people — plus all of the candidates scheduled on the same day in the same time frame. That is a gargantuan task that Angela seems to make work most of the time, but it is a lot of trying to accommodate people’s busy schedules. We do interviews on Zoom, which makes it much, much easier. When people had to come into the office to interview, there were more no-shows for the interviews.
Do you make nominations as soon as you have determined a “sufficient candidate pool”? The Town Council voted to shield all information about candidates from the public, but can raw data about the pool be made available?
The Town Manager sends a report annually to the Town Council detailing the demographics of the membership of multi-member bodies, the demographics of the overall candidate pool (people who have participated in interviews), and the Community Activity Forms submitted. It should be noted that race, sex/gender identification, languages spoken, and age, are all optional portions of the CAF. People must voluntarily fill out this information. We could have 180 CAFs submitted but only have demographic data on 50 of those individuals.
Do you know the approximate number of committee positions that have gone unfilled for one year or more?
Is it true that some committees can’t hold meetings because of the large number of unfilled vacancies? (Current or recent examples include the Amherst Redevelopment Authority, the Agriculture Committee, and the Transportation Advisory Committee.)
The Transportation Advisory Committee meets regularly. If they were unable to meet quorum, it is most likely due to members being unable to attend due to travel, vacation, etc. which happens fairly frequently during the summer.
If we get interest in serving on the other two committees [Agriculture Committee and Amherst Redevelopment Authority], we will conduct interviews.
Recently, a member of the Planning Board was not reappointed because he’d served a term. But members of multi-member bodies are routinely reappointed to successive terms. The old town committee handbook suggests members who fulfill their duties be reappointed for two successive three-year terms before preference is given to a new candidate. What is our policy now?
As you know, the Town voted to adopt a new Home Rule Charter and all appointments and activity is governed by that law. The Planning Board [and Zoning Board of Appeals] is appointed by the Town Council and you can reach out to the Council president to discuss its appointment process, as the Council has developed a very detailed process for appointment and reappointment.
I review all requests for Town Manager reappointments and seek to balance the needs of the committee with the desire to ensure there are opportunities for others to participate in Town government. Sometimes, the committee has explicit technical needs — like the Water Resources Protection Committee or Board of Health — and we seek out specific skill sets to meet the committee charges. We are currently updating the handbook to exclude references to “Select Board” and also include better insight/guidance into Open Meeting Laws and Conflicts of Interest Laws.
You are not involved in appointments to the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), but were you surprised last July, when the ZBA’s choice of John Varner for a one-year position was blocked for ideological reasons? (see also here).I was not involved in this process. [Editor’s Note: The Town Council decides on appointments to the Planning Board and the ZBA.]