Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, June 26,2023. Part 1
This meeting was held in a hybrid format and was recorded.. The recording can be viewed here.
Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney and Anika Lopes (District 4), Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg, and Ellisha Walker (at large)
Absent: Michele Miller (District 1) and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5). Schoen left at 10:30 p.m.
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
The council voted 7-4 with 2 absent to raise councilor compensation to $10,000 per year and to allocate an additional $2,000 for the council president. Voting against the motion were Cathy Schoen (District 1), Andy Steinberg (at large), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), and President Lynn Griesemer (District 2).
In February, Councilors Michele Miller (District 1) and Ellisha Walker (at large) introduced a proposal to raise the compensation for town councilors from $5,000 a year to $10,000 a year.
The proposal included added stipends of $2500 for the Council president and $500 each for committee chairs, along with the provision of health insurance and funds for family care during meetings. As Miller and Walker state in their proposal: “Representation matters, and for many having a seat at the table would (and does) come at a significant cost. It is our duty as Amherst’s elected body to acknowledge the realities of what is required of our time and energy to serve as Town Councilors and to create a compensation package that more accurately reflects those costs. By doing so, we’ll open the door to more people who wish to serve our community and move closer to our goals of being a more equitable, just, and inclusive community.” The proposal also notes that Amherst councilors earn far less than those in area towns, although it was subsequently learned that stipends in Longmeadow and Greenfield are even lower.
The Finance Committee (FC) discussed the proposal at its June 16 meeting. In his report on the proposal, FC Chair Andy Steinberg (at large) stated that the committee recommended, by a 4-1 vote, an increase in councilor compensation to $7,500 per year and unanimously recommended against the town providing health insurance to councilors, but that an additional stipend should be given for family care. A pilot program, setting aside $5,000 to reimburse elected officials for family care during meetings, was included in the Town Manager’s FY 2024 budget, which the council passed at the June 12 meeting.
Shortly before the FC met, Northampton increased its councilor compensation from $9,000 to almost $17,000 per year. According to the Amherst Town Charter Section 2.4, in order for the increase in Amherst councilor compensation to go into effect when the new council is seated in January, 2024, the proposal must be passed by July 2 (within 18 months of the beginning of the term). The FC also recommended that the 2024 charter review committee set up a committee to deal with possible increases to the stipends of Jones Library Trustees and School Committee members. It is up to the Town Manager to appropriate the funds to pay for the extra compensation for councilors.
In discussing the FC recommendations, Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) said that the charter commission did not know how time consuming the position of councilor would be. The commissioners set the stipends high enough for councilors not to lose money (on childcare and eldercare), but she said, it is clear they did not set them high enough. She supported a stipend increase to $10,000 a year. Dorothy Pam (District 3) concurred, saying, “If we are to stop being a group of ‘elites’ who [think they] know better than, and want to make decisions for, other people, we have to make it possible for a broader cross section of people to afford to do this job, which everyone knows is very time-consuming. The council is deeply enriched by the presence of [our] one mother of school age kids. There’s a reason there aren’t others.”
Cathy Schoen (District 1) spoke for the $7,500 stipend rather than the higher figure, saying, “We shouldn’t be taking care of ourselves. We should be financially accountable.” She pointed out that many towns have fewer councilors than Amherst so the impact of their compensation is less and that the council recently denied the school committee’s request for an additional $84,000, which is almost the same as the $5,000 a year raise for town councilors, to fund paraeducators in the elementary school libraries..
Walker, who said that one of her goals when she ran for Town Council was to recognize and address barriers to participation, and that compensation is one of the biggest barriers, moved to raise the stipend to $10,000 per year, and Pam seconded it. Walker pointed out that, at $20 an hour for a babysitter, she would be spending more than $6,000 a year to cover council meetings, more than the entire current stipend.
Pat DeAngelis (District 2) adamantly disagreed with the increase to $10,000. She said, “I keep thinking of my work as a member of the Mobile Market. I’m sorry, but there was no compensation for a few people in the Mobile Market so I cannot raise our salary as high as you’re requesting.” She added, “But I want to challenge us as a council, because we do need other voices. I want us to really go out and reach out to people who live in the Boulders, the people who are using the Survival Center, and find ways to get them involved in town government, whether it’s on committees or on council.”
Walker offered a strong response to DeAngelis’ statement. She said, “I just can’t understand when someone is saying that they’re uncomfortable giving somebody else equitable compensation for a position as critical as being a town councilor who has the ability to have influence on every major discussion that happens in this entire town. I don’t look at this for me personally. When people are saying we’re financially irresponsible [they might be thinking of how] we approved money to demolish a gas station for aesthetic reasons. We could have used that money to fund the request for the schools and for councilor raises, too.” Walker pointed out, “We wouldn’t even need to go do outreach in the Boulders if we could increase the compensation so that somebody who lives there could be on the council.” As for the Survival Center, she said, “I have used the Survival Center my entire life. As a single mother of three, I cannot afford to always put food on my table. If you want to hear from people who use the Survival Center, Hello! I am here! And I am telling you that you need to provide more [stipend money]. We are constantly saying, ‘We want to hear more from these people,’ and when these people come and talk to us, we don’t listen to them.”