Social Justice Committee Condemns Marginalization By Town Manager And Town Council


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Report On The Meeting Of The Community Safety And Social Justice Committee,  August 9, 2023

Allegra Clark (Chair), Freke Ete, Debora Ferreira
Staff: Jennifer Moyston,  Pamela Nolan Young
Town Council Liaison: Dorothy Pam (District 3)

The number of people in the audience was not announced but seven members of the public offered public comment.

The meeting was held over Zoom and recorded.

With only three members, the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC) currently lacks a sufficient numbers to field a quorum. There are four vacancies on the committee and at least one must be filled in order for the committee to conduct business. There have been eight applicants for appointments to the CSSJC since January but Town Manager Paul Bockelman has yet to schedule interviews and has refused multiple requests from committee chair Allegra Clark to meet with the committee to discuss the situation. This meeting was held without a quorum with the understanding that official decisions could not be made. But frustration over not having a sufficient number of members, the delay in appointing new members, and the impediments to the committee’s being able to fulfill its charge, were constant themes throughout the meeting.  The committee also devoted substantial time to a discussion of their perception that work of the committee is not respected by the Town Manager and the leadership of the Town Council. Of immediate concern were requests by the committee to meet with acting Police Chief Gabe Ting in advance of the hiring of a new chief, but according to Clark, Bockleman denied the requests and deemed them inappropriate. 

Public Comment
All seven of the people who offered public comment called on the Town Manager to quickly fill the vacancies on the committee. 

Pat Ononibaku, who served on the committee until her term expired in June, has been encouraging residents to apply for openings on CSSJC.  She said that at least three applicants with whom she has spoken have not heard anything from the town yet and one has since withdrawn because of the applicant’s perception that the Town Council is not supporting the CSSJC.  She spoke to what she described as a broadly held perception that the leadership of council has not respected the work of CSSJC and this has been frustrating for both the committee and for the public that is impacted by its work.

Ononibaku offered a second round of comments later in the meeting in which she said “In summer 2021, members of the council did not want there to be a successor committee to the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG).  They opposed the creation of CSSJC. And now the Town Manager is making it hard for us to continue our work and BIPOC issues are not a priority.  CSSJC has been set up for failure. They think that by keeping things secret and refusing to speak with you that the problems will go away but it just makes it worse. That’s not surprising.  Look at the issues right now in the Amherst Public Schools. Things need to change.  We need to vote people out of office to get that change. When the Black Business Association of Amherst Area invited Congressman McGovern, they had to go to Hadley for a meeting space. There ought to be a  BIPOC center here in Amherst so such space is available for BIPOC events.”

Nadine Mazard, an Amherst attorney, said that she was upset that the town does not appear to  be supporting the CSSJC.  She said that the town is confronting many difficult issues that fall under the committee’s charge and that supporting its work ought to be a high priority.

Edgar Cancel, a resident of Northampton who previously worked in Amherst encouraged the Town Manager to fill the vacancies so that the committee “can continue its important work.”

Brianna Owen, who served on the precursor committee to the CSSJC, the CSWG, expressed alarm that the committee is unable to continue its work and noted that she knows two people who applied months ago and have still not heard a word back from the town. She said, “It’s just outrageous that the expertise of this committee is ignored and suppressed. It’s the CSWG all over again.”

Town Councilor Ellihsa Walker (at large), a former member of the CSWG said, “This meeting has me reliving all of the trauma and roadblocks and resistance that we experienced in 2019 with the work of the CSWG * (see e.g. here, here, here and here.).  It’s 2023 and it’s outrageous that we are still working on a blueprint [for all of the CSWG recommendations]. We should be in the implementation phase for all of these things.” She concluded with strong praise for the CSSJC.

Joseph DeCenso, a resident of Haydenville, and a previous member of the Board of Directors of Amherst’s Men’s Resource Center, said that he has been impressed and inspired by the work of the CSSJC and urged the Town Manager to review the applications that he has received thus far. He also questioned why Bockleman deemed inappropriate that CSSJC’s desire to have Acting Police Chief Gabe Ting attend a CSSJC meeting, given that much of the work of the committee focuses on the work of the police.

Eva Aquino said she was flabbergasted by the disrespect toward the committee and the priorities of the town. “What happened to the sense of urgency?” she asked. “It’s still there in the community.” 

Office Of Diversity Equity and Inclusion Updates
DEI Director Pamela Nolan Young reported that her office had completed DEI workshops with the Fire Department and that next up were the Recreation Department and departments in Town Hall.  She said that her office would begin a second round of workshops in the fall beginning with the Police and the DPW.  She said that her office will be moving to a larger space in the Bangs center, which will enable them to work more effectively.

Young reported that the Human Rights Commission’s (HRC)  budget is stretched to the limit. They can barely cover the cultural events that they now sponsor, she said, and they want to expand their current calendar of events to be even more inclusive. 

Young reported that her office has a lead on an AmeriCorps volunteer to work on youth empowerment programing, and that they are also looking into taking on a work study student from Amherst College. She emphasized that she and Assistant DEI director Jennifer Moyston are being stretched pretty thin right now and that the AmeriCorps volunteers and work study student will help them to move projects forward.

She reported that in spite of a significant effort on the part of the town to obtain a consultant to do the foundation work for establishing a Resident Oversight Board (ROB) for the Amherst Police, the town had no takers from their recent request for proposal (RFP). She said that she met with Bockelman to consider what kind of progress the town can make using internal resources. She said that she would be exploring other options with Bockelman.  She speculated that the RFP for the consultant may have been to precise and too detailed, leading potential contractors to be interested in some but not all of the proposed work.  She suggested that if the town were to float a more general RFP in their next effort, they might have more success. 

There was no report from CRESS.

Discussion Of The DEI Report
Deborah Ferreira said that one way to address the personnel shortage in the DEI office would be to tap CSSJC.  For example, CSSJC members could share in the labor for covering sponsored cultural events. Young noted that the HRC wants covering those events to be part of the HRC duties, but it has been difficult to cover everything with unfilled vacancies on the committee. HRC has requested that DEI set a calendar for the entire year and hopes that will make it easier for members to plan coverage. She said that at the last CSSJC meeting there was a discussion about the need to find space for a Youth Empowerment Center and a budget.  She asked if there was any new information since then.

Young said that there is no new information.  At the last Town Council meeting, Bockleman indicated that he intended to establish a working group to look into this. Allegra Clark had suggested looking into the Hastings Building downtown. Young reported that Bockelman thought that the owners had already planned to use it for something else but that he was willing to have a conversation with the owners to explore that. 

Ferreira said that she would prefer to be having this discussion directly with Bockelman. ”Paul has refused to meet with us since we’ve been formed and we’ve been requesting meetings in recent weeks to talk about things like this.  It would be a lot more effective if Paul would speak with us directly,” she said.

Young said that for the moment, it’s likely that the town would create programing for a Youth Center and then move those programs around to where space is available, until a permanent designated space can be established.  Some programing might be run out of the Bangs Center and other programs out of the library, she said, making use of the space that the town already has. She said she will be able to talk more about these options when she has a better sense of what the programming will be. 

Ferreira responded, “ It is really disappointing that this isn’t a high priority for the town.

And this also indicates the low priority that the town assigns to DEI work. Instead of relying on a free summer intern (who in the end did not show up) we should prioritize sufficiently so that we pay people who will show up and do the work that needs to be done.  And it’s always the same story when it comes to BIPOC issues and BIPOC people.”

Ferreira was also upset with the unsuccessful effort to move the ROB project forward. “The CSWG already did a lot of the necessary Phase 1 work to establish an ROB. Why aren’t we building on that instead of asking a consultant to do the basic work that we already did?  In the meantime, folks in town are reluctant to file complaints against the  Amherst Police Department because they don’t trust that they will be dealt with fairly.”

Young responded that the previous work of CSWG had been acknowledged in the RFP for a ROB consultant but the “consultant would need to be involved in collecting robust feedback from across the community and that step can’t be skipped.” There are also legal issues that need to be researched and if the ROB is going to have authority in complaints against the police this has to be incorporated into the collective bargaining agreement with the police officers. She said that if the role of the committee was to just be advisory and did not involve adjudication of complaints, that process would be a lot simpler.

Ferreira acknowledged the complexities but suggested the consultants could start there with the legal and labor issues and build on the previous work of the CSWG instead of starting from scratch.

New Appointments
Young said that she had no update from the town manager regarding a time table for making appointments to the CSSJC.  She noted that given that there are also openings on the HRC and that some applicants had applied for positions on both committees, she thought that Bockelman wanted to combine the process of interviewing for openings on both committees. 

Clark said that she had reached out to Bockelman after the last CSSJC meeting.  He told her that HRC and CSSJC were at the top of the list in terms of upcoming interviews for appointments.

Clark said she could not get an answer to her question of how many applications for appointments were still active. She said that she was frustrated with the process, which she said is not at all transparent, concluding that “its hard for the committee to plan its work and hard for the applicants who don’t know where they stand.”  

Young reported that there were eight applications for seats on the CSSJC since January and that some of those people had also applied for positions on the HRC.

Ferreira again expressed her frustration with all of the delays.  “This is outrageous”, she exclaimed. “This is sabotage so that we can’t be doing our work. We are a majority BIPOC group.  Why is it that interviews have not been scheduled?  My interpretation is that you (Bockelman)  don’t want us doing this work – you don’t want us making decisions. Well guess what? I’m not going anywhere.”

Clark concurred adding, “We ought to be involved in the Police Chief search. How can we do that?  That’s another question we’ve put to Paul that he’s not answering. Clark said that she had requested a meeting with Council President Lynn Greisemer and representatives of the Town Council to discuss the Police Chief and the status of CSSJC, but Greisemer had declined without giving a reason. 

Ferreira added, “Closing us out of the search process does not create a solid foundation for working with the new person later.  The Town Council continues to refuse to meet with us.  We’re supposed to be advisory but you don’t want our advice.  You don’t want to hear from us.”

Young responded that the town manager is on vacation and hence couldn’t have attended tonight’s meeting.

Ferreira responded, “Being a vacation is fine. But why cut us out of the communication loop?  Why make us a low priority? There have been eight applications since January.  What’s up with that?” 

Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) said, “You are not the first committee to go some time without appointments. The Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) went some time without being able to field a quorum. Your questions are good – so keep raising them. I think it’s important that you be listened to. You are an advisory committee in good standing and your contributions are valuable to the town.” She added that, “I’ve been told that as [Town Council’s] liaison to this committee, that I am not allowed to participate in the meetings and that’s why I haven’t been a panelist and haven’t commented more. It’s not because I don’t care.”

Next Meeting
The next meeting of the CSSJC will be on September 13 at 6:30 p.m. on Zoom. The following meeting with be on October 11.

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10 thoughts on “Social Justice Committee Condemns Marginalization By Town Manager And Town Council

  1. 8 months without interviewing candidates is remarkable. Not meeting with this committee is telling. The lack of direct communication speaks volumes. I hope the committee keeps meeting and keeps raising these issues, over and over and over, until it’s and concerns are addressed.

  2. Maybe it’s time to get out those clipboards to collect signatures to replace this Charter with Town Meeting. Town Council seems to more interested in “pet” projects than governing for all the people. The only Council accomplishment worth boasting about is one elementary school in five years! Let’s go back to government “ by the people…for the people”! Now—this year of evaluating the effectiveness of the Charter.

  3. In response to Hilda…One elementary school is one more than TM accomplished over the prior two decades. Infinitely better record.

    And, lest we forget, TM shot down the prior ES plan, in spite of the project’s popular vote win, resulting in a decade’s delay and costing taxpayers tens of millions dollars more. And the environmental impact of that decision has been a decade’s more of carbon intensive heating/cooling and waste from Fort River and Wildwood.

  4. I hardly think that the Town Council can be credited with the success of the new elementary school project; that credit is due to the hard work of the Elementary School Building Committee (which did include Councilors Schoen and Walker) and members of the public who gave their time and input. The Town Council appears to have directed the majority of their time and efforts towards projects that could charitably be classed as micro-management.

    And it wasn’t just Town Meeting that “shot down” the prior elementary school project. Support from the public — which mirrored EXACTLY the yes and no percentages of Town Meeting — was always lukewarm. Voter turnout for the project in 2016 was high — nearly 68%, since it was a critical presidential election year — yet out of a total of 15,096 votes cast, the YES votes were 6825 (45%). The NO votes were close behind at 6699 (a difference of 126 voters, and 44% of those voting), and 1572 ballots were blank (10%). That’s hardly an overwhelming majority. And if put in the context of total registered voters (22,228 for that election), the number is even more startling: 30% support. It has never made sense to me that a town would wish to pursue expensive capital projects that appear to have such lukewarm community support.

  5. For the record, in 2016, when residents went to the polls to cast their vote for a new elementary school building, the vote was 6,818 in favor and 6,696 opposed – a less than 1% margin in support. When Town Meeting voted, the new school garnered a majority vote, but didn’t reach the two-thirds threshold required to approve a financial appropriation.

    The Town Meeting vote largely reflected the popular vote. It’s misleading to suggest that Town Meeting was out of step with the majority of town residents.

    My sense of the general consensus in town is that many (if not most) residents feel that the elementary school building plan approved this year will give us a much better facility than what was before us the last time around. The earlier plan was for two side-by-side schools for grades 2 – 6 (at the Wildwood location) with kindergarten and first grades at Crocker Farm. The grades would have been divided up K-1 and 2-6, not for pedagogical reasons, but to accommodate MSBA requirements.

    I think it’s fair to say that the Council’s near unanimous vote in support of the new school reflects the Elementary School Building Committee’s very strong proposal for a net-zero, K-5 school with extensive opportunities for outdoor instruction — among many other amenities. It has little to do with the merits of a Town Council versus Town Meeting form of government.

  6. Lest we forget… the school borrowing required a 2/3 supermajority of TM, whose vote closely reflected community sentiment for that earlier — failed — school proposal.

    And an honest accounting of the embodied carbon content in concrete buildings like the current Fort River and Wildwood Schools suggests that having extended their use for a decade rather than tearing them down prematurely has been an environmentally responsible decision (notwithstanding other issues with those buildings).

    Indeed, if one wishes to play this “what if” game more, then one can look at the (no longer so) “new” police station: why are there still no PV panels on its south-facing roof?

  7. I think that “the general consensus in town”, as Ms. Taub claims, has been that what’s done is done as to School Plan #1, that we needed a new school NOW, that we could not dither around any longer than we had already, and that we had to vote accordingly on an override to get on with it. To the extent that I read this website, I have picked up the admonition from so many of the regulars that we should not spend any time and energy going over the sad political history about the elementary school, that it serves no useful purpose to do so. So I’m trying to abide by that. But I do not agree with Ms. Taub’s contention that we ALL think the alleged improvement in Plan #2 is worth the additional $22 million in taxpayer cost, a considerable sum which she failed to mention, over Plan #1. I, for one, do not, and I know that I have company on that point. But, it’s done, and I would not have brought it up if she hadn’t made such an outlandish claim. So much of what gets said on this website seems to be a function of the narrow silo in which the participants here are talking. That Town Meeting vote on January 30, 2017 was the biggest fiscal mistake made in the Town in the 28 years I’ve been living here, with consequences we are still living with today. I believe that we would still have Town Meeting, for better or worse, if that vote hadn’t happened in the way that it did. I continue to keep my fingers and toes crossed that we can’t do anything that fiscally stupid again, through whatever process, at least not while I’m still above ground.

  8. Outlandish – really, Mr. Morse?

    As a Town Meeting member who reluctantly voted yes on the school proposal before us in 2017, two side-by-side elementary schools in the same building — in addition to Crocker Farm –never quite made sense to me. Sadly, as Amherst’s year-round population continues to decline (as per the 2020 U.S. Census), it turns out we don’t have the students to fill three elementary schools.

    In the long run, I think the net-zero school building we’re now getting will better serve our community than the two non-energy efficient schools we would have gotten in 2017, had the vote gone the other way.

    Continuing to fund a third school when only two are needed is hardly a model of fiscal responsibility. Sometimes the expedient choice is not the best one.

    I might also add that dismissing the views of almost half of Amherst voters doesn’t promote productive discourse.

  9. Unfortunately, Mr. Morse’s finger-and-toe crossing appears ineffective, because the town has indeed continued to engage in fiscal stupidity. The failed elementary school project had a total cost of $66 million, if I remember correctly (not counting interest over the life of the bond), with a cost of about $32 million to the town. A new building would have been the result. The Jones Library renovation, at last estimate, had a projected cost of $46 million (again, not counting interest over the life of the bond), with the town’s cost being about $16 million. The result will be some new portions of the building, with controversial work on the original one. Whether the town’s cost will stay at $16 million, or increase to cover shortfalls in fundraising and rising costs due to inflation is an open question. It is fiscal stupidity because it is in the context of one approved major capital project that will signficantly increase property taxes, as well as two others — the DPW building and the Central Fire Station, which are both unquestionably dysfunctional buildings — that will likely continue to languish despite unrealistic assertions that the Town of Amherst can of course have it all.

  10. I’d love to bring our attention back to the subject of this article – which is the inexcusable dismissal of the work of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee; the unexplained delay in reviewing applications and appointing people to the committee, the refusal without explanation for the committee to meet with the Acting Police Chief, the lack of an update on a space or plan for a youth empowerment center, the disregard of the work that was done by the precursor to this committee and the total lack of respect shown by the Town Manager to this committee — all of it. Where is the accountability for this?

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