Streetlight Policy Continues to Befuddle Council

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Photo: Dark light 2021 for Unspalsh

Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, November 20, 2023

The regular council meeting on November 20, began at 8:40 p.m. after the public forums on the budget and additional borrowing for the library expansion project. This meeting was held in hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here

Present
In Town Hall: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Cathy Schoen, (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large), Pam Rooney (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5). Participating remotely:  Michele Miller (District 1), Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub (District 3), Anika Lopes (District 4) and Ellisha Walker (at large).

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

The meeting began with Council President Lynn Griesemer congratulating Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne on a successful South Asian Fall festival on November 19 at Crocker Farm school. Over 200 people attended.

Streetlights Proposal Turned Over to Town Manager and Staff—Not Without Controversy 
Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke and Ana Devlin Gauthier first proposed to update the existing 2001 streetlight policy in the summer of 2022. The proposed changes were referred to the Town Services and Outreach (TSO) committee where it was debated over numerous meetings. 

It was sent back to the council for a vote in August, 2023, but continued concerns about safety led the council to send it back to TSO for revision after input from the Transportation Advisory Committee. 

The proposal attempts to limit glare and light trespass on surrounding properties, move the town toward using warmer, more efficient lighting, and  preserve dark skies as much as possible. In response to objections, Hanneke and Devlin Gauthier removed any change in location of existing streetlights from the proposal, but critics still raised concerns about safety for pedestrians and bicyclists with the reduced lighting proposed. Others felt that the section of the proposal specifying what lights must be used was over-prescriptive and a decision best left to the DPW. 

TSO was unable to find a path forward on the policy, so, at its October 26 meeting, voted to ask the Town Manager and town staff to resolve the remaining concerns and then bring it back to TSO. The memo explaining the decision to hand off this policy to the Town Manager also provided for the establishment of a task force to work on the policy if the Town Manager deems it necessary.

The transfer of responsibility to the Town Manager sparked a 90-minute discussion in the council meeting. Councilors Cathy Schoen and Andy Steinberg thought the policy was too specific, and both questioned the need for a new task force to work on it. Steinberg cited the extra work for town staff in posting meetings and taking minutes. Jennifer Taub and Michele Miller also raised concerns about the need for a task force for streetlights. Taub said she and Pam Rooney had proposed a task force on housing, which is one of the Town Manager goals, but were told it would be too time consuming. She asked, “Why did streetlights (not in the goals) jump to the front of the line?” Miller also questioned whose topics get elevated to the level of a task force. She said she has been pushing for the creation of a successor committee for reparations, but has been “feeling some pushback.” “We have to be mindful of the sort of equity within the council in terms of using resources of the town,” she added.

Devlin Gauthier and Hanneke objected to these views, stating that they followed existing council rules and that the council voted to refer the proposed policy to TSO. If councilors thought the policy had no merit, they could have decided not to refer it (three did vote no—Taub, Schoen, and Bahl-Milne). They also said that creating a task force was the decision of the Town Manager, not mandatory. Pat DeAngelis also voiced her disapproval of the discussion saying, “I had trouble with the beginning of our discussion where people were saying, ‘I didn’t get something and they did.’ And I need us to look at ourselves to figure out how you participated in that, because it undermines the workings of the council, and I’m tired of it.”

Her motion to end debate was defeated, but the discussion ended shortly afterward. By a vote of 12-1 (Schoen voting no), the policy was referred to the Town Manager and town staff.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman acknowledged that the process of finalizing the policy was unclear. “We are still learning how to do things,” he said, “You are all raising important questions and points about how the goals intersect with initiatives which might be outside the goals.” He thought that the recently completed  process of rewriting the water and sewer regulations with one councilor (Devlin Gauthier) and one staff member (Amy Rusiecki) was a good model, and that talking to the DPW members who work with streetlights may help tp clarify the proposed  policy.

Residential Rental Registration Bylaw May Come to Vote on December 4
Although the new fee structure for residential rental permits is still being discussed in the Finance Committee, the draft general bylaw was recommended unanimously by the Community Resources Committee and the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL). GOL made some changes in the draft as recommended by the town attorney, partly in response to a letter from the Landlord’s Association questioning the legality of some of the provisions.

Steinberg wondered what would happen if a tenant refused to allow a unit to be inspected. The KP Law opinion states that emergency inspections for health and safety can be conducted without the tenant’s consent with a warrant from the Housing Court. Otherwise, the unit can be given a conditional permit with an inspection occurring between leases, when the unit is vacant. 

Schoen said she was concerned that in trying to go after problem units, the town was creating a “new bureaucracy.” She suggested decreasing the number of required inspections by only inspecting 10 or 15% of units in large complexes and exempting owner-occupied units and those that are federally inspected.

This was the first reading of this bylaw. It will probably be put to a vote at the December 4 council meeting.

Councilors Object to Griesemer’s Summary of Annual Town Manager Evaluation
Council President Griesemer summarized the responses of all 13 councilors in her written evaluation of the Town Manager in a 21-page document. Hanneke noted that most of the quotes cited in the summary were from Griesemer’s comments, and very little was from the other 12 councilors.

Schoen agreed, saying she noted some interesting themes cited in several councilors’ remarks, such as concerns whether the town was giving staff enough time to do what is important and whether there are enough staff to do necessary work? She said that these themes were not highlighted. Ellisha Walker said she would suggest changes to almost every category. Devlin Gauthier also said that some of the things she felt were really important were not in the summary, even though several councilors mentioned them.  Steinberg noted the time crunch created with the evaluations being due so soon after the town election. 

Griesemer invited councilors to submit suggestions to her by November 28, so she can incorporate them in the final document. There was a general feeling that GOL should develop a new process for the coming year.

Town Manager Invited to Participate in Setting Goals for Coming Year
GOL has been working on establishing goals for the Town Manager and for the town for the coming year.. Committee members asked for input on how much specificity should be required for each goal. Devlin Gauthier said that Chatham had a purpose statement followed by a checklist of specific action items and a requirement for a mid-year check-in. However, Hanneke said she was not a fan of checklists for CEOs, because it seems like micromanaging and doesn’t promote the best performance, only checking off points.

Steinberg wants to make sure the goals are reasonable, and that there are adequate staff and resources to accomplish them. Griesemer noted that some of the goals are multi-year goals, not to be completed in one year. Bahl-Milne recommended asking which proposals can make the most impact with the available resources, and also that community input be obtained when selecting goals. Pam Rooney questioned whether the fall was the right time to decide on goals, because it does not align with the fiscal year, but others pointed out that the goals influence the development of the budget process that happens in the new year.

Bockelman advised starting with establishing what the council wants to accomplish and using that as Town Manager goals. He said the current process is the most laborious of any town he knows. 

Devlin Gauthier suggested making the process more of a joint project, with the council developing a set of goals and then getting input from the Town Manager about what he thinks action steps should be. Bockelman liked the idea of a dialogue for setting the goals, and that shared goals would make a powerful document, although he acknowledged that attaining consensus among 13 councilors may be difficult. DeAngelis liked Miller’s idea of a council retreat to discuss goals, with the Town Manager being included for some of the discussion.

GOL Chair DeAngelis asked that councilors send suggestions to her about the goals process and timeline, so that the committee can develop a new process by April 30, 2024. Meanwhile GOL will try to simplify the long list of goals and subgoals for 2024.

The meeting adjourned at 11:25 after a plea from Schoen to limit agenda items for the rest of the year to what can reasonably be accomplished in a reasonable time. The next meeting is scheduled for December 4.

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