Opinion: How the Town Council President Has Consolidated Power


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Darcy Dumont

The power of a council president increases with time in office. But the current president, Lynn Griesemer, has consolidated her power much more than with the normally expected learning curve. It is arguable that she has sometimes done so counter to the intent of the Town Charter — and sometimes with no small amount of cunning. How she did so is definitely in the weeds, and not something most people would notice.

My statements below are from my personal knowledge as a former town councilor, from direct conversations with councilors, and from watching many very long council meetings.

Here are some examples of how the current president added to her power in her second term. 

By Appointing Herself to Council Committees
The Town Charter provides that the president “oversee” council committees. Even though she cannot “oversee” a committee if she is a member of the committee, she has made a practice of appointing herself to council committees, and using her influence as president while serving on them.

In the first council session, Griesemer agreed that she should not serve on committees, but then joined the Finance Committee based on her stated inability to find enough willing councilors. In her second term, she joined the Finance and Governance, Organization and Legislation Committees and was a strong voice on both. 

She can especially increase the power of her own office by serving on the Governance, Organization and Legislation committee, where bylaws, regulations, and rules are considered. By tinkering with the council rules on a regular basis, procedural mechanisms have been shaped in favor of the prevailing majority. (See the discussion of the consent agenda below.) 

There is a current move afoot, led by Councilor Cathy Schoen, to amend the rules so that the president simply oversees standing committees.

By Appointing Twice as Many Allies to Council Committees as Non-allies 
Griesemer proposed the current committee structure back in the first year of the council and, by the council rules, appoints councilors to the council’s four major council standing committees — the Finance Committee, the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee (GOL), the Community Resources Committee, and the Town Services and Outreach Committee. As president, Griesemer has regularly appointed political allies to be members of two committees and non-political allies to be members of only one committee; not across the board, but enough so that it is very apparent. 

All standing committees have been majority Greisemer allies, so the elected chairs predictably end up being her allies. For example, in the second session of the council, all four standing committee chairs were political allies — Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg, Pat DeAngelis and Anika Lopes — and sat on two standing committees. Both Griesemer and Vice President Devlin-Gauthier were also on two committees each. At the same time, non-allies (widely recognized as independents) Pam Rooney, Ellisha Walker, Jennifer Taub, Dorothy Pam and Cathy Schoen — were neither standing committee chairs nor were they appointed to more than one standing committee (except for Taub, and Dorothy Pam was a committee chair for about six months.)

During the current (third) session, Griesemer and the vice president sit on just one committee each, but the composition of the committees remains unbalanced — especially the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee, which includes the president, the vice president (who chairs the committee), two Amherst Forward PAC-endorsed former standing committee chairs, and a new Amherst Forward- endorsed councilor. It is notable, though, that the chairmanships may have slipped out of Griesemer’s control, with a surprise change of chairs in the Finance and Community Resource committees this month, noted below.

By Dominating and Sugar Coating the Town Manager Evaluation
The charter requires the council to evaluate the Town Manager annually. Originally a task of one of the standing committees, it was virtually taken over by the president in the council’s first year, and has been overseen by her since then, including managing all the elements of the evaluation and writing the summary cover sheet. It is technically assigned to the GOL committee, but she has appointed herself to that committee and leads the process. Over the last five years that Griesemer has controlled the evaluation process it has been notably uncritical of the Town Manager, virtually ignoring criticisms raised by town councilors, staff, and by members of the public. These criticisms have included concerns about high staff turnover in recent years, which Griesemer endeavored to explain away rather than address squarely. In 2023, she used only her own comments in the manager evaluation summary, omitting comments of the other 12 councilors. She was called on this by several councilors and the overview was corrected.

By Attempting to Influence the Upcoming Charter Review Process
The council president gave herself the job of drafting a charge for the 2024 Charter Review Committee without discussion with the council in advance. As part of the eventual discussion, she suggested limits on the scope of the review and that the committee be appointed by the 2023 council, rather than the 2024 council. The GOL committee revised her draft charge and recommended appointing members in 2024.

By Abusing the Consent Agenda
The consent agenda is used in meetings to save time, and allows the council to vote on routine, non-controversial items like minutes and resolutions in bulk and without discussion. In the second council session, Griesemer included substantive topics of great interest to the public on the consent agenda on at least two occasions, and they were voted through without discussion. One was the referral of a zoning bylaw on the January 9, 2023 consent agenda (Zoning Bylaw Section 3.32, Residential Uses, Standards, and Conditions for Two Family Detached Dwellings, Town Houses, and Subdividable/Converted Dwellings), triggering state-required hearings, and one was the adoption of a new building code on the October 16, 2023 consent agenda . (Note another bylaw adoption on the same consent agenda.) There was a remarkable increase in the number of non-routine and potentially controversial agenda items included by Griesemer on the consent agenda in the second session of the council. 

The council just amended some of its rules regarding consent agendas, but the possibility of putting non-routine items on it remains. In fact, the consent agenda abuses are tangled up with the imbalanced council standing committee appointments. The council has a rule that if a standing committee makes a unanimous recommendation, the item may go on the consent agenda. When all of the members of a standing committee — such as the current GOL committee, which makes recommendations on bylaws, legislation, and rules —  have been endorsed by Amherst Forward PAC, that’s a problem, because their unanimous recommendations can easily end up on a consent agenda and mistakenly slip through. See Rule 4.6. It is the public that suffers in that it not only doesn’t hear the discussion on some important issues, but doesn’t get a record of separate votes taken, in order to hold each councilor accountable (or to give them deserved credit). Of course, councilors can also be held accountable for voting for an item on the consent agenda that slips through. Councilors have come to realize over the experience of five years, that they should not “refer” an item to committee on the consent agenda if they oppose it. The rule now states that councilors should ask to remove an item that they oppose. 

By Failing to Share Power
At each of her elections, Griesemer has promised to share power with other councilors. But instead, she has instead held it close, and taken on more, even though she is called on it every year by fellow councilors. When running for council president against Griesemer this term, Hanneke spoke at length of Griesemer’s broken promises about sharing power.

By Omitting Information
Griesemer came under fire for omitting, from a list summarizing discussion items from a meeting with our state legislators, the fact that they were sponsoring legislation to ban the sale throughout the commonwealth of all items containing PFAS, which would include all artificial turf. Although State Senator Jo Comerford informed Griesemer that her proposed legislation could have implications for the town’s planned track project, Griesemer withheld that important information, allowing a vote to proceed with insufficient information on funding a turf installation.

Similarly, she neglects to report back to the council on her meetings with UMass administrators — nor has she explained whether she participates in her role as  senior advisor to the Donahue Institute or as the council president.

By Abusing the Power to Shape the Narrative
Griesemer arranged to have councilors attend four closed door meetings with members of the Amherst Police Department after some contentious council meetings. The meetings with the police were not posted and an open meeting law complaint was made in response. Not all councilors attended the meetings.

Griesemer has consistently opposed the waste hauler proposal currently before the Town Services and Outreach Committee (TSO), including strongly resisting putting the proposal on the council agenda though it had three council sponsors. The proposal, referred to the TSO Committee in August of 2022, and promoted by the Board of Health, is to change our system of waste hauling to one involving a town contract obtained through a competitive bidding process, and requiring a pay-as-you-throw fee structure and curbside compost pick up.

Griesemer attended a private meeting with residential waste hauler USA Waste and Recycling, and their local lobbyist, Stan Rosenberg, at Boltwood Inn in 2023 . The company lobbied to keep things the way they are, using private subscription services, rather than adopting the proposal to change to a competitive bidding process. This was done while the town was in the process of sending out requests for information to local haulers. All councilors were invited to private meetings with USA and Rosenberg separately and Griesemer did not advise them not to attend. 

By Preventing Non-allies from Being Seen on Zoom
Griesemer has great power over the council agenda, including the format of the remote meetings.

Despite many complaints, Griesemer has not seen fit to bring public commenters into council  meetings so that they can be seen, if they so choose, as is done in numerous other local towns, such as  Northampton. This could be easily and safely done by allowing anyone who has previously given a comment during a meeting in person or remotely before to be on camera, with a running list of previous commenters maintained by the clerk of the council.

By Serving Longer Than She Should
The charter doesn’t set term limits for the council president. The term is one year and a president can have an infinite number of terms. Griesemer has been elected for six one-year terms. As a district councilor, she received a smaller percentage of the overall votes cast in townwide elections than an at-large councilor is likely to receive, and only had to canvass her own district. It is arguable that, to be more democratic and representative, the president should either be an at-large councilor or all councilors should be eligible but with term limits to prevent any councilor from holding the office for multiple consecutive terms.

At the beginning of the first council, both Griesemer and Hanneke wanted to seek the office of president. Hanneke is said to have agreed not to challenge Griesemer, and that Griesemer promised to step down in two years and  support Hanneke in pursuing the office of vice president. Griesemer reneged on both promises, though she ended up voting for Hanneke on the fourth ballot for Vice President after repeatedly abstaining. 

A Possibility for Changes Ahead?
This month, two standing committee votes took place that may shift the power balance in the council. In surprise votes, Bob Hegner was voted chair of the Finance Committee, with Cathy Schoen continuing as vice chair, and Pam Rooney was voted chair of the Community Resources Committee (CRC), with Jennifer Taub as vice chair. (The CRC is in charge of housing and zoning issues.) However, Andy Steinberg, who was unseated as chair of the Finance Committee, was voted chair of his second standing committee, the Town Services and Outreach Committee. It remains to be seen if these changes can loosen the stranglehold Griesemer and the Amherst Forward old guard has had on the council.

Charter Review Sorely Needed
Fortunately, 2024 is the year of the first Amherst Home Rule Charter Review. Unfortunately, the newly elected council is less than likely to make progressive changes to the charter. Nevertheless, we need to point out some of the problems in the charter that have been demonstrated over the last five years. Changes to both the charter and the council’s rules are sorely needed.

Darcy DuMont is a former District 5 Town Councilor and sponsor of the legislation creating the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee. She is a founding member of Zero Waste Amherst, Local Energy Advocates of Western MA and the Amherst Climate Justice Alliance, and a non-voting member of Valley Green Energy Working Group. She can be contacted at dumint140@gmail.com.

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3 thoughts on “Opinion: How the Town Council President Has Consolidated Power

  1. thank you.

    Is it too late to get some articles in on the new Review of Charter?
    It would certainly be of benefit to see pluses and minuses of some
    key points. I appreciate the author’s effort to initiate. Using office
    title (issue @ TC mtgs) helps de-personalize the process and gener-
    alize it to city & council organization development bettering ( main
    point of the process) direct democracy efficiency. Such efforts, when
    done judiciously, balance outcomes of the three party system we have
    (citizen, council, city admin.). Currently it seems the balance is not
    very level. That should be addressed to align with the best of local
    and national moral standards’n values vs a power competition~

  2. Thanks, Darcy, for this insightful survey of power imbalances and their potential for abuse in the current town charter.

    Another concern I have is the Town Council President’s regular private meetings with Senator Comerford and Representative Domb. I think the Council Vice President may be invited to these, but not the rest of the Council, nor the public.

    I believe these sessions should be open public meetings, not only for transparency and equal access, but so we can all be better informed about the interface between local and state government.

  3. I invite readers to take a look at the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee meeting on February 22, where GOL members Greisemer (Council President), Ryan (former GOL Chair), DeAngelis (former GOL Chair) and Devlin-Gauthier (current GOL Chair) discuss guidance for choosing Charter Review Commission members. Greisemer suggests adding as a criteria: “prior engagement with a charter development process”.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAhelCB70p8 (Minute 59). This reminds me of the time Councilor Hanneke suggested to the same committee that a criteria for membership in the District Advisory Committee include “a former Charter Commissioner”. That suggestion was soundly and appropriately squashed by committee members. What former Charter Commissioner has applied that Greisemer is pulling for? I guess we will find out soon. My view is that there is no place for any former charter commissioners as voting members of the official charter review committee. Instead, as many former commissioners as possible should be interviewed by the committee.

    Look further in the GOL discussion to hear the confusion about what seeking a “mix of perspectives” might mean. The GOL committee changed that language to a “mix of life experiences”. Again, this very important committee is composed of Greisemer and Greisemer allies. If they don’t understand how folks in town have different perspectives, no one does.

    I commend Ana Devlin-Gauthier for holding her own while trying to control a lot of interrupting former Chairs. And trying to check Councilor DeAngelis from once again bad-mouthing other Councilors – during the committee liaison discussion (at 12 minutes).

    More to come.

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