Opinion: Councilors Steinberg and Ryan Declare War on the Public


Amherst Town Council faces a near capacity crowd in the Middle School auditorium at the March 4, Town Council meeting. Photo: Art Keene

Art Keene

Following three hours of testimony at the Amherst Town Council Meeting of March 4 in which supporters of a Resolution for a Ceasefire in Gaza recounted the human tragedy in Gaza, the horror of dead children (now numbering more than 15,000), some of whom were related to people in the audience, and the burgeoning famine expected to claim another 86,000 lives in the next six months, Town Councilors Andy Steinberg (at large) and George Ryan (District 3) somehow managed to represent themselves as the victims of the evening.

The councilors were unhappy with the adoption of the resolution and frustrated by their failure to postpone the vote which they said was necessary in order to propose amendments that they believed would make the resolution “more balanced and more accurate.” They complained that they had not had an opportunity to discuss the resolution with their fellow councilors, this after the council had deliberated about the resolution for nearly two hours, and they complained that they had not had the opportunity to introduce their own amendments condemning Hamas and indicating that Hamas shared the blame for the escalating civilian deaths in Gaza. They did in fact introduce those amendments. They were first approved and then defeated in a reconsideration vote after the original sponsors of the resolution withdrew their sponsorship in protest of the amendments. Steinberg also complained that he had been denied an opportunity to have his voice heard, an odd and stunningly hypocritical complaint coming from someone who had slept through several public comments and was finally awakened after the conclusion of public comment by people in the audience shouting, “Wake up Andy!”

It is true that some members of the public who remained in the Middle School auditorium following public comment loudly objected to Steinberg’s effort to postpone the vote on the resolution and to add amendments that were unacceptable to the sponsors. Steinberg’s ire was for members of the audience who were powerless to do anything about his actions. But it was Steinberg’s colleagues on the council who ultimately voted down his efforts to postpone and to add his proposed changes to the resolution.

Following the passage of the resolution, Ryan slammed the crowd for their intolerance and their interference in council process. Regarding the proceedings, he said “ It violates everything that this council stands for in terms of how it does its business. There’s a constant back and forth, constant interruption, a constant involvement in our business. It’s not proper. And so we are being bullied and harassed into these actions, and I personally resent that deeply. The fact that I cannot make my own informed judgment in good conscience apparently, is beyond the comprehension of most of you. And so you are constantly undermining that democracy by your refusal to let us do our business. The fact that we don’t always do what you like is not our problem. You don’t have any sense of shame. You’re so full of your own self-righteousness that you will tell us what to do. But you are not the only citizens of Amherst. You are just one small portion thereof.” (read his full harangue here)

And now – they are at it again – playing the victim and heaping opprobrium on the public for their lack of respect for the council and its process, following demands for an apology from them for their diatribes on March 4,  during  public comment at Monday’s (3/18) Town Council meeting.

Let’s be clear.  There were indeed some vocal disruptions from the crowd at the March 4 meeting and such  outbursts are prohibited by the council’s rules of procedure.  But the hyperbole with which Steinberg and Ryan have described the incidents is evidence of their own fragility and their contempt for an engaged and concerned public.  The councilors were not prevented from speaking on March 4.  The audience did not create a barrier preventing them from leaving the room as has been asserted.  The crowd was not so loud that the councilors were unable to hear themselves think as Ryan has accused. The councilors did not require police protection.  But they did become enraged when members of the public, emotionally overwhelmed by the ongoing genocide in Gaza, dared to voice their frustration when it appeared that their representatives were not taking them seriously. 

It is stunning that these powerful old white men, each, one of only 13 councilors who comprise the town government, are whining about their powerlessness and claiming they have been bullied by the audience, when in fact they were denied nothing except perhaps the approval to which they believed they were entitled and their presumed right to rewrite a resolution composed by more than 750 members of the public.   Steinberg and Ryan demonstrated no empathy for those who had filled the three previous hours with poignant comment, or those who had spent weeks working across all kinds of cultural and political differences and understandings to reach consensus on a motion that said without qualification, stop the bombing, release all hostages, release humanitarian aid to head off the impending famine.

The rants of Steinberg and Ryan were stunning acts of entitlement that demonstrated not only their fragility, but their contempt for that segment of the public (which on this issue appears to be a considerable majority) who disagree with them. Ryan and Steinberg were clearly out of touch with the community on this issue, claiming that their positions somehow represented an unheard majority in Amherst. 

If Steinberg and Ryan feel bullied because they did not get their way, or because the decorum of the evening was disrupted by some shouts of disapproval, if they feel that they are victims within a public process in which they hold all of the cards, then perhaps they are not cut out for this kind of work and should resign to make room for councilors who have a more encompassing understanding of democracy.

Art Keene is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at UMass, the Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy, and a resident of Amherst’s District 3 (formerly Precinct 7) for the last 42 years.

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: Councilors Steinberg and Ryan Declare War on the Public

  1. Art Keene’s piece refers to councilors’ “…presumed right to rewrite a resolution composed by more than 750 members of the public.” Why is that right only “presumed?” In the current charter (https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/41987/Amherst-Home-Rule-Charter) p. 24 it says, “… the Town Council shall act with respect to each initiative petition by passing it without change, by passing a measure which is stated to be in lieu of the initiative measure, or by rejecting it.” It looks like the councilors were considering the options they were supposed to consider. When they do take action, theirs is not necessarily the last word on the subject, either, because residents can force a town-wide special election to override the Council’s action if they disagree with it. That process has been invoked once already under the current charter. When we members of the public petition the council for action, we’re implicitly accepting the process the petition will undergo. We then have more options within the system, not via disruptive protests, if we want to override what the Council decides.

  2. Steve George has the right of it. The resolution passed was a Council Resolution, not a Resolution of 750 Concerned Citizens. Shouting at the Councilors is of course not allowed, ever, and should be shutdown immediately, even if an audience member feels that a Councilor is “not taking them seriously”, i.e., not accepting a draft resolution as perfect in all ways. Mob rule should not be encouraged or excused by anyone.

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