Town Council Retreat Takes on Meeting Management and Setting Priorities for 2024


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Report on the Special Meeting of the Town Council, March 27, 2024

This meeting was held in hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg, Ellisha Walker (at large), Freke Ete and Cathy Schoen (District 1), Lynn Griesemer and Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Hala Lord and George Ryan (District 3), Pam Rooney and Jennifer Taub (District 4), Ana Devlin Gauthier and Bob Hegner (District 5).

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

Meeting Management: Audience Disruptions and Hate Speech
Council Clerk Athena O’Keeffe opened the annual Town Council retreat with a poem by Mirabai Bush, “Why Listening Is the Most Radical Act,” and an exercise having some councilors share stories about a person in their life who is an excellent listener.  She encouraged councilors “to take a moment to really slow down and think about what listening means, giving yourselves a chance to reflect and listen from the heart to each other.”

Despite this encouragement and touching experiences related by some of the councilors, starkly differing impressions of the March 4 council meeting where the Resolution for a Ceasefire in Gaza was passed and of the March 18 council meeting which experienced hate speech by two members of the public, quickly emerged. O’Keeffe stated that the council rules give several options to address disruptive public comments. A recess may be called by the president. Any councilor may request a recess or make a motion for a recess. A councilor may raise a question of privilege if he or she cannot hear the proceedings. President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) added that a councilor may request a reading period or a recess to study new material introduced shortly before a meeting. Regarding hate speech, however, O’Keeffe said that courts have been very protective of free speech, so restricting a person’s ability to speak is not an option unless there is a threat to an individual or incitement of violent action.

George Ryan (District 3) felt that the council should not tolerate obvious hate speech out of fear of a lawsuit. He asked, “What’s wrong with being sued?” As far as the March 4 meeting, where members of the public loudly voiced opposition to amendments posed by Andy Steinberg (at large), he felt strongly that the meeting should have been adjourned when the audience was still loud after the recess. “Instead, we came back and took votes,“ he said.

Pam Rooney (District 4) liked the idea of a reading period to review amended material, because “seeing something for the very first time in the face of great emotion puts everyone at an unfair advantage. I don’t think we should ever be discussing something that we had never seen before. There was no hard copy [of the amended resolution] for us to look at.” Steinberg again presented his complaint that changes were made in the ceasefire resolution just prior to the meeting and without sufficient time for councilors to study them, which is “unusual for us as a council, which then put me in an awkward position because I had prepared a version showing additions.“ He noted that, when the Northampton City Council faced a similar situation with a highly charged atmosphere, they adjourned and reconvened on Zoom 48 hours later to pass a ceasefire resolution. Ellisha Walker (at large) said she would prefer another recess to adjournment.

Mandi Jo Hanneke disagreed with Steinberg’s representation of the facts. She noted that amendments are “part of our job. To suggest that we should never discuss something we have never seen before potentially means we should never amend anything, or we should delay every time there’s an amendment. I can’t agree with that.” She then gave several examples from the past five years of the council discussing new material or amendments to motions. Hanneke also disagreed with Ryan’s assertion that the council should censor hate speech. She said, “It is very distasteful to have to sit and listen to that, but we need to, because if we start regulating some speech, where does it stop?” If those disruptions continue, she suggested possibly removing Zoom public comments or requiring preregistration.

Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) also disagreed with Steinberg and Ryan. She stated, “to say that sponsors can’t bring amendments to their own resolution or proclamation is privileging non-sponsors [as the only ones who can suggest amendments], which would be inappropriate.” She also disagreed with the idea of inviting a lawsuit by limiting free speech. “I’m concerned we’d be the next Southborough, but worse (referring to a recent decision of the Supreme Judicial Court widely prohibiting government bodies from restricting speech during public comment (see also here)).

Jennifer Taub (District 4), who participated in the March 4 meeting remotely, noted that the audience became angry after the council passed Steinberg’s amendments to the ceasefire resolution noting Hamas’s role in the conflict. Pat DeAngelis (District 2) said she objected to Steinberg’s amendments because “we were talking about the Palestinian people and what was happening to them since Hamas’s dreadful attack. When I tried to get Palestinian people simply mentioned in the October 16 resolution, (which condemned the Hamas attacks on Israel and mourned its victims) I was voted down. I accepted that. It was not possible for me as a sponsor to accept Andy [Steinberg]’s amendments.”

When Bob Hegner (District 5) asked if the council could simply mute someone using offensive language or give them a warning, O’Keeffe said she advises not to treat Zoom participants any differently than those in the room, so they should not be muted. She also stressed that time limits should be enforced consistently.

Ryan felt that the Governance, Organization, and Legislation (GOL) Committee of the Council should investigate if limitations can be put on speech that is offensive. Steinberg thought that resolutions should be vetted by other council committees for content, because GOL only determines if they are “clear, consistent, and actionable.”

Town Goals Reviewed with Town Manager and Assistant Town Manager
Prior to the retreat, councilors were asked to prioritize the goals that the council established for the Town Manager,  for 2024. The councilor ratings were tabulated by Griesemer to give town staff an idea of what goals were most important to the councilors. The ratings matrix was not available to the public. Councilors interpreted what was being requested in different ways. For instance, some considered the new elementary school and Jones Library expansion as “done deals”, so did not list them as priorities. Walker asked why the council was discussing Town manager goals, when they were already been adopted in December of 2023. She felt that if the council wanted to further prioritize those goals then that should have been discussed earlier.

Councilors and staff continued to review and discuss the five-page goals document that broke the goals for the Town Manager into six categories: climate action, community health and safety, economic vitality, housing affordability, major capital investments, and racial equity and social justice.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek explained what the town is currently working on and how they prioritize staff time based on the goals expressed by the council. However, they noted that the Waste Hauler bylaw and Solar bylaw, cited by several councilors as important, will take 12 to 18 months of work in preparation for implementation including additional work by the council and its committees. Cathy Schoen (District 1), Hanneke, and Steinberg thought that town staff should not be spending time on waste hauler reform. Hanneke also thought the Planning Department should concentrate on promoting the creation of housing as opposed to finalizing a solar bylaw.

The majority of councilors listed a South Amherst Fire Station and a new DPW buildings and their financing as being the most important under “Capital Improvements.” The two other goals that received a high rating from a majority of the councilors was reducing barriers to opening a business in Amherst and the promotion of home ownership. Bockelman stated that the town expected to have a site for the DPW by July 1 and a site for the fire station by October. He said Sandy Pooler, who recently returned to Amherst to help part-time in the Finance Department, is working on a plan to finance both the fire station and DPW.

The discussion of the goals continued until 9:40 p.m.  when Griesemer concluded, “I don’t have a magic wand to say what our next steps are, except that this has been a lot of information. I think that probably it’s the most full discussion we’ve had on goals in a long time. I do want the council to have an opportunity to redo this, but I’m not sure in what way. One of the things that has emerged out of this conversation is, there are a couple of places where there were seriously high rankings. That, in my mind, as sloppy an exercise as this has felt, still emerges with some consensus.”

Schoen suggested that, in the future, the council start with a retreat before passing the goals and reacting to them. Hegner stated that he hoped even if something was ranked lower, it was still important, such as the year-round shelter for unhoused people , which was ranked below the DPW and fire station in capital investments.

The council meets again on April 1 for a regular council meeting.

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4 thoughts on “Town Council Retreat Takes on Meeting Management and Setting Priorities for 2024

  1. Hmmm. Some councilors feel that it is very important to spend time on resolutions that will have NO PRACTICAL EFFECT while ignoring local issues like making trash collection less costly and deciding where solar panels should and, more importantly, should not go. I hope that the Council can readjust its own goals to focus on solving problems within their power to solve.

  2. Thank you Indy for your reporting. I never knew that when Pat DeAngelis tried to get Palestinian people simply mentioned in the October 16 resolution, (which condemned the Hamas attacks on Israel and mourned its victims) she was voted down. I would now like to know who voted that down. It would be stunning hypocrisy if they were the same councilors who wanted more mention of Hamas in the recent resolution. Atrocities should stand alone without blame being placed on the victims.

  3. I can’t remember any Town Meetings as confused and disrespectful as these Council meetings in more than forty years I was a member or in reports of earlier meetings. What has happened in two generations? What can the Council do to find consensus on important local issues? And, why are we still talking about the need for a south Amherst fire station for the more than fifty years from the opening of the “new” north Amherst fire station? What’s wrong here?

  4. To clarify about the October 16 resolution:

    At the Town Council meeting of October 16, Dorothy Pam, Jennifer Taub and Andy Steinberg raised objections to including the word Palestinians in the original resolution (which was limited to inclusion in one whereas) and to explicitly identifying actions by Israeli military forces.

    In light of retaliatory actions taken by Israel since the resolution was crafted, Pat DeAngelis attempted to amend the last paragraph of the proposed resolution by adding the phrase “we also express our condemnation of the indiscriminate attacks by Israeli forces on the Gaza civilian population.” This raised objections from Dorothy Pam (District 3) and Taub who felt the added phrase made it sound like the resolution encompassed the whole situation in the Middle East, not just the Hamas terrorist attacks. DeAngelis responded that the Israeli bombing of hospitals and civilians should also be condemned.

    Andy Steinberg (at large) was also uncomfortable with DeAngelis’ amendment, and suggested omitting the reference to Israeli forces, saying, “We express our regrets that the lives and safety of the Gaza civilian population have been endangered.” Ellisha Walker (at large) stated that she understood what DeAngelis was trying to express, but she wanted a resolution that “…we all feel good about, so I don’t want to agree to anything that is making any member feel uncomfortable.”

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